They came to a land filled with people

October 11, 2021

Bison
Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey

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Happy Columbus Day. Or — for the first time this year! — happy Indigenous Peoples' Day.

The new holiday, proclaimed by the White House on October 8, recognizes the contribution of American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations, recognizes the "centuries-long campaign of violence, displacement, assimilation, and terror wrought upon Native communities", and serves as a counterpoint to Columbus Day. While the holiday is not new, and has been celebrated in several states, Biden is the first president to formally recognize the holiday.

Indigenous Peoples' Day is a meaningful part of a broader reckoning about the American past. Much like the statues for Confederate military and political leaders are being torn down, monuments to Columbus are also coming down (although around 6,000 remain).

We use today's celebration as an opportunity to look back at the last five hundred years of North American history to understand how we got here, how European and North American civilizations collided, and what it means for the future.

Upheaval on the Iberian Peninsula

In the 1490s, the Spanish Empire was engrossed in a quest for military and religious domination. The 500-year violent struggle between crusading Spain and the Muslim emirates concluded with the 1492 Spanish capture of the Emirate of Granada. The captured Moors were forced to convert to Catholicism or face torture and imprisonment, culminating in the eventual expulsion of 300,000 Spanish Muslims in 1609.

The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches.
Left to right: Ferdinand II of Aragon, Isabella I of Castille, Luis de Santangel

Also in 1492, following a long period of forced conversions, torture, executions, the entire Jewish population of Spain was expelled, leading to the forced migration of up to 200,000 people in a three month period.

The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches.
The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, with a priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches. Source: Wellcome Collection.

Reeling from the expense of its war with Granada and depopulated of many of its expelled entrepreneurs and businessmen, the Spanish monarchs were hesitant to sponsor the Italian explorer Columbus.

It was only due to the royal treasurer Luis de Santangel, himself a descendent of Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism, that the monarchs were convinced that the resources taken from discovered lands could rebuild the treasury. Santangel himself privately funded a large portion of the initial journey; the second journey was funded by the gold and silver stolen from the expelled Jews.

After a month-long journey, Columbus made landfall in the Canary Islands. Over the next six years, he named himself Governor over the Caribbean and — despite a short stint in jail for poor governance and the atrocities that took place under his brutal reign — Columbus made a total of four trips to North America.

Indian chief in council informing his tribe of the arrival of strangers in ships
Indian chief in council informing his tribe of the arrival of strangers in ships (c1890). Source: Library of Congress.

Columbus and the "Great Dying"

By the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue, North America had been filled with people for more than 21 million years.

Hernando de Soto committing atrocities against Indians in Florida
Hernando de Soto committing atrocities against Indians in Florida, engraving by Theodor de Bry. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica.

It's a long-standing and tricky question to say just how many people there were when he arrived, since there is no surviving population record from before the arrival of Europeans. Some researchers have made population estimates on the basis of colonial records, such as from eyewitness accounts, feudal systems of mandated tributes, or historical accounts, but these estimates don't account for the fact that epidemic diseases like smallpox killed as much as 95% of indigenous populations.

Today's best estimates of the number of people living in pre-Columbian North America range from 900,000 to 18 million. For reference, England's population in the same period was around 2.6 million.

Over the next hundred years, the world experienced its second largest proportional human mortality event, with 10% of the global population dying due to disease, warfare, and societal collapse. So many people died in North and South America that some scientists claim the global temperature actually dropped, as previously inhabited regions became reclaimed by forest.

Europe arrives in the Americas

Within fifty years of Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean, the invasion of what would become the United States had begun in earnest. By the 1540s, Spanish colonizers had reached the southwest, brutally occupying, murdering, torturing, and extorting the Pueblo Indians, and had lead occupying forces through Florida and warring with the Muscogee tribes in the south-east. One such battle is thought to have killed 4,000 to 5,000 Mississippians, which would hold the title for the most bloody American battle until the Civil War 332 years later.

Approximate reach of Spanish colonists and tribal lands

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Source: Native Land Digital. The map is based on crowd-sourced reports, based on oral history, written documents, or maps sketched by people deemed to be reasonable authorities, and typically sourced from at least two sources. The boundaries do not represent or intend to represent official or legal boundaries of any Indigenous nations. Extent of Spanish colonists is approximate, circa 1790.
Filles du Roi
The Arrival of the French Girls at Quebec, 1667 by Charles William Jefferys. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

The early colonizing forces from the Netherlands, France, and England were corporate ventures. Dutch colonization of North America was led by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie), a military-commercial trading company that holds the title for the largest company of all time. The Company reached Newfoundland and Cape Code and established New Netherland in the current-day New England region.

