Native Americans and Europeans

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Native Americans and Europeans

In 1492 Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) set sail to find a western overseas passage to Asia and to carry the cause of Christendom to its far shores. When his ships reached what he thought was Asia he named the people he met Indios and reported that they were suitable to be commanded to work, plant, and support Spanish colonies. The people that Columbus brought into being, the Indians, however, did not really exist, for the people had their own ideas about whose land it was and what kind of people they were. In many ways the story of contact between Native Americans and Europeans involves the latter's attempts to subject the native people to their rule, whereas the former sought to maintain their own independence and integrity in the face of the invasion of the Americas.

Just two years after Columbus's landfall, the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) granted Portugal much of present-day Brazil and assigned Spain the remainder of the Americas. In the late 1490s and early 1500s adventurers, petty nobles, and plain folk left Spain to find their fortunes in the Caribbean. The islands of Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola proved most attractive where local Arawaks and Tainos helped adapt the newcomers to their surroundings. But the Spaniards wanted gold and silver, not maize and cassava, so they forced the native people to dig for treasure they hoped would make them rich. Precious metals proved hard to find, however, and the native people suffered terribly.

Contact with the Arawaks and other nations prompted a wide-ranging debate in the Vatican and in the courts and universities of Spain. To questions about whether or not the so-called Indians were men or beasts, Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) decreed in 1493 that they were capable of conversion to Christianity, and in 1537 the papal bull, Sublimis deus, asserted that they were rational people fully capable of understanding the Christian faith. Against popes and royal officials, however, any number of conquerors and landowners argued that native people were little better than animals suited only for hard labor on plantations and in mines.

Word of fabulous wealth to the west of Cuba spread. In 1519 Hernan Cortés (1484–1547) followed the rumors to the coast of present-day Mexico. He and his 400 soldiers marched inland and became embroiled in the politics of the city-state of Tenochtítlan, which, with the support of neighboring cities Texcoco and Tlacopan, governed much of modern Mexico through networks of trade and tribute. The arrival of Cortés, however, offered an opportunity to those leaders who chafed under Tenochtítlan's rule. Cortés exploited their intrigues ably and built for himself a powerful network of allies as he marched inland to challenge Tenochtítlan's ruler Moctezuma II (1466–1520).

On his arrival in Tenochtítlan Cortes seized Moctezuma and attempted to govern through him. To the crowds who feared that the gods had abandoned their great city, Moctezuma counseled patience. Cortés's efforts to smash local temples and to erect crosses to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, however, exacerbated tensions, and, after the Spaniards massacred a number of people at a holy celebration, the Mexicans attacked. Cortés sent Moctezuma out to calm the people but a stone hurled from the crowd struck and killed him, leaving the Spaniards with neither their hostage nor any leverage. Cortés led his men through a harrowing retreat out of the city and into the arms of his allies in Tlaxcalan, and by the middle of 1521 Cortés was ready to return with Tlaxcalan's support. Meanwhile a smallpox epidemic had swept through Tenochtítlan and decimated the people. By August Cortés was in possession of the city and the vast networks of tribute and alliance that it commanded, and he doled out towns and territories to the soldiers who had served in his command and to his allies to maintain their support.

Taking his cues from Cortés, in 1532 Francisco Pizarro (1475–1541) took a small party of horsemen and foot soldiers from his base in Panama to invade the Incas, whose territory stretched 3,000 miles down South America's western edge. When the invaders arrived, the empire was in the throes of civil war because two men, Huascar (d. 1532) and Atahualpa (1502–1533), were battling to succeed Huayana Capac (d. 1535) as emperor, who stepped down in 1525. As they marched toward the Andes, Pizarro's troop received an invitation to meet with Atahualpa, who thought they might be useful in his struggle with Huascar. The meeting was tense. Some 40,000 Inca warriors surrounded the group of Spaniards. Sizing up the situation, Pizarro seized Atahaulpa in a bloody affray. For eight months Pizarro ruled the empire through Atahaulpa but ordered the emperor killed when word of a plot to overthrow the Spaniards reached his ears. Each side in the civil war sought to enlist Pizarro, and as the various ethnic groups that had been gathered under the empire sensed their opportunity to throw off the Inca yoke, they, too, turned to the Spanish for assistance. Like Cortés, Pizarro relied on the fractured and hierarchical political system of the people he faced to facilitate his conquest.

