The people of north America: 1500 BC – 1500 AD
The original people of north America live in a wide range of environments. On the east side of the continent there are woodlands, where they kill elk and deer. On the grass plains of the midwest they hunt to extinction several American species, including the camel, mammoth and horse. In the desert regions of the southwest human subsistence depends on smaller animals and gathered seeds. In the Arctic north, where there is very much more hunting than gathering, fish and seals are plentiful.
The first trace of settled village life is in the southwest, where by the 2nd millennium BC gourds, squash and corn (or maize) are cultivated.
The natives of this region derive their crops from the more advanced civilization to the south, in Mexico. The same cultural influence brings a custom eventually shared by many of the tribes, that of mound building. From about 1000 BC great burial mounds begin to be constructed around tomb chambers of log or wood.
The earliest burial mounds in north America are those of the Adena culture of the Ohio valley, closely followed by nearby Hopewell tribes. The period of greatest activity is from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD, by which time a vast number of mounds have been built throughout north America.
During and after this period two regions of North America develop quite advanced farming societies – the Mississipi valley and the southwest. Farming, accompanied by village life, spreads up the east coast, where fields are cleared from the woodlands for the planting of maize. But in most parts of the continent the tribes continue to live a semi-nomadic existence, in the traditional manner of hunter-gatherers, even though they lack the one animal which makes movement on the plains easy.
Hunted to extinction in America, this useful creature will only become available again to the Indians through the event which destroys their way of life. The Spaniards arrive with horses. But they are not the first Europeans to reach this continent.
Greenland: from the 10th century AD
From high ground in western Iceland the peaks of Greenland are sometimes visible, across 175 miles of water. In about AD 981 the distant sight attracts a Viking adventurer, Eric Thorvaldsson, also known as Eric the Red. He has a reason for leaving Iceland. He has been exiled for three years as a punishment for manslaughter.
Eric puts his family in a longship, together with their retainers and their livestock, and they sail towards the distinct peaks. They land in the southern tip of the island, near what is now Julianehaab, where they survive the necessary three years.
At the end of his exile Eric returns to Iceland to persuade more settlers to join him. With a better sense of public relations than of accuracy, he gives his territory the attractive name of Greenland. He sets off again with twenty-five longships, of which fourteen complete the journey (some turn back). About 350 people land with their animals. The colony survives four centuries in this inhospitable climate; eventually Greenland is abandoned in the early 15th century.
Meanwhile, in the very earliest years of Greenland, an outpost settlement is briefly established in north America.
Vinland: AD c.1000 – 1013
Icelandic sagas of the 13th century give various versions of how Leif, a son of Eric the Red, comes to spend a winter at a place west of Greenland which he names Vinland (the root vin in old Norse could imply either that grape vines or flat grassland characterized the place). In some accounts Leif loses his way when returning from Norway, in others he is following up reports made fifteen years earlier by Bjarni Herjolfsson, another Viking blown off course.
Either way it seems likely that in about the year 1000 Leif Ericsson lands at three successive spots in north America which he calls Helluland, Markland and Vinland. There is no way of identifying them, but it is possible that they fall somewhere on the coasts of Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland, as Leif makes his way southward.
Leif returns in the following year to Greenland, but the sagas state that a few years later an Icelandic expedition – led by Thorfinn Karlsefni – establishes a new settlement at Vinland. The settlers survive only three winters, before being discouraged by the hostility of the native Americans – called in the sagas Skraelings, or ‘savages’.
Archaeology proves that Vikings did indeed settle, however briefly, in north America. A site at L’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, has a longhouse with a great hall in Viking style. It has also yielded artefacts of a kind used in Iceland – including a soapstone spindle, suggesting that women were among the settlers. A famous map of Vinland, however, has been proved a forgery.
Pre-Columbian Indians: before AD 1492
The arrival of Columbus in 1492 is a disaster for the original inhabitants of the American continent. The chief agent of their downfall is disease. With no resistance to new germs, tribes rapidly succumb to unfamiliar illnesses on their first brief contact with Europeans – in many cases vastly reducing the number of the Americans without anyone even firing a shot.
Where the tribes develop a closer relationship with the new arrivals, they are frequently tricked, tormented and massacred by their visitors. Two elements make the Europeans both strong and ruthless – their possession of guns, and an unshakable conviction in the rightness of their Christian cause.
The event of 1492, the biggest turning point in the history of America, has had the Eurocentric effect of defining that history in terms of this one moment. Historians describe the previous American cultures as pre-Columbian. And the original people of the continent become known as Indians, simply because Columbus is under the illusion that he has reached the Indies.
In recent years ‘native Americans’ has come into use as an alternative name. But it is a misleading phrase – meaning, but failing to say, aboriginal or indigenous Americans. In spite of its quirky origins, American Indians remains the more direct and simple term.
Post-Columbian Indians: after AD 1492
The fate of the American Indians varies greatly in different parts of the continent. The regions of the great American civilizations, in central America and down the western coastal strip of south America, are densely populated when the Spanish arrive. Moreover the Spaniards are mainly interested in extracting the wealth of these regions and taking it back to Europe.
