1600-1754: Native Americans: Overview

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

1600-1754: Native Americans: Overview

The People. In 1492 the native population of North America north of the Rio Grande was seven million to ten million. These people grouped themselves into approximately six hundred tribes and spoke diverse dialects. European colonists initially encountered Native Americans in three distinct regions. Eastern Woodland tribes included the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Abenakis, Shawnees, Delawares, Micmacs, Mahicans, and Pequots. Some of these tribes were sedentary hunter-gathers while others grew maize (corn), beans, and squash. In the Southeast white settlers came into contact with Powhatans, Catawbas, Cherokees, Creeks, Natchez, Choctaws, and Chickasaws; these people were primarily agriculturalists. Pueblos, Zunis, Navajos, and Hopis represented some of the adobe-dwelling bands in the arid Southwest. Regardless of their differences, these groups shared some common characteristics. For Native Americans the family, clan, and village represented the most important social groups. In addition, religions revolved around the belief that all of nature was alive, pulsating with spiritual power.

Contact. When the various European nations reached the New World the encounters were predictably diverse. Culture, climate, and the location and timing of the contact all affected the nature of the experience. One common factor was disease, as large numbers of native peoples succumbed to the microbes that the Europeans unwittingly carried with them in virtually every encounter. Massive population declines undoubtedly placed great stress on economic, social, political, and religious systems of native peoples. From 1492 until the Revolutionary War, trade was a central theme of interaction between natives and Europeans. This relationship shifted over time, transforming native life by drawing North America into a web of global economic connections. The process began when the first traders offered textiles, glass, and metal products in exchange for beaver pelts and buffalo robes. The transactions did not end until Europeans had virtually dispossessed the native people of the land that produced the goods the foreigners desired. Relations between the different European nations and native peoples were often complex and contradictory. Spanish colonists developed a reputation for harsh treatment, but because the Spanish sent almost no women to the New World, Spanish men often intermarried with native women. The French have been portrayed as sensitive to the culture of native peoples, but under their influence, the Fox were all but destroyed.

Exchanges. In general, the interaction of native North Americans and Europeans began with a period of initial goodwill and trade, followed by armed conflicts in which native warriors demonstrated great courage, organization, and skill. Eventually, however, superior weaponry produced victory for the colonists. Throughout the period 1600 to 1754 the interaction was marked by biological, cultural, and material exchanges. Europeans were expected to bring Indian presents (glass beads, mirrors, hatchets, kettles, etc.) to any major negotiations, as a sign of their goodwill. These gifts were precursors to trade relationships that marked permanent change in native societies. By removing militant native leaders and replacing them with more-amenable rulers, the Spanish were able to take power and extract the gold and silver that made Central and South America attractive to Europeans. Spaniards sent priests to Christianize native peoples even as they stole their land and exploited their labor. Europeans initially mistook the natives of the Caribbean islands for inhabitants of Asia, the continent Columbus had expected to find, and called them Indians. Struck by the peoples nudity and gentility, some Europeans considered them to be members of the lost tribes of Israel and the New World as the physical location of the Garden of Eden. As conflicts led to violence and colonization spread to the mainland, however, the view of Indians as naive innocents soon gave way to an image of native peoples as satanic fiends bent on the destruction of white colonists. Europeans engaged in formal academic debates on the nature of Native Americans and where they fit into the world.