French explorations of North America began in the in the 16th century, first led by a handful of explorers and fur traders and ultimately handed over as a trade monopoly to the Company of New France (Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France) and later the French West India Company (Compagnie française des Indes occidentales). By the early 1700s, French land claims extended from eastern Canada down to modern-day Louisiana.

Approximate reach of French colonists and tribal lands

Mouseover for more information
Source: Native Land Digital. The map is based on crowd-sourced reports, based on oral history, written documents, or maps sketched by people deemed to be reasonable authorities, and typically sourced from at least two sources. The boundaries do not represent or intend to represent official or legal boundaries of any Indigenous nations. Extent of French colonists is approximate, circa 1750.

Due in part to their focus on seasonal trade rather than religious conversion or building permanent settlements (with the exception of the "Filles du Roi", a shipment of young women sent to marry the all-male settler population), French fur traders maintained more friendly relations with the local populations than did the Spanish or British, becoming military allies, trade partners, and intermarrying.

Secota
Bird’s-eye view of a native American village (Secoton), 1590, engraving by Theodore de Bry.

French settlers nonetheless exploited their Ottowa and Huron trade partners for cheap labor and fought against the Iroquois confederacy in a protracted proxy war against the British, leading to the permanent destruction of several tribes.

Not to be undone, the British joined the colonial race. After a series of failed attempts by Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert, and Francis Drake, the investor-supported Virginia Company established the Colony of Virginia in 1606. Delays in supply drops from England and extreme drought challenged the early settlement of Jamestown, leading to massive starvation and cannibalism; the colony was only saved by influxes of supplies, theft from the neighboring tribes, and ultimately by the establishment of tobacco as a successful cash crop.

Jamestown was established in the middle of Powhatan Confederacy territory (a chiefdom of six Algonquian tribes: the Appamattuck, Arrohateck, Chiskiack, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Powhatan) and violent skirmishes began almost immediately. Seeking greater territory to grow tobacco, settlers encroached into surrounding villages, ultimately leading to the Powhatan War and the decimation of the Powhatan people. By 1677, the Powhatan tribes had fully lost political autonomy and the 15,000 local people were forcibly relocated to reservations.

Approximate reach of British colonists and tribal lands

Mouseover for more information
Source: Native Land Digital. The map is based on crowd-sourced reports, based on oral history, written documents, or maps sketched by people deemed to be reasonable authorities, and typically sourced from at least two sources. The boundaries do not represent or intend to represent official or legal boundaries of any Indigenous nations. Extent of British colonists is approximate, circa 1780.

Colonial decline and the birth of the United States

On a backdrop of wars, massacres, and decimation of the Native Americans, a period of inter-European jostling began. A series of wars exploded as the French, Spanish, and British vied for North American territory and to hold on to their land claims.

New Netherland was the first to fall, capitulating to a handful of British frigates in 1664, offering little resistance as a result of limited military defenses and the settlers' frustration with the harsh and autocratic rule of the Dutch West India Company's rule. Despite jostling during the ensuing Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch never truly regained responsibility for the colony again (although the Dutch did walk away from the negotiations with Suriname, which it ruled brutally as a slave-powered sugar plantation colony for hundreds of years).

Deportation of the Acadians at Grand-Pré
Deportation of the Acadians in Grand-Pré, 1755, 1893 by George Henry Craig.

Nearly a century later, the 1750s saw the eruption of war between the British and French colonists, joined by allied indigenous tribes, centered around the border areas between New France and New England. The war ended with the transfer of New France to the British, the forced expulsion of the French settlers, and a doubling of Britain's debt (a fact that triggered rising taxes in the British colonies and thereby contributed to the American Revolution).

In the 1760s, British colonists declared their independence from Britain, triggering eight years of war and the establishment of the United States. With their victory and the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the Americans were granted not just the Thirteen Colonies but all colonial land claims held by the British Empire.

Not long after the birth of the United States, colonial Spain underwent a series of revolutionary civil wars in the early 19th century, culminating in the independence and creation of new Central and South American nations. Spain sold Florida to the United States and Spanish Louisiana to the French (who promptly sold it to the Americans), and never held territory in the continental U.S. again.

Old Crow and wife Pretty Medicine Pipe, 1873.
Eagle Dog, a Yankton Sioux man, 1908.
Red Horse, a Dakota Chief, 1880s.
Old Crow and wife Pretty Medicine Pipe, 1873 (left), Eagle Dog, a Yankton Sioux man, 1908 (middle), Red Horse, a Dakota chief, 1880s (right). Source: Indian Country Today

Mexico, a newly minted nation-state after its victory in the 1821 Mexican War of Independence against Spain, fell into a second war with the United States over the disputed Republic of Texas. Defeated in the war, Mexico handed over 55% of its territory to the United States, including most of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah.

