Indian Policy, Colonial

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INDIAN POLICY, COLONIAL. In the territories that ultimately became the United States, no single national Indian policy emerged during the colonial era. Four major European imperial powers, the Dutch, French, Spanish, and English, implemented separate Indian policies over an enormous expanse of time and territories. These policies were influenced by the nations' respective agendas, the resources at their disposal, and the particular circumstances each encountered in colonial America. Furthermore, while each of these imperial powers articulated some broad policy principles, many of the local colonial authorities were ultimately as instrumental in the formulation and implementation of policy as the home authorities. Certainly, the distance between the American colonies and their respective capitals made communications between these groups difficult and often required local colonial authorities to unilaterally implement policy. Despite the multiplicity of factors and agendas at work, however, some broad generalities regarding the policies of the four major imperial powers can be observed.

Dutch Policy

The Dutch settlements were designed to further what has been referred to as their "seaborne," global empire. The Dutch first began to explore the region that would become known as New Netherland when Henry Hudson's ship, the Half Moon, sailed up the Hudson River in 1609. By 1621, the Dutch West India Company was chartered, and in 1624, the Dutch settled on Manhattan Island naming their outpost New Amsterdam. Within a few years, Dutch settlements had extended into western Long Island as well as through the Hudson River Valley region as far north as Fort Orange (Albany). These settlements were established to further Dutch international trade. Early on, the Dutch realized that beaver pelts were a marketable commodity in Europe, and that in order to procure furs, it was essential to secure the cooperation of native communities. The Dutch Indian policy was, therefore, focused not on political domination but on linking these Native communities to the Dutch global trade network. Thus, until the British ousted them from the region in 1664, the Dutch shaped their relationship with their native neighbors in accord with the needs of the fur trade.

To secure the fur trade the Dutch attempted to form alliances by engaging in traditional native practices of reciprocity. Outwardly, they appeared to accomplish this, particularly with their principal northern trading partners, the Iroquois Confederacy, who were able to procure the choicest furs. This relationship was based on an agreement the Iroquois referred to as a "chain of iron." In return for furs, the Dutch supplied the Iroquois with European goods (most importantly firearms) and assistance in their rivalry with the Hurons, who resided in the Great Lakes region and were the allies of and fur suppliers to the French. The Dutch also supplied the Iroquois with wampum. Wampum, essential for the Native-European fur trade, were small, polished beads, made from two types of hard-shell clams, and only manufactured by the local, indigenous peoples living around the Long Island Sound. The Dutch also took steps to secure a steady supply of wampum from the Algonquian communities of southern New England, particularly the Narragansetts and the Pequots. In the 1630s, the Dutch attempted to implement an exclusive agreement with the Pequots for their trade. To further their economic goals the Dutch in 1633 even tried to plant a trading outpost, "New Hope," on the Connecticut River near present-day Hartford. This tactic was ultimately unsuccessful. Additionally, in an effort to stave off competing imperial claims, the Dutch explicitly recognized the natives as the original and legal owners of the soil and required all settlers to acquire native title through treaties or deeds.

However, the Dutch approach was not seamless and each settlement had a great deal of latitude to deal independently with their Indian neighbors. For example, large-scale violence between Dutch and Indians erupted in 1640 when Governor Willem Kieft attempted to sub-jugate indigenous communities near New Amsterdam. He demanded tribute from Long Island and Hudson Valley tribes. When they refused, he sent troops to enforce his demands. Unable to enforce his will on these tribes through military action he turned to the Mohawks to mediate a solution. Diplomacy failed, however, and hostilities resumed. As a result the Dutch States General recalled Kieft (who subsequently was lost at sea) and ordered an end to this type of coercive policy. Nevertheless, until the end of Dutch rule in 1664, hostilities between Dutch settlers and their native neighbors broke out sporadically, particularly where settler encroachments on native lands were most rampant.

French Policy

The fur trade sustained the French colonial empire in North America. At its most expansive, New France encompassed modern Ontario and Quebec and included the entire Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage regions. Ostensibly, the French entered the race for New World lands to spread the Catholic religion to the Americas, but more realistically they hoped to replicate Spain's experience in Mexico.

Neither Jacques Cartier's expeditions (1534–1536) on the St. Lawrence River nor other sixteenth century expeditions found the desired riches. However, at the end of the sixteenth century a trading post was established at Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River and soon followed by posts at Quebec City and Montreal. New France relied upon the fur trade and therefore depended on the cooperation of a network of Algonquin and Huron allies. Similar to the Dutch, the French readily entered into traditional native forms of alliance building through exchanging "presents" of European goods, along with military and social obligations, for furs. In particular the French very quickly became enmeshed in their allies' ongoing conflict with the Iroquois Confederacy, fighting sporadically with this group until the Settlement of 1701. Ultimately this French form of alliance building with native peoples extended well into the Great Lakes region and down through the Ohio Valley.

The French were never able to attract large numbers of colonists to New France, and much of the European presence there consisted of fur traders known as coureurs des bois (runners of the woods) who often took native wives and adopted the trappings of native life. French Catholic missionaries were also present. The missions became particularly important because they were placed strategically so as to form a kind of human border between the English New England and New York colonies. One of the hallmarks of these missions, particularly those founded by the Jesuits, was that they tolerated the use of native languages and many of the indigenous peoples' traditional beliefs and lifestyles. Thus, what developed between the French and their native allies was a policy that combined political, military, social, and cultural reciprocity. Surprisingly, however, the French never formally recognized native title to their lands and did not enter into the types of deeds and treaties for land that characterized the Dutch and English policies.

