July 16, 2001



First Contact



The positive images of Europeans about Indians and the remarkable welcome they received were sadly short-lived. This was in part due to the erroneous assumption by the Europeans that the Indians thought they were Gods.

A Frenchman, Nicholas Perrot, noted that the Potowantomie Indians wouldnít look the Frenchmen in the face. He assumed this meant that the Indians thought they were deities. It was actually a customary sign of respect among the Indians not to look one directly in the eye; similar to many young Black men of Georgetown County. It was only a sign of respect, nothing more.

Many Indians appeared somewhat standoffish when they first encountered Europeans; others were almost too touchy-feely. The Indians meant this only as a sign of respect, but the Europeans completely misinterpreted it.

Columbus and his men were often carried on the backs of the Indians across streams, muddy areas, etc. Also, some tribes actually wanted to hand feed them. Early linguists who picked up on Indian language noted that the Indians referred to Europeans as "spirits." Again, this was something of a sign of respect, but the Europeans drew the wrong inference.

Smoking tobacco was also a sign of respect; actually a sign of utmost respect; not afforded to just anyone. Some Indians actually "crowned" the Europeans with wreathes of leaves, gave them seats of honor, and also gifts; many offered their wives and daughters to them also. To the Indians, this was the ultimate in respect; deference to an honored guest; to the Europeans, they obviously considered them as Gods.

One should not overlook the fact that there was some degree of curiosity on the part of the Indians also; they had not seen white men with beards before.

Europeans had typically assumed that their culture was superior to the Indian culture; and this in itself led to the "God image." They also noted what they conceived to be a poor level of Indian technology, primarily the fact that the Indians had no guns.

Then again, it would take five to ten minutes to reload a gun of that day after firing. How many arrows could an Indian fire in that time? Yet the Europeans still considered this a sign of inferiority on the part of the Indians.

Europeans also noticed Indian farming techniques; housing, boats, tools, etc. all of which lent to the idea that the Europeans were superior.

By the middle to late 1500ís, a negative attitude towards the Indians developed. They were considered prone to savagery; therefore one might be prone to destroy them.

More and more Europeans had witnessed Indian warfare (with other tribes), particularly in the North where there was frequent warfare during the time that the British were exploring the area.

Reports of cannibalism also filtered back to Europe. There was no cannibalism among the Indians; although in some tribes, one would take a bite of a dead enemyís heart as a sign of bravery, etc. The Europeans who saw this reported it as cannibalism, which it was not.

Europeans also reported to Europe that the Indians were notorious thieves; that one could not leave anything unattended, because it would "walk away."

The Indians, of course, didnít consider this stealing. To them, all property was owned in common, if one needed a tool, he picked it up, as it didnít "belong" to any one person.

Cattle were particularly valuable to Indians. Again, they considered them part of nature, and a gift of nature, not the property of any one person. A pretty cup, etc. would be picked up; and to the Indians, this wasnít stealing. Europeans soon decided that Indians would steal anything that wasnít nailed down.

Also, the stories of scalping, torture, etc. caused some disdain. They were also dismayed by the casual Indian approach to prostitution, the "painted ladies."

Europeans were also very critical of what they considered incestuous marriages among Indians. It really was a matter of terminology. An Indian man might refer to a younger woman as his daughter, and also his wife; he meant it as a term of endearment; not that she was actually his daughter; but the whites took it the wrong way; perhaps accidentally on purpose. They reported that incest was typical among the Indians; in fact it was almost unheard of.

John Smith, a notorious liar of the greatest degree, reported that Indians were "animalistic, like herds of cattle, whose only clothing are furs and the skins of animals. Statements such as this led to the idea that they were "savages."

Religion: This was a primary factor in changing relationships. Columbus had been impressed with the spirituality of the Indians, but this soon changed.

Catholics; particularly Spanish Catholics, decided that the Indians needed to hear the gospel. Also, anyone who was not a Christian and refused to become one was subject to discrimination, if not extermination.

This was at a time when the Inquisition was in full swing in Europe. It also reached America, where its victims were primarily the Indians.

Indians were often considered to be the "children of Satan." William Bradford said that one could and should "wrest the land from Satan in the name of God." Since the Indians were not Christian, and were in fact children of the devil, one could and should take the land from them. Sounds suspiciously like a good excuse.

