Chapter OneColonial Preparation
Nambok the Unveracious, a product of Jack London's literary skill, was a Native of the north Pacific coast who returned unexpectedly to his people after a mysterious disappearance years earlier. After hearing him relate the fantastic ways of the whites with whom he had associated during his absence, the tribe concluded he was either a liar or a spirit returned from the dead, and they drove him from their midst.
Shocked incredulity must have been a common reaction to Native peoples' initial encounters with the European newcomers. The huge, wind-propelled craft bringing these strangers to their shores could have inspired it. So, too, could the sight of the great dog-like animals, which carried the strangers and their equipment. If fear or immediate threat sparked conflict, Native people would have heard the cacophony of cannon and gun and learned of the superiority of firearms and metal armor over clubs, bows, lances, and leather shields. Subsequent contacts revealed additional intriguing objects: metal cooking vessels, wheeled transport, sheep, and swine.
Indians readily learned to use copper kettles and ride horses and eat mutton. But difficulty lay in their associations with the strangers who had thus enriched their lives. Before many years had passed there were tribes in the South that had encountered the Spanish, French, and English. Along the north Atlantic coast, Swedes and Dutch had arrived on the scene as well. The confusion of tongues and claims to sovereignty were compounded by the varieties of personality each nation seemed to represent. The Catholic and Protestant missionaries did not agree among themselves, as Indians came to learn. They, however, clearly had different interests than the traders who introduced them to the copper kettles and rum, or the official representatives of the Great Fathers across the waters. The officials talked confusingly of permitting Indians to occupy lands they had claimed as far back as memory ran, or that they had conquered at the risk of their lives.
Demographers debate the indigenous population of North America prior to the European invasion, with estimates ranging from as low as two million to as high as eighteen million. Physical and cultural variations were many. In fact, Native people were no less diverse in terms of size, shape, and skin tones than the newcomers. The only features they had in common were black hair, brown eyes, and some shade of brown skin. The Ho-Chunks were noted for their large heads; the Utes for their squat, powerful frames; the Crows for their height. These physical variations, coupled with genetic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence, suggest multiple migrations from Asia that began as long as forty thousand years ago when glaciation made it possible to cross the Bering land bridge.
Certainly the Europeans who encountered indigenous peoples in various parts of the continent had more difficulty in arriving at an "average" Indian than the producers of Hollywood westerns. The Anishinaabeg rode in birchbark canoes, the Chickasaws in dugouts; the Sacs slept in bark wigwams, the Kiowas in skin tepees, and Pueblo peoples in stone or adobe apartment houses. The Seminoles hunted with blowguns, the Lakota with bows. Some Indians grew corn; others dug camas roots or speared salmon. The Tohono O'odham regarded war as a form of insanity; it held an integral place in Comanche culture. The list of variations seemed infinite, and well it might when it is noted that perhaps as many as four hundred different languages—and at least that many distinct cultures—were involved.
Nor did the newcomers have to travel hundreds of miles to find these cultural variations. Choctaws and Chickasaws lived side by side and spoke mutually intelligible languages, yet the Choctaws preferred agriculture, while the Chickasaws relied more on hunting.
In fact, the word "tribe" does not reflect how indigenous people would have identified themselves prior to European contact. Non-Indians applied that generic term to communities whose words for themselves typically translated as "the people." Miamis, for instance, used the word mihtoseenia or "real people." Tribal names also flattened the complexity and diversity of Native familial, social, and political organization. Language, kinship, and place of residence served as the most important means of determining belonging. Communities such as the Lenape or Delaware, for whom clan and language served as primary markers of identity, came to identify themselves as a tribe through a complicated process of ethnogenesis, or cultural creation, in response to multiple dislocations. National characteristics were not any more permanent among indigenous people than among the newcomers.
While the presence of Europeans oft en led to extreme hardship, it also brought access to trade items that Native people readily adopted. In some respects, the acquisition of metal tools and utensils, firearms, horses, and sheep simplified daily life. Totem poles and dugouts were more easily fashioned with metal tools. Women fleshed buffalo and deer hides less laboriously with metal scrapers, and they found copper kettles more durable than pottery or woven baskets. Warriors could chisel arrowheads from hoop iron in a fraction of the time required to chip them from fl int. Although early muskets were crude weapons compared with modern rifles, Indians recognized that there were applications in which they were clearly superior to lances, bows, and clubs. Native men cherished muskets that came their way.