Spanish Policy

Spanish imperial policy in colonial America was perhaps the most complicated and varied of any of the European powers. This was due to the vast geographic expanse of Spanish colonial holdings, which at their height covered territory in North America within the modern-day United States, as well as all of modern Mexico, most of Central and South America, and even much of the Caribbean Islands. This article looks only at Spanish Indian policy during the colonial era in what is today the United States. While the boundaries of colonial Spanish America were quite fluid, it most consistently comprised Florida, Texas, much of the southwest, and California, and is often referred to as the Spanish borderlands.

In general it can be said that Spanish policy was based on military force and depended on overt cultural coercion. The most commonly used "tools" of this policy were military conquest and the planting of presidios (military garrisons) to secure a region; Catholic missions designed to bring native communities within daily Spanish cultural and social control; and the settlement of pueblos (towns) and haciendas (plantations) to bring territory under the dominion of Spanish colonists. Along with such colonization went two uniquely colonial Spanish American institutions known as the encomienda and repartimento. The encomienda system involved the forced assignment of natives to work in mines and on plantations. Theoretically, in exchange for this labor the recipients were to pay taxes and provide their workers with instruction in the Catholic faith. The reality was usually far different. The most prevalent institution, however, in the Spanish borderlands was the repartimento, which mandated indigenous communities to supply a labor force to meet local colonial labor needs.

Typical of Spanish rule in the borderlands was the experience of the Pueblos in the Southwest, an agricultural people famous today for their apartment-like dwellings. In 1598, the Pueblos were invaded by a military expedition led by the Spanish conquistador, Juan de Oñate. This led to the subsequent arrival of Franciscan missionaries, Spanish settlers, and the institutions of the encomienda and repartimento. In 1610, Santa Fe was built with forced Indian labor. The combination of a harsh tribute system and the attempt by Franciscan missionaries to suppress Pueblo cultural and religious practices caused great hardship for the Pueblo communities. It left the Pueblos stripped of their usual trading surplus and deprived them of the goods needed for traditional exchanges with their non-farming Apache and Navajo neighbors. The Pueblos' relative poverty led, in turn, to raids on towns by their former trading partners. Pueblo resistance to the Spanish system combined with droughts and epidemics led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. As a result, the Spanish were absent from the Rio Grande for a decade. Other areas of the Spanish borderlands experienced similar trials, but many of the indigenous groups in these areas were able to survive demographic losses and preserve their communities and identities.

English Policy

During the English colonial era, Indian policy was a complicated mix of colonial and imperial initiatives. Before 1755, local colonial authorities often took the lead in setting policy for each British colony. After 1755, this balance began to tip in favor of imperial-formulated policy. In that year, the British created two Indian departments in an attempt to regulate and control Indian policy and affairs. Unlike the French and Spanish, the English never focused on the conversion of native peoples to Christianity. Instead, despite some English missionary activity, the English were deeply influenced by the conviction that God had ordained America for the English.

The English made wide use of the treaty process. Very early in their dealings with native peoples, the English recognized title to the lands Indians historically possessed, and as with the Dutch, most individual colonies required some formal extinguishment of native title to perfect English title. By 1761 the British placed responsibility for such extinguishment with the British home government. The British Royal Proclamation of 1763 formalized this policy in the former French colonial domains. The ultimate English objective in their North American activities was to place ever-greater quantities of native lands under English possession and dominion.

The first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, Virginia (1607), pursued a policy of human and territorial conquest towards its native neighbors, the Powhatan Confederacy. This Confederacy consisted of some 15,000 Algonquian-speaking people living under the leadership of the werowance Powhatan. Relations between the two communities quickly deteriorated when the Jamestown settlers attempted to coerce their native neighbors to provision them with food and labor. From 1609 to 1610, the Powhatans nearly succeeded in starving the settlers out of existence. Only the timely arrival of reinforcements from England prevented the colony's demise. The two communities wavered between peace and war for almost fifteen years. However, by 1644, following a final and unsuccessful uprising, the Powhatans, ravaged by epidemics and warfare, finally submitted to the growing English settlement. From that time onward, the English settlers inhabiting the southern coastal regions pursued a policy of Indian removal, extermination, and enslavement. This policy was also replicated in large part in southern New England. In 1637, following their loss to the English settlers at the end of the Pequot War, the once-powerful Pequots were nearly annihilated and many of the survivors sold into slavery.

The Iroquois Confederacy's experience with the British, however, was somewhat different. In 1664 the English stepped into the shoes of the Dutch by virtue of their conquest of New Netherland. Almost immediately New York's colonial governor Sir Edmund Andros entered into an alliance with the Iroquois Confederacy called the "Covenant Chain." The Iroquois referred to this as a "chain of silver." The relationship between the English and Iroquois was an economic as well as a political one. By the mid-seventeenth century the Iroquois had become essential to the fur trade and their influence over other native groups extended as far west as the Ohio and even into the upper south. The Iroquois, particularly the Mohawks, assisted the English in suppressing many local native communities. They played this role in the New England conflict known as King Philip's War (1675–1676) and assisted the Virginia settlers in subduing the Susquehannocks after Bacon's Rebellion. They also served as a buffer between British America and New France, and despite minimal English military assistance engaged in intermittent warfare with New France until the Grand Settlement in 1701.


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Faren R.Siminoff

See alsoFur Trade and Trapping ; Indian Land Cessions .

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