Colonial America: A Forgotten Era

The Colonial period of the United States is often a forgotten and less-spoken of period of history. This little known period of history had huge consequences for the native peoples that lived in the area that came to be the American colonies.

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The Colonial period of the United States is often a forgotten and less-spoken of period of history. Most people know about the perceived discovery of North America by Christopher Columbus and the Spanish and the period around the American Revolution but the years in the middle, which works out to be over two centuries is largely forgotten. This little known period of history had huge consequences for the native peoples that lived in the area that came to be the American colonies. This period forever changed the history between the native populations and the colonizing world powers such as England, France, the Dutch and Spain.

Cultural Differences Between Native Americans and Settlers

The first noticeable effects of the colonial settlements on the native populations were the resulting differences between their beliefs towards land ownership. The natives had no land ownership laws and everyone was entitled to their lands so long as they needed to work them to help support their tribe. The Europeans did have ownership laws which the natives did not understand. For the Europeans, land could be bought and sold whereas the natives shared their land with others. This eventually led to colonial expansion onto native lands in exchange for European technologies such as rifles and money. The Dutch and English had the most success in gaining Indians lands for their goods. The Dutch built up a prosperous fur trade with the natives. The Dutch wanted the fur that the natives were keen on trapping and collecting and they traded them European goods such as axes, knives, hatchets and kettles that the Dutch brought over with them. These tools were just as valuable to the Algonquians and Iroquois as they were to the European settlers. This resulting trade for these tools and weapons allowed some native tribes to become much more powerful than their enemy tribes. As the Dutch expanded their trading posts up the Hudson River, the Iroquois nation who previously only had access to such goods by way of the French on the St. Lawrence River were now much closer and more able to get the European tools and weapons at a cheaper rate. As the trade increased, so did tensions with the natives of the different Iroquois tribes. Alan Taylor notes in his book that “During the late 1620s the easternmost Iroquois nation, the Mohawk, improved their access to Fort Orange by displacing the Algonquian-speaking Mahican, who had lived around the post and had tried to control the trade.” This caused even more tensions because the Dutch, who wanted to continue to trade with the Mohicans who had been displaced, tried to stem the Mohawk assault. Rather than to risk any more profits, they accepted he Mohawk victory, which in turn recognized the Iroquois as their primary trade partner. To the Iroquois, Taylor notes, “Fort Orange functioned as an asset, and almost a possession, of the Iroquois, who acquired growing quantities of European weaponry.”[1] The Iroquois used this trading post as a means to get much more powerful than their enemy nations. In turn, they began to attack other nations and wipe out their populations. In addition, they seized French goods from westbound convoys to take to trade at Fort Orange. This increased regional tensions in the regions and led to more fighting. As French priest wrote in 1644 after attacks on French trading posts, “It is almost impossible to make either peace or war with these barbarians; not peace because war is their life, their amusement, and their profit all in one.”[2] A British priest also noted something similar and stated, “so enjoyable and easy is this warfare to our enemies.”[3] As it would then turn out, the Iroquois and French would become unusual allies as the French did not want the Dutch to profit off the natives and the Iroquois shared this wish. This led to the Iroquois ambushing incoming Indian convoys on their way to Fort Orange. Taylor notes that, “They [Iroquois and French] both tacitly worked to keep apart the best suppliers of furs (northern Indians) and of manufactures (the Dutch).”[4] However, this relative amount of peace in the colonies would not last forever. The Iroquois would go on to use the weaponry that they gained through trade with the Europeans to begin to annihilate their enemies. The reasons for this will be discussed later.

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Timeline of major events in America and the controlling nations during the Colonial Era.