The result is that the Europeans in Latin America remain a relatively small upper class governing a population of Indian peasants. From Mexico and central America, down through Ecuador and Colombia to Peru and Bolivia, Indians survive in large numbers through the colonial centuries and retain even today much of their own culture.
North America, by contrast, is less populated and less developed when the Europeans arrive. No part of the continent north of Mexico has reached a stage which could be defined as civilization. The breadth of the continent offers a wide range of environments in which tribes live as hunter-gatherers, or as settled neolithic farmers, or – most often – in any appropriate combination of the two.
In another significant contrast, the Europeans arriving in these regions (the French, the British, the Dutch) are primarily interested in settling. Much more than the Spanish, they want to develop this place as their own home. Their interests directly clash with those of the resident population.
When Europeans begin to settle in north America, in the 17th century, the tribes are spread thinly over the continent and they speak hundreds of different languages. The names by which the tribes are now known are those of their language families.
Each group of Indian tribes becomes prominent in the story of north America as the Europeans spread westwards and compete with them for land. The first to be confronted by the challenge from Europe are the Pueblo of the southwest, reached by Spaniards exploring north from Mexico; and two large tribal groups in the eastern part of the continent, the Algonquians and the Iroquois, whose lands are threatened by English and French colonists.
Cartier and the Northwest Passage: AD 1534-1542
The two northern Atlantic kingdoms, France and England, look enviously at the wealth which Portugal derives from trade with the spice islands of the east. France is the first to seek a western route to the same pot of gold.
In 1534 the French king, Francis I, sends Jacques Cartier – with two ships and sixty-one men – to look for a northwest passage linking the Atlantic, above the continent of America, with the Pacific. Cartier discovers the great inlet of the St Lawrence river, which he hopes will prove to be the mouth of a channel through the continent. He postpones the exploration until the next summer and returns to France. Meanwhile he claims the whole region for his king, under the title New France.
In 1535 Cartier sails and rows his longboats up the St Lawrence as far as an island occupied by Huron Indians. They make him welcome and take him to the highest point on their island. He names it Mont Réal, or Mount Royal.
Cartier returns for a third visit in 1541-2. An attempt to found a colony comes to nothing. But his discoveries prompt the interest of French fur traders in these regions. In 1611 Samuel de Champlain establishes the beginning of a settlement on the same Huron island, today the site of Montreal. Three years earlier Champlain has formed a settlement at Quebec. Thus Cartier’s search for a way through to the east lays the foundation, unwittingly, for the French empire in the west.
The Atlantic cod trade: AD 1497-1583
The voyage of John Cabot in 1497 directs European attention to the rich stocks of fish in the waters around Newfoundland. Soon fishing fleets from the Atlantic nations of Europe are making annual visits to catch cod. They bring with them large supplies of salt. Summer settlements are established, on the coasts of Newfoundland, to process the fish before it is transported back to European markets in the autumn.
England plays a leading role in the trade, and in 1583 Humphrey Gilbert formally annexes Newfoundland on behalf of the English queen. It is a claim which does not go undisputed – particularly by France, whose fleets are the main rivals of the English in these waters.
Secotan and the English: AD 1584-1586
The Indians with whom the English first make contact in America are from the Algonquian group of tribes. The first encounter is extremely friendly. Two ships sent by Raleigh on reconnaissance reach Roanoke Island in 1584. The local Secotan Indians welcome an opportunity for trade.
The Secotan offer leather goods, coral and a mouth-watering profusion of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. What they want in return is metal implements, for they have no source of iron. Hatchets and axes are handed over by the English. Swords, even more desirable, are withheld.
This first encounter reveals very clearly the interests of the two sides, mutual at first but leading soon to conflict. Many of the Indian tribes are friendly and welcoming by nature, but they also have a passionate desire for the material goods of the west – including, eventually, horses and guns.
The settlers at first need the help of the Indians in the difficult matter of surviving. Yet the newcomers are also a nervous minority in a strange place, armed with deadly weapons. In any crisis there is the likelihood that the Europeans will react with sudden and extreme violence.
Moreover there is a clash of attitudes in relation to land. The English settlers arrive with the firm intention of owning land. But the Indians of eastern America are semi-nomadic. During the spring and summer they live in villages to grow their crops. In the winter they hunt in the thick forests. Land, in the Indian view, is a communal space, impossible to own. The question of land leads eventually to appalling conflicts, with the Indians the inevitable losers.
By a happy chance we can glimpse an Indian community before these conflicts develop. When a second English expedition reaches Roanoke Island in 1585, a member of the party is a talented painter, John White.
White’s drawings give an enchanting picture of the Secotan Indians in their everyday lives. They are seen in their villages, fishing, cooking, eating, dancing. Beautifully engraved by Theodore de Bry, and published in 1590 in four languages (the English title is A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia), these illustrations rapidly provide Europe with an enduring image of the American Indian.
Unfortunately, owing to the effect on the Indians of the disease, alcohol, brutality and treachery associated with European expansion in America, the image lasts rather longer than the reality.