Native North Americans of the Northeast

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Native North Americans of the Northeast

The Native Americans of the present-day northeastern United States inhabited a vast region known as the northeastern woodlands, spanning the Atlantic coast states from New England to Virginia and extending west through the Ohio Valley, the Great Lakes, and Canadian territory above Lake Erie. The northeastern woodlands region was home to a large number of tribal groups, including the Abenaki (pronounced ah-buh-NAH-key), Delaware (also called Lenape), Iroquois (EAR-uh-kwoy), Menominee, Micmac, Ojibway (also called Chippewa), Pequot (PEE-kwot), Powhatan, Potawatomi, Sac and Fox, Shawnee, Wampanoag (wam-puh-NO-ag), Ottawa, Huron, Penobscot, and Winnebago.

Although these groups spoke in many different languages, their languages fell into three language families (groups of languages thought to have come from a common root language long in the past): Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan. People who spoke Algonquian languages lived in the vast area between the Great Lakes and the East Coast from New England down to North Carolina . The Iroquoian language family was found among the groups in the east Great Lakes region and the Appalachian Mountains. The only northeastern group that spoke a Siouan language was the Winnebago, who lived in the Great Lakes region.

Early history

The people of the northeast and the southeast of the present-day United States have common origins. The first known inhabitants of both regions were societies that built huge earthen mounds, many of which still stand today. The Adena society arose in the Ohio River Valley around 400 bce. Adena settlements spread over a wide area, into sites in present-day western New York and western Pennsylvania . There were usually no more than four hundred people in an Adena village. The Adena people also built mounds to contain their dead. The largest, Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia , was 240 feet in diameter and 70 feet high.

After the first century bce, the Adena culture evolved into a more complex culture called Hopewell. The ceremonial mounds of this society were more elaborate. The Hopewell people probably had an extensive trade network; the remains of their villages contain a variety of goods

from places as far away as Wisconsin , Missouri , New York, and Florida . For reasons that are unclear, the great Hopewell centers were abandoned in the fifth century ce. After that, mound-building was carried out among the Native North Americans of the Southeast . The societies that arose in the northeast took advantage of the hunting and fishing in a land rich in resources. They did not build mounds and were probably unrelated to the mound-builders. They farmed and traded extensively with Native Americans living in distant regions.

Movement of the nations

The population of the Northeast began shifting long before the Europeans arrived. Algonquian groups, like the Ottawa and Ojibway, moved into the Northeast and began to invade the Iroquoian peoples, who occupied present-day upstate New York and sites along the lower Great Lakes. The arrival of Europeans in the 1500s heightened these struggles. Many groups were pressured to move farther and farther west as Europeans pushed the coastal Native communities out of their lands. Those Native groups who were forced to relocate in turn displaced the tribes of their new location.

Europeans arrive

The Native Americans of the Northeast were generally friendly to the English newcomers who began to arrive in Virginia and New England in

the 1600s. They helped the settlers through their first rugged winters and taught them about the foods that were available in their areas. Before long, the native communities were stricken with deadly epidemics of disease brought from Europe. Their populations weakened, the Native Americans of Massachusetts and Virginia learned that the English wanted more land and were unwilling to respect their ways or their territory.

A group of English settlers known as the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts in 1630. They were extremely harsh toward Native Americans. The Puritans were on a mission to establish a perfect Christian society and there was no place in it for the Native Americans of the New World. When a smallpox epidemic killed thousands of area Native Americans, some Puritans believed that God had sent the diseases in order to clear the land of its native inhabitants so that the Puritans could settle there. Between 1634 and 1638, the English population of the Massachusetts Bay Colony rose from about four thousand to more than eleven thousand. Although there was conflict, many of the northeastern Native American tribes profited from trading with the English and other Europeans and established alliances with them.

Pequot War

The Pequot, a tribe known for its war-like ways, lived in what is now Connecticut in the 1630s. They were the dominant native people in the region, allied with the Niantics and frequently at war with the Narragansetts and other tribes. In 1633, Puritan settlers began to arrive in the Connecticut Valley. The Puritans wanted the land in the Pequot region. The Pequot decided to fight them.

