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16th - 17th century
     Post-Columbian Indians
     Secotan and the English
     Powhatan and the English
     Wampanoag and the English
     Pueblo and the Spanish
     Iroquois and Huron

18th century
19th - 20th century

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Post-Columbian Indians: after1492

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.


Secotan and the English: 1584-1586

The Indians with whom the English first make contact in America are from the Algonquian group of tribes. The first encounter is friendly. Two ships sent by Raleigh on reconnaissance reach Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, 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. The visitors set sail that autumn for England, taking back to Raleigh a good report of the area for a likely settlement.


This first encounter reveals very clearly the interests of the two sides, mutual at first but leading easily to conflict once the Europeans attempt to settle. 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 sent out by Raleigh 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.


Meanwhile the first attempts at English colonization in America also end badly. The 1585 settlers in Roanoke Island initially enjoy good relations with the Indians, but by the following spring they are on the verge of war. The English strike first, employing the ancient technique of treachery. On June 1, 1586, the Indian chief Pemisapan and other tribal leaders are invited to a council on the shore of the Croatan Sound. As they approach, they are shot.

Ten days later Francis Drake arrives, on his way home from preying on Spanish ships in the Caribbean. The settlers by now think it wise to abandon their new settlement and return with him to England. But in spite of these experiences, a third group of settlers, this time including women and children, reaches Roanoke Island in 1587. But when the next English ship arrives, in 1590 (the threat of the Armada has altered English priorities in the intervening years), there is no remaining trace either of the settlers or their settlement.


Powhatan and the English: 1607-1644

The first successful English settlement, at Jamestown, falls in the territory of the Powhatan confederacy, a group of nine Algonquian tribes. Here the Europeans meet an unfriendly reception. Within two weeks of their arrival, in 1607, they suffer an Indian attack. It is easily fought off with muskets and cannon.

The appeal of trade, and the link made with the settlers by Pocahontas, turns a distinctly uneasy relationship into one which is workable. But the Powhatan are well aware of the threat to their well-being, as the Virginians establish new townships and tobacco plantations along the rivers.


By 1622 the colonists number more than 1000. In that year a new Powhatan chieftain, Opechancanough, decides upon a sudden attack on the English settlements, killing 347 colonists in a single day. The most discreditable moment in the European reprisals occurs in 1623, when the English organize a peace conference. The Indians attending it are systematically murdered, some by poison and some by gunshot.

In 1644 the Powhatan make one final assault on the now thriving colony, still under the leadership of Opechancanough, carried now into battle on a litter . Five hundred colonists die in the surprise attack. Two years later the aged chieftain of the confederacy is captured and executed, ending the last significant Indian threat to Virginia.


Wampanoag and the English: 1621-1676

When the Pilgrim Fathers are struggling through their first winter on American soil, from December 1620, they see no sign of any Indians. The reason, they later discover, is that the local tribes have recently been wiped out by a European epidemic.

This news reaches them in March 1621, when they are visited by Wampanoag Indians. Living some forty miles away, they are leaders of another Algonquian confederacy. The Wampanoag are friendly. Their territory is not threatened by this small English group. The Indians help the settlers with their agriculture, and join them in their celebration of Thanksgiving.


The Wampanoag chieftain, Massasoit, makes a treaty of friendship which holds good for forty years, until his death in 1662. During that period Plymouth and the later English colonies thrive. The main effect of Massasoit's peaceful policy is that his tribal lands are steadily whittled away in the face of ever-increasing demands from the newcomers.

By the time Massasoit dies, there are some 40,000 English settlers in New England. They outnumber the Indian population by perhaps two to one. Indians find themselves working for the settlers as labourers or domestic servants. They are expected to behave according to Puritan standards, and are punished for following their own traditions.


Massasoit's son, Metacom, decides that the only hope is a joint uprising by the Indian tribes of New England. It begins with devastating suddenness in 1675. Of ninety colonial settlements, fifty-two are attacked and many of them burned to the ground.