The Spread of Deadly Disease

Moreover, perhaps the largest detriment to the native populations at the arrival of the colonial settlements was the pathogens that spread disease among the natives. In this time period, no one knew the causes of these diseases but the Indians were dying off in large numbers. In native cultures, they believed that a shaman could cure and cause disease. The Native Americans relied upon their shamans much more in this time and by the time the Christian missionaries, especially the Jesuits or the Black Robes as the Natives called them arrived in their villages; the Indian population was reeling from the effects of the diseases brought by the Europeans. The attempted conversion of the natives combined with the spread of disease led the Jesuit priests into competition with the native shamans that lived with the natives. Taylor writes, “By competing with the shaman as divine magician, the priest inherited his obligation to preserve the people from disease and famine.”[5] The Natives did not have a great understanding of the diseases they faced. A Jesuit priest stated, “The Hurons recognize three kinds of diseases. Some are natural, and they cure these with natural remedies. Others, they believe, are caused by the soul of the sick person, which desires something; these they cure by obtaining for the soul what it desires. Finally, the others are diseases caused by a spell that some sorcerer has cast upon the sick person; these diseases are cured by withdrawing from the patient’s body the spell that causes his sickness.”[6] This caused many issues with the Native people’s accepting the Jesuit priests into their villages as many believed that they were sorcerers and the cause of disease. In many places the Jesuit priests were received by mixed feelings. Taylor states, “Ties of kin and clan held Indian villages together and served as the bonds that either resisted or disseminated the Jesuit message.”[7] Some tribes did accept the Christian message and convert while other tribes did not. Still, the diseases that spread through the native populations were devastating on the numbers of Indians living in North America and worse yet, the diseases led to increased warfare among tribes.

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Map of Native American Settlements during the Colonial Era.

Tribal Conquest

Not only did the diseases wipe out large numbers of native Americans, they also set off a trend of tribal conquest as tribes needed to increase their numbers to sustain their way of life. This was most notable with the Iroquois. Taylor notes, “In the mid-seventeenth century, Iroquois warfare dramatically escalated to nearly genocidal proportions.” As quoted by Taylor, a Jesuit priest that witnessed the destruction by the Iroquois feared that they meant “to ravage everything and become masters everywhere.”[8] The Iroquois attacks on other natives were unlike any other attacks in history up to that point. The reasons for this Iroquois advance are debated by historians with most saying that it is because they wanted to remove the Huron as competitors in the fur trade when in reality it was because the Iroquois needed to increase their population by taking captive members of other native tribes. Taylor supports this reason by stating the Iroquois “especially targeted the Huron to obtain captives for adoption into Iroquois families and villages, reeling from their recent losses to disease and war.”[9] As depicted in the film Black Robe The Hurons converted to Christianity just a short time before the Iroquois arrived to attack them. This conversion helped the Iroquois as many of the Huron ended their fighting traditions that they had previously held to a high regard. The Iroquois had the upper hand when it came to fighting other tribes because they had the most advanced rifles from trading with the Dutch. These brutal attacks devastated the populations of the Native Americans that the Iroquois faced even while the Iroquois continued to lose people from diseases. Taylor states that “the massive influx of captives barely covered the continuing Five Nation losses to disease and war.”[10] The native wars had a devastating effect on the native populations in North America and without European weapons it would not have been as deadly.

Often, people attempt to view history in a vacuum and look at each event as its own with no other intertwined elements. This is impossible to do and the effect of European colonization on the populations of the Native Americans is a prime example. It is impossible to understand why the Iroquois carried out widespread genocidal attacks on other native tribes without understanding how the Iroquois became so powerful after trading for European weapons or understanding what the introduction of European diseases did to their population. Had the Europeans not traveled to North America and unknowingly transmitted diseases to the native people’s there, the Iroquois most likely would have not been forced to attack other tribes and take captives into their tribe to increase their population. Likewise, without participating in the fur trade with the Dutch, the Iroquois and other tribes would have never had such easy and cheap access to European weapons such as the rifle. These weapons played a huge role in the Iroquois conquest of several different native tribes throughout the region. Colonial settlements by the Europeans had many indirect impacts on the Native Americans living in the region while still having significant direct impacts. For example, the mission to convert the natives to Christianity and the purchasing of Native lands, while both did not directly hurt the native population still ended up contributing to the detriment of the numbers of natives in North America by way of cause and effect. Had many tribes not converted to Christianity or been courted by Jesuit priests to convert, then they may not have caught as many of the diseases brought by the Europeans. Likewise, they would also still be better able to defend themselves from tribal attacks as they would still follow their own culture fully and not adopt the more European traditions. In the end, the native populations benefited from trading with the Europeans for tools and weapons that helped advance their societies, however, as time went on, the introduction of disease and these weapons proved costly to the native populations drastically decreasing their numbers at the time of European settlements.

References:

[1] Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America, 105

[2] Alan Taylor. 106

[3] Francois Joseph Mercier 1604-1690, Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, vol. 41., 67

[4] Alan Taylor. 106.

[5] Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America, 110.

[6] Jerome Lallemant. 1593-1665, Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, vol. 33., 200

[7] Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America, 111.

[8] Alan Taylor, 111.

[9] Alan Taylor, 113.

[10] Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America, 113.

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