Economic: This is the main purpose of the Europeans being in America. Land use, possession was quite important. In Europe, land ownership was simply not available to peasants; too many people, too little land.

It was quickly decided that the Indians were not using the land property; therefore it was there for the taking. Population was growing, there was more demand for land; plus there were plans to use the land to grow crops and ship back to the growing European population.

Resources in the New World were sorely needed in Europe. Most of the old hardwood forests had been cut down, wood was needed for ships, homes, walkways, wheels, barrels, etc. All one had to do to get it was take the land from the Indians.

By 1775, eighty per cent of all British ships were built from American timber. Also, the taller trees in America made it possible to build larger, taller ships.

Fish: Cod, candlefish, provided a tremendous amount of oil. (The candlefish got its name because one could stick a wick in it and burn it like a candle, it had that much natural oil.) Then too, fish were a primary source of protein in the European diet.

Gold: A very large factor. Spain had been on the verge of collapse as a nation; had only been a united nation for 10-15 years. One reason Isabella approved Columbusí expedition was in hope that he would find the riches of the East, and the country could survive. They frankly had nothing to lose.

Note: Columbusí dairies indicate he noticed gold on the Indians almost immediately. Spices had nothing to do with his trip.

By virtue of new world gold, by 1550, Spain was the richest, most powerful nation in Europe. It was then that Philip II launched the Armada against England, all paid for with American gold.

Crops: Corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, beans, melons, pumpkins, squash all could be sold in Europe, or the plants/seeds sent back for cultivation in Europe. There was a tremendous profit motive here.

But to accomplish all this, the Indians had to be removed from the land; so they became something of a nuisance to be removed.

Reduced Intellectual Status: At time of Columbus, the Indians had been considered simple children of nature. Then, they were suddenly primitives, savages, and children of Satan.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, suggested that both man and nature were destructive, that nature compelled one to do evil things; one was forced to do evil things by the brutality of nature. Europeans reading Hobbes saw Indians as products of Nature, thus they were nothing more than brutal savages. This gave some ideological foundation to the idea that the Indians were inferior.

By the mid 1700ís, Enlightenment ideas from Europe had infiltrated America. There was inquiry into why men think, act, behave as they do. The philosophes believed that all this could be discovered by the scientific method.

The Philosophes said that man and nature were both neutral, neither good nor bad. There was no "original sin." This contradicted Hobbesí ideas. They said that good or bad actions resulted from choices made by the individual himself. Nature could be used for manís benefit, so if one can civilize humans, one can raise their standard of living.

These people saw the Indians as living in a state of nature without knowledge of how to improve their lives. Western knowledge could improve the Indians, they had not yet been exposed to the blessings of civilization; and if exposed to them, their lives would be improved significantly.

One must remember that Thomas Jefferson was an Enlightened Philosophe. He was NOT a Christian in any sense of the word. Although he had read the Bible, he had cut and pasted it together to come up with the "Jefferson Bible," which began with the birth of Jesus, although it denied His virgin birth, and ended with the crucifixion. He was a great admirer of Jesus for His wisdom, not for any spiritual insight or divine mission.

By the early 1800ís, the Indians were back in their original perspective. At this point, there was the age of romanticism, the time of Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc. They said that God pervades all parts of creation; all is part and parcel of the creation pervaded by the Almighty, therefore all were equal.

It was Romanticism that led to the Revolutions in Europe of 1848.

To the Romantics, the Indians had no control over where they were placed on earth; this was all part of Godís grand design. The Indians might even come closer to God by their simplicity of life, as they lived harmoniously with nature.

The Indians had never discovered the use of the wheel; they frankly had no need for it. They could travel by boat, and later by horse in the plains. They were frankly content with their lifestyle, and this the Europeans just didnít understand; they couldnít conceive of anyone actually being happy with his lifestyle.

The Romantics also noted that the Indians were compassionate and genteel, therefore they were closer to God, a concept that should be emulated.

By the middle 1800ís, the Indians were perceived as brutal savages again who should be destroyed.

