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Europeans called the Americas “The New World.” But for the millions of Native Americans they encountered, it was anything but. Human beings have lived here for over ten millennia. American history begins with them, the first Americans. But where did they come from? Native Americans passed stories down through the millennia that tell of their creation and reveal the contours of indigenous belief. The Salinan people of present-day California, for example, tell of a bald eagle that formed the first man out of clay and the first woman out of a feather. ((John Alden Mason, The Ethnology of the Salinan Indians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1912), 191-192.)) Archaeologists and anthropologists, meanwhile, studying artifacts, bones, and genetic signatures, have pieced together a narrative for the origins of humans’ presence in the Western Hemisphere: the Americas were once a “new world” for Native Americans as well.
2. The First Americans
The last global ice age trapped much of the world’s water in enormous continental glaciers. Twenty thousand years ago, ice sheets, some a mile thick, extended across North America as far south as modern-day Illinois and Ohio. With so much of the world’s water captured in these massive ice sheets, global sea levels plummeted and the receding waters exposed a land bridge between Asia and North America across the Bering Strait. The first Americans most likely migrated from Asia sometime between twelve and twenty-thousand years ago, if not before. Nomadic hunter-gatherers, they traveled in small bands following megafauna–enormous mammals that included mastodons and giant horses and bison–into the frozen Beringian tundra at the edge of North America. Then, sometime between twelve- and fourteen-thousand years ago, the glaciers’ long retreat freed them to enter the heart of North America. Behind them the land bridge closed and severed the two hemispheres, but in North America, as the ice retreated, humans filled the continents and by 11,000 years ago migrating peoples had reached the tip of South America. Hunters across the hemisphere preyed on plentiful game and natural foods and the population boomed.
Whether because of overhunting, climate change, or a combination of the two, the megafauna population collapsed and mastodons, horses, and other large mammals disappeared. But native populations adapted: they fished, hunted small mammals, and gathered nuts and berries. Native peoples spread across North America. Woodland groups populated the Atlantic coast and later practiced agriculture to supplement rich hunting and fishing. On the plains, nomads followed bison herds. In the Northwest, natives exploited great salmon-filled rivers. And as paleo-Indians populated mountains, prairies, deserts, and forests, cultures and ways of life as arose as varied as the geography. Paleo-Indian groups spoke hundreds of languages and adopted distinct cultural practices. Woodland cultures burned underbrush to create vast park-like hunting grounds. Men typically hunted and women typically gathered and prepared wild foods. Rich and diverse diets fueled massive population growth across the continent.
Between two and eighteen million people lived north of present-day Mexico before the arrival of Europeans. They were not isolated among themselves but connected by complex relationships and long trading routes. By 3,500 years ago, for instance, copper from present-day Canada and flint from modern-day Indiana could be found in Poverty Point, Louisiana.
Agriculture arose sometime between nine- and five-thousand years ago, almost simultaneously in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Mesoamericans in modern-day Mexico and Central America first domesticated maize and and developed perhaps the hemisphere’s first settled population around 1,200 BCE. The Olmecs grew maize (corn), built monumental stone structures, and established long-distance trade routes that extended across the region and eventually the hemisphere. Corn was high in caloric content, could be easily dried and stored, and, in Mesoamerica’s warm and fertile Gulf Coast, could sometimes be harvested twice in a year. Corn and other Mesoamerican crops spread across the peoples of North America in the centuries before contact with European invaders. Agriculture flourished especially in the fertile river valleys between the Mississippi River and Atlantic Ocean. There, three crops in particular–corn, beans, and squash, the so-called “three sisters”–provided nutritional needs necessary to sustain cities and civilizations.
Native American agriculture varied. Some groups used shifting cultivation where farmers cut the forest, burned the undergrowth and then planted seeds in the nutrient rich ashes of what remained. When crop yields began to decline, farmers would simply move to another field and allow the land to recover and the forest to regrow before they would again cut the forest, burn the undergrowth, and restart the cycle. This technique was particularly useful in areas with difficult soil. But in the lush regions of the central and eastern United States, Native American farmers engaged in permanent, intensive agriculture, using hand tools rather than European-style plows. The lush soil and use of hand-tools enabled effective and sustainable farming. These techniques produced high yields without overburdening the soil. ((Jane Mt. Pleasant, “A New Paradigm for Pre-Columbian Agriculture in North America,” Early American Studies, 13:2 (Spring 2015): 374-412.))