Sheep made a new way of life for a few tribes such as the Diné or Navajo, but horses had the greatest impact. For today's Plains Indians—the Lakota, Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Apache among them—horses facilitated a genuine revolution. Some of these communities previously lived in permanent villages and practiced agriculture on the edge of the Plains. Others had been seminomadic, but inhibited by their transport—dogs carrying packs or dragging travois. As horses drift ed north out of Spanish settlements via far-reaching indigenous trade networks, they contributed to the development of new equestrian-based cultures. As Plains people became mobile, they abandoned their garden patches to follow the buffalo herds. Tepees grew in size and camping equipment became more elaborate as horses were acquired to pull larger travois. An entirely new pattern of life developed that shaped everything from sacred stories and ceremonies to social games, artistic traditions, foodways, and gender roles.
Tribes near the Plains went through a similar transformation when horses became available to them. The Nimipu or Nez Percé typified those attracted by the new culture. Although some bands remained true to the old ways and subsisted by fishing, root digging, and hunting smaller animals, many Nez Percé now trailed the buffalo herds and borrowed freely from the Plains tribes with whom they fought and socialized. They might well have joined the Diné who, according to anthropologist Ruth Underhill, denied any prehorse history: "If there were no horses, there were no Navajos." Similarly, sheep, another animal introduced by Europeans, hold a central place in Diné lifeways.
Among the eastern tribes, whose forest environment made horses less valuable, the impact of European culture was still remarkable. With their newly acquired metal files, chisels, needles, knives, and firearms, Indians were able to support themselves with less effort, leaving more time for ceremonies, war, and recreation. In some cases, the old craft s declined. In others, Native artisans used European technologies and materials to create new traditions. Warriors, for instance, could take great satisfaction in being armed with trade muskets and tomahawks, resplendent in silk turbans and scarlet blankets and jingling silver ear bobs. Some craft s such as totem-pole carving and weaving, challenged by European designs and materials and facilitated by metal tools, achieved new levels of technical excellence. This flurry of creative effort stimulated by intercultural contact occurred repeatedly.
But not all tribes enjoyed a renaissance. For some Native communities their first contact with metal weapons came when traditional enemies suddenly appeared so armed and put them to flight. The first two centuries of Indian-white contact produced prodigious population shift s in response to such pressure. The Iroquois in the East, the Apaches in the Southwest, and the Crees in the Hudson Bay area were among those Indians who early acquired metal weapons and used them with devastating effects on their neighbors, driving them from choice hunting grounds, seizing their property, and enslaving and killing them. The politically sophisticated Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, achieved primacy in New York, Pennsylvania, and the upper Ohio Valley. Crushing the Wendat (Huron), the Iroquois drove them as far west as Wisconsin. When Pawnees ventured east of the Mississippi to raid tribes subject to the Iroquois, the Iroquois responded by dispatching war parties nearly a thousand miles to teach the Pawnees a lesson.
As Indians increased their holdings of firearms, metal traps, blankets, and other trade items, they grew more dependent upon the Europeans. La Salle recognized this relationship when he commented, "The savages take better care of us French than of their own children; from us only can they get guns and goods." A delay in the arrival of traders with gun powder and muskets could put Indians at the mercy of their enemies and the elements. Bourbon ambitions in Europe could produce tragic repercussions for Native nations in the Mississippi Valley who had never heard of the court at Versailles but whose supply lines ran back to France, while the English supplied their rivals. Thus the fortunes of tribal communities ebbed and fl owed because of factors that could be neither fully controlled nor fully comprehended.
From King William's War in the late seventeenth century through the War of 1812, tribal allegiances were frequently influenced by the trade situation. At one moment a tribe might prefer to ally with the English. But if the French could demonstrate an ability to meet their expectations by putting traders in their villages, that allegiance might change. If, for instance, a broken musket could not be repaired, tribes would need to have access to traders. Having developed a dependency on new technologies such as these, a return to precontact ways of life would have been as easy for Indians as it would be for a present-day Manhattanite to convert to dirt farming.