By the 1910ís, the Indians were a vanishing race. Suddenly, their culture had value, something of cultural pluralism. Steps were then taken to reinvigorate that culture. By the mid-twentieth century, some said that Indian culture had vanished. In fact, the Indians were revitalizing, reinvigorating their cultural values. An ethnocentric Indian movement suddenly reappeared.

Ideas about Indians seem to have gone full circle; changed notably over time. One thing remains the same, however, and that is the European/American attitude towards them:

The image one has of other people depends upon the image one has of himself and his own culture.

Adolf Hitler believed in concept of the "Noble Savage." He told his troops fighting the Russians to fight like Indians. Of course, in his mind, the "good" Indians were all of Aryan origin.

Relations of Specific Groups with Indians

Spanish: Columbus was impressed at first; he went home with little evidence of material wealth; very little gold, etc. This actually put him in a bind, because he had not found the gold he had promised. So, he did a sales job on Ferdinand and Isabella, telling them that if they would give him a much larger expedition, he would find mainland Asia. He left on his second voyage in 1493, this time with 17 ships and 1200 men. Several factors were at work:

Columbus was under pressure to produce. His reputation was at stake. He made up his mind before reaching America that he would resort to brutal tactics if he had to in order to secure the resources he had promised to bring back to Spain.

Columbus had been promised a share of the wealth for himself. This could improve his social status in Europe, not to mention make him very rich, and also provide for his family long after he was gone.

The National wealth of Spain, in fact its national survival was at stake. Spain was engaged in a brutal war with Muslim Moors, and gold was necessary to continue the fight.

Columbus was in a situation where he had to produce the goodies; so he determined before landing that he would do whatever was necessary, cruel though it might be.

At the time of his second landing, Columbus brought with him Jesuit priests who were committed to the mass conversion of the Indians to Christianity. They were committed also to do whatever was necessary; and if they refused to convert, then they were heathens who should be destroyed.

The men Columbus had left behind on his first trip had caused another problem. They had become greedy, and had mistreated the Indians, sometimes molesting Indian women and girls. The Indians had taken reprisals as a result. Indians took their cue from this, and were ready to fight when Columbus landed the second time. Columbus used soldiers to destroy Indian resistance, built forts, and launched a campaign of conquest against the Island Indians.

Some Indians were taken prisoner during the fighting. They were used as slaves to mine for gold, and made to work until they dropped, when they were replaced with another.

Disease was another problem. The Indians were not immune to European diseases, and were dropping like flies.

The Spanish had two major of Goals:

Exploitive: Obtain as much wealth as soon as possible.

Conversion of the Indians.

These two factors dominated Spanish Indian relations.

There were three types of Spanish presence in the New World:

The Catholic Mission. This was primarily Jesuits, who could be particularly ferocious about conversion. They believed that any other religion did not merit continued existence and would use force to achieve their ends. It was they who led the Inquisition back home; they simply brought it to America. (Remember the priest who cut open the pregnant woman to baptize her baby before it too died.)

Civilian Settlement: Agriculture and ranching, growing tobacco, peanuts, squash, etc. to be shipped back home would make money for them. Also, they could take the crops back home to be grown in Europe. This depended on Indian help, as they didnít know how to grow, cultivate most of this stuff, or what purposes much of it could be used for.

Military Presence. This was the Presidio. It was to visibly show the Indians that the Spanish had dominion over the area and were willing to use force to keep it. They were set up near mining areas to protect miners looking for gold. Their means of labor was to enslave Indians to work in the minds.


All of this was based on either an exploitive or conversion motive. As a result, the welcoming attitude of the Indians quickly disappeared.

Armed resistance soon resulted.

Cortez with Aztecs Ė 1519-1521.

Ponce de Leon. He was at first peaceful, but exploitive and conversionary. In 1513-15 he warred against the Florida Indians.

Pizarro Ė 1530ís He took Inca gold by force; destroyed over 10, 000 Indians.

DeSoto and Coronado waged war against the Indians also.


Cortez had only 600 men when he attacked the Aztecs, but utterly destroyed them. Reason was, he had the horse, which they had never saw, didnít understand how to fight against a man on horseback. They were used to hand to hand combat. Also, the Spanish used guns, which could kill at 80-100 yards. Aztecs used a short bow and short arrow, which wouldnít reach that far. Also, the Spanish had cannon. Spanish wore armor which could deflect slow arrows and some knife attacks. Also there was the fear factor.

