The following are the first 2 chapters from the book The American Indian Wars: Explore the Conflict & Tragedy from Beginning to End
The Indian Problem
Why did many Americans view the Indians as being “in the way,” and a barrier to their success? Why did they view these native people as a problem that needed solving?
The easiest way to examine these questions is to go back to the beginning of this tortured relationship. The first sustained European contact with Native Americans occurred in 1492, when a small group of Spanish-funded explorers, led by Christopher Columbus, made landfall on a North American island in the Bahamas. Columbus and his men encountered the natives on this island, and made some interesting and telling observations.
In his diary from Thursday, October 11, 1492, Columbus wrote:
“But it seemed to me that they were a people very poor in everything. All of them go around as naked as their mothers bore them… They are very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces. Their hair coarse — almost like the tail of a horse… They do not carry arms nor are they acquainted with them, because I showed them swords and they took them by the edge and through ignorance cut themselves. They have no iron… They should be good and intelligent servants… and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion. Our Lord pleasing, at the time of my departure I will take six of them from here to (Spain) in order that they may learn to speak.”
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To any person in Europe, educated or not, this level of ignorance would be almost unthinkable, as Europeans had been fighting with swords for generations. Columbus sees these people as easy converts to Christianity and wants to teach some of them how to speak English. Columbus was the first of many to think that the natives should be “civilized,” that is, to be made more like a European.
For Columbus, and so many that came after him, the driving force behind the treatment of Native Americans was the basic assumption that European civilization and culture were vastly superior to the native way of life. It is not hard to see why many Europeans, and later Americans, viewed their culture as better.
European/American culture had more advanced weapons and technology, settled agriculture that allowed for the creation of cities, and an organized and productive societal structure. Aside from major civilizations like the Aztecs, Native American communities largely did not have these features in their culture.
Natives were viewed as uncivilized and backwards savages that would be improved significantly if they adopted more “white” traditions. This ingrained belief of the natives being an inferior being is absolutely essential to understanding the attitude and action of the people and government of the United States toward the American Indians.
To go along with this ethno-centric belief system, Europeans also found religious justification for their actions. From the earliest days of Spanish colonization in North America, Native Americans were dying by the hundreds of thousands due to disease.
Europeans had brought old world germs and illnesses, like smallpox, plague, influenza, and measles—among many others—to the new world. The Native American immune system was completely unequipped to fight these new, deadly enemies. These diseases killed millions of natives and crippled their societies. Some historians estimate that as many as ninety percent of the Native American population was killed due to the influx of European disease.
This level of destruction on a group of people is almost unfathomable. To a European at the time, without a modern understanding of germs and medicine, this epidemic was largely interpreted as a sign from God that the Europeans were in the right.
Keep in mind; this was a time when religious zeal and piety was a much stronger force in the everyday life of the people and institutions of Europe. Christianity was used as a guiding principle for choices and behavior, but also as a justification for violence. Europeans felt tasked with spreading Christianity as the world’s one true religion, and many believed that there was no greater cause than Christianity’s triumph.
For Europeans during this period, it would have been an extremely logical conclusion that God would destroy non-Christian natives in favor of European colonizers, who often branded themselves as Christian warriors fighting to spread their faith to a new land. Europeans felt like they had God’s approval to expand over the natives, which is absolutely critical in a time period where religion played such a large role in people’s lives and decision making.
From the earliest days of the American colonial period, there was a distinct cultural divide between settlers and natives. The ethnic, developmental, and religious differences between the groups were “baked in” to a relationship that was nearly always viewed from both sides as “us” versus “them.” This divide only widened as America became more developed, yearned to grow, and occupied more land.
Native American tribes had lived on their land for generations, and their lifestyle was diverse and heavily dependent on their environment. Regardless of their tribal and environmental differences, the land was a harmonious part of Native American existence. Native Americans did not seek to tame or control the nature, but instead to live as one with the nature.
Many native tribes were more mobile, and used the land only as they needed it. As the Suquamish Chief Seattle said in 1854, “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? We are part of the earth, and it is part of us.”
Clearly, this attitude about land is incompatible with the American attitude. In 1802, John Quincy Adams, who would later become President, said, “Shall the fields and valleys, which a beneficent God has formed to teem with the life of innumerable multitudes, be condemned to everlasting barrenness?” Adams captured the American attitude about land perfectly.
