European Contact

For the native peoples of North America, contact with Europeans was less dramatic than that experienced by the Aztec and Inca empires upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Nonetheless, Spanish explorers attempting to penetrate into what would become the United States left three major legacies for the tribes: disease, horses and other domesticated animals, and metal tools and firearms.

Disease. The most serious threat the native peoples faced was not the superior arms of the Europeans but the diseases they brought with them to the New World. With the possible exception of syphilis, the Western Hemisphere was effectively free of infectious disease prior to European contact. The indigenous population, with no reservoir of natural immunity or built‐up resistance, succumbed quickly to diphtheria, mumps, measles, and smallpox. Smallpox, the main killer, spread rapidly beyond the initial European carriers. Tribes that met and traded over long distances infected one another and carried the disease back to their villages. There is evidence that smallpox had already surfaced in Peru sometime before the arrival of Francisco Pizarro in 1532.

Estimates of the depopulation of the native peoples of North America as a result of disease run as high as ninety percent in many regions, and, in some instances, even the knowledge of the existence of certain tribes was obliterated. Infection carried by Spanish explorers traveling along the Gulf Coast annihilated the tribes of the lower Mississippi River so that their cultural presence, visible in the form of their burial mounds, was largely unrecognized until the twentieth century. The devastating impact of disease was not limited to just the years of initial contact. In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, leaders of the Corps of Discovery, were given hospitality by the Mandans during their winter stay at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River. The tribe, which numbered about 2000, dwindled to 150 after an epidemic of smallpox brought by fur traders in 1837.

Horses and other domesticated animals. Although disease proved a curse to the native peoples, the introduction of European livestock improved the quality of life for many tribes. The best known and most dramatic change came with the horse, but other domesticated animals were important as well. Cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs were raised for food, and their hides were used for clothing, blankets, and shelter coverings.

The arrival of the horse in North America, which probably occurred with the 1540 expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado into the Southwest, transformed Plains Indian culture. By the end of the sixteenth century, horses were being traded, stolen, or left to stray, and their numbers multiplied. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Kiowa soon found the horse indispensable, and its use spread to other tribes. A simple tied arrangement of poles made from young trees enabled horses to pull large loads. The poles doubled as a tipi framework and enabled the dwellings of these nomadic peoples to be larger and more comfortable. Mounted on horseback, the Indians became dramatically more efficient hunters of bison. Within a generation, the Plains Indians made the horse an integral part of their culture. Frontiersmen crossing the Mississippi and encountering Indians on horseback in the eighteenth century had no idea that the horse culture was less than two hundred years old.

The introduction of a variety of domesticated animals came with a price tag apparent to neither the native peoples nor the Europeans for some time. European settlers fed livestock with European grains. These grains, including wheat, oats, rye, and a wide range of other grasses, took to North American soil in much the same way that crab‐grass and weeds attack a carefully tended lawn. Slowly, the landscape of North America changed as native grasses gave way to foreign varieties. Not until late in the twentieth century would the environmental changes be fully noticed or even start to be assessed.

Metal tools and firearms. Technologically, native peoples were in the Stone Age. As finely wrought and useful as their basketry, pottery, and obsidian blades may have been, Native Americans lacked the knowledge to make metal tools. The knives, needles, fishhooks, hatchets, and pots offered by the Europeans were immediately recognized as more efficient than their stone, bone, or clay implements.

Early firearms—muskets and pistols—did not present a clear advantage for the Europeans over the Indians. The guns were not especially accurate over more than a short distance, took time to reload, and were difficult to repair; Native Americans initially found their own bows and arrows still quite effective against them. Even the Puritans recognized the limitations of their firearms when they passed a law in 1645 calling for militia training in pikes and bows and arrows as well as muskets.

The balance of firepower changed though by the late eighteenth century as muskets evolved into rifles with much greater accuracy. By the end of the Civil War, repeating rifles and six‐shot revolvers put the bow and arrow at a severe disadvantage. Native Americans did not reject the rifle, and many learned to pour lead into molds for bullets. Improvements in weapons technology, however, left them dependent on whites for firearms and ammunition as well as most metal goods. The Native Americans could not replicate the complex mechanisms of a Winchester or Colt, and cartridges requiring a molded bullet, shell casing, and gunpowder were beyond their ability to duplicate. By the end of the nineteenth century, Euroamerican technology had overwhelmed the Native Americans.

The great biological exchange. European contact did not affect only the native peoples; there was a genuine, if perhaps unequal, exchange. Many new crop and food plants, such as maize, beans, potatoes, peanuts, pumpkins, and avocados, were first introduced to Europe from the Western Hemisphere. Maize, or Indian corn, was perhaps the most important of them. Capable of growing in almost any climate or soil, it soon became a staple around the world.

The old view that Columbus “discovered” America has been replaced by the idea that he “encountered” America. The rephrasing recognizes that there were already millions of people in the Western Hemisphere in 1492 with their distinct and developed cultures who merit being acknowledged as the first Americans. There is no doubt that contact with Europeans was devastating to the native population both then and later. While the conquest was certainly inevitable, oversimplification should be avoided. It did not take place all at once in all places. Confrontation was sudden and subjugation immediate in some locales, while in others the native peoples remained unaware of the Europeans' presence for centuries. California Indians knew almost nothing of the Europeans until 1769, and the Shawnee still looked to a British alliance to keep American settlers south of the Ohio River as late as 1812.