In 1633 and 1634, local Native Americans killed white traders, although no one knew for sure which tribe did the killing. The Puritans sent an army to Connecticut to seek revenge, and the soldiers robbed and looted the Indians in the area. In retaliation, in 1635 and 1636, the Pequot sacked the Puritan settlements of Saybrook and Wethersfield, Connecticut, killing about thirty settlers. Things were quiet for a time until May 1637, when colonial troops, accompanied by several hundred other local Native Americans, attacked the Pequot fort at Mystic. Within thirty minutes, all but a few Pequot had been put to death by either fire or sword. Accounts differ as to how many Native Americans were killed, but the number probably approached four hundred or five hundred.

After this attack, the remaining Pequot were tracked down and killed, enslaved and sold into slavery in the West Indies (Caribbean Islands), or taken as mission Indians—Native Americans who converted to Christianity and lived under the watch of missionaries. The latter became known as the “praying Indians.” The Narragansett had allied themselves with the English in the destruction of the Pequot. Within seven years, the Narragansett, too, were forced to submit to the Puritan rule.

King Philip's War

In 1643, the British colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut, New Haven, and Massachusetts formed what was then known as the “United Colonies of New England” to better defend themselves from Native American attacks. By the 1670s, some fifty thousand settlers flooded into New England. Wampanoag chief Metacom (c. 1639–1676; called King Philip by the English), tried to maintain friendly relations but grew restless with English rule. In 1671, the Plymouth Colony arrested him on charges of plotting against the colony. He was forced to deliver the Wampanoags’ weapons to the English. Conflicts followed and in June 1665, war erupted.

The conflict between Metacom and the Plymouth colony soon engulfed all of New England: the army of the New England confederation faced a coalition army of Abenaki, Nipmuck, Narragansett, and Wampanoag warriors. By the end of the summer, the Connecticut-Massachusetts frontier was in flames. Intense warfare continued for many years, through the spring of 1676, when the New England Native Americans were forced to give up fighting because of starvation and disease. The English had great losses. The once-great tribes Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett were reduced to insignificance.

Powhatan of Virginia

A similar fate had befallen the Indians of Virginia. The Powhatan Confederacy had initially helped the Jamestown, Virginia , settlers who arrived in 1607, but the growing population of English settlers repeatedly forced the native residents to move to new areas; relations grew tense. In 1622, the Powhatan attacked several English settlements, killing an estimated 350 men, women, and children. The English retaliated, destroying many Native American villages. Warfare continued for decades. By 1675, the Virginia settlers demolished the Powhatan Confederacy, and the Native Americans were forced to live under Virginia law.

Northern and western tribes

Several northern groups, like the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy of Maine , survived the age of English settlement by remaining in their remote homelands, where there were few white settlers. Natives in the Great Lakes region, such as the Shawnee, Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, Winnebago, Menominee, Potawatomi, Ojibway, and Ottawa, had heard about the destruction caused by white settlers on the coast and made efforts to slow the spread of European control. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, two Native American leaders, Ottawa chief Pontiac (c. 1720–1769) and Shawnee chief Tecumseh (1768–1813) formed coalitions among the tribes to defend their area from the settlers. Their efforts, though powerful, were not strong enough.

By the late 1790s, the once-powerful Iroquois nations had been relocated to reservations. By 1860, most native people of the Great Lakes regions had been assigned to small Indian reservations . Other groups, such as the Shawnee and Delaware, were sent to reservations in Oklahoma .

Preserving a heritage

Native Americans in the Northeast witnessed stark and long-lasting changes. Their environment was irreversibly changed. The rise of industrialization changed the patterns of work and family life. Traditional ways of life were lost.

The Native Americans of the Northeast were the first in the United States to be colonized by European settlers and they have spent four centuries adapting, while working to preserve their tribal lands and heritage. Some northeastern tribes have succeeded in getting payment for their losses from the government. In 1980, the United States gave the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot $81 million to make up for the loss of their homelands. But other northeastern groups were so badly damaged by epidemics and the wars with the settlers that they never recovered.

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