The Coming of the First White Man

views updated

"The Coming of the First White Man"

Told by George R. Betts and translated by Nora Dauenhauer

Reprinted in American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology

Published in 1987

Edited by Emory Elliot

"Next/They told everything./After that,/they all went out on their canoes./This was the very first time the white man came ashore,/through Lituya Bay;"

According to some scholars, native peoples arrived in North America from Asia via the Bering Sea Land Bridge around 30,000 b.c. In about a.d. 986 the Thule Inuit in Greenland were the first Native Americans to come in contact with Europeans. Inuit hunters encountered the Norse (inhabitants of presentday Scandinavia; also called Vikings) expedition led by Eric the Red, who founded a settlement in Greenland. Inuit, Beothuk, and Micmac peoples are said to have met him and members of his party along the eastern coast of North America. In 1002 Eric's son, Leif Ericsson, made one of the first documented European contacts with Native Americans. According to the "Saga of Eric the Red" (contained in a collection of Norse sagas titled Hauksbok,) Leif Ericsson spent the winter of 1002 in a place called "Vinland." Historians disagree about the exact location of Vinland, though many speculate it could have been Nova Scotia (a peninsula on the coast of eastern Canada) or northern New England (the northeast part of modern-day United States). Yet the Native Americans maintained their own way of life.

The situation changed dramatically, however, when a Spanish expedition led by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (see "Christopher Columbus Reports to Ferdinand and Isabella") landed on an island in the Bahamas in the Caribbean Sea (south of Florida) in 1492. From that time onward, Europeans came to establish settlements in North America.

According to some scholars, in the 1490s the native population of North America north of the Rio Grande (a river that runs along the border between present-day Texas and Mexico) was estimated as seven million to ten million. These native peoples made up approximately six hundred tribes and spoke numerous languages, perhaps more than one thousand different dialects (some estimates reach as high as two thousand). Although native groups had distinct social and cultural characteristics, they were all focused on the family, clan, and village. Life was tied to the cycles of nature, and their religions revolved around the belief that nature was alive, pulsating with spiritual power.

In the area that is now the United States, Native Americans encountered European explorers and colonists in three distinct regions—the Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas), the Southeast (Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, the Carolinas, Maryland, and Virginia), and the Northeast (New England, New York, and Pennsylvania). The earliest Europeans in these regions were the Spanish, French, English, Dutch, and Germans, who arrived in increasing numbers over the next 250 years. At the same time the French were settling in eastern Canada around present-day Quebec and Montreal. By the late 1700s Europeans, including settlers from Russia, were moving into southeastern Alaska.

From the late 1500s onward, Europeans wrote detailed reports of their contacts with Native Americans. They described native peoples and customs, kept records of treaties, and transcribed the speeches of great chiefs. Many Europeans also interviewed Native Americans about their reactions to explorers and colonizers, then recorded translations in letters or reports. Known as contact stories, these interviews often took place two hundred years after the arrival of Europeans. For instance, in the late eighteenth century John Heckewelder (1743–1823), an English missionary, recorded a contact story that had been passed down by generations of Delawares in present-day New York State. The tale describes the Delawares' traumatic first encounter with Europeans, which occurred in 1609 when English explorer Henry Hudson (1565–1611) anchored his ship Half Moon off the coast of Manhattan island. The Native Americans thought the ship was a large fish or animal, perhaps even a house in which Mannitto (the Supreme Being) lived. Overwhelmed by the prospect that one of the Englishmen—the first white men they had ever seen—might be Mannitto himself, the Delawares hastily made elaborate preparations to greet Hudson and his crew.

Yet the Delaware story was not written down by Native Americans themselves. In fact, the tale was recorded in European narrative prose. (Narrative prose involves telling a story in paragraph form with description of action and dialogue.) The reason most contact stories were written down by Europeans was because native peoples did not maintain written records. Instead, they relied on oral traditions (stories told by a speaker to a group of listeners) that were passed down from generation to generation within close-knit tribes or clans. Native American orators (storytellers) took pride in showing their skills at council meetings, religious ceremonies, and conferences with other tribes. During the twentieth century scholars began reconstructing the history of native peoples in North America, in part by studying Native American oral traditions. Translators attempted to reproduce the tales in the simple, direct style used by native orators. The resulting form often resembles poetry (words used to convey images that are arranged in separate lines) instead of prose. An example is "The Coming of the First White Man," a contact story that has been passed down for centuries among Tlingit tribes in Southeast Alaska.

