It is a commonly held belief by archaeologists and the rest of the world alike that the indigenous people of North America have resided on this continent for at least 15,000 years. These Native Americans were by and large nomadic groups who belonged to many different tribes, developed similar cultural and religious beliefs, and tended to live in concert with nature though not necessarily in complete harmony with each other. As the popular pneumonic device teaches us…”In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” when Columbus did make this most famous voyage he stumbled upon the realm of the Native Americans and history has since credited the Spanish reconnoiter with the discovery of the New World.
While the “civilized” world was curious about the possibilities of this New World, the Native Americans unassumingly went on about their established daily routine. Although it would take another 400 years, the European’s covetous “interest” in the New World would help to create and strengthen one of the greatest nations on Earth. Unfortunately this great nation was formed at the expense of its indigenous people. The European nations went about their nefarious plans for these majestic peoples and their bountiful living space in separate and distinct ways, and in doing so their actions caused the lives of the Native Americans to become forever changed; the most rapid period of negative change for the Native Americans came at the time and place that history would name the American Wild West.
Early Beginnings of Native American Civilizations
The Clovis, Folsom, Cahokia, and Mississippian cultures all thrived on the North American continent before they each met their respective ends (as well as all of the cultures during the Early/Mid Archaic period). Although Christopher Columbus was not the first European to stumble upon the Americas (this was probably Norseman Leif Ericson), Columbus’ “discovery” was the first to cast a major spotlight upon the region. Then, in 1541 Francisco Vazquez de Coronado made his exploration upwards from Mexico and into the Plains. Coronado’s intent was to secure treasures from the area for the Spanish crown, and in the process of his hunt , he made significant contact with the Native American people. Eventually, Coronado unwisely dismissed the area as being a barren wasteland and ethnocentrically discounted its people for being uncivilized barbarians. However, the Native Americans were now officially introduced to Spain and her territories, and eventually to the rest of Europe as well – particularly England and France. Coronado may not have thought much of the area, but Mexico was far too close in proximity for the termination of all Spanish exploration, and soon the curiosity of the other two countries would come into full blossom as well.
Mexico had previously settled the region that is now known to be California approximately two hundred years before the United States laid official claim to the area in 1848. The Mexican settlers had come to the area and settled it at the behest of the Spanish crown. The overall design that the Spanish had in mind for the Native Americans was a complete religious and cultural metamorphosis. The main intent of the Spanish was to convert the “barbarous heretics” to Catholicism which would simultaneously save their mortal souls, and further expand the Spanish/Catholic reign throughout the world. They sent over Franciscan missionaries to convert the natives. At first, The Spanish tried to apply force to make the Natives comply. Flanked with Spanish militia might known as conquistadores, the missionaries felt confident to go out and flex their muscle over the Natives.
The Spanish missionaries strong-arm tactic did not work out as expected, and it came to a violent head with the Spanish being forcibly shoved back across the Rio Grande in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Realizing that force would not get the job done, the Spanish tried again. This time they went in under the guise of altruism, but they eventually grew tired when it became clear that the Natives would never completely forsake their culture and religion, so the Spanish turned again to violence. They (Spanish) utilized the services of the Presidio to enforce discipline, the violence tactic worked out somewhat better this time around because the Spanish had a firmer grip on the Natives. The missions served as a source of protection against starvation and enemy threat for the Natives, thus making them somewhat dependent upon the Spanish. There were still small scale rebellions, but nothing worth mentioning on any large scale. With the introduction of European contact diseases to which the Native Americans had no resistance…their population began to drastically dwindle.
The major interest of the French in the Native American population was more of an economic profit nature. The French were mostly interested in trading with the Natives, but conversion to Christianity was never far behind on their agenda. They (The French) didn’t really seem to have an interest in conquest of these people…rather, they sought to forge a commercial and communal alliance with them. Jesuit priests who are historically dedicated to the field of education sought to teach the Natives their religious and social customs so that they (the Natives) could become the social equivalent to whites…white peasants that is. The Natives were smart and they found ways to incorporate their own religious and cultural beliefs into the covertly forced religious conversion…much like the African slaves did with their blending of forced European Catholicism & Christianity with African Vodun in Louisiana and the Deep South…but I digress (that’s a whole other paper).
