The Invasion of America
America – both the Americas – were not so much settled by Europeans as they were invaded.
Sixteenth and seventeenth century European attitudes toward the “virgin” land of the New World implied that they believed that the continent was theirs for the taking, as if it had been waiting millennia for some white people to come along and civilize it. This attitude persisted until very recently, and may not have been annihilated even yet.
The idea behind the Crusades in the eleventh century still held for the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans. Any war fought for the purpose of expanding the Church was considered justifiable (jihad, anyone?), and with European attentions turned to the American continents came the profound realization that there were more savages who needed to be exposed to Christianity.
Christians tended to view the indigenous Americans as non-religious because they did not recognize elements of their own religion in the environmental religions of the natives. American Indian religious myths, legends and rituals emphasized the peoples’ relationship to the environment.
For awhile, the natives and the European colonists found a use for one another. The basis for the relationship was trade, and trade was something neither side wanted to lose. Indians were enthralled by the wonders of steel blades, guns, and European textiles. Both sides wanted each other’s support against hostile neighbors. In the beginning the Europeans required the assistance of the natives just to survive in what they perceived as a wilderness. They also wanted pelts, wampum (which was accepted as currency in the colonies), handcrafts, and the personal service of the natives. Most of all, though, the white people wanted land.
As Indians realized what wonderful objects they could obtain through trade with the Europeans, intertribal trade decreased. Since the white people demanded furs in trade, native energies were devoted to acquiring more pelts than the next tribe down the trail. Overkill disrupted the balance of nature. The Indians’ diligence in getting furs for the Europeans resulted in self-destruction as they wiped out the wildlife upon which their lives depended.
White populations grew, and so did the demand for land. The colonists and their sponsoring governments believed that American soil was lying unused. They believed that since the same ground could support a denser population of white people that somehow the white people had a more valid claim to the land. They disregarded the fact that disease brought to America by Europeans had effectively depopulated the Americas; in fact, had they acknowledged such a thing it might be seen as God’s judgment upon the heathen savages, and further proof that the land should be in the possession of those who would put it to obvious use rather than those who would allow it to remain largely untouched.
At the root of all native-colonist relations was the hunger for land. Colonists believes that the natives did not utilize land to its utmost because there were, as the Europeans saw it, vast tracts of land left wild, uncontrolled by agriculture or towns. The European colonists did not consider that the indigenous people obtained a great deal of their food from hunting and gathering. To assure the presence of game , the game’s habitat must be preserved. Only with the practice of conservation would the game continue to multiply.
Something the colonists did not understand then, and which has largely been ignored in history, is that the native Americans farmed to feed their people. Although many foods were gathered as they grew wild, and animal husbandry was introduced by Europeans, agriculture was widespread in both of the Americas. The natives grew surplus crops and stored them for the winter.
Had the Plymouth colonists not stumbled upon stores of these surpluses, and then been given more, they would probably not have survived their first winter. Jamestown colonists were also kept from starving by gifts and purchases of surplus crops already grown and stored by the natives.
Arrangements between Europeans and Indians to share the land were made with the ultimate intention of the part of the white people to dispossess the natives. When land was conveyed to an European, whether by a deed or by some other kind of agreement, the European assumed that the tribe gave up rule over the area in question. Imagine a Dutch family buying a home in New York City today and claiming that the law of the Netherlands, and not of the United States, prevailed! This is exactly what the Europeans did, though. Furthermore, when Europeans claimed land in the Americas, they would claim that the natives living in that territory as their subjects.
Wars fought between white and native peoples were generally fought over land rights. Whether the disputed land was claimed by both natives and Europeans, or by competing European countries, the Native Americans ended up fighting, either to support their own claims or to support the claims of the European community with which they did the most business.
Effectively Indian populations became the vassals of the colonial governments and then later of the American government. They never saw themselves in this light, however. Sovereignty became the single major issue between white and native populations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was an especially bloody concerning the Iroquois, whose lands were claimed by the new governments of State of New York and the United States.
The colonists abused inter-tribal feuds for their own purposes, too. They spread rumors about enemy tribes among friendly ones in order to cause suspicion and war. After the tribes battled, the Europeans moved in to enjoy the spoils.
The colonists also used the spread of Christianity to pit the natives against each other. As different European nations established colonies, the religious men of those colonies taught the nearby natives their own brand of Christianity, ultimately pitting Catholic against Protestant. Once again, when the bloody battle was over, the white man moved in to enjoy the spoils.