Not infrequently the harbinger of change came in the form of diseases introduced by Europeans. Sometimes they swept through Indian villages, annihilating the majority of the population and scattering the few panic-stricken survivors. As Francis Jennings eloquently phrased it, "The American land was more like a widow than a virgin. Europeans did not find a wilderness here; rather, however involuntarily, they made one." Tuberculosis, syphilis, measles, and smallpox were the principal diseases inflicted on the indigenous population. The Pilgrims regarded it as divine intervention that some disease, possibly smallpox left by sailors who had visited the area, had slashed eastern Massachusetts's Indian population shortly before the Pilgrims' arrival. Some Cherokees attributed the smallpox epidemic that swept their nation in the 1730s to the sexual lapses of their young people. At other times, Indians blamed the plagues on the departure from traditional ways. In the next century diseases were still at work, silently doing their part to "solve" what non-Natives deemed "the Indian problem."
From the beginning there was no unanimity among Europeans in their approach toward Native Americans. The French were primarily concerned with the fur trade, and it was to their advantage to tap into preexisting trade networks and to cultivate good relations with Indian hunters, trappers, and traders who knew them well. Although they had colonial ambitions to match other Europeans, the French adopted an approach consistent with their reliance on Indians as trade partners and military allies. The possibility of precious metals lured the Spanish into the area that now comprises the southeastern and southwestern United States, but the mission became the principal Spanish institution. Missions, in turn, became integrally tied to providing indigenous workers for a highly exploitative labor system. The average English colonists were farmers, not fur traders or priests, and they typically defined Indians as either a nuisance or a menace. Consequently, the English prioritized driving Native people from the land so that they could occupy it themselves, although the fur trade and evangelism also attracted some.
One fundamental problem for all colonial powers was land title. Spanish experts like Franciscus de Victoria advised that Indian title was valid. In contrast, the Swiss jurist Vattel held that Indian title depended upon their use of the land. Among the English colonies Vattel's view prevailed and what was generally held to have been transferred by treaty was usufruct, or the right to use the land. In negotiating with each other and preempting for their national governments the authority to purchase land, all European nations maintained the right of discovery to be paramount. In practice the results were essentially the same: if the Europeans needed the land, they took it.
The English adopted a policy comparably more confused and contradictory than the Spanish or French. Individual colonies contended with each other and the crown in the area of Indian affairs. One of the few unifying threads was the missionary work sponsored by groups that did not take colonial boundaries into account. The colonial charters frequently carried a clause enjoining the grantees to convert and civilize Indians, but, because the grantees were not investing their money for that purpose, these injunctions had little effect. The missionary impulse was not strong among the English, and American Indians did not convert easily. One of the early missionaries gave up in disgust aft er three years, despairing, "Heathen they are & heathen they will remain."
In authorizing the colonization of Virginia, James I had urged the propagation of Christianity. The London Company's charter that led to the founding of Jamestown included as one of its objectives "propagating of Christian Religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God." Down to the outbreak of war in 1622 this seems to have received more than just lip service. Company officials directed their governor at Jamestown to use force if necessary to separate Indian children from the unholy atmosphere of their families. Money was appropriated to educate young Indians in Virginia homes and a few were even sent to England, but little progress was made before fighting between the Powhatan Confederacy and the colony dashed the efforts in 1622.
The war forced a general reorientation of Virginia Indian policy. Virginians had assumed that in time Native people would recognize the beneficence of civilization. The marriage of John Rolfe to Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan, who headed the Indian confederation in eastern Virginia, had been expected to consolidate the alliance, particularly after James I, by proxy, had crowned Powhatan. But Powhatan died in 1618 and under his successor, Opechancanough, the Indians united to eliminate this growing menace to their territory. Although the Powhatan Confederacy failed to accomplish their goal in 1622, peace did not return for another twelve years.
During that period the Virginia Colony reoriented its Indian policy. Through the remainder of the seventeenth century the only provision for education of Indian students was for those held hostage or captive. Predictably, the colonists blamed the indigenous population for the continuation of conflict. As the Reverend Samuel Purchas rationalized Virginia's new policy, Indians had broken natural law and were no longer entitled to consideration.
The uneasy peace was broken in 1644 by a last concerted effort to drive the Virginians into the ocean. Led again by Opechancanough, now so aged he had to be carried on a litter, the Powhatans killed about five hundred whites in the surprise attacks that opened the war. The survivors quickly rallied and crushed the Indian forces. The buildup of strength in the settlements had reached the point that without outside help the Powhatan Confederacy could not win a protracted war. For a century and a half warfare marred the Virginia landscape, but after Opechancanough's defeat the eventual victor seemed clear. Settlers along the edges continued to feel the presence of Native peoples in their everyday lives, but Indians did not figure as prominently in the conscience of the colony as a whole.