Agriculture allowed for dramatic social change, but for some, it also may have accompanied a decline in health. Analysis of remains reveals that societies transitioning to agriculture often experienced weaker bones and teeth. ((Richard H. Steckel, “Health and Nutrition in Pre-Columbian America: The Skeletal Evidence,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer, 2005), 19-21.)) But despite these possible declines in health, agriculture brought other important benefits. Farmers could produce more food than hunters, enabling some members of the community to pursue other skills. Religious leaders, skilled soldiers, and artists could devote their energy to activities other than food production. Most Native Americans did not have written languages, but Algonkian and Ojibwe peoples used birch bark scrolls to record medical treatments, recipes, songs, stories, and more. Skilled weavers also produced clothing that supplemented furs. Eastern woodland peoples wove plant fibers, while others on the plains wove buffalo hair, and in the Pacific Northwest goat hair, into soft textiles. Metalworkers produced practical tools like fishhooks or weapons, and artists made decorative jewelry. Copper was the most common metal used in North America, while gold and silver could be found further south.
Several expansive civilizations in the Midwest and Southwest demonstrated the potential for large-scale Indian civilizations. The so-called Mississippians exploited the rich floodplains of the Mississippi River and built a network of settlements across the Midwest and the American South. Mississippian society was stratified. Elites maintained power through kinship, gift-giving, and by controlled access to the spiritual world. The Mississippian’s signature mounds–enormous earthworks that could span acres and climb several stories tall–physically set priests and elites above the general population of craftsmen, agricultural workers, and slaves.
Social stratification was partly preserved through frequent warfare. War captives would be enslaved, and these captives formed an important part of the economy in the North American southeast. Slaves were defined in Native American culture not as property, but rather as people lacking kinship. Native American slavery was not always a permanent condition as adoption or marriage could enable a slave to become a member of the community and enter a kinship network. Very often a slave could become a fully integrated member of the community.
The Mississippians developed the largest and most advanced native civilization north of modern-day Mexico. Roughly one-thousand years ago, the largest Mississippian settlement, Cahokia, located just east of modern-day St. Louis, peaked at a population of between 10,000-30,000. It rivaled contemporary European cities in size. (No American city, in fact, would match Cahokia’s peak population levels until after the American Revolution). Cahokia experienced what one archeologist has called a “big bang” around the year 1050 that included “a virtually instantaneous and pervasive shift in all things political, social, and ideological.” ((Timothy R. Pauketat and Thomas E. Emerson, eds., Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 31.)) The population grew almost 500 percent in only one generation, and new groups of peoples were absorbed into the city and its supporting communities.
Located near the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers, Cahokia became a key trading center with networks stretching from the Great Lakes to the American Southeast. The city itself spanned 2,000 acres. Religious ceremonies were performed atop vast “mounds,” enormous man-made earthen hills that still dot the Midwest and the American South. The largest mound at Cahokia, Monks Mound, rose ten-stories and was larger at its base than the great pyramids of Egypt. By 1300, the once powerful city had undergone a series of strains that led to collapse. Scholars previously pointed to ecological collapse or slow depopulation through emigration, but new research instead indicates that mounting warfare, or internal political tensions led to the collapse of the once mighty city. ((Thomas E. Emerson, “An Introduction to Cahokia 2002: Diversity, Complexity, and History,” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 27: No. 2 (Fall 2002), pp. 137-139.))
In the American Southwest sometime between the years 900 and 1300 ancient Puebloan peoples built a large civilization sustained by advanced irrigation and a vast trading network linking goods from as far as Central Mexico and the Mississippi River. As many as 15,000 people lived in the Chaco Canyon complex in present-day New Mexico. One single building, Pueblo Bonito, stretched over two acres and rose five stories. Its 600 rooms were decorated with copper bells, turquoise decorations, and bright macaws. ((H. Wolcott Toll, “Making and Breaking Pots in the Chaco World,” American Antiquity, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), 65.)) (Not until the late-nineteenth century would another American building surpass it in sheer size.) It and other ancient adobe cliff dwellings persist as ruins. Decline–likely brought on by sustained droughts, overpopulation, and soil exhaustion–shattered the large Pueblo cities although Puebloan peoples persisted in New Mexico and would later resist the highpoint of Spain’s North American expansion.