The French and Indian War is an obvious and famous example of how useful the native was for European warfare. French and English traders bought the loyalties of different groups of natives then threw them into battle against each other. It was a war for European dominance that the Europeans barely had to fight. They could be relatively detached and observe while the natives unwittingly substantiated European claims to what was actually native land.
Europeans saw the natives as lawless. They did not recognize the form of government under which the indigenous peoples lived. They saw the chiefs and sachems as tyrants, or they discerned only anarchy from council gatherings. For example, the Iroquois did not recognize a central authority as a governing device. Consensus, in a very democratic manner, created the authority by which the tribes operated. On the other hand, Europeans saw sovereignty as a means to an end. The goal was control.
At first, the colonists paid little attention to native protocol in intergovernmental relations. As they became more accustomed to Indian ritual, they adapted themselves to the native style of diplomacy. Treaties in the northwest portions of New England eventually followed the government model of the Iroquois Five Nations, and eventually the colonists, in their break from monarchy, adopted a mix of European and native democratic protocols.
Because the native governments did not conform to what the Europeans historically understood to be government, the colonists felt justified in forcing their values and institutions on the natives. They considered the Indians uncivilized and therefore outside the sanction of law and morality, so they were not ridden with guilt as they extorted the Indians’ lands from them and subjected them to an alien form of government.
The Europeans went to great extremes to bring the natives under colonial jurisdiction. Often natives would sign away their lands without understanding the terms of the treaties. Colonists would deliberately mislead the natives as to the content of the agreements, making certain that the tribal leaders or individuals they treated with did not comprehend the meaning of the papers they signed. This practice was continued by the new government of the United States.
Some of the more nefarious practices included not informing the natives of the terms of the treaty, then penalizing them for violation of those terms or of terms which the white men retrospectively wanted the treaty to include. The Europeans would extort great sums of currency from the Indians knowing the natives could not pay, then loan them money with the land as collateral. When the tribe failed to come through with payment, the colonists would confiscate the land and declare the tribes on it to be under colonial jurisdiction.
It is hardly remarkable that upon entering a reservation today, the sovereign Native American nation posts a sign explaining that those who enter are subject to tribal law rather than to American law.
White men later extorted money from natives in other ways. When Charles A. Eastman, a mixed-race Indian activist and lobbyist around the turn of the 20th century, learned that the United States government had shorted the Sioux nation by about $10,000.00 on a treaty payment for their land, the government called in an inspector. The inspector agreed with Eastman’s assessment. The Bureau of Indian Affairs elected to discredit the inspector’s report, however, and sent another inspector. This inspector found no wrongdoing, and the tribe was denied its money. In yet another case, the Sioux were to have received payments over a period of fifty years for their tribal lands. Only nine payments were ever made.
Propaganda to the contrary, tribal customs in war were not nearly as brutal as those of the Europeans or their American children. Indian war philosophy was not constructed along plans of conquest and subjugation. At the next peaceful meeting of the native tribes, gifts would be exchanged and the other side would be honored. Only after repeated exposure to European-style warfare did the natives engage in mass slaughter. European warfare, on the other hand, was always about wiping out the enemy and taking all that he had, rendering any survivors unable to survive for long.
The indigenous warriors tended to kill only in battle and stopped fighting after relatively few deaths. European soldiers had no qualms about massacre as long as they were using it against the natives. Prisoners of war were treated with much more compassion among the Indians than among the colonists, and the use of torture in all its depravity was more common among the English than the Indians until the English use of it became so widespread that the native captors employed it as well.
The tribes did not tend to destroy crops during warfare. When they fought intertribally, they were steeling feuds with people, not wildlife. However, white soldiers routinely burned crops and stole livestock.
Part of what Europeans mistook for native lawlessness was that Indians recognized fewer crimes and therefore punished fewer. If a white person felt he had been victim of a crime committed by a native, he normally insisted that the native be brought to justice under the terms of the white government. If a native were the victim of a crime committed by a white person, though, he could not hope for justice to be delivered to the offender under the white government. If a white man asked that an Indian be punished under tribal laws, he was much more likely to get results. The tribal leaders were all too aware that if the white person was not satisfied with his redress, he would be avenged on the native’s entire town or tribe.
After learning to live in the alien land of the Americas, Europeans began to distribute the tools that made survival a part time job. Traders knew that the goods most in demand were practical ones. The natives were just as happy to receive these tools as the whites were to receive pelts. The difference lay in the fact that the Indians taught the white man their techniques of preparing hides, but the white man neglected to show the Indian how to make his own blades, guns, and other factory-made products. The white man came out ahead once again, and the Indian destroyed his livelihood by over-hunting to be able to purchase the goods he could not make himself.
