When examining the effects of American Indians on European exploration and early colonialism, it is difficult to overstate its importance. It is believed that the first human in the Americas can be dated to 30,000 – 15,000 B.C. In the thousands of years that elapsed between the native settlement of North America and the arrival of the Europeans in the fifteenth century, the Indian people developed and adapted a lifestyle that allowed them to thrive as a people.
Although quite different from its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, cultural, economic, political, and spiritual components of the native Americans were well-established. The influences of this society on the “New World” would have far-reaching effects that would extend through the colonial era and beyond.
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Before examining the effects of American Indians on European settlement, it’s important to acknowledge the influence it played on exploration itself. Since Columbus was looking for the Far East, he may have viewed an uninhabited America as nothing more than a roadblock that he’d like to have avoided.
However, with the help of the Indians and Aztecs, he (and others) soon realized that the newly discovered territory was a land of riches waiting to be exploited. Precious metals, a lucrative fur trade, and an abundance of natural resources made the occupation of the Americas a priority of Spain. Without this potential for enormous wealth, “… likely that the Spanish would not have colonized New Spain at all except to establish a few supply bases…” (Axtell, p.19). Other European countries were soon racing to establish new world colonies of their own. In essence, the natives did the work and the Europeans moved in to claim the spoils.
One can only imagine the effect a ‘barren wasteland’ view of the Americas would have had on future exploration and the timeline of American colonization.
The eventual success and expansion of the colonization of America would be dependent upon the ability of the new inhabitants to feed large numbers of people. Thus, farming was crucial to the success of the new colonies. Although the Indians had by this time cleared plenty of land for crops, it was their techniques and adaptations over the centuries that enhanced productivity. Not only had native crops adapted to the American climate, but the skilled Indian farmers had also developed methods of irrigating and fertilizing crops.
These techniques produced the food needed to sustain a growing population. “…Iroquois women produced crops of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers sufficient to support up to fifty longhouses.” (Faragher, p.21) With each longhouse capable of housing dozens of families, this truly was a testament to the farming abilities of the American Indian. These techniques were quickly adopted by the Anglo-Americans and, they too were able to feed a growing population.
Without these techniques, early settlers would have had great difficulty producing the food necessary to support large numbers of people. This would have effectively limited the sizes of early colonies and curtailed the rapid growth and expansion of early colonial settlements.
It is also important to note that maize would soon become a staple crop in Mediterranean countries and the primary source for livestock feed in many European countries. Additionally, “potatoes from Peru provided the margin between famine and subsistence for the peasant peoples of northern Europe and Ireland. These “miracle crops” provided abundant food sources that went a long way toward ending the persistent problem of famine in Europe.” (Faragher, p.39) Tobacco, chocolate, and vanilla were also highly valued.
American cotton would eventually prove to be superior to Asian cotton used for the production of textiles. The benefits of the “New World” and its native inhabitants were not just limited to settlements. Instead, they were felt through Europe and beyond.
The lucrative fur trade was also a contributor to the ability of colonies to support themselves. With the depletion of wild game in Europe, the demand for North American furs greatly outweighed the supply. Being skillful hunters and trappers, the North American Indians were able to harvest and transport large numbers of furs to settlement areas. In exchange for the valuable furs, Indians were able to satisfy their “…desire for English cloth and appetite for West Indian rum…” (Axtell, p.22) Unfortunately for the Native Americans, they were receiving far less than the going rate in Europe.
The colonial economy was the benefactor as furs often fetched ten and twenty times the price paid to the Indians. Some of the first wealthy families of America achieved their fortunes through the fur trade. In fact, New York and Pennsylvania would eventually come to depend on the fur trade in order to make payments to the mother country. (Axtell, p.22)
Once again, the Indians did the bulk of the work while the settlers received the bulk of the benefit.
A third influence of American Indians on the settlement during the colonial era was a reaffirmation of the self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitudes typical of Christianity during that period. As settlements expanded, the American Indians fought fiercely to protect their assets and communities. The Indian would eventually fight for its mere existence. Although the fierceness with which they fought was consistent with any society facing unwanted invaders, they were viewed as savages by their would-be conquerors.
This, coupled with the fact that Native Americans did not believe in the ‘Christian God’, led them to be labelled by settlers as ‘godless savages.’ As the violent battles ensued, the colonialism of America would take an evangelical as well as materialistic tone. Pathetically, some probably viewed the annihilation of the Indian civilization as a necessary spiritual cleansing of America.
The vast influence of American Indians on European exploration and settlement is indisputable. Their influence on American history is equally indisputable. While many of their rituals and ceremonies remain a mystery to many, their historical contributions do not. First and foremost, they were the only occupants of this country for thousands of years. They cultivated land, were accomplished hunters and fishers, skilled craftsmen, and formed self-sufficient communities. All of this was occurring centuries before European colonization took place. Unfortunately, as the decades and centuries passed, the American Indian was not given sufficient credit for the products and technology that was quickly assimilated into the Anglo-American way of life. As such, the importance of the influence of the American Indian on American history was diminished.
We do not have to look hard to see the Indian influence even on today’s America. The names of many of our rivers, lakes, counties, cities, and states were derived directly from Indian names. Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and Sacajawea are all Indian names whose legendary feats are known to many Americans – not just Native Americans. Even the troubling conflicts between the American Indian and its Anglo-American counterpart are an integral part of this nation’s history. The guilt of the plight of the American Indian is one being burdened by a growing number of Americans. Historian J.H. Perry best characterized the clash of the new and old worlds when he wrote, “Columbus did not discover a new world. He established contact between two worlds, both already old.” (Fragher, p.23)
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