In the Pacific Northwest, Indian peoples including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingits, and Haidas took advantage of the lush forests and many rivers. The abundance of large forest mammals including deer, elk, moose, and caribou, as well as waters filled with salmon, halibut, sturgeon and others created a tremendous surplus of food. Massive ocean-sailing canoes, some over 50 feet in length, enabled extensive fishing expeditions. The food surplus enabled a unique social organization, where individuals achieved social status by giving elaborate feasts, called potlaches. These days-long parties allowed the host to demonstrate his wealth by feeding and entertaining guests with food and artwork. Elaborately carved totem poles, masks, and other wooden items carved out of the great trees of the region produced some of the world’s most unique art.
North America’s indigenous peoples shared some broad traits. Spiritual practices, beliefs on property, and kinship networks differed markedly from Europeans. Most Native Americans did not neatly distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Spiritual power permeated their world and was both tangible and accessible. It could be appealed to and harnessed. Moreover, most native peoples’ notions of property rights differed markedly from Europeans. Native Americans generally felt a personal ownership of tools, weapons, or other items that were actively used. The same rule applied to land and crops. While groups and individuals exploited particular pieces of land, for instance, and through violence or negotiation would exclude others, the right to the use of land did not imply the right to permanent possession. Meanwhile, kinship bound most native North American people together. Most North American native peoples lived in small communities tied by kinship networks. Native cultures understood ancestry as matrilineal: family and clan identity proceeded along the female line, through mothers and daughters, rather than fathers and sons. Fathers, for instance, would often join mothers’ extended families and sometimes even a mother’s brothers would take a more direct role in child-raising than biological fathers. Mothers could therefore often wield enormous influence at local levels and native mens’ identities and influence were often forged in such matrilineal contexts. Native American culture meanwhile generally afforded greater sexual and marital freedom. Women often chose their husbands, and divorce often was a relatively simple and straightforward process.
Despite commonalities, native cultures varied greatly. From massive empires to scattered nomads, from agriculturalists to hunter-gatherers, the New World was marked by diversity and contrast. By the time Europeans were poised to cross the Atlantic, Native Americans spoke hundreds of languages and had adapted their lives to the hemisphere’s many climates. Some lived in cities, others in small bands. Some migrated seasonally, others settled permanently. Native peoples had long histories and well-formed unique cultures that developed and evolved over millennia. But the arrival of Europeans changed everything.
3. European Expansion
Scandinavian seafarers reached the New World centuries before Columbus. At their peak they sailed as far east as Constantinople and raided settlements as far south as North Africa. They established limited colonies in Iceland and Greenland and, around the year 1000, Leif Erikson reached New Foundland in present-day Canada. But the Norse colony failed. Culturally and geographically isolated, some combination of limited resources, inhospitable weather, food shortages, and native resistance drove the Norse back into the sea.
Then, hundreds of years before Columbus, the Crusades linked Europe with the wealth, power, and knowledge of Asia. Europeans rediscovered or adopted Greek, Roman, and Muslim knowledge. The hemispheric dissemination of goods and knowledge not only sparked the Renaissance but fueled long-term European expansion. Asian goods flooded European markets, creating a demand for new commodities. This trade created vast new wealth, and Europeans battled one another for trade supremacy.
European nation-states consolidated under the authority of powerful kings. A series of military conflicts between England and France–the Hundred Years War–accelerated nationalism and cultivated the financial and military administration necessary to maintain nation-states. In Spain, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille consolidated the two most powerful kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. The Crusades had never ended in Iberia: the Spanish crown concluded centuries’ of intermittent warfare–the Reconquista–by expelling Muslim Moors from the Iberian peninsula in 1492, just as Columbus sailed west. With new power, these new nations–and their newly empowered monarchs–yearned to access the wealth of Asia.