Just as Cortés inspired the conquest of Peru, so did his example drive the conquest of the Mayas. In 1527 one of Cortés's captains, Francisco de Montejo (1479–1553), landed on the Yucatan peninsula where Montejo ordered the ships destroyed to ensure the men's devotion to the conquest he was planning. Owing to the independence of the various Maya cities, there was no one leader for Montejo to capture or kill. Instead, it took years for the Spanish to prevail. Disease, famine, and drought, however, worked where warhorses and arquebuses did not, and in 1542 Maya resistance began to yield to the Spanish invasion.

Other conquistadores moved into what is today the southern United States. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado (1510–1554) set out in 1540 with several hundred men to find the golden cities of Cíbola, but instead he found fields of maize and people who were happy to send him on his way with indications that Cíbola was just a little farther east. Coronado reached the grassy prairies of present-day Kansas before he realized there was no Cíbola and returned to Mexico in 1542. Hernando de Soto (1500–1542) had a similar experience in the American south when he landed in Florida in 1539 and spent the next few years searching in vain for precious metals and great cities like had been found in Mexico and Peru, only he died in 1542 as it dawned on him that his quest had been in vain.

The Spanish aspired to govern the peoples they conquered in ways that resembled the feudal order of Europe. The Crown organized settlers in what was called the republic of Spaniards, who enjoyed various rights of citizenship, property, and life, whereas beneath them lived and toiled the republic of Indians, who served as a kind of New World peasantry. Both Cortés and Pizarro relied on an institution known as the encomienda that enabled Spaniards to own a village's or several villages' labor and to command various levels of tribute in maize, cacao, cotton, or cattle and horses. The coercive and feudal aspects of the encomienda, however, had close analogues in the societies they had conquered. From the Incas to the people Coronado and Soto met, leaders appropriated tribute, typically either foodstuffs or more specialized prestige items, from the people they governed. Village leaders would then hand over a portion of their tribute to regional leaders who would then pass goods on to the highest leaders in the land. But if the notions of hierarchy and tribute that made Spanish and aboriginal notions of social organization and government remarkably similar, the coercive power of the Spanish was of an altogether different order.

While the Spanish created a hybrid feudal and aboriginal network of chiefly power and payment of tribute to rule their colonial societies, the Portuguese battered the aboriginal populations of Brazil into submission in order to enslave them. The process began in 1532 when the Portuguese established a permanent settlement called São Vicente. So long as the trade in tropical wood remained the primary meeting point between the invaders and the native people, relations were relatively cordial. But the Crown required that the colony pay its own way, so when the small fort was built so, too, was a sugar mill, and sugar cane brought from the Madeiras Islands was planted shortly thereafter.

From São Vicente a number of other settlements spread and by the mid-sixteenth century sugar plantations were Brazil's mainstay. In the absence of settlers willing to do the work and with African labor costing more than planters were willing to spend, landowners took on the Crown and the Vatican to argue for the right to enslave the native people. Under pressure to make a profit, the Crown relented and thousands of people found themselves forced to toil in the sugar fields under pain of death. There was no accommodation of aboriginal governance and no respect for the nations' autonomy—only hard labor for the profit of the empire.

Wars between Native Americans and Europeans in North America
War Date
These wars, rebellions, and revolts constitute many of the important and well-known Euro-Indian conflicts. Euro-Amerindian conflict from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century was almost endemic. There were thousands of attacks, raids, rebellions, and wars during these centuries.
First Powhatan War1609–1611
Second Powhatan War1622
Pequot War1636
Third Powhatan War1644–1646
Apalachee 'Revolt'1647
King Philip's War1675
Bacon's Rebellion1676
Pueblo 'Revolt'1680
Franco-Iroquoian War1690s
King Williamm's War1689–1697
Queen Anne's War1702–1713
King George's War1743–1748
French and Indian War1754–1763
Pontiac's 'Rebellion'1763

Fisherman's tales and the ongoing search for the passage to Asia led the French into the present-day St. Lawrence River in 1534. Instead of China Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) found a bustling trading fair at Tadoussac and important allies at a town called Stadacona. On a second voyage the following year he pushed further up the river to a series of dangerous rapids just past the town of Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montréal. He and his men wintered at Stadacona before returning to France to raise interest in founding a colony. The settlement Cartier founded near Stadacona in 1541 collapsed, however, because of cold and famine, and it would be a long time before the French braved the shores of the St. Lawrence.

