Pre-Colonial Period: Indigenous People
As Europeans moved beyond exploration and into colonization of the Americas, they brought changes to virtually every aspect of the land and its indigenous people, from trade and hunting to warfare and personal property. European goods, ideas, and diseases shaped the changing continent.
These are the indigenous groups that we will cover:
- Subarctic Hunters and Fishers
- Northwest Coast Fishermen
- Interior Plateau Foragers
- Great Basin Foragers
- California Foragers
- Plains Prairie Bison Hunters
- Eastern Woodlands Cultivators (Northeast Indians)
- Southwest Cultivators and Foragers
While the Americas remained firmly under the control of native peoples in the first decades of European settlement, conflict increased as colonization spread and Europeans placed greater demands upon the native populations, including expecting them to convert to Christianity (either Catholicism or Protestantism). Throughout the seventeenth century, the still-powerful native peoples and confederacies that retained control of the land waged war against the invading Europeans, achieving a degree of success in their effort to drive the newcomers from the continent.
At the same time, European goods had begun to change Indian life radically. In the 1500s, some of the earliest objects Europeans introduced to Indians were glass beads, copper kettles, and metal utensils. Native people often adapted these items for their own use. For example, some cut up copper kettles and refashioned the metal for other uses, including jewelry that conferred status on the wearer, who was seen as connected to the new European source of raw materials.
As European settlements grew throughout the 1600s, European goods flooded native communities. Soon native people were using these items for the same purposes as the Europeans. For example, many native inhabitants abandoned their animal-skin clothing in favor of European textiles. Similarly, clay cookware gave way to metal cooking implements, and Indians found that European flint and steel made starting fires much easier.
The abundance of European goods gave rise to new artistic objects. For example, iron awls made the creation of shell beads among the native people of the Eastern Woodlands much easier, and the result was an astonishing increase in the production of wampum, shell beads used in ceremonies and as jewelry and currency.
Native peoples had always placed goods in the graves of their departed, and this practice escalated with the arrival of European goods. Archaeologists have found enormous caches of European trade goods in the graves of Indians on the East Coast.
Weapons and Warfare
Native weapons changed dramatically as well, creating an arms race among the peoples living in European colonization zones. Indians refashioned European brassware into arrow points and turned axes used for chopping wood into weapons. The most prized piece of European weaponry to obtain was a musket, or light, long-barreled European gun. In order to trade with Europeans for these, native peoples intensified their harvesting of beaver, commercializing their traditional practice.
The influx of European materials made warfare more lethal and changed traditional patterns of authority among tribes. Formerly weaker groups, if they had access to European metal and weapons, suddenly gained the upper hand against once-dominant groups. The Algonquian, for instance, traded with the French for muskets and gained power against their enemies, the Iroquois. Eventually, native peoples also used their new weapons against the European colonizers who had provided them.
The European presence in America spurred countless changes in the environment, setting into motion chains of events that affected native animals as well as people. The popularity of beaver-trimmed hats in Europe, coupled with Indians’ desire for European weapons, led to the overhunting of beaver in the Northeast. Soon, beavers were extinct in New England, New York, and other areas. With their loss came the loss of beaver ponds, which had served as habitats for fish as well as water sources for deer, moose, and other animals. Furthermore, Europeans introduced pigs, which they allowed to forage in forests and other wildlands. Pigs consumed the foods on which deer and other indigenous species depended, resulting in scarcity of the game native peoples had traditionally hunted.
European ideas about owning land as private property clashed with natives’ understanding of land use. Native peoples did not believe in private ownership of land; instead, they viewed land as a resource to be held in common for the benefit of the group.
The European idea of usufruct—the right to common land use and enjoyment—comes close to the native understanding, but colonists did not practice usufruct widely in America. Colonizers established fields, fences, and other means of demarcating private property. Native peoples who moved seasonally to take advantage of natural resources now found areas off limits, claimed by colonizers because of their insistence on private-property rights.
Perhaps European colonization’s single greatest impact on the North American environment was the introduction of disease. Microbes to which native inhabitants had no immunity led to death everywhere Europeans settled. Along the New England coast between 1616 and 1618, epidemics claimed the lives of 75 percent of the native people.
In the 1630s, half the Huron and Iroquois around the Great Lakes died of smallpox. As is often the case with disease, the very young and the very old were the most vulnerable and had the highest mortality rates. The loss of the older generation meant the loss of knowledge and tradition, while the death of children only compounded the trauma, creating devastating implications for future generations.
Some native peoples perceived disease as a weapon used by hostile spiritual forces, and they went to war to exorcise the disease from their midst. These “mourning wars” in eastern North America were designed to gain captives who would either be adopted (“requickened” as a replacement for a deceased loved one) or ritually tortured and executed to assuage the anger and grief caused by loss.
Other transatlantic travelers with disease including goods, plants, animals, and even ideas like the concept of private land ownership, influenced life in America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The exchange of pelts for European goods including copper kettles, knives, and guns played a significant role in changing the material cultures of indigenous people.
During the seventeenth century, indigenous people grew increasingly dependent on European trade items. At the same time, many native inhabitants died of European diseases, while survivors adopted new ways of living with their new neighbors.
- Algonquin. (n.d.). Info:Main Page – New World Encyclopedia. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Algonquin
- Exactly how New England’s Indian population was decimated. (2020, March 12). New England Historical Society. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/exactly-new-englands-indian-population-decimated/
- Feinstein, K. (n.d.). A brief history of the beaver trade. PHP Test. https://humwp.ucsc.edu/cwh/feinstein/A%20brief%20history%20of%20the%20beaver%20trade.html
- The impact of colonization | US history I (OS collection). (n.d.). Lumen Learning – Simple Book Production. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory1os2xmaster/chapter/the-impact-of-colonization/
- Smallpox epidemic disrupts the Huron nation – Timeline – Native voices. (1639). National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/213.html