Cultures in Collision

By Kolodny, Annette | Scandinavian Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Cultures in Collision


Kolodny, Annette, Scandinavian Review


There was considerable interaction between the arriving Norsemen and the Native American peoples.

IN THEIR PREFACE TO A POPULAR HISTORY OF THE UNITED States (1876), the beloved New England poet William Cullen Bryant and his coauthor, the journalist Sydney Howard Gay, endorsed the project of "going behind the Indians in looking for the earliest inhabitants of North America, wherever they may have come from or whenever they may have lived." With that statement, Bryant and Gay reflected Americans' eager curiosity about the early history of the continent prior to the arrival of Columbus. This curiosity had been aroused by the fact that, as the new nation moved ever westward, Americans were discovering the abandoned remains of large ancient ceremonial mounds dotting western New York State, southern Ohio and the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. When they dug into these mysterious earthworks, Americans uncovered items like jewelry pieces of hammered copper, etched and painted pottery shards and carved stone effigy pipes beautifully inlaid with bone and pearl. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century archaeological studies reveal that the mounds were constructed by Native American cultures. For reasons still not entirely understood, some of these cultures went into decline around A.D. 500, while others were decimated by diseases introduced by Spanish explorersin the early sixteenth century. Eighteenth- and 19th-century Americans, however, had very different notions about the identity of the mound builders and what happened to them.

To begin with, most Americans of the later Colonial and early Federal periods believed the Indians and their ancestors too "primitive" to have organized the building of such large and extensive elevations. And because the copper pieces discovered in the mounds were badly corroded, most observers mistakenly assumed them to be iron, a metal unknown to the Indians. As a result, amateur history buffs, serious antiquarians and even respected public officials all theorized that a "superior race" had once colonized the continent and built the mounds. As Governor De Witt Clinton put it in his 1811 address to the New York Historical Society, "without the aid of agriculture . . . without the use of iron or copper; and without a perseverance, labor and design which demonstrate considerable progress in the arts of civilized life," neither the Indians nor their ancestors were capable of constructing any of "these antient fortresses" found in western New York State. Therefore, he concluded, in ancient times "a great part of North America was then inhabited by populous nations, who had made considerable advances in civilization." What had eventually routed these "populous nations," asserted Clinton, was "the irruption of a horde of barbarians, who rushed like an overwhelming flood from the North of Asia." In the wake ofthat barbaric "horde," the raised earthworks that were the subject of Clinton's address constituted "the only remaining monuments of these antient and exterminated nations."

Clinton's audience understood the invading Asian "barbarians" to be the ancestors of the Indians. The identity of those "who had made considerable advances in civilization," by contrast, was less certain. At one time or another, many different peoples were put forward: ancient Hebrews, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Celts, Norse and even colonists from "Hindoostan." But because the Norse voyages to North America and the place called Vinland were not unknown in more educated circles, many prominent students of history repeatedly identified the builders of the mounds as Scandinavians. Columbia University professor of natural history Samuel Latham Mitchill, for example, concurred with the view of governor Clinton that "a part of the old forts and other antiquities" of western New York "were of Danish character." In a lecture delivered to the College of Physicians and reprinted on November 23, 1816 in the popular magazine New York Weekly Museum, Mitchill reminded his audience "that the Scandinavians emigrated about the 10th century of the Christian era, if not earlier. …

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