When they did return some seventy years later, diseases had decimated the land. The aboriginal population was neither large enough nor concentrated enough to allow for a Spanish-style conquest. Instead, the French had to use trade with far-flung populations to build relationships and alliances. In 1603 various Algonquian-speaking peoples and their Huron trading partners agreed to make a place for Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635) and the French, and they connected the French to a vast trade network that reached from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay. In 1608 Champlain founded Québec where Stadacona had once stood to give the French a permanent foothold in the trade, and while the town succeeded as a trading post, it was less attractive as a destination for settlers.

The men who conducted the fur trade on behalf of France, the coureurs de bois, as well as the voyageurs, who transported the furs and other goods by canoe, extended the empire's reach up the network of lakes and rivers of the mid-continent. The good relations they cultivated with people enabled France to deploy small garrisons and settlements, such as outposts like Detroit and Michilimackinac on the Great Lakes and Cahokia and Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River, to secure their claims to the empire. At the same time Jesuit and Recollet missionaries followed the traders into the country to convert France's important trading partners to Catholicism. Indeed it was the fur trader Louis Jolliet (1645–1700) and the priest Jacques Marquette (1637–1675) who opened the Mississippi River to France in 1673 that made possible the settlement of Louisiana in 1699.

As in Canada, so in Louisiana, too, did French leaders adopt a policy of alliance with the native people. Pierre Le Moyne (1661–1706), sieur d'Iberville, founded Biloxi in 1699, and the friendships he crafted through exchange of gifts and ritual smoking of tobacco enabled the French to build outposts at Mobile, and, in 1718, New Orleans. The local people, too, saw advantages in their relationship with Iberville. English slave raiders who worked among the Chickasaws to the north had preyed on the Choctaws for years. When Iberville came and offered guns and ammunition, the Choctaws became fast friends of the French.

So long as the French settlements were confined to the coast and to New Orleans, the trade relationship effectively maintained a large system of alliances until the 1720s when the French sought to duplicate the tobacco plantation economy that was generating such profits in the English colonies. As settlers encroached upon land that belonged to the Natchez, the Natchez plotted to drive them back. The fatal blow came on November, 28 1729, when most of the area's settlers were killed. Some months later a small French force from New Orleans backed by a large party of Choctaw warriors arrived to find the Natchez huddled inside of two forts with a number of women and slaves that they had captured. Choctaws brokered a solution by convincing the Natchez to hand over the captives and allowing the Natchez to escape across the Mississippi River. Although the brief war spelled the end of the Natchez nation, French expansion in Louisiana also stalled.

While Champlain was founding Québec, the English were building a permanent colony in Virginia. The Powhatan nation saw in English cloth, tools, and guns a source of great power and sought to use gifts of food to enlist the English as allies. The Virginians, led by John Smith (1580–1631), in some ways accepted their new role and Smith became recognized as a Powhatan leader. The English, however, did not want to be partners; they wanted to be conquerors, and so what good relations had been built unraveled as settlers encroached on Powhatan land and abused the people.

The Powhatans struck back in the hopes of teaching the unruly settlers a lesson, and from 1610 to 1613 small raids and ambushes brought terror to the countryside. Things changed when the tobacco economy took off. The settlers began to seize land in earnest and to threaten Powhatan survival. In response a war leader named Opecancanough (1554–1644) organized an uprising that aimed to drive the English back into the sea. On March 22, 1622, his warriors killed nearly 500 settlers, one quarter of the settler population, and over the following year took another 500 lives. The English responded by using trade to forge alliances with nearby nations and by burning Powhatan towns and fields, ambushing the people, and cutting off all contact. For ten years the hostilities simmered and ended only with Opecancanough's recognition of English power.

Lessons learned in Jamestown made English colonization different from both the hierarchical policies of the Spanish and the strategy of trade and alliance-building developed by the French. Instead, the English, while always maintaining trading relationships, preferred to prevent any kind of social connection. Where both the Spanish and the French recognized native people as members of their colonial societies, to the English such people were always undesirable outsiders, and it was the English who developed what we know today as the reservation where they isolated native people from the flow of colonial life.

The English experience in New England offers the clearest example of their exclusionary policies. A local Wampanoag leader named Massasoit (d. 1661) enlisted the newcomers on his side against his native rivals, and he provided them with maize and other food to get them through the first winters. In spite of the Puritan governors' official policies of drawing stark boundaries between settlers and native people, trade ties laced across the countryside to tie all kinds of people together in relationships, some of which, particularly in the 1630s and 1640s when immigrants from England flooded the countryside, ended in violence.

