Page 1 of 6 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 
HISTORY OF NORTH AMERICA
 
 


Share |




Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily



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 (see hunter-gatherers).
 









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

From high ground in western Iceland the peaks of Greenland are sometimes visible, across 175 miles of water. In about981 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: 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. The famous Vinland map, however, has been proved a forgery.
 






Pre-Columbian Indians: before1492

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.
 






  Page 1 of 6 Next page