Things to Remember While Reading "The Coming of the First White Man":

  • The Tlingits (also spelled Tlinget, Tlinkit, and Tlinket) are a related group of fourteen tribes who once lived along the coast of Southeast Alaska and on islands that fringe the coast. Separate tribes include the Chilkats, the Yakutats, the Stikines, the Sitkas, the Auks, and the Hunas. The earliest known Tlingit contact with Europeans took place in 1741, after the arrival of a Russian expedition led by Danish navigator Vitus Bering (1681–1741) and Russian explorer Aleksey Chirikov (1703–1748). Numerous versions of "The Coming of the First White Man" have been told throughout Tlingit country since the eighteenth century. Some stories refer to the white men as Russians, while others mention only Europeans.
  • The eighteenth-century European settlement of Southeast Alaska is generally excluded from the history of the colonial period. Living on the other side of the North American continent, the Tlingits were far removed from the most heavily colonized territories along the Atlantic coast and around the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless the Tlingit contact story is valuable as a distinctly Native American description of a first encounter with Europeans. "The Coming of the First White Man" relates an experience that was representative of Native Americans, from New Mexico to New England to New France.
  • The story was translated into English in 1987. The translator was presented with a challenge in trying to capture word meanings, not only across the centuries but also across cultures. Similarly, the reader is presented with a challenge; as part of an oral tradition, "The Coming of the First White Man" was meant to be spoken, not read. Consequently, the audience addressed by the storyteller played an important role in giving shape and meaning to the presentation. Native American listeners had heard the story many times before, and that provided them with an understanding of events and background passed from generation to generation. Modern readers may not share these insights, yet they can gain a better understanding of the impact of European culture on native life.
  • Keep in mind that the storyteller is speaking about the past, and that he or she has become accustomed to European items such as ships, anchors, galleys, mirrors, rice, and brandy. At the time of the first encounter with Europeans, however, the Tlingit had no names for these things. Consequently, they thought of rice as worms and sugar as sand. The Tlingits explained unusual occurrences like the arrival of the Europeans in terms of their religious teachings (the Raven created the world), which required them to observe certain rituals (viewing the ship—possibly the Raven himself—through a plant stalk) in order to avoid disaster (being turned to stone).

"The Coming of the First White Man"

People lived in Lituya Bay
loooong ago

Smoke houses and other houses were there.

There was a deserted place called Lituya Bay before the white man
migrated in from the sea.

At one point one morning


Migrated: Traveled

a person went outside.

Then there was a white object that could be seen way out on the sea
bouncing on the waves
and rocked by the waves.

At one point it was coming closer to the people.

"What's that?"

"What's that, what's that?"

"It's something different!"

"It's something different!"

"Is it Raven?"

"Maybe that's what it is."

"I think that's what it is—
Raven who created the world.
He said he would come back again."

Some dangerous thing was happening.

(Lituya Bay
lay like a lake.

There was a current;

salt water flowed in when the tide was coming in.

But when the tide was going out
the sea water would also drain out.)

So the thing went right on in with the flood tide.

Then the people of the village ran scared right into the forest,
all of them;
the children too,
were taken to the forest.

They watched from the forest.

At one point
they heard strange sounds.

Actually it was the anchor that was thrown in the water.

"Don't look at it!"
they told the children.

"Don't anybody look at it.

If you look at it, you'll turn to stone.

That's Raven, he's come by boat."

"Oh! People are running around on it!"

Things are moving around on it.

Actually it was the sailors climbing around the mast .

At one point after they had watched for a loooong time,
they took blue hellebore
and broke the stalks,
blue hellebore.


Mast: A vertical pole that rises from a ship to hold the sails


Hellebore: A poisonous plant

They poked holes though them
so that they wouldn't turn to stone;
they watched through them.

When no one turned to stone while watching,
someone said,
"Let's go out there.
We'll go out there."

"What's that?"

Then there were two young men;
from the woods
a canoe
(the kind of canoe called "seet")
was pulled down to the beach.

They quickly went aboard.

They quickly went out to it, paddled out to it.

When they got out to it,
a rope ladder was lowered.

Then they were beckoned to go aboard,
they were beckoned over by the crewmen's fingers,
the crewmen's fingers.

Then they went up there.

They examined it; they had not seen anything like it.

Actually it was a huge sail boat.

When the crew took them inside the cabin,
they saw-
they saw themselves.

Actually it was a huge mirror inside there,
a huge mirror.

They gave this name then,
to the thing an image of people could be seen on.

Then they were taken to the cook's galley.

There they were given food.

Worms were cooked for them,

They stared at it.

White sand
was put in front of them.

Then they spooned this white sand into the rice.

Actually it was sugar.

What they thought were worms, was rice.

This was what they had just been staring at.

At what point was it one of them took a spoonful?