Seafaring Italian traders commanded the Mediterranean and controlled trade with Asia. Spain and Portugal, at the edges of Europe, relied upon middlemen and paid higher prices for Asian goods. They sought a more direct route. And so they looked to the Atlantic. Portugal invested heavily in exploration. From his estate on the Sagres Peninsula of Portugal, a rich sailing port, Prince Henry the Navigator (Infante Henry, Duke of Viseu) invested in research and technology and underwrote many technological breakthroughs. His investments bore fruit. In the fifteenth century Portuguese sailors innovated the astrolabe, a tool to calculate latitude, and the caravel, a ship well-suited for ocean exploration. Both were technological breakthroughs. The astrolabe allowed for precise navigation and the caravel, unlike more common vessels designed for trading on the relatively placid Mediterranean, was a rugged, deep-drafting ship capable of making lengthy voyages on the open ocean and, equally important, carrying large amounts of cargo while doing so.
Blending economic and religious motivations, the Portuguese established forts along the Atlantic coast of Africa during the fifteenth century, inaugurating centuries of European colonization there. Portuguese trading posts generated new profits that funded further trade and further colonization. Trading posts spread across the vast coastline of Africa and by the end of the fifteenth century Vasco de Gama leapfrogged his way around the coasts of Africa to reach India and lucrative Asian markets.
The vagaries of ocean currents and the limits of contemporary technology forced Iberian sailors to sail west into the open sea before cutting back east to Africa. So doing, the Spanish and Portuguese stumbled upon several islands off the coast of Europe and Africa, including the Azores, the Canary Islands, and the Cape Verde Islands. They became training ground for the later colonization of the Americas.
Sugar, a wildly profitable commodity originally grown in Asia, had become a popular luxury among the nobility and wealthy of Europe. The Portuguese began growing sugar cane along the Mediterranean, but sugar was a difficult crop. It required tropical temperatures, daily rainfall, unique soil conditions, and a fourteen-month growing season. But with the Atlantic Islands, the Portuguese had found new land to support sugar production and new patterns of human and ecological destruction followed. Isolated from the mainlands of Europe and Africa for millennia, island natives—known as the Guanches—were enslaved or perished soon after Europeans arrived. Portugal’s would-be planters needed laborers to cultivate the difficult, labor-intensive crop. Portuguese merchants, who had recently established good relations with powerful African kingdoms such as Kongo, Ndongo, and Songhai, looked to African slaves. Slavery had long existed among African societies. African leaders traded war captives—who by custom forfeited their freedom in battle—for Portuguese guns, iron, and manufactured goods. From bases along the Atlantic coast, the largest in modern-day Nigeria, the Portuguese began purchasing slaves for export to the Atlantic islands. Slaves would work the sugar fields. Thus were born the first great Atlantic plantations.
Spain, too, stood on the cutting edge of maritime technology. Spanish sailors had become masters of the caravels. And as Portugal consolidated control over its African trading networks along the circuitous eastbound sea route to Asia, Spain yearned for its own path to empire. Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian-born sailor who studied under Portuguese navigators, came calling.
Educated Asians and Europeans of the fifteenth century knew the world was round. They also knew that while it was therefore technically possible to reach Asia by sailing west from Europe–thereby avoiding Italian or Portuguese middlemen–the Earth’s vast size would doom even the greatest caravels to starvation and thirst long before they ever reached their destination. But Columbus underestimated the size of the globe by a full two-thirds and therefore believed it was possible. After unsuccessfully shopping his proposed expedition in several European courts, he convinced Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to provide him three small ships, which set sail in 1492. Columbus was both confoundingly wrong about the size of the Earth and spectacularly lucky that two large continents lurked in his path. On October 12, 1492, after two months at sea, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria and their ninety men landed in the modern-day Bahamas.