Americans sought to own land and make that land productive for their own personal gain. To control and settle an area was a marker of progress. Land that was still untamed or not being used was considered a waste of a valuable resource. Americans would not stand idly by while valuable, profitable land was “condemned to everlasting barrenness.” Simply put, Americans were always too ambitious to let the land be governed by Native American principles.
Natives were not turning the land into personal profit or being “productive,” in the American sense of the word. There was too much money to be made, and too much progress to be had to let the Natives live as they had in pre-Columbian times. Native Americans could not and would not stand in the way of the inevitability of American progress.
This disagreement about the proper and rightful view of nature is a critical piece of context for understanding what happens later in this story. So much of the relationship between the U.S. and the Native Americans ultimately rests on these beliefs about land.
From the United States perspective, the land attitudes are more evidence of the native’s cultural inferiority and backward ways. It also serves as the origin for the idea of the Indian reservation system that will come in the future.
From a Native American perspective, it is the first proof that the “white man” represents a permanent change in their situation, and a significant threat to their way of life. Native leaders would clearly recognize the severity of this threat, and for centuries they attempted to resist encroaching colonization and protect their people.
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The Colonial Period
During the earliest days of French and English settlement in North America, colonists and natives developed a mutually beneficial and peaceful relationship based on trade. Colonists in the early 17th Century were primarily interested in making money through the lucrative business of the fur trade.
Fur, especially deer hides and beaver pelts, were a valuable commodity because they could be made into high-demand clothing items to be sold in Europe. Success for fur-traders was heavily dependent on establishing friendly trading relationships with the Native American tribes they came in contact with. Fur-traders would give the natives iron tools, guns, blankets and cloth, in exchange for the desired furs—which the natives also had to hunt—and food for their own survival. This trade relationship helped and furthered both parties.
The colonists were making money, and the natives enjoyed the benefits of the new European technologies and goods that in many ways made their lives easier. This period of peace and cooperation began to fade as the number of colonists in North America continued to grow.
As settlements expanded, so did their ambition and need for more territory and resources. In the Virginia colony, the settlers of Jamestown and the local Powhatan tribe had a short-lived period of peace after the marriage of the Powhatan princess Pocahontas to the Englishmen John Rolfe.
Pocahontas is a good example of what the English hoped to achieve with their Powhatan neighbors. She converted to Christianity, took a Christian name; Rebecca, married an Englishman; Rolfe, and bore him a son, and in 1616, she left with her new family for London.
Pocahontas was considered to have been “civilized” by the colonists. This strategy of civilizing and Christianizing the Powhatan in order to envelop them into colonial society became even more crucial by 1620. The settlers of Jamestown were starting to realize the economic potential of the tobacco they were farming, and they needed to expand. The safest and easiest way for them grow was to create more “praying Indians”—natives who converted to Christianity—and live side by side with them.
This put the Powhatan in an almost impossible position. They were being asked to commit “cultural suicide,” by casting all of their cultural traditions and beliefs aside in favor of joining the new European culture. Many natives did make this choice, but a great many others could not abandon their heritage so easily. This left with them with no other choice but to resist the new European culture, and resistance would mean violence.
In 1622, the Powhatan hatched a plan of attack they hoped would drive the colonists back to the sea, and expel them from North America once and for all. On the evening of March 21, 1622, the Powhatan arrived at the Jamestown settlement bearing gifts. They brought fruits, deer, turkey, and other foods to sell and share with the settlers. The next morning—March 22—as the settlers were beginning their work for the day, the Powhatan sprang into action.
They grabbed every tool or weapon they could find, and set to work slaughtering the English. Powhatan warriors bashed in English heads with hatchets, and shot any settlers who tried to flee. They went to the colonial plantations, killed the livestock, and burned the crops. The survivors, shocked at what was happening, retreated to the Jamestown fort for safety. When the dust settled, three hundred forty-seven English men, women, and children were dead. The death toll rose higher when winter came. The lack of livestock and crops caused many more settlers to die from starvation and illness.
From a Powhatan perspective, the raid was a success. However, they severely miscalculated what the English response would be. The Powhatan expected the English to acknowledge their defeat and sail back home. This assumption proved to be a grave error. The English stayed and licked their wounds at Jamestown, and with more ships from Europe arriving regularly, they regained their power and stability.
