Few subjects are more clouded by myths and misconceptions than the history of Native Americans. Quite unconsciously, many contemporary Americans have picked up a complex set of myths about Indians. Many assume that pre-Columbian North America was sparsely populated virgin land; in fact, it probably had seven to 12 million inhabitants. Often, when Americans think of early Indians, they imagine hunters on horseback. In fact, many Native Americans were farmers, and horses had been extinct in the New World for 10,000 years before Europeans arrived.
The most dangerous misconception is the easiest to slip into. It is to think of the Indians as a people somehow fated for extinction, the passive victims of an acquisitive, land-hungry white population. Far from being passive, Native Americans were active agents who responded to threats to the land and culture through physical resistance, cultural adaptation, and establishment of strategic alliances.
Especially during the early colonial period, as the following selection reveals, the English felt forced to deal with Native Americans as nations. Through formal diplomacy, the English felt a continuing need to make pacts and treaties with Indian peoples. Among the ways the Dutch, the English, and eastern Indians would seal agreements were through ceremonies involving peace pipes, peace medals, wampum, and burying a hatchet. Later, the United States would take these symbols to the Trans-Mississippi West, where they did not carry their original meaning.
I am come from Virginia being as all these countries under our great King Charles, to speak to you, upon occasion of some of yours having entered our houses, taken away and destroyed our goods and People, and brought some of our women and Children Captives in your Castles contrary to your faith and promises, and is also a breach of your Peace made with Colonel Coursey without any Provocation or Injury in the Least done by us, or disturbing you in your hunting trade, or Passing until you were found taking our Corn, out of our fields and Plundering and burning our houses.
Though your Actions already done, are Sufficient Reasons to Induce us to a Violent war against you which might Engage all our Confederated English neighbours, subjects to our great king Charles, yet upon the Information the governor here hath given us, that you have quietly and Peaceably, delivered to him, the Prisoners you had taken from us, Who are also Returned in Safety to our Country, and your excusing [th]e Same, We are therefore willing and have and do forgive all ye Damages you have done our People (though very great) Provided you nor any Living amongst you or coming from you, for the future do not offend or molest our People or Indians Living amongst us, Which if it shall appear that you do not truly Perform, then we Expect full Satisfaction for all the Injuries that you have already done us to the utmost farthing. And one of your Squaws being taken alive in our Country, and now Returned here, being freed, I Return her to you. And whereas you have still a Christian Girl of our Parts with you, doe expect, that you likeways free & Return ye Same.
We have a Law in our Country, that all Indians coming near a Christian any where, must Stand Still, and lay down there Arms, as a token of there being friends, otherwise are Looked upon and taken or destroyed as Enemies, and having many of our People in the woods abroad every way, we doe acquaint you (therewith) that if your People shall go to war towards our Parts against any Indians not in friendship with us that you forbear to come near our Plantations.