The fusing of cultures continued and grew stronger and more defiant. Eventually syncretism had clearly won out over true Christian conversion and the Jesuits were growing ever more suspicious that their design for conversion would never work. Over time conflict ensued when the scale of their failure to inflict total conformity became clearly evident – the toothy smile and philanthropic nature bit apparently gave way to their increasing lack of patience. Over time the Jesuits lose their influence over the Native people and they (the Jesuits as a whole) go the way of the wooly mammoth. In this it seemed that the Natives had won a small victory but did they really? Their culture and religion was less strong, their population was still dwindling due to disease, their hunting grounds were cut due to European encroachment causing starvation, some of their people were beginning to intermarry with whites, their women and girls were constantly being raped and/or sexually exploited by whites, conflict between opposing tribes still continued and were made even more lethal by the introduction of guns and faux alliances with Europeans….and they had yet to face off with their most heinously driven and formidable Opponent.
It seems almost as if the British had but one path in mind for the Natives ever since their initial landing at Plymouth Rock in the sixteen hundreds: subjugation, forced labor, conversion and if all these tactics failed…. total annihilation. We are all familiar with the story of Thanksgiving but once the English settlers obtained the skills for survival from the Natives they lost their use for them. As far as the English were concerned, anyone with skin more than two shades darker than their own and religious or cultural mindset anything even slightly contrary to Christianity was to be enslaved…if this could not be accomplished they were to be destroyed.
The African slaves were more easily controlled because they were completely out of their element, in the company of differing and sometimes opposing tribes with different languages and customs from their own, had grown more tolerant to European contact diseases, and last but not least they were more easily identifiable upon sight. The Natives were on their own territory and therefore knew the layout better and this helped to keep the English at bay for some time.
By the time the idea of manifest destiny took hold it was all over for the Native Americans because the English were hell bent on their “god given” right to expand their territory. The taming and conquering of the American West was the ultimate realization of their goal and the indigenous people would not stand in the way. The English had absolutely no interest in cooperation with the “Indians,” theirs was a desire for conquest and the Native Americans only served to stand in their way. At first there was a push for the English to “make nice” with the Natives that they encountered in the Frontier. This attitude was short lived and with the discovery of Gold in California and Colorado came a virtual onslaught of the English and daily conflict between the two groups ensued.
Surely there is no real value in my rehashing of this all too familiar story…suffice it to say that the English originated with indentured servants to fulfill the most unpleasant duties, captured African slaves to perform the harshest of tasks, a familiar ideal that Christianity was superior to all other forms of religion and a fervent desire for conversion…not to mention a mindset of the division of labor between the sexes and female subservience was the natural order (to be fair…this seemed to be the natural order of the majority of cultures since the beginning of recorded time). They did everything in their power to maintain their way of life (the English/British) and expand “their” nation and they emerged victorious almost at the complete expense of America’s indigenous people.
European contact was indeed the final undoing of the dominant Indigenous American way of life. Each of the three European nations had differing ways of going about their personal plan for these people but they all worked in tandem with each other to unravel the Native culture. Clearly, there is a slight reflection of animosity towards the Europeans being displayed throughout this essay. Our elementary education feeds us the nonsense of the eternal goodness of our founding fathers and the heroes of the American Wild West … our college education seeks to instill the basic concept that people are people and eternal goodness is not a realistic trait endowed to any human being. Along with the previously mentioned animosity there is a balancing belief that the goal of any conqueror is just that, to conquer, by any means necessary. This is what the Europeans, particularly the English, eventually accomplished as it pertains to the Native Americans. One of the great spoils of the victor is that they get to write the history. It is a most amicable thing that we are now allowed to see the history from both sides of the story.
Elliot West, The Contested Plains (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 18
Cynthia Culver-Prescott, In Class Lecture (Grand Forks, UND 11 Sept 2008).
Eric Weiner, Coming to America: Who Was First? Oct 2007. Internet on-line.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15040888. [2 Oct 2008].
Ruth B. Moynihan, Susan Armitage, and Christine Fischer Dichamp, So Much to Be Done:
Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier, 2 ed. (Lincoln and London:
University of Nebraska Press, 1990, 1998), 3.
Cynthia Culver-Prescott, In Class Lecture (Grand Forks, UND 11 Sept 2008).