European Invasion of Indian North America, 1513–1765

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Indian North America was peopled in 1500 by some five hundred societies who fully used the continent—which their ancestors had inhabited for about 25,000 years—to sustain themselves by hunting and gathering, slash and burn migratory farming, or, especially in the south, by settled agriculture. There is much debate about the total population of that continent, with serious estimates ranging from one to eighteen million people, but there is some consensus that individual societies or confederacies very seldom contained more than 30,000 people.

european invasion

By far the worst war for all American Indian people after 1500 was the war against alien diseases that invaded more stealthily, quickly, and pervasively than the accompanying Europeans. The human intruders did not arrive or multiply fast enough to match the devastation of Indian North America, and the total population of the continent continued to decline until at least 1700. Natural immunities to new diseases take generations to develop and interaction between migrating peoples from three continents initially proved deadly, and particularly so for American Indians. Endemic malaria plagued European immigrants to the southeast, but "virgin land" infections of smallpox, measles, influenza, cholera, and yellow fever could kill the majority in an American Indian society. Indigenous medicine proved helpless—and lost credibility—against these infectious killers that often hit hardest at more densely-peopled farming societies like the Massachusetts, Huron, and Iroquois, and gave a relative advantage to the more remote and to scattered hunter-gatherers. Spasmodically repeating the devastation, migrants, traders, and armies brought recurring epidemics. These sudden losses created a frightening new world for American Indian survivors even before invading people, animals, and plants brought other revolutions and wars. Depopulation and war prompted the creation of new communities, like the Choctaw, Creek, and Powhatan confederacies. Some decimated societies made room for European strangers in places such as Québec (1608), Plymouth (1620), and Massachusetts (1630); the Iroquois Confederacy reacted to epidemics with a series of successful wars to replace their dead with captives.

florida indians confront the spanish, 1513–1565

American Indians defeated all the early Spanish "explorers" of Florida. The Calusa and Timucua of south Florida were likely the first North Americans to meet Europeans when Spanish slavers raided to replace rapidly-dying Arawak workers at their new Caribbean gold mines, farms, and ranches. Timucua and Calusa archers repelled all three attempts of Juan Ponce de León's well-equipped fleet attempting to land in Florida in 1513, and drove off other Spanish fleets in 1517 and 1521. The Guale, in what eventually became Georgia, initially welcomed 1,100 Spanish colonists who arrived in 1528; most of these died of malaria, leaving a remnant whose dependence on the Guale for food led to conflict and the evacuation of the surviving Spanish.

Fabulous Spanish success against the Aztecs and the Incas were unrepeatable examples of imperial success in the Americas, but numerous Spanish expeditions sought comparable wealth in the North American southeast. An army of six hundred landed in Timucuan territory in 1527 and trudged through north-central Florida in heavy metal armour, only to be killed by Apalachee and Aute bowmen, malaria, or shipwreck during escape; only four returned to Spanish territory. Eleven years later a comparable force organized by a leading Spanish conqueror of the Inca, Hernando De Soto, began four years of rambling destruction: taking leaders hostage, extorting food and labor, and leaving disease and starvation in their wake from Georgia to Texas. This army fought only one pitched battle, destroying Mabila (near present day Selma, Alabama) where some 2,500 Choctaw died, either in their burning town or facing mounted Spanish lancers wearing light and effective Aztec body armor. Subsequent casualties from disease remain unnumbered, but the extensive Creek chiefdom of Coosa, on the Alabama River, is known to have been destroyed. De Soto and half his army had also died before the survivors built a brigantine and escaped down the Mississippi in 1542, with war canoes in pursuit. A smaller Spanish expedition hunted in vain for the Seven Cities of Gold in the southwest between 1540 and 1542, and four more expeditions failed in Florida between 1559 and 1562. The American Indians of the southeast had, at a price, completely defeated the Spanish intruders in the first half-century of contact.

