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Native America on the Eve of Contact Previous Next
Digital History ID 3565


When Columbus arrived to the Caribbean in 1492, the New World was far from an empty wilderness. It was home to as many people as lived in Europe--perhaps 60 or 70 million. Between seven and twelve million lived in what are now the United States and Canada. They were not a single, homogeneous population. The people north of Mexico lived in more than 350 distinct groups, spoke more than 250 different languages and had their own political structure, kinship systems, and economies. These divisions would have fateful consequences for the future, permitting the European colonizers to adopt divide-and-conquer policies that played one group off against others.

In each geographical and cultural area were deeply rooted historic conflicts and vulnerabilities that European colonizers would exploit. In the Southwest, many conflicts arose over control of the arid region's scarce resources, as groups like Yaquis and the Pimas struggled over access to water and fertile land. In the northern portion of the Southwest, village dwellers, such as the Hopi and Zuni, coexisted uneasily with migratory hunters and raiders like the Apache. In the southern Southwest, patterns of land use would make the inhabitants especially vulnerable to Spanish encroachment. The dominant groups, the Pimas and the Papagos lived in isolated communities, known as rancherias, spread across a thousand miles along streams and other sources of irrigation. The Spaniards would adopt a policy that sought to "reduce" the dispersed Indian population into supervised towns.

In the Southeast--where the Creeks, the Choctaws, the Cherokees, the Seminoles and other peoples lived--extensive European colonization was delayed until the 17th century because the area lacked precious minerals. Here, Mississippian cultural patterns persisted: towns, with several hundred to a few thousand residents; farming, fishing and hunting; varying degrees of social stratification; and a pronounced tendency toward matrilineality (tracing descent through the mother's family) and matrilocality (newly married couples residing with and working for the mother's family). Forms of political organization ranged from autonomous towns to sets of villages that paid tribute to a dominant town. A history of intertribal warfare in the Southeast led many tribes to band together for protection in confederations.

Stretching from the Atlantic coast west to the Great Lakes and southward from Maine to North Carolina lay the eastern woodlands. The eastern woodland's major groups were the Algonquians, the Iroquois, and the Muskogeans. The Algonquians lived in small bands of from one to three hundred members, combining hunting, fishing, and gathering with some agriculture. A semi-nomadic people, who might move several times a year, the Algonquians would plant crops, then break into small bands to hunt caribou and deer, and return to their fields at harvest time. These people lived in wigwams, dome-shaped structures containing one or more families. A wigwam, made of bent saplings covered with birchbark, typically housed a husband and wife, their children, and their married sons and their wives and children.

During the 1600s, the Algonquians and their allies the Hurons fought a bitter war against the Iroquois. Around 1640, the Algonquians were defeated and driven from their territory. This war and epidemics of measles and smallpox reduced the Algonquian population sharply.

The Iroquois were several related groups of people who still live in what is now central New York State. Scholars disagree about whether the Iroquois had long occupied this area or whether they migrated from the Southeast around 1300. What does seem clear is that beginning in the 14th century, bitter feuds broke out among the Iroquois, which grew particularly intense during the 16th century. According to Iroquois oral tradition, two reformers, Dekanawidah, a Huron religious leader, and his disciple Hiawatha, a Mohawk chief, responded to mounting conflict by proposing a political alliance of the Iroquois tribes. During the 16th century, five Iroquois tribes--the Cayugas, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, and the Senecas--joined together to form a confederation known as the Iroquois League. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the league in the 18th century.

Governing the league was a council, consisting of the chiefs of each tribe and fifty specially chosen leaders called sachems. Some scholars argue that the Iroquois League, which combined a central authority with tribal autonomy, provided a model for the federal system of government later adopted by the United States. Women played a very important role in Iroquois society--a fact that shocked Europeans. Women headed the longhouses that were the basic units of social and economic organization among the Iroquois and were also the leaders of clans, which were comprised of several longhouses. Although women did not sit on the league councils that made decisions involving war and diplomacy, the women who headed the clans did have the power to appoint or remove the men who served on these councils.

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