Jamestown had survived, and now the settlers had ample justification to be hostile toward their native neighbors. The English exacted their revenge on the Powhatan for the next decade. They raided and burned Powhatan villages, massacred their people, destroyed their crops, and seized their land. The colonists had asserted themselves as the masters of the area, and Powhatan power and influence in their ancestral homeland steadily declined until it was all but lost.
The Indian Massacre of 1622, though initially a success for the Powhatan, proved to be disastrous in the long-term due to the violent retribution that they faced in the years following the massacre. It was the beginning of the end of any semblance of life as the Powhatan knew it.
However, it is important to remember the predicament that the Powhatan were in. They were ultimately forced to choose their cultures fate; a slow death by assimilation, or a quicker but much more brutal death by violently resisting the colonists. The Powhatan tried, and failed, to save themselves and their culture from conquest by the Europeans. What else could they have done?
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King Philips War
Native American tribes in New England would find themselves in very similar predicaments as the Powhatan in Jamestown, and ultimately would meet a similar fate.
New England was home to the Algonquin peoples, a series of independent tribes united by their similar language—Algonquin. When the radically Christian Puritans arrived in Plymouth in 1620, they relied on trade with the local Wampanoag tribe for survival. These early years of peace have been memorialized, if not highly romanticized, by the first Thanksgiving feast shared between the settlers and the natives, likely in 1621.
Despite the early cooperation and success of the fur trade, the Puritans viewed the Wampanoag and the other Algonquin tribes as vermin, in large part because of religious differences. Natives who converted to Christianity and became “praying Indians” were accepted, albeit as second class citizens.
Through the course of the 17th Century, tensions between the English and Native Americans rose as more settlers arrived, more native land was being taken, and more pressure to assimilate was being put on the natives.
For Metacom, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe—the English called him King Philip, it was clear to see that the current situation was untenable in the long-term. Metacom began planning a major attack he hoped would force the English to leave for good.
In January of 1675, John Sassamon, a “praying Indian” that had been educated at Harvard and served as an interpreter and advisor to Metacom, informed the Puritan leaders about Metacom’s plan to attack. Sassamon subsequently disappeared during the winter. In early spring of 1675, Sassamon’s body was found underneath the ice at a nearby pond, his neck broken.
The Puritans were outraged, and they accused three of Metacom’s warriors for murdering Sassamon. The three warriors were found guilty and executed in June of 1675. The execution of these three native warriors lit the fuse of war between the Wampanoag and the English.
A band of Native Americans immediately rode to the small town of Swansea. The Natives laid siege, burned the town, and killed seven colonists. This prompted the colonial militia of Massachusetts Bay to mobilize for war. The year that followed was one of the bloodiest per-capita in American history, with terrible carnage levied by both sides against the other.
Metacom and his followers succeeded in burning and razing a dozen colonial towns, including Providence. They killed English settlers, destroyed English crops, and had much early success against the disorganized and poorly led colonial militia.
The English were equally brutal, massacring upwards of six hundred Naragansett—a tribe allied with the Wampanoag—men, women, and children at the Great Swamp Fight. It was not until English leaders capitalized on inter-tribal rivalries that they were able to turn the tide of the war in their favor. The English recruited Metacom’s old native rivals to assist them in their war effort, which proved to be too great an obstacle to overcome for the Wampanoag. With his forces outnumbered and crippled by starvation and disease, Metacom was killed in August of 1676.
The English, seizing the opportunity to send a message, decapitated and quartered Metacom’s corpse. They placed his head on a spike, and displayed it at the entrance to the city of Plymouth, where it remained for twenty-five years as a warning to rebellious minded natives.
King Philip’s war was a struggle for both colonists and natives to attempt to preserve their way of life. Both sides suffered dearly for that cause. An estimated twenty-five hundred colonists were killed, which some believe was about thirty percent of the English population at the time.
For the natives, the outcome was even grimmer. Exact casualty numbers are unknown, but many believe that the number of natives killed was double that of the colonists. Aside from the incredibly high casualty rate, the war fundamentally changed the dynamic between natives and colonists in New England. The war drastically and permanently reduced the Algonquin power and influence in the region, and similarly to Jamestown, proved that the colonists would be the new masters of the land. It also established the future precedent for violence and war against Native Americans, especially for those natives who resisted assimilation.