The chaos spreads throughout New England, but eventually English fire-power proves too strong. By the summer of 1676 English deaths number about 600. The Indian figure is at least five times as large. And hundreds of Indians have been shipped to the West Indies for sale as slaves.


Among those sent into slavery are the wife and 9-year-old son of the chieftain, Metacom. The Rev. Increase Mather, minister of a church in Boston, notes with satisfaction that this 'must be bitter as death for him, for the Indians are marvellously fond and affectionate towards their children'.

Metacom himself is captured and killed in August 1676. He is known to the English colonists as King Philip, with the result that this last Indian uprising against colonial rule in New England has entered the history books under the name King Philip's War.


Pueblo and the Spanish:1540-1680

The most successful Indian uprising against colonial intrusion occurs in 1680 in the region which is now New Mexico. The arid territory around the Rio Grande has been, from about 2000 years ago, the home of the distinctive Anasazi culture. The Spanish give the name Pueblo to this tribal group of American Indians.

The Pueblo live in elaborate towns of multi-storied mud houses, often clustered in rocky inaccessible places. It is their misfortune that the rumour spreads among the Spaniards of Mexico, from the 1530s, that these mysterious towns are places of fabulous wealth, full of gold, jewels and fine cloth.


Spanish expeditions to find this wealth - particularly those of Coronado in 1540 and of OÑate in 1598 - inflict great cruelty on the Indians and bring a large province under Spanish rule. A colonial administration is established from 1610 in a new capital founded at Santa Fe.

With no riches discovered in the region, the Spanish settlers remain few in number (only about 2000). But the friars are busy here, as elsewhere, with vigorous efforts to replace the rituals of the Indians with those of Christianity. Eventually Spanish provocation, both secular and religous, is such that in 1680 the normally passive Pueblo kill twenty-one missionaries and some 400 colonists.


After this disaster of 1680 the Spanish withdraw to Mexico for twelve years. When they eventually return, in 1692 with a large army, a more responsible era of Spanish rule begins. A new respect is shown for the Indians of the region. Royal grants are produced to give the Pueblo guaranteed rights in their ancestral territories.

This sequence of events, combined with the relatively inhospitable region which they inhabit, has enabled the Pueblo Indians to preserve more of their distinctive religion and their culture - in particular pottery and weaving - than other tribal groups among the American Indians.


Iroquois and Huron: 16th - 17th century

The Indian tribes of greatest significance to the early French and British colonists are the Iroquois and a rival group, the Huron (part of the same Iroquois linguistic family). The Huron are the Indians first encountered along the St Lawrence river by Jacques Cartier in 1534. But by the time Samuel de Champlain returns to claim the region for France, in 1603, the Huron have been driven west by the Iroquois.

The two tribal groups are fierce competitors in the developing fur trade. In the late 16th century both sides establish protective confederacies. The Huron confederacy brings together the Bear, Cord, Rock and Deer tribes into an alliance numbering some 20,000 people.


The Iroquois derive from south of the Huron territory, in the region stretching from the eastern Great Lakes down through the Appalachian mountains into what is now the state of New York. Their confederacy, also formed in the late 16th century, is an alliance between five tribal groups - Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. Together they become known as the Iroquois League.

The Iroquois League is no larger than the Huron equivalent, but it is better organized and more aggressive. In 1648-50 Iroquois raiding parties kill and capture thousands of Hurons, driving the survivors west towards Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. As a result the Iroquois gain control of a region of great strategic significance in the expansion of European colonial interests.


The Iroquois territory lies between the coastal colonies of the English and the fur-trading empire of the French, stretching from the Great Lakes down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The friendship of the Iroquois League becomes an important factor in the new-world struggle between the two European powers. It is the misfortune of the French that they have from the start befriended the Huron, ancient enemies of the Iroquois. The Iroquois incline for this reason to the English. From 1664 the town of Albany (acquired in that year by the English from the Dutch) becomes the Iroquois' main link with the colonists - both in terms of trade and diplomacy.


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