Thursday, March 13, 2014

How many colonists actually saw an “Indian”?

As we study “first contact” and the tectonic engagement of two widely disparate cultures, it seems pertinent to ask: how many European colonists actually came face-to-face with a Native American, and vice versa?

I am fascinated by the demographic details of the experiences of Native Americans and Europeans in colonial North America. I'm interested in knowing more about the consequences of deadly epidemics that repeatedly reduced and devastated Native American populations. Various estimates suggest that up to 90% of the native American population died within a couple generations after the advent of Europeans, with the deaths attributable in small part to armed conflict and mostly to new diseases. Imagine that such a combination would reduce the current population of the United States from 318 million to about 30 million in the next 50 years. Would history books in the late 21st century be focused on any other topic?

My reading suggests that this wholesale reduction of Native American populations is typically noted, and the range of impacts is listed. It is acknowledged that diseases repeatedly eliminated whole families, destroyed kin networks, silenced whole villages, felled elders and chiefs and matriarchs, killed healers and others with special skills, and, most destructive of all, blanked out generational memories of tribal/clan traditions and stories that kept cultural and spiritual values alive. However, there is little reflection on how the philosophies and the world views, and the public and private aspirations, and the nightmares of the few survivors were affected. James Merrell suggests that 60,000 Catawbas were reduced, in merely 100 years, to a remnant population of only 500 in 1759. [1]  Death by disease is not, inter alia, simply a circumstance of history if it kills nearly everyone who lived within the span of memory of the few survivors. 

The magnitude of Native American populations, both before and after diseases took their toll, is a frame of reference in colonial history that I believe should receive more attention. Contemporary students have only limited awareness of the eventual minimal population numbers and sparse population densities of Native Americans throughout North America. For example, the celebrated and powerful Iroquois Confederacy in colonial New York had an estimated  combined population of  less than 22,000 when Europeans made first contact; an unrelenting decline of almost 80% reduced their numbers to only about 4,700 in mid-18th century. [2] In 1775 the largely British inhabitants of the New York colony outnumbered the Haudenosaunee about 8-to-1. [3] Analyses of alliances and the balance of power among Iroquois and Europeans do not typically make reference to these population data; such omission is a detriment to full understanding of military, political, commercial and social dynamics in the colonial era.

Population densities were quite low in colonial times. At the beginning of the 16th century, it's estimated that Northern New England Native American populations had a density of only 41 persons per 100 square miles; for comparison, an equivalent population in modern Massachusetts would be only about 4,328 people—in fact, Massachusetts today has 6.6 million residents. The English population in all of New England after 100 years of colonial settlement was only 93,000. [4] That’s just about the same as the current population of Brockton, MA. One wonders if any Native Americans and colonials seriously considering avoiding all contact with each other. It might have been relatively easy to do so for quite a long time.

I suggest that we too easily think of Native Americans and colonial Europeans as an undifferentiated mass that can be understood by characterizing groups. However, the fact of short life spans in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries means that we should work hard at probing the evolving intentions and experiences of the relatively rapid succession of individuals who lived their lives and contributed in greater or lesser degrees to the making of "new worlds" on the North American continent. Average life expectancy of Europeans in the American Colonial era may have been under 30 years.[5] We can estimate that eight generations of Native Americans and Europeans lived during the period from initial settlement to the Revolutionary War. Manifestly, the Native Americans who dealt with the British after the close of the Seven Years' War (1763) were not similar to their own ancestors in the early 1600s. They had lived through many successive "new worlds." I think it's an error, for example, to blandly refer to the history, diplomacy and social/cultural dynamics of the Iroquois or the Catawbas without explicitly acknowledging that heterogeneous generations of them played their distinctly different roles in transforming their environment and their ways of life. In some traditional views, the European colonists were uniformly courageous, adventuresome, and hardy pioneers intent on creating the American dream. In fact, many of the European colonists were desperate escapees from Europe; their intentions were less exalted.

I think this is a fascinating question: from initial European settlement through the early years of the American republic, how many Native Americans were personally face-to-face with an Englishman or a Frenchman or a Spaniard, and vice versa? How many Europeans ever saw more than a few Native Americans during their lifetimes, and vice versa? Of course there was extensive trading and ultimately commerce, and there was some intermarriage, and social mixing, military alliances and armed conflict that brought some Native Americans and Europeans together. "New worlds" emerged because people came together, shared ways of survival and experienced mutual, social transformations. Nevertheless, I wonder if the multiple, transformative interactions were at the periphery of the lives of many or most of the individuals who lived during the transformations, but may not have felt much of the kiss, or the sting, of change.

1 - James H. Merrell, "The Indians' New World: The Catawba Experience," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 41, no. 4 (October 1984): XX.

2 - Dean Snow, The Iroquois (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996), XX.

3 - The Papers of Sir William Johnson, Documents relative to the Colonial History of New York State, vol. 6, 993.

4 - William Cronon, Changes In The Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), XX.

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