Galley: The kitchen of a ship

"Hey! Look!
Go ahead! Taste it!"

"It might be good."

So the other took a spoonful.

Just as he did, he said "This is good food,
these worms,
this is good food."

After they were fed all kinds of food,
then they were given alcohol
perhaps it was brandy.

Then they began to feel very strange.

Never before... ...

"Why am I beginning to feel this way?
Look! I'm beginning to feel strange!"

And "I'm beginning to feel happiness settling through my body too,"
they said.


Maggot: A larva of a fly

After they had taken them through the whole ship,
they took them to the railing.

They gave them some things.

and sugar
and pilot bread
were given to them to take along.

They were told how to cook them.

Now I wonder what it was cooked on.

You know, people didn't have pots then. . . .

There was no cooking pot for it.

When they got ashore
they told everyone:

"There are many people in there.
Strange things are in there too.
A box of our images,
this looking glass,
a box of out images;
we could just see ourselves.
they cooked maggots for us to eat."

They told everything.

After that,
they all went out on their canoes.

This was the very first time the white man came ashore,
through Lituya Bay;

Ltu.áa is called Lituya Bay
in Alaska.

Well! This is all of my story.

Pilot bread

Pilot bread: A saltless, hard biscuit, bread or cracker

What happened next . . .

Culture, climate, location, and timing determined the nature of a native group's contact with Europeans—but usually the results were devastating. Scholars estimate that within a century after Columbus's arrival the Native American population had been reduced by nearly fifty percent. Several factors contributed to this dramatic decline. European weapons and warfare devastated native peoples. Native Americans routinely died as a result of mistreatment, especially slavery. Population loss also occurred when Native American farming and hunting methods were disrupted and starvation resulted. Disease was even more damaging. In virtually every encounter with Europeans, Native Americans succumbed rapidly to diseases caused by microbes (tiny organisms) the Europeans carried into North America.

Life for native peoples throughout North America was also severely affected by trade. In a relatively brief time European items that had been novelties became an essential part of native culture. Land became a crucial medium of exchange during trade negotiations between Native Americans and Europeans. Immediately, disputes regarding land ownership led to misunderstandings and conflicts. When colonists followed the European practice of drawing up legal contracts, Native Americans responded according to their own traditions and assumed they were signing peace treaties. Soon the Europeans were acquiring vast stretches of territory throughout North America. The fate of Native Americans was finally sealed when European colonists began to claim the best land for their own use. They then set aside undesirable lands (called reservations) and forced native peoples to live there. By the late nineteenth century all Native Americans, including the Tlingits, were living on reservations.

Did you know . . .

  • Around a.d. 986 the Thule Inuits (Eskimos) in Greenland were the first Native Americans to come in contact with Europeans. Inuit hunters encountered the Norse (inhabitants of present-day Scandinavia; also called Vikings) expedition led by Eric the Red, who established a settlement in Greenland. (The settlement died out around 1500.) In 1002 Eric's son, Leif Ericsson, made one of the first documented European contacts with Native Americans. According to the "Saga of Eric the Red" (contained in a collection of Norse sagas titled Hauksbok), Leif Ericsson spent the winter of 1002 in a place called "Vinland." Historians disagree about the exact location of Vinland, though many speculate it could have been Nova Scotia or northern New England. Leif Ericsson and his men met members of a Native American tribe, whom they called "Skraelings." After a heated battle the Skraelings drove the Norsemen back to Greenland.
  • Alcohol was by far the most destructive aspect of European trade for native peoples. Before 1500, Native Americans had had virtually no exposure to alcohol. Consequently, they were as vulnerable to alcoholism as they were to European diseases. As "The Coming of the First White Man" shows, by the late seventeenth century brandy and rum were important trade items. Since many Native Americans found liquor highly addictive, they would do anything to obtain it. The demand for alcohol caused breakdowns in the native economy, as Native American hunters would trade skins for alcohol, then go into debt for goods that had become necessities. In order to claim land, Europeans eventually took advantage of Native Americans' addiction. They began to use so-called whiskey treaties, agreements that were signed while Native Americans were under the influence of alcohol.

For more information

Adler, Bill, ed. The American Indian: The First Victim. New York: Morrow, 1972.

Elliot, Emory, and others, eds. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1991.

The Mayas. Available September 30, 1999.

National Geographic Society. The World of the American Indian. Revised edition. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society. 1993.

Sherman, Josepha. The First Americans: Spirit of the Land and People. New York: Smithmark, 1996.

Tlingit Culture.http:/ Available September 30, 1999.

About this article

The Coming of the First White Man

Updated About content Print Article