The indigenous Arawaks populated the Caribbean islands. They fished and grew corn, yams, and cassava. Columbus described them as innocents. “They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor the sins of murder or theft,” he reported to the Spanish crown. “Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … They love their neighbors as themselves, and their speech is the sweetest and gentlest in the world, and always with a smile.” But Columbus had come for wealth and he could find little. The Arawaks, however, wore small gold ornaments. Columbus left thirty-nine Spaniards at a military fort to find and secure the source of the gold while he returned to Spain to great acclaim and to outfit a return voyage. Spain’s New World motives were clear from the beginning. If outfitted for a return voyage, Columbus promised the Spanish crown gold and slaves. Columbus reported, “with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” It was God’s will, he said. ((The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage), and Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real, Clements R. Markham, ed. and trans. (London: 1893), 73; 135, 41.))
Columbus was outfitted with seventeen ships and over 1,000 men to return to the West Indies (Columbus made four total voyages to the New World). Still believing he had landed in the East Indies, he promised to reward Isabella and Ferdinand’s investment. But when material wealth proved slow in coming the Spanish embarked upon a vicious campaign to extract every possible ounce of wealth from the Caribbean. The Spanish decimated the Arawaks. Bartolome de Las Casas traveled to the New World ten years after Columbus. He would later write that “I saw with these Eyes of mine the Spaniards for no other reason, but only to gratify their bloody mindedness, cut off the Hands, Noses, and Ears, both of Indians and Indianesses.” ((Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies… (Project Gutenberg EBook: 2007), 147.)) When the enslaved Indians exhausted the islands’ meager gold reserves, the Spaniards forced them to labor on their huge new estates, the encomiendas. Las Casas described European barbarities in cruel detail. By presuming the natives had no humanity, the Spaniards utterly abandoned theirs. Casual violence and dehumanizing exploitation ravaged the Arawaks. The Indian population collapsed. Within a few generations a whole island had been depopulated and a whole people exterminated. Historians’ estimates range from fewer than 1 million to as many as 8 million (Las Casas estimated the pre-contact population of the island at 3 million). In a few short years, they were gone. “Who in future generations will believe this?” Las Casas wondered. “I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”
Despite the diversity of native populations and the existence of several strong empires, Native Americans were wholly unprepared for the arrival of Europeans. Biology magnified European cruelties many times over. Cut off from the Old World and its domesticated animals and its immunological history, Native Americans lived free from the terrible diseases that ravaged populations in Asia, Europe and Africa. But their blessing now became a curse. Native Americans lacked the immunities that Europeans and Africans had developed over centuries of deadly epidemics and so when Europeans arrived, carrying smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, measles, and hepatitis, plagues decimated native communities. Death rates tended to be highest near European communities who traveled with children, as children tended to carry the deadliest diseases. ((Dean R. Snow, “Microchronology and Demographic Evidence Relating to the Size of Pre-Columbian North American Indian Populations,” Science, Vol. 268, No. 5217 (Jun. 16, 1995), 1601.)) Many died in war and slavery, but millions died in epidemics. All told, in fact, some scholars estimate that as much as 90 percent of the population of the Americas perished within the first century and a half of European contact. ((Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (New York: Random House, 1988), 195.))
Though ravaged by disease and warfare, Native Americans forged middle grounds, resisted with violence, accommodated and adapted to the challenges of colonialism, and continued to shape the patterns of life throughout the New World for hundreds of years. But the Europeans kept coming.
4. Spanish Exploration and Conquest
As news of the Spanish conquest spread, wealth-hungry Spaniards poured into the New World seeking land and gold and titles. A New World empire spread from Spain’s Caribbean foothold. Motives were plain: said one soldier, “we came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich.” ((J. H. Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469–1716 (London: 1963), 53.)) Mercenaries joined the conquest and raced to capture the human and material wealth of the New World.
The Spanish managed labor relations through a legal system known as the encomienda, an exploitive feudal arrangement in which Spain tied Indian laborers to vast estates. In the encomienda, the Spanish crown granted a person not only land but a specified number of natives as well. Encomenderos brutalized their laborers with punishing labor. After Bartolome de Las Casas published his incendiary account of Spanish abuses (The Destruction of the Indies), Spanish authorities abolished the encomienda in 1542 and replaced it with the repartimiento. Intended as a milder system, the repartimiento nevertheless replicated many of the abuses of the older system and the rapacious exploitation of the native population continued as Spain spread its empire over the Americas.