The Spanish never dominated the Southwestern United States. Geography and weaponry stopped them. The Apache and Comanche had the long bow which could penetrate armor. Also, the Indians were more diffuse, and could use the natural habitat as rock walls, which were perfect for defense. The Spanish had to "go for them," which was almost suicide. In 1675, the Pueblo Indians actually whipped the Spanish, although they were peaceful by nature, and only fought when attacked. The Spanish left them alone for 100 years.

Disease: Often the mortality rate was 90%. The Indians had no natural immune system to ward off European diseases..

West Indies: in 1492 there were 8 million Indians. By 1810 Ė less than 10 thousand.

Mexico: 1519 Ė 25 million. By end of century, 1.5 million.

Peru: at time of Spanish contact, 9 million. By 1600, 500,000.

In all of Latin America: in 1492: 40 million. By 1800: 4 million.

Among the maladies carried by the Europeans were the plague (rats on board their hips, no doubt), typhoid fever, cholera, smallpox, and measles. All were major killers of Indians.

The diseases were spread among Indian tribes to areas where there had not yet been European contact. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, half of the Indians had died from plague contracted from English and French fishermen who stopped there.

Previously, among the Indians, suicide was intensely rare. It just wasnít done. However, this changed dramatically, because of the ravages of disease. Smallpox and measles left terrible scars, which physically altered one so much, that death was considered preferable.

Intermarriage: Only Spanish and French intermarried with Indians. The hope was that this would allow one to influence the Indians more, spread religions, and make them less likely to fight. The Spanish gave some civil rights to the children of these marriages.

The Spanish government financed operations in America. It paid to set up forts and attempted to protect gold. It was a National policy to exploit, use the new world for National purposes. Governors were appointed, and a political hierarchy established. It was a concerted, all out effort.

It paid off, too! Between 1520 and 1550, the Spanish shipped an average of one million dollars (in THAT timeís money rate) in Gold every week!

Spanish success attracted the French. They noticed the gold, and also that Spain was bringing back American plants that were re-invigorating Spanish agriculture. The French figured they could do so too.

French: French had no real agenda, and made only a half-hearted effort at settlement. They moved first into the Caribbean, then into the Gulf area with the intent of using the Indians for labor.

They later changed their tune, and decided to buddy up to the Indians. "Weíre not like those Spanish so and soís." They were much friendlier to the Indians, and made sure they understood that they would not be subjected to barbarity.

The French also didnít make such a serious issue of religion. At the time, France was engaged in a civil war at home, Catholic vs. Protestant. The motive for the French was the same; get as many riches from the new world as they could; but they used the "good guy" approach.

By the early 1600ís, the French became interested in the Northeast, particularly Canada, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River Valley.

In Canada, they came in small business groups, mostly as trappers. There was a big demand at that time in Europe for furs for lining, insulation, caps, etc. Fur was best found on fur bearing animals in colder climates.

They said up small business operations. They didnít bring troops as the Spanish did; 50 Ė 100 men at most. They also didnít antagonize the Indians, who outnumbered them 1000 to 1.

A fur trade was set up; they exchanged steel tools, weapons, whiskey, clothing, etc. for furs. It was incredibly profitable.

Suddenly, Religion became an issue. The Catholics tried to convert the Indians, but soon realized that full conversion wasnít likely; so they tried to blend the two religions. They would get the Indians to accept Christianity on Indian terms, and modify it as they saw fit. This was much more humane than the Spanish approach; but the French seemed content with it.

Indians referred to Catholic priests as "black robes."

The French often adopted Indian clothing, (buckskin, moccasins, snow shoes), learned the Indian language, customs, etc. The Spanish never did this, rather they insisted that the Indians change. They often took Indian wives and lived in Indian homes.

The French also sided with the Hurons in a war against the Iroquois; as the Hurons had greater fur trading capability. This was a situation of mutual dependence. The Hurons depended on the French for allies; the French depended on the Hurons for furs.

Unlike the French, the Spanish normally did not look for allies among the Indians; only those tribes hostile to the Aztecs in Mexico.

As a result, the French never had negative relations with the Indians as did the Spanish and British. It also explains why Indians fought with the French in the Seven Years War.