The explorer Christopher Columbus first gave the Native Americans the name “Indians.” In 1492, on what would later be known as the island of San Salvador, the Tainos greeted Columbus with lavish gifts. Columbus later sent a letter to his sponsors in Spain, explaining that these natives were weak and savage.
In this short chapter, Brown outlines the early history of relations between Native Americans and Europeans. It’s notable that he begins this book with the arrival of Columbus—many indigenous peoples would take issue with this choice, since it ignores their long history before Columbus came and brought destruction on their way of life.
Columbus kidnapped Tainos and took them back to Europe, where he baptized them. The Tainos later began to war with the Spanish settlers after the settlers began looting and burning Taino villages. In 1607, English settlers arrived in what would later become Virginia. They used subtler methods than the Spanish had: they forged an alliance with the Powhatan chief, and the chief cooperated with them to enslave his own people.
The different explorers in the New World treated the Native Americans in vastly different ways. However, Brown implies that, at a fundamental level, almost all European colonizers believed themselves to be superior to the Native Americans, and used their superior technology to assert power. (Notice, also, that the English allied with Native American leaders, foreshadowing the way U.S. representatives would later forge alliances with chiefs.)
Around the same time in Massachusetts, English settlers forged alliances with the nearby Pemaquid tribe, and probably would have starved without the tribe’s help. But the settlers had different notions of property than the Pemaquid did. The Pemaquid chief, Samoset, humored the settlers by “giving” them land in New England, but the settlers later used the chief’s action as a justification for driving Native Americans off their own land. By 1675, war had broken out between English settlers and the Native Americans. By the end of the war, the English had cemented their dominance in Massachusetts.
Brown doesn’t say much about the Native Americans’ philosophy of land and ownership, but he suggests that the English settlers’ greed and ambition led them to try to take the land for themselves instead of sharing it with Native Americans. Furthermore, by not delving into the causes of the war of 1675, Brown (rightly) gives the impression that the war itself was a byproduct of the English settlers’ overarching desire for more territory.
In the mid-17th century, the Dutch settled in what would eventually be known as Manhattan. They “bought” the island for beads and fishhooks. In 1641, the Dutch sent troops to punish Native Americans for “offenses which had been committed not by them but by white settlers.” In the ensuing fight, the Dutch massacred entire villages of Native Americans. Similar events took place across America for the next two centuries. The Iroquois, the Miamis, the Pontiac, and many other strong Native American tribes fought against European settlers without success.
Slowly, Brown establishes a pattern by which European settlers “bought” land from Native Americans and then enforced their “agreement” with guns and swords. In other words, European settlers established a flimsy legal rationale for their acts of theft, one that the Native Americans couldn’t really dispute because they lacked a comparably strong military.
In 1829, President Andrew Jackson recommended to Congress that all Native Americans be relocated west of the Mississippi. In 1834, Congress passed an act to relocate all Native Americans. The act forbade white Americans from trading or communicating with Native Americans. But before the act could be enforced, American settlers migrated westward. This forced Congress to alter its own policy and push Native Americans farther west.
Ironically, the Indian Removal Act of 1834 proved to be a thorn in the U.S. government’s side, since it formally recognized Native Americans’ right to live in a certain part of the country (west of the Mississippi). This made plain the government’s duplicity, as the government reneged on its own agreement and pushed tribes further west.
It’s been centuries since Columbus landed in San Salvador. In that time, hundreds of Native American tribes have been wiped out by disease and warfare. The names of the tribes survive across the country, but “their bones were forgotten in a thousand burned villages.” Much of the natural world that Native Americans worshipped has been obliterated, too.
The history of European-descended Americans’ relationship with Native Americans is dark and disturbing, all the more so because it’s rarely taught in American high schools. (However, Native American history has become a bigger part of high school history curricula since the 1970s, in part because of this book!)
In the ten years following the establishment of Andrew Jackson’s Native American relocation policy, many of the largest tribes went through a crisis. In 1838, the U.S. army raided Cherokee settlements in Appalachia. They rounded up Cherokee men, women, and children and marched them out west. On the march, one in four Cherokees died. This march was eventually called the “trail of tears.”
The Trail of Tears is one of the darkest hours in modern Native American history, reinforcing the point that the Cherokee Nation had no power to defend itself from the might of the U.S. military.
In the 1840s, the Mexican American War took place. When it ended, in 1847, the U.S. had gained a huge amount of territory, all of it west of the “permanent Indian frontier.” In 1848, furthermore, miners found gold in California. This meant that the U.S. government once again had an incentive to clear Native Americans from the land that the government itself had reserved for them. To justify their breach of contract, the government invented the myth of “Manifest Destiny,” whereby white Americans had the right to claim all of America for themselves.
At the most basic level, Brown suggests, the United States had an economic incentive to expand westward. However, the U.S. covered up its economic motives by inventing a lofty-sounding ideology to justify colonization: Manifest Destiny. In reality, Manifest Destiny was a euphemism for a greedy (and at times genocidal) policy of expansion.
During the Civil War of the 1860s, the Sioux tribe of the Great Plains underwent major changes. Sitting Bull, the leader of the Teton Sioux, joined forces with Crazy Horse, the chief of the Oglala tribe. Sitting Bull also strengthened his tribe’s ties with the Cheyenne tribe, which lived in the Minnesota territory. In 1876, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse would make history.
Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were guerilla fighters who led Native American warriors in successful, albeit short-lived, victories against the U.S. military in the Midwest. Here, we see that different tribes—who ordinarily wouldn’t be allied—are banding together to fight their oppression by the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, in the Southwest, the Apache tribe continued waging guerilla warfare on European settlers, just as they’d been doing for the past 250 years. Though Mangas Colorado, chief of the Apaches, had signed a treaty with the U.S., he began to resent the miners in his territory. The neighboring Navaho tribe, by contrast, had long ago embraced a European style of civilization: they raised sheep and grew fruit and grains. But during the 1860s, the Navahos killed a group of U. S. citizens encroaching on their territory and began a war with the U.S.
Brown briefly lists a few of the early outbreaks of violence between Native Americans and white settlers following the end of the Civil War. In the coming chapters, he’ll discuss these episodes in much more depth. Notably, even the Navaho (who accepted parts of Euro-American life) found themselves resorting to violence to protect their territory, which shows that neither cooperation nor hostility was keeping the settlers at bay.
In the far western United States, there were few tribes as big and powerful as the Apache or the Sioux, meaning that there were few major cases of resistance to white settlers. In the Northwest, the Nez Percé tribe lived on its own reservation; historically the chiefs had accepted that there would always be enough land for both white settlers and Native Americans. In 1877, the chief of the Nez Percé made “a fateful decision … between peace and war.”
Like many Native American tribes, the Nez Percé believed that they wouldn’t have to fight white settlers for land because there was so much land to be had. Only a relatively small number of tribal leaders, such as Sitting Bull, grasped the root of the problem: white settlers wanted all the land for themselves, even if it meant expelling Native Americans.
Between 1860 and 1890, then, the Native Americans led a number of heroic and tragic uprisings against the forces of the United States. While these uprisings were often unconnected, they would come to a symbolic end in December of 1890 at Wounded Knee.
In a sense (and like a lot of classical tragedies), we know how this story is going to end before we’ve even finished the first chapter. Brown will proceed to tell the tragic story of the “last gasp” of Native American resistance to U.S. expansion.