Indians of Colonial America

Upon discovering America, Christopher Columbus considered its native people an inferior race. While he also described them as the gentlest people in the world, his record of the first encounter between Europeans and Native Americans included many accounts of enslavement, murder and rape. In 1541, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado ordered an attack on Moho pueblo, which was a center of Native American resistance, and over 200 men, women and children were killed in a massacre that pacified the region.

In 1542, Spanish Emperor Carlos V tried to impose "New Laws" on the Spanish colonies and put an end to the encomienda system that allowed settlers to use Native Americans for slave labor. However, four years later, the "New Laws" were repealed because of New World colonists, who developed a society and economy dependent on slave labor. Many gruesome examples of the colonists' treatment of native people were provided in Brief Relations of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome de Las Casa. The colonists and their diseases exterminated many tribes.

By 1740 the majority of the Native American communities of eastern North America had been in contact and interacted with European settlers for over a century. The French and British Empires had extensive contacts and sustained interactions with the native peoples of eastern America, but the nature of their relationships varied greatly. French settlements tended to be concentrated in the St. Lawrence River Valley and the Lower Mississippi Valley areas. Missionaries and fur traders had traveled through the Great Lakes Basin, Ohio Valley, and into the Mississippi River Valley and entered into alliances with various Native American communities. They erected a small number of forts and missions and worked to cement political and commercial alliances between the kingdom of France and the various native peoples. The French traders provided the Native Americans with European manufactured goods they could not make for themselves in exchange for furs, while French Catholic priests offered access to the Sacraments to those Native Americans who chose to accept them.

The British settlers handled relations in a significantly different way. By 1740 their colonies extended from the coast of Maine in the north to Georgia and the Savannah and St. Mary's Rivers in the south. British settlers had killed, dispersed, or limited to reservations the indigenous peoples of the seaboard in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. British settlers often engaged the Native Americans in commerce, but this was often done as a precursor to the purchase or expropriation of the lands of that community. For British settlers, interaction with Native Americans was usually a means to an end, while for French settlers it was an end unto itself. The different nature of the relations between the two empires and Native Americans would affect their conduct in the imperial wars in the middle of the 18th century and the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).

The longest-standing Native American allies of France were the various Algonquian-speaking peoples of Canada, the Great Lakes Basin, and the Ohio Valley. These alliances were rooted in common interest exploited by both to different ends — the French saw the exchange of goods as purely commercial transactions, while the native peoples saw them as exchange of gifts, continually reinforcing and reaffirming relationships. Britain managed similar alliances but on a smaller scale. In the 1660s and 1670s, the British sought to take the place of the Dutch as the main European allies of the Iroquois. Over the next decades, there was an equal internal division among the Iroquois of Francophiles, Anglophiles and neutralists. The Iroquois League moved firmly toward a regular alliance with the British with a treaty conference in Albany in 1722.

In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years' War (1754-1763), both Great Britain and France went to war allied with communities of Native Americans. During the American Revolution, the United States and Great Britain sought Native American allies, but the British were far more successful in this endeavor. After the Peace of Paris (1783), many Native American communities continued to resist the United States, but native armed resistance became problematic as British support dwindled. When the United States government was reorganized and strengthened with the Constitution of 1787, most of the eastern Native Americans tried to reach some kind of accommodation with the new regime, but these accommodations were rarely in their favor.

Indians of Colonial America: Selected full-text books and articles

Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America By James Axtell Oxford University Press, 1992
Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution By Frank Pommersheim Oxford University Press, 2009
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Early Contact: From Colonial Encounters to the Articles of Confederation"
The Transformation of the Southeastern Indians, 1540-1760 By Robbie Ethridge; Charles Hudson University Press of Mississippi, 2002
Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures By Frederic W. Gleach University of Nebraska Press, 1997
The Pequot War By Alfred A. Cave University of Massachusetts Press, 1996
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