King Philip’s war was another failed Native American attempt to expel the English from their land and save their culture from being conquered. It is a cruel twist of fate that a huge factor in Metacom’s ultimate undoing was the inability of the native tribes to unify and fight against their common enemy. Many native tribes believed it best to befriend and militarily ally with the colonists as a way to gain dominance over rival native tribes, and achieve peace with their new European neighbors.
This strategy may have garnered short-term benefits for individual tribes, but the Native American inability to unify and act with a common purpose made it all the easier for the English to “divide and conquer” the native peoples. Had those tribes, who allied with the English against Metacom backed their native brethren instead, the outcome of King Philip’s war may have turned out differently.
For the rest of the 17th and well in to mid-18th century, natives and colonists saw a continuation of both fur-trading alliances and rising tension between their groups. As both British and French fur trading operations grew, so did the value of the land in the Ohio River valley.
This land was prime real estate for the profitable expansion of the fur trade, and both the British and French made competing claims for the land. These land disputes ultimately led to war between Britain and France in North America, and both countries employed loyal Native American tribes to fight for their respective sides.
The British ultimately won the so-called “French and Indian war,” which had several lasting implications. One of the most significant impacts of the war was re-drawing of the territorial map of North America. France had been defeated, and thus, ceded their colonies and land claims in North America to the British in 1763. The British now had control over former French lands, and the British leadership was not well received by their new Native American subjects.
The Native Americans living the Ohio Valley felt threatened by their new British overlords. The local British government restricted trade with the natives and interfered with their ability to hunt. In response to the fears of encroaching British power, the Odawa leader named Pontiac rallied together warriors from several area tribes and went about attacking British forts, hoping to expel the British from their lands. Pontiac’s rebellion further escalated the tradition of downright brutal fighting between the natives and the British.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1763, Pontiac and his men viciously captured and destroyed eight of the eleven British forts in the area. Pontiac and his men committed atrocities that absolutely terrified the settlers in the area. The natives scalped their vanquished enemies, tortured survivors, killed surrendering soldiers, and even engaged in ritual cannibalization.
Amidst the bloodshed of war, British civilian casualties ended up being higher than the military casualties. Pontiac, while successful in a military sense, had intensified the conflict between natives and colonists to a more radical and violent state.
The British fought back against Pontiac in different, but equally brutal ways. While Pontiac was sieging the British stronghold at Fort Pitt, British leadership devised a plan to use biological warfare against the natives. The British proceeded to infect a number of blankets with smallpox, and when they received Native American envoys into the fort to discuss peace, gave the infected blankets to the natives in the hopes it would spread the deadly disease through their camp.
Historian’s debate about the effectiveness of the smallpox blankets in killing natives, but the use of biological warfare represents a larger point about the nature of this conflict. Biological weapons are designed for indiscriminate mass killings. They are not normal weapons of war. They are weapons of genocide. This new policy, along with Pontiac’s terrorism in the Ohio Valley, denotes an unpleasant new low in Native American and British relations. Pontiac’s war was becoming a war of extermination.
The British were able to regroup in 1764, and stop any further progress of Pontiac’s forces. In 1766, with the two sides basically at stalemate, a peace treaty was reached that incorporated new land laws from the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This proclamation, which had been passed shortly after the rebellion began, was three years old at this point, and forbade any colonial settlement in land west of the Appalachians.
That land, which had been acquired from the French, was to be set aside for the Native Americans. The proclamation even refers to the territory as an Indian reservation. The British government in London saw this reservation as an alternative solution to the vicious cycle that had been repeating itself since Jamestown. In theory, moving the natives to the reservation would appease them because they would be far away from colonial encroachment. It would also protect the colonists from Native American attacks and clear the way for continued development in the already established colonies.
The issue with the Proclamation of 1763 was that it did not work in reality as it had in theory. Colonists basically ignored it, and settled in the new western territory anyway. The people of the colonies could see that some day, in the not too distant future, that land would be incredibly valuable. This is one of the first examples of the colonists outright rejecting a decision made by the British crown.
The Proclamation of 1763 made colonists realize that the King might not always be right in matters regarding governance of their homes halfway across the world in North America. Perhaps they, the people of the colonies, knew better. For the colonists, the road to revolution had begun. For the natives, they were dealing with a familiar problem. The British settlers were again encroaching on their land. Unfortunately for the Native Americans, this would be a pattern that continued throughout the 19th century.