Spain was anxious to keep other Europeans well away from the Florida coasts, past which treasure fleets from the Caribbean sailed homeward to Spain. However, the Timucua allowed one French expedition to stay, in return for support in a local war. The Spanish destroyed this French privateering base and replaced it with the first permanent European community in North America, the expensive fort of San Agustín (1564–1565). Missionaries proved more tolerable than soldiers in spreading the Spanish presence, particularly among the Apalachee and the Guale, as well as the Pueblo of New Mexico. Occasionally missionaries were martyred and missions destroyed in wars of resistance like those of the Pueblo in 1580, the Guale in 1597, and the Apalachee in 1647. Although the Spanish military retaliated, missions remained the comparatively inexpensive Spanish method of empire in the American borderlands. The system would collapse in the southeast between 1670 and 1704, when Creek and English slavers captured an estimated 51,000 for Carolina or English West Indian plantations.

iroquois, huron, and algonquin meet the french, 1534–1649

The Laurentian Iroquois dominated the St. Lawrence Valley in 1534, when the first French expedition visited Stadacona (later Québec). The French were more aggressive when returning the next year, insisting on exploring upriver over local objections, fortifying their scurvy-ridden camp, and meddling in local politics. The next time the French returned, in 1541, they numbered 1,500 and intended to settle. Initial Iroquois curiosity turned to suspicion and then hostility; in 1543 the harrassed French evacuated, becoming the second nation of Europeans to be driven from North American beachheads. When the French returned to found Québec in 1608 they settled without facing any resistance, for the Laurentian Iroquois had mysteriously disappeared and the Montagnais, Algonquin, and Huron readily enlisted the unwitting newcomers in fighting the Five Nations of the Iroquois.

Fur trading would reshape American Indian diplomacy and war, while inviting and funding French, Dutch, and English outposts that became permanent. Furs became fashionable in Europe after 1600, amid climatic cooling, and American Indian hunters readily joined a trade that built mutual dependence and more-enduring alliances than those possible with land-hungry European farming societies. A minor Micmac victory over the Abenaki in Maine in 1607 demonstrated the advantage of trading for French-supplied metal spear and arrow heads, daggers, cutlasses, plus a few matchlock muskets; the defeated Abenaki became very interested in an English trading station established at Sagadohoc that year. Although the French and English depended on matchlock muskets, American Indians were reluctant to trade the bow and arrow for a heavy weapon that was inaccurate, unreliable in rain, and needed a burning matchcord that emitted a smell, sound, and light that precluded surprise. However, the matchlock could be a terrifying novelty; within weeks of a Mohawk defeat by the Huron at Lake Champlain (1609), the Mohawk were trading with newly-arrived Dutch, led by Henry Hudson. Trade was a factor in the Mohawk-Canadian wars of 1609 to 1624, 1650 to 1667, and 1684 to 1701, which brought each side near destruction, but ended in a draw. The Huron were the premiere fur trade partners, trading, raiding, and praying with the French. However, they were devastated by disease in the 1630s, were divided into competing Christian and traditionalist factions by the 1640s, and were conquered and scattered by the Five Nations in a massive winter assault in 1649.

iroquois meet the dutch and english, 1608–1701

The Five Nations of the Iroquois was one American Indian culture that grew in military and economic power after European contact. The Iroquois Confederacy developed from an earlier nonaggression pact among the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca who inhabited the lands between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. The Mohawk met Dutch maritime traders on the Hudson annually between 1609 and 1624, when the Dutch West India Company established Fort Orange (Albany). The Mohawk ended their war against Canada in order to defeat the Mahicans and monopolize American Indian access to the Dutch post. The Dutch trod carefully after sending six Dutch musketeers with a Mahican war party in 1628 that was ambushed by Mohawks, killing four of the Dutch. As the Mohawk depleted the beaver of their own territory, they intensified attacks on rival Huron and Algonquin fur convoys bound for Québec.

In a smallpox epidemic that ravaged American Indian communities from New England to Huronia in 1633 to 1634, the population of the Iroquois Confederacy was suddenly halved and the Mohawk were reduced from 8,100 to 2,000 people. The Mohawk-Dutch alliance was vital to both parties and was bolstered between 1643 and 1645 when the Dutch supplied some four hundred muskets to the Mohawk. This armament coincided with a new Mohawk role, assisting the Dutch in controlling smaller tribes down the Hudson Valley who resisted taxation and the expansion of Dutch farming. In Kieft's War (1643–1645), Mohawk musketeers attacked several resisting bands, taking prisoners for adoption. The Mohawk did not join Dutch colonists and soldiers in encircling and setting fire to a fortified Weequaesgeek village (1644) and slaughtering an estimated five hundred fleeing people while suffering only one fatality. The Mohawk and Dutch were victorious against the Susquehannock and a Swedish trading colony on the Delaware River in the early 1650s, and Mohawk helped the Dutch in three wars against the Delaware tribe (1655–1657, 1659–1660, 1663–1664). The Iroquois rebuilt their population through a series of "mourning wars" to replace their dead with adopted captives, destroying and dispersing Iroquois-speaking Huron (1649), Petun (1650), Erie (1657), and Susquehannock (1680).