The Pequots were the first to feel the crushing tide of settlers and the colony's leaders were anxious to make war on a people they saw as in league with the devil. When a trader turned up dead, the governor accused the Pequots of the murder and dispatched a small force to kill every male Pequot they could find. After the force returned to Boston, the Pequots struck back and killed nine settlers. Narragansetts and Mohegans, who thought they could improve their standing in the Puritans' eyes by fighting on their side, helped the colonials surround the main Pequot town in May 1637. While the warriors launched fire arrows into the roofs of the homes, the settlers shot down all who fled the flames. At the end of the day nearly 1,000 Pequots lay dead. The New Englanders rounded up what few survivors they could find and sold them into slavery in the West Indies.

Expansion continued apace and threatened the land of those who had formerly fought for the Puritans. Metacom (1639–1676), whose father Massasoit had originally helped the settlers get on their feet, regretted the loss of land and the abuse that he saw happening to the Wampanoags and Narragansetts. After three Wampanoags were hanged on charges of murder in 1675, Metacom, or King Philip as he was known to the colonists, ordered a series of retaliatory raids. Farms burned and families perished before militias from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island surrounded Metacom's town. Other defeats followed, Metacom was killed and dismembered, and the survivors were again sold into slavery.

The wars of conquest that characterized the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of course, did not mean that all first nations came under European control right away. Indeed, the different patterns of colonization followed by the Spanish, the French, and the English, and the different patterns of resistance offered by native people across the Americas meant that free native communities experienced quite different histories depending on where they were located. In Mexico, for example, the Yaquis, who lived near the Zacatecas silver mines of northern Mexico, struggled to balance their place in the republic of Indians with their own desire for autonomy and independence. In the aftermath of a devastating smallpox epidemic, they asked Jesuits to settle among them in the 1620s. The priests reorganized the Yaquis and concentrated what had been eighty scattered settlements into eight principal villages. But Jesuit control of surplus agricultural produce spurred many Yaquis to migrate abroad in search of work in the mines or on ranches. In 1740 a rebellion against the Jesuits and those Yaquis who worked closely with the Spanish was crushed, but the continuing exodus of Yaquis from the villages caused the Crown to expel the Jesuits in 1767 and restore to the Yaquis a measure of self-government and independence.

French losses in European wars meant that the English often confronted native people who were unaccustomed to the harsher nature of English colonization. After the Treaty of Utrecht ended the War of Spanish Succession in 1713, England obtained from France what is today Nova Scotia. A subsequent treaty granted the Mi'kmaq people rights to use the land while at the same time making them subjects of the Crown. The presence of the French in Canada, however, enabled the Mi'kmaq to have access to firearms and supplies, and so rather than conquer them as they had done to native people elsewhere on the continent, the English sought trade ties with the native people that were orderly and mutually beneficial. The more tolerant approach taken by the English in this case reflected both the power of the Mi'kmaq as well as the perpetuation of a French-style model of contact and coexistence.

In the present-day United States, the English pattern of exclusion and isolation continues unabated. Whereas some nations took up arms to fight the United States, particularly under the leadership of the Shawnee war leader Tecumseh (1768–1813) in the early nineteenth century, the Cherokees sought to accommodate the demands of Euroamerican culture in order to make a safe place for themselves. After becoming dependent on the deerskin trade and losing land to settlers, the Cherokees invited missionaries to build schools so that their children could learn to read and write to better defend the nation's interests. Leaders also reformed the nation's laws to bring them into conformity with Anglo-American norms, and in 1827 a Cherokee constitution modeled in part on the federal constitution created an elected assembly, a supreme court, and an elected executive officer. Such changes enhanced the Cherokee's ability to resist their expulsion from their homeland in northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee, and their victory in a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1832 offered hope that they would retain a measure of their sovereignty. The federal government, however, pursued its plans to remove the Cherokees to Oklahoma, which it accomplished in 1839.

In some ways what happened to the Cherokees in 1839 was analogous to what happened to the Incas in 1532. Contact and colonization were ongoing processes that, while varying from time to time and from place to place, often ended in similar ways. But it is important to recognize the differences, for just as there were no real Indios to greet Columbus, it is also difficult to generalize about the very complicated history of contact between native people and Europeans in the Americas.

see also Encomienda.


Clendinnen, Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517–1570. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Cortes, Hernan. Letters from Mexico. Edited and Translated by Anthony Pagden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Dickason, Olive. The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1984.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1975.

Meinig, D.W. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Stern, Steve J. Peru's Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Wood, Peter, Gregory A. Waselkov, and M. Thomas Hatley, eds. Powhatan's Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

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Native Americans and Europeans

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Native Americans and Europeans