By the end of the 19th century, the modern national boundaries of the United States were mostly settled, following a peaceful splitting of Oregon Country between the U.S. and the British and the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

The era of the treaty

The nascent United States entered the 19th century having increased in size nearly eight-fold from the original thirteen colonies.

British imperialism leaned heavily on the treaty as a method of colonization. This was partly since early settlements were heavily dependent on labor-intensive farming, which required both control of large amounts of land and a way of incentivizing immigration (including through the promise of land ownership). The British were described by Native American tribes as "intend[ing] to dispossess them of all their Lands" and "greedily grasping the land of the Red people."

Blackfoot Encampment, 1899
Blackfoot Encampment, 1899 by Edward S. Curtis. Source: New York Public Library.

Early British land ownership in the colonies was done by grants and contracts made by the British monarchy, while the ensuing expansion outward was through treaties. Treaties — commonly involving free liquor, dishonesty about the size of the territory, and illegal sale from people who didn't hold rights to the land — were also a key tool in enforcing land claims against other European countries.

But with the retreat of the British after the Revolutionary War, the Indigenous tribes considered these treaties null and void. The United States faced a similar issue with other land acquisitions: the Louisiana Purchase, for example, did nothing other than ensure that Europe would no longer lay claims to the land. Actual ownership of the land, by contrast, would still need to be taken from the indigenous inhabitants.

Treaty Between the Provinces of Maryland and Virginia and the Six Nations Held at Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Treaty with the Seneca Indians Signed at Buffalo Creek, New York, 1803

Indian Treaty Between the United States and the Piankashaw Tribe, 1815
Treaty Between the Provinces of Maryland and Virginia and the Six Nations Held at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1744 (left), Treaty with the Seneca Indians Signed at Buffalo Creek, New York, 1803 (middle), Indian Treaty Between the United States and the Piankashaw Tribe Signed at Portage des Sioux, Missouri Territory, 1815 (right). Source: Indigenous Digital Archive Treaties Explorer

Thus the Americans began the process of buying a country, piece by piece. The U.S. government had recently established through a series of Supreme Court cases and proclamations that first, Native Americans had some degree of ownership of land, second, that land could be acquired by treaty, and finally that the government was the only entity permitted to enter into such treaties. So the treaty would be the tool by which the U.S. would take land.

From 1784 to 1893, the U.S. negotiated more than 700 land cession agreements, treaties in which the Native American tribes sold or relinquished land to the U.S. government. Although Indigenous tribes had held considerable power at the negotiating table in earlier colonial America, cessions in this period were devastating for Native Americans. American negotiators used bribes, threats of force, and paid for land through annuities -- promises of annual payments that could be later withheld in future negotiations. Many tribes exchanged land for territory elsewhere, or "reservations."

Tribal land cessions, 1784 - 1893

Source: Library of Congress. Schedule of Indian Land Cessions in the United States, 1784-1894. United States Serial Set, Number 4015.

Perhaps the most egregious example of bad faith negotiating was in 1835. Following land disputes between the state of Georgia and the Cherokee Nation (and the discovery of gold in 1828), Andrew Jackson signed the Treaty of New Echota. The Cherokee purportedly agreed to surrender all their territory east of the Mississippi in exchange for land in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation declared the treaty illegal, since only a minority faction had signed it. When the majority of people refused to leave, Jackson used military force to march the Cherokee to Oklahoma, in what would become known as the Trail of Tears.

An enduring legacy

The negotiation of new cessions began winding down in the 1870s, when Congress ceased recognizing tribes as legal bodies that could make treaties. Yet tribal lands were further eroded in 1887, when the Dawes Act enabled the federal government to split up reservations and hand land parcels individual tribe members for private ownership; over the next half-century, Native Americans 90 million acres of land to non-Natives through the selling of surplus land.

The signing of a treaty between William T. Sherman and the Sioux in a tent at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, 1868.
The signing of a treaty between William T. Sherman and the Sioux in a tent at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, 1868.

Today, Indigenous Americans are left with 56 million acres held in trust by the U.S. government. In 1924, Native Americans were finally granted U.S. citizenship, and only in 1957 were they allowed to vote in all states.

"If we think of territorial acknowledgments as sites of potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure. I believe this is true as long as these acknowledgments discomfit both those speaking and hearing the words. The fact of Indigenous presence should force non-Indigenous peoples to confront their own place on these lands."
- Chelsea Vowel, Métis



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