The Five Nations, led by the Mohawk, had no trouble making trade and diplomatic adjustments when the English captured New Netherlands from the Dutch in 1664 and 1672. The English had a considerable West Indian and North American empire by then, and had destroyed both the Powhatan confederacy in Virginia and the Pequot of New England (1637). The Mohawk played a significant role in the eventual English victory over Wampanoag King Philip, and the English and Five Nations formalized a "Covenant Chain" of trade and diplomacy in 1677. Although this covenant chain eventually benefited both parties, the Iroquois received little help from the English as they suffered renewed French attacks after 1684. In the face of severe losses, and continuing attacks by Ojibwa allies of the French, the Iroquois made peace in 1701 and lived in profitable neutrality during the next half-century of Anglo-French rivalry and war.

american indians and the anglo-french colonial wars 1689–1748

American Indians generally benefited from the Anglo-French wars (1689–1697; 1702–1714; 1744–1748; 1754–1763), for these rivals vied for American Indian alliances, providing diplomatic gifts as well as trade goods and weapons. This situation entirely masked the growing American Indian dependency on European flintlock muskets, gunpowder, and shot. The Anglo-French wars also funded American Indian forces conducting wars of their own, rolling back the encroaching white settlements. Warriors from game-depleted regions of the northeast could profitably hunt for captives to sell in labor-short New France. It is also noteworthy that American Indians allied to either power became increasingly reluctant to attack American Indian allies of the other Europeans; the European colonists and armies were the American Indians' targets.

A most dangerous time for American Indians occurred late in each Anglo-French war, when colonials were prone to attack American Indians rather than colonial enemies. The Anglo-French Peace of Ryswick (1697) only intensified French-backed attacks on the Iroquois. As the second Anglo-French war drew to a close, the French and their allies opened a generation of intermittent warfare against the Fox (1712–1738), destroyed the Natchez (1729–1730), and attacked the Chickasaw (1736–1739). The English of Massachusetts had used the peace of 1697 to concentrate on their war with the Abenaki (1688–1699), which resumed again (1723–1727) during the next intercolonial peace. Although English and Creek slavers had opened Queen Anne's War in the south by completely destroying the Spanish missions, it was near the end of this war that Creek, Cherokee, Catawba, and Yamasee joined the English to attack and disperse the Iroquoian-speaking Tuscarora (1711–1713), sending enough refugees north to turn the Five Nations into the Six Nations. Within two years, offended Yamasee built a broad American Indian coalition that nearly destroyed the vulnerable South Carolina colony (1715–1717), where African slaves outnumbered their enslavers. Although this pan-American Indian alliance disintegrated after the Catawba withdrew and the Cherokee joined the English, the Yamasee War would trail on for another eleven years, as some Yamasee and Guale continued to raid Carolina from new villages in Spanish Florida. In switching sides, the Cherokee provoked a bitter Creek-Cherokee war (1716–1727) in which the Creeks used their geographical position to make allies of the English, Spanish, and French, in turn.

french and indian "seven years war," 1754–1763

Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo (Six Nations Iroquois migrants) farmers and hunters had lived in the Upper Ohio Valley for a generation when they welcomed English traders, thereby prompting French military intrusion. Ohio American Indian objections were ignored by the French, appeals to Six Nations kin were met with

insistence on neutrality, and the Pennsylvanians offered trade goods, alliances, and sympathy but their Quakerled assembly would not fight the French. It was Virginian land speculators who answered the call for help and initiated a confrontation with the French that would herald a global imperial war.

Like most American Indians in eastern North America, those of the Ohio country soon saw the French as the lesser evil and used French assistance to pursue a devastating war that pushed some English colonial frontiers back two hundred miles. Meanwhile the French and a broad coalition of allied American Indians defeated the English on the New York frontier by capturing Fort Oswego (1756) and Fort William Henry (1757). However, as the British began to win the maritime war and the American war became increasingly European, the Ohio American Indians negotiated a calculated withdrawal that ensured that Fort Duquesne would fall (1758). The Iroquois joined the British to take Fort Niagara (1759), and American Indian allies of a collapsing New France withdrew and thereby generally escaped the vengeance displayed in Robert Rogers's destruction of the Abenaki village of St. Francis (1759).