Southwest. Spanish colonists pushed northward from their base in Mexico in search of precious metals and created the new colony of Nuevo México. In 1598 Juan de Oñate led a group of about four hundred colonists along the Rio Grande, where they settled among the residents of the pueblo of Yunque (to which they referred as San Juan Bautista). The Pueblo people accepted their presence without resistance, adopting some of their innovations in cooking, architecture, and town planning. These Spaniards had profound effects on the local ecology. They brought cattle and sheep which grazed on the land. Their use of baking ovens greatly increased the need for firewood, depleting local supplies. And the Spanish organized Indian laborers to expand the existing network of irrigation canals. The Acoma Pueblo refused to submit to the interlopers, and hundreds of Indians were killed or enslaved. This policy of blood and fire produced a legacy of resentment. The Spanish never found gold or silver, struggled economically, and maintained an uneasy peace with their neighbors. But in 1680 Acoma warriors expelled the Spanish, driving them all the way back to Mexico and keeping them out for a decade. During the eighteenth century missionaries led by Friar Junipero Serra established twenty-one missions, a days march apart, from San Diego to San Francisco, California. Military presidios, or forts, soon were added to each mission. Native religion was suppressed; Indians who resisted were physically abused; and traditional family relationships were discouraged. Native resistance took the form of poisonings, arson, and violent uprisingswith four thousand deaths recorded at Santa Barbara alone. The native population of coastal California, estimated at seventy thousand before the missions, declined to about fifteen thousand within three decades of their arrival.

Northeast. In the early 1600s Indians in the Saint Lawrence River valley established trading relationships with the French. The Montagnais and others obtained textiles and glass and metal goods in exchange for beaver skins. The French erected a fort at Quebec in 1608 to protect their trade from raids by the Mohawks. In the following years other nations entered into trade relations with the French, including the Hurons and the Algonquins. Against this alliance of French and natives were arrayed the Iroquois nations of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, which had united as the Five Nations under Hiawatha and Deganawidah in the previous century. The Iroquois gained an ally in 1609, when Dutch colonists led by Henry Hudson arrived in present-day New York, seeking to copy the economic success of the French. The Dutch supplied them with metal weaponryhatchets, knives, and arrow pointsneeded to combat their native and French enemies. Dutch traders penetrated southern New England and the Delaware River valley in present-day Pennsylvania. Until 1620 the British were unsuccessful in their attempts to obtain a beachhead on the North Atlantic coast. After that date the Wampanoags accepted the colony of Plymouth, and British traders began to compete for native products. By the end of the second decade of the seventeenth century, the region bounded roughly by the Hudson River, the Saint Lawrence River, and the Atlantic Ocean was North Americas most complex zone of interaction between natives and Europeans. The traders influence grew considerably after the conversion of wampum, originally a sacred object used in religious rituals, into currency. The use of wampum accelerated the pace of trade and heightened competition among native peoples, producing commercial rivalries that sometimes were settled through warfare. The Iroquois had overhunted their own territory in present-day upstate New York and needed skins to continue trading with the Dutch at Fort Orange. Further west, competition for hunting territory led to raids and counterraids. North of the Great Lakes, the Ottawas defeated the Winnebagos, forcing them to the western shore of Lake Michigan at Green Bay. Later a people known as the Neutrals drove out the Sauk, Fox, and Potawatomis, who also relocated to the Green Bay area, where the defeated Winnebagosrecovering from an epidemichad little choice but to accept them. The native refugees at Green Bay grew into a strong anti-Iroquois, pro-French alliance. In the 1640s the Iroquois attacked the remaining Hurons, defeating them and driving the remnants of the nation and their allies toward Green Bay. Some of the Shawnee and Erie allies of the Hurons fled to the South, instead, where they would face still more conflicts with Europeans.

The Chesapeake. In Virginia early attempts to establish English colonies failed, but with the aid of the Powhatans the Jamestown colony survived. The Powhatan confederacy covered nearly all of eastern Virginia, and until 1609 relations with the English were peaceful. When white leaders attempted to dictate unfavorable terms of trade and colonization, the Powhatan chieftain retaliated by withholding corn, and war broke out. By 1611 the English had forced all native peoples out of their immediate area, and three years later a truce was implemented. Indian uprisings in 1622 and 1644 did not stop the tide of white settlers. By midcentury Virginia was experiencing a boom-and-bust economy as the price of tobacco rose and fell. Immigration remained high, however, and the area of settlements moved westward into Indian country. As the population grew, social divisions arose among the settlers. The colonys leaders tended to come from the men living near the coast and far from the Indians, representing established, relatively wealthy families. Those living farther inland tended to be more-recent arrivals, generally younger, and more hostile to their Indian neighbors.

