Three hundred years ago, in 1712, the European invasion of North America was underway. In the Southeast and the Southwest, the Spanish were establishing land grants to create a feudal system and missions to bring Christianity to the natives; in the northeast the English were establishing plantations and colonies on the “vacant” land they discovered; in what is now Canada, the French were actively seeking Indian trading partners; and on the Northwest coast the Russians were seeking furs and Indian slaves. In this essay, I would like to look at the interactions between the English and the Indians in 1712.
Background: The English
From the beginning of the English invasion of North America, the English colonists sought to expand English rule-English laws and English concepts of government-over the sovereign Indian nations which they encountered. With an arrogant ethnocentrism, the English viewed Indians as outsiders, living within English jurisdiction but without the full membership of citizenship. Among other things, this often meant that Indians could be punished for labor or play on the Sabbath, as well as other offenses toward the English religion.
One of the rationales used by the English for taking Indian land, or seeing it as “vacant,” was the belief that the English could put the land to “higher use” by employing European-style agriculture and livestock. It was important for the English to downplay or ignore Indian land usage and the ways in which Indians had “improved” the land. Since the Natives were already farming the land, particularly the best land, this meant that the English had to construct stereotypes of the Indians which portrayed them as nomadic hunters who did not modify or improve the land in order to justify taking the land away from them.
English policies toward Indians were based on segregation. Initially, the rationale for this segregation was based on religion: the English were Christian and the Indians were heathens. As some Indians converted to Christianity, however, that rationale for segregation became less valid. In order to continue segregation, the English came to develop the notion of “race”: changing the initial meaning of this concept which was closer to the idea of a nation, the English began to view this as a biological imperative which justified English rule.
The English invaders did not encounter a single Indian empire or nation: rather, the Atlantic coast was inhabited by a number of independent Indian tribes, speaking many different languages. These sovereign Indian nations were not unified and war, primarily in the form of raids, was not uncommon.
The Indians were farmers, raising many different varieties of maize (corn), beans, squash, and tobacco. The agricultural fields were owned by the villages (that is, they were lands held in common) and worked by the women.
Initial contact with the Europeans brought diseases which were deadly to American Indians-smallpox, measles, mumps, malaria, and others. As a consequence, by 1712 the population of Indians on the Atlantic coast had been greatly reduced. In addition, English warfare with its superior weapons and focus on genocide had further reduced the Indian populations. American Indian populations on the Atlantic coast by this time were a fraction of what they had been two centuries earlier. Many tribes had already vanished, their remaining descendents absorbed into the larger tribes.
The Indians of the Atlantic coast by 1712 had adopted many items of European manufacture, particularly metal objects and cloth, and had come to rely on these items. Consequently they were involved in a symbiotic relationship with the colonists to obtain these items. No longer were the tribes self-sustaining, but they were a part of a larger, more globalized, more capitalistic, market.
With the increased reliance on European goods, Indian leadership skills also changed. The Indian leaders of 1712 needed to be able to negotiate with the English. This meant that they had to have some knowledge of English customs, religion, and language.
The Indian relationship with the land and its animals had also changed. Two centuries earlier, their agricultural economies had been supplemented by hunting. Guided by animistic concepts of harmony, the hunters harvested the animals in a sustainable fashion, using every part of the animal. As the capitalistic concept of greed entered into Indian cultures via the desire for European trade goods, including alcohol, Indians abandoned their religious concerns regarding animals and over-hunted to obtain the furs and hides which they could trade to the English. Consequently many furbearing animals, such as the beaver, became rare and the landscape began to change.