As Spain’s New World empire expanded, Spanish conquerors met the massive empires of Central and South America, civilizations that dwarfed anything found in North America. In central America the Maya built massive temples, sustained large populations, and constructed a complex and long-lasting civilization with a written language, advanced mathematics, and stunningly accurate calendars. But Maya civilization, although it had not disappeared, nevertheless collapsed before European arrival, likely due to droughts and unsustainable agricultural practices. But the eclipse of the Maya only heralded the later rise of the most powerful native civilization ever seen in the Western Hemisphere: the Aztecs.
Militaristic migrants from northern Mexico, the Aztecs moved south into the Valley of Mexico, conquered their way to dominance, and built the largest empire in the New World. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they found a sprawling civilization centered around Tenochtitlan, an awe-inspiring city built on a series of natural and man-made islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco, located today within modern-day Mexico City. Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325, rivaled the world’s largest cities in size and grandeur. Much of the city was built on large artificial islands called chinampas which the Aztecs constructed by dredging mud and rich sediment from the bottom of the lake and depositing it over time to form new landscapes. A massive pyramid temple, the Templo Mayor, was located at the city center (its ruins can still be found in the center of Mexico City). When the Spaniards arrived they could scarcely believe what they saw: 70,000 buildings, housing perhaps 200,000-250,000 people, all built on a lake and connected by causeways and canals. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Cortez’s soldiers, later recalled, “When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments … Some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? … I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.” ((Bernal Diaz del Castillo, A. P. Maudslay, trans. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), 190-191.))
From their island city the Aztecs dominated an enormous swath of central and southern Mesoamerica. They ruled their empire through a decentralized network of subject peoples that paid regular tribute–including everything from the most basic items, such as corn, beans, and other foodstuffs, to luxury goods such as jade, cacao, and gold–and provided troops for the empire. But unrest festered beneath the Aztec’s imperial power and European conquerors lusted after its vast wealth.
Hernan Cortes, an ambitious, thirty-four year old Spaniard who had won riches in the conquest of Cuba, organized an invasion of Mexico in 1519. Sailing with 600 men, horses, and cannon, he landed on the coast of Mexico. Relying on a native translator, whom he called Doña Marina, and whom Mexican folklore denounces as La Malinche, Cortes gathered information and allies in preparation for conquest. Through intrigue, brutality, and the exploitation of endemic political divisions, he enlisted the aid of thousands of native allies, defeated Spanish rivals, and marched on Tenochtitlan.
Aztec dominance rested upon fragile foundations and many of the region’s semi-independent city-states yearned to break from Aztec rule while nearby kingdoms, including Tarascans to the north, and the remains of Maya city-states on the Yucatán peninsula, chafed at Aztec power.
Through persuasion, and maybe because some Aztecs thought Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl, the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán peacefully. Cortes then captured the emperor Montezuma and used him to gain control of the Aztecs’ gold and silver reserves and its network of mines. Eventually, the Aztecs revolted. Montezuma was branded a traitor and uprising ignited the city. Montezuma was killed along with a third of Cortes’s men in la noche triste, the “night of sorrows.” The Spanish fought through thousands of indigenous insurgents and across canals to flee the city, where they regrouped, enlisted more native allies, captured Spanish reinforcements, and, in 1521, besieged the island city. The Spaniard’s eighty-five day siege cut off food and fresh water. Smallpox ravaged the city. One Spanish observer said it “spread over the people as great destruction. Some it covered on all parts—their faces, their heads, their breasts, and so on. There was great havoc. Very many died of it … They could not move; they could not stir.” ((Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (New York: 1955).)) Cortes, the Spaniards, and their native allies then sacked the city. 15,000 died. The temples were unmade. After two years of conflict, a million-person strong empire was toppled by disease, dissension, and a thousand European conquerors.