Migrations. British trade goods were extremely attractive to the native peoples of the North. The French relied on military force to keep their native allies in line. In the first decade of the eighteenth century they built Fort Ponchartrain at Detroit in an attempt to enforce their monopoly of the fur trade in the northern Great Lakes region and keep the English at bay. But French attempts to block their partners from access to British trade made the Hurons and Petuns and other allies resentful and strengthened opposition to the French among the Iroquois. The Five Nations took part in two unsuccessful British attempts to invade Canada. In 1706 conflict pitted the Hurons, Petuns, and Miamis against the Ottawas, who relocated from upper Lake Superior to the Detroit River. The Miamis, meanwhile, returned to their former homes on the Maumee River in present-day Indiana. In 1712 the Fox people fled toward Detroit after being attacked by Ojibwas and Sioux. More than one thousand Fox arrived at Detroit to claim their traditional hunting grounds. Other Indians near Detroit resented the newcomers, and the Foxs historic links to the Iroquois fed French paranoia. The French supported their allies in a combined attack on the Fox in 1712, triggering a sequence of Fox wars that undercut French relations with native peoples during the balance of the century. In the second decade of the eighteenth century the Tuscaroras were driven from North Carolina after losing a war with the British. They journeyed to the territory of the Iroquois, who adopted the Tuscaroras and henceforth became known as the Six Nations. Two other groupsthe Shawnees and Susquehannocksalso moved northward into Iroquois territory. Strengthened by the new arrivals, the Iroquois attempted to make peace with both the French and the British. This infusion of new people made the Iroquois a more formidable military power. Furthermore, the newcomers brought anticolonist sentiments that reinforced the views of those Iroquois who opposed cooperation with missionaries and Europeans generally. Finally, the influx coincided with a smallpox epidemic which the Iroquois leadership blamed on Europeans. Overall, Iroquois with traditionalist feelings, favoring isolation and withdrawal, became dominant over those who favored connections with traders and missionaries. For the next generation the Iroquois turned to the South, making war against the Cherokees (the Tuscaroras old enemies), and lived in peace with the Hurons, Petuns, and other peoples of the Great Lakes.

Lower South. The colony of Carolina was founded in 1669 by investors seeking to prosper, in part, from the Indian trade. The proprietors assumed a monopoly on trade with the nearby Indians whom they called the Westos. (The Westos were, in fact, the surviving members of the Eries, driven from the Great Lakes region by the Huron-Iroquois conflicts.) Some colonists attempted to make slaves of the Westos, who retaliated with violent raids on white settlements. Colonists from the area known as Goose Creek, South Carolina, aided by the Shawnees, destroyed the Westos. The downfall of the Westos led to expanded trade between the English and the Creeks, who raided Spanish missions where Timucuans and Apalachees lived. In the 1680s Spanish raids against Coweta and Kasihta led those Creek towns to relocate into western Carolina. By the turn of the eighteenth century the Creeks were staunch military allies of the English. Led by the former Carolina governor, James Moore, English and Creek forces destroyed the Spanish mission villages in Florida. They took more than one thousand Apalachees and other Florida Indians to Charleston, where they sold them as slaves to Caribbean sugar planters. Afterward the Creeks achieved a balance of power in the region by playing European nations against each other and trading with the British, French, and Spanish alike. The British had the best trade goods at the lowest prices, however, and their economic strength and military advantages gave them the greatest staying power in North America. The Creeks links to the British endured after their other alliances faded.

The Colonial Wars. From 1689 until 1754 a series of four colonial wars racked the North American continent and pitted the English against the French and sometimes the Spanish. Various tribes became embroiled in the conflict, fighting on behalf of one European power or another. In addition, old native enmities sometimes flared into open warfare, and new conflicts arose out of the indirect effects of colonization, such as trade and migration. By the early 1750s the native peoples of North America were squeezed between the French, who were gaining control of the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys and the British settlements along the Atlantic coast. In 1754, when the two powers went to war for the fifth and final time in North America, Indian country would be their battlefield.


1600-1754: Native Americans: Overview