American Indians were well aware that the fall of New France (1760) exposed them to triumphant English power that was harder to avoid without diplomatic, military, or trading alternatives. The Cherokee, who had been allied with the British, launched a badly-timed war against them (1759–1761), without being able to acquire any American Indian allies. Despite some Cherokee successes, the British sent readily-available regular troops who invaded annually to burn ripening crops and a total of nineteen towns. Privation and the increasing shortage of gunpowder brought the Cherokee to negotiate a peace that included a specified frontier line between the two cultures.

"pontiac's war," 1763–1765

American Indians of the Great Lakes region launched a war, misnamed "Pontiac's War," in 1763 when they learned that the French had presumed to forfeit American Indian lands to the British, that English settlers were moving onto those lands, and that the victorious British were reducing diplomatic gifts and restricting trade goods.

The conflict erupted when warriors of fifteen tribes captured nine widely dispersed up-country British posts in May and June of 1763. The stronger and well provisioned posts of Fort Pitt, Fort Detroit, and Fort Niagara were besieged in vain, but reinforcements for the last two of these posts were destroyed. In raids against Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania frontiers, American Indians killed and captured about two thousand settlers. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, with its provision of a clear line dividing the European colonies from American Indian-controlled land, came too late to avert the conflict, but became part of the negotiated peace in a stalemated war.

American Indians certainly lost more than either the French or the Spanish in the outcome of the long imperial battle to control and inhabit eastern North America. The European immigrant invasion of American Indian country now accelerated, while a heavily-indebted British government was unable to police the new frontiers, and colonists wanted neither the policing nor the additional imperial taxes to pay for it. The conquest of Canada, and the Spanish surrender of Florida, suspended the American Indian strategy of playing one European power against another, but the "white men" were about to sub-divide again with the rebellion of the British American colonies.


By 1765, Indian North America was in retreat. Nearly two million Europeans and Africans occupied the lands east of the Appalachians. Disease and intertribal war had distorted the contest between the people of the bow and arrow and those with steel weapons and matchlock muskets. By 1675, the flintlock musket had invaded both American Indian and European America, but this equality was illusory because guns and gunpowder were available only from Europe, and gunpowder deteriorated easily. The Anglo-French wars encouraged the spread of flintlocks to American Indian allies, while masking the dependence on European suppliers during the lifetime between King Philip's War and those of the Cherokee and Pontiac. The Six Nations Iroquois were particularly successful, based upon martial reputation, rebuilt populations, location between European rivals, diplomatic shrewdness, and imperial ambitions that worked well with those of the British.

In many respects, the colonial wars established the territorial and cultural roots of the United States. Long before they established the right to bear arms, American colonists were familiar with guns. Although the performance of colonial militias and short-term contract soldiers was often unimpressive, by 1765 militia duty was presumed in all colonies except Pennsylvania. Colonial and imperial governments more readily marshalled people, taxes, and resources for war than for any other purpose. With minor exceptions, European intruders and their descendants had conquered the region from the eastern seaboard to the Appalachians from American Indians and from each other; this pattern would continue in U.S. expansion to the Pacific Ocean.

Although confiscation of the continent was routinely justified by "rights of conquest," such rights have always been seen as morally inadequate. Another supposed justification came from the myth that the land had been quite empty and underused. To claim a civilizing and redeeming role, the invaders also projected savagery exclusively on the American Indians, through fireside tales, vivid and popular "captivity narratives," and more recently, novels and films. However, it remains striking that the traditional rivalries, either among American Indian societies or among European immigrant societies, almost always took precedence over any racial alliances. Slavery was part of colonial warfare from the beginning, and a sense of race eventually emerged. By 1763, American Indians were uniting to resist what had just become the lone victorious European power, and the idea of a clear line between American Indian and white cultures and between American Indian and white lands was appealing to American Indian negotiators as well as to the British government. Colonials had come to accept the line between cultures, but regarded permanent American Indian land ownership as intolerable, whether imposed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 or the Quebec Act of 1774.


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Calloway, Colin G., ed. The World Turned Upside Down: Indian Voices from Early America. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Chet, Guy. Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.

Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Ferling, John. Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1993.

Gallay, Alan, ed. Colonial Wars of North America, 1512–1763: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1996.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1976.

Merrell, James H. The Indians' New World: Catawbas and their Neighbors from European Contact to the Era of Removal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Starkey, Armstrong. European and Native American Warfare, 1675–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ian K. Steele

See also:Jamestown: Legacy of the Massacre of 1622; King Philip's War, Legacy of; Legacies of Indian Warfare; Native Americans: Images in Popular Culture.

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European Invasion of Indian North America, 1513–1765

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European Invasion of Indian North America, 1513–1765