Further south, along the Andes Mountains in South America, the Quechuas, or Incas, managed a vast mountain empire. From their capital of Cuzco in the Andean highlands, through conquest and negotiation, the Inca built an empire that stretched around the western half of the South American continent from present day Ecuador to central Chile and Argentina. They built steppes to farm fertile mountain soil and by the 1400s they managed a thousand miles of Andean roads that tied together perhaps twelve million people. But like the Aztecs, unrest between the Incas and conquered groups created tensions and left the empire vulnerable to foreigners. Smallpox spread in advance of Spanish conquerors and hit the Incan empire in 1525. Epidemics ravaged the population, cutting the empire’s population in half, killing the Incan emperor Huayna Capac and many members of his family and sparking a bloody war of succession. Inspired by Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizzaro moved South and arrived amid an empire torn by chaos. With 168 men, he deceived Incan rulers and took control of the empire and seized the capital city, Cuzco, in 1533. Disease, conquest, and slavery ravaged the remnants of the Incan empire.
After the conquests of Mexico and Peru, Spain settled into their new empire. A vast administrative hierarchy governed the new holdings: royal appointees oversaw an enormous territory of landed estates and Indian laborers and administrators regulated the extraction of gold and silver and oversaw their transport across the Atlantic in Spanish galleons. Meanwhile Spanish migrants poured into the New World. 225,000 migrated during the sixteenth century alone, and 750,000 came during the entire three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Spaniards, often single, young, and male, emigrated for the various promises of land, wealth, and social advancement. Laborers, craftsmen, soldiers, clerks, and priests all crossed the Atlantic in large numbers. Indians, however, always outnumbered the Spanish and the Spaniards, by both necessity and design, incorporated native Americans–unequally–into colonial life.
An elaborate racial hierarchy marked Spanish life in the New World. Regularized in the mid-1600s but rooted in medieval practices, the Sistema de Castas organized individuals into various racial groups based upon their supposed “purity of blood.” Various classifications—often elaborately arrived at—became almost prerequisites for social and political advancement in Spanish colonial society. Peninsulares—Iberian-born Spaniards, or Españoles–occupied the highest levels of administration and acquired the greatest estates. Their descendants, New World-born Spaniards, or criollos, occupied the next rung and rivaled the peninsulares for wealth and opportunity. Mestizos–a term used to describe those of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage–followed.
Like the French later in North America, the Spanish tolerated and sometimes even supported interracial marriage. There were simply too few Spanish women in the New World to support the natural growth of a purely Spanish population. The Catholic Church endorsed interracial marriage as a moral bulwark against bastardy and rape. As early as 1533, King Carlos I declared that any child with Spanish blood “to the half” was entitled to certain Spanish rights. By 1600, mestizos made up a large portion of the colonial population. By the early 1700s, more than one-third of all marriages bridged the Spanish-Indian divide. Largely separated by wealth and influence from the peninsulares and criollos, however, mestizos typically occupied a middling social position in Spanish New World society. They were not quite Indios, or Indians, but their lack of limpieza de sangre, or “pure blood,” removed them from the privileges of full-blooded Spaniards. Spanish fathers of sufficient wealth and influence might shield their mestizo children from racial prejudice, and a number of wealthy mestizos married Españoles to “whiten” their family lines, but more often mestizos were confined to a middle-station in the Spanish New World.
Slaves and Indians occupied the lowest rungs of the social ladder. After Bartolome de las Casas and other reformers shamed the Spanish for their harsh Indian policies in the 1530s, the Spanish outlawed Indian slavery. In the 1550s, the encomienda system of land-based forced-labor gave way to the repartimiento, an exploitative but slightly softer form of forced wage-labor. Slaves labored especially on Spain’s Caribbean plantation islands.
Many manipulated the Casta System to gain advantages for themselves and their children. Mestizo mothers, for instance, might insist that their mestizo daughters were actually castizas, or quarter-Indians, who, if they married a Spaniard, could, in the eyes of the law, produce “pure” criollo children entitled to the full rights and opportunities of Spanish citizens. But “passing” was an option for the few. Instead, the massive native populations within Spain’s New World Empire ensured a level of cultural and racial mixture–or Mestizaje–unparalleled in British North America. Spanish North America wrought a hybrid culture that was neither fully Spanish nor fully Indian. The Spanish not only built Mexico City atop Tenochtitlán, but food, language, and families spilled across racial barriers. In 1531, a poor Indian named Juan Diego reported that he was visited by the