Inter-tribal trade was also transformed by the new goods available through the Europeans. New commodities replaced the old. The collapse of inter-tribal trading increased the hostilities because tribes began competing with one another for European products instead cooperating with each other for mutual survival.
Trade and loyalties to opposing groups of Europeans are only a part of what disrupted harmony between tribes. Following the example specifically of the English, Indian sachems such as Uncas of the Mohegans became territory-hungry. Contact with Europeans added new motives for war, introduced new weapons, and increased the number of wartime casualties drastically, even in wars the Europeans did not fight.
The Colonies often moved without the permission or even the knowledge of their sponsor governments. Each colony was autonomous and competed with its neighbor for claims to lands to the west, for the best locations for trading posts, and for tribute from local tribes to buy the peace. There were vicious disputes between colonies for land, and the real losers were the real owners.
When the first serious English settlers arrived in North America in the 1620’s, many sachems welcomed them. Schoolchildren today are taught about the kindness of the Wampanoag chief, Massasaoit, to the Pilgrims when they first arrived and were starving. That initial kindness was not returned by the Englishmen, as can be seen in the sequence of events leading to the struggle for dominance in the Connecticut Valley.
This was the land of the Pequots, and both the colonies in Massachusestts and Connecticut coveted the land. What resulted were the Pequot Wars, in which the Massachusetts colonists paid the Narragansetts to fight against their neighbors, the Pequots. The Narragansetts agreed, unaware that no warriors would be in the Pequot village when they arrived. The women, children and old men left in the Pequot village were massacred, mostly by the Englishmen accompanying the Narragansetts. The English depravities horrified the Narragansetts, and the surviving Pequots fled north and west to tribes friendly to them. An entire tribe was now out of the way and English settlement could proceed.
The natives did fight back, but never very successfully for very long. Natives were eventually herded onto reservations that became smaller and smaller over time. Resettlement was another option the U.S government pursued. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of natives were sent hundreds of miles away from their homelands to places like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wisconsin. They became refugees at the mercy of the United States and host tribes. Displacement of the native population contributed not only to physical hardship, because the people were forced to adapt to a smaller and sometimes alien territory, but to mental anguish as well.
During these times some natives responded with religion. The Ghost Dancers among the Sioux and their neighbors, and the followers of the Code of Handsome Lake among the Seneca were prominent. Especially during the nineteenth century, many native prophets and messiahs appeared. Their teachings were peaceful and advocated a revival of native customs that had been ignored, forgotten, or neglected. They were nevertheless perceived as threatening to the United States government. Ghost Dancers disappeared after a paranoid against mistook their celebrations for an uprising and called in soldiers, who massacred an encampment at Wounded Knee Creek.
The Code of Handsome Lake survived the test of time, though. It still has followers on Iroquois reservations in the United States and Canada. Handsome Lake, brother of the great Indian chief Tecumseh, taught the old Seneca ways. He also advised his followers to take from white society things that could benefit Indian society. He began a revival of Seneca religious traditions and rituals and at the same time he lobbied for education and agriculture.
Now the Native American lobby is gaining power. Will the wrongs ever be redressed? It is highly unlikely. Money and education may help, but I doubt anyone one can imagine a North American continent in which the descendants of the Europeans are displaced and the descendants of the indigenous people control the government and the economy. Well, perhaps we can imagine it, but we expect it will stay “safely” in our imaginations.
Charles A. Eastman, From the Deep Woods to Civilization (Little, Brown, 1916)
William M. Fowler, Jr., Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763 (Walker, 2005)
Patrick Huyghe, Columbus Was Last: From 200,000 B.C. to 1492, A Heretical History of Who Was First (MJF Books 1992)
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America (Norton, 1976)
Robert Leckie, “A Few Acres of Snow:” The Saga of the French and Indian Wars (Castle Books, 2006)
Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way, (Heyday, 1978)
Ted Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent (Simon & Schuster 1993)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (Viking, 2006)
Arthur Quinn, A New World: An Epic of Colonial America from the Founding of Jamestown to the Fall of Quebec (Faber and Faber, 1994)
Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Harvard University Press, 2001)
Edward Spicer, ed., A Short History of the Indians of the United States (Van Nostrand, 1980)
Christopher Vecsey and Robert W. Venables, American Indian Environments (Syracuse University Press, 1980)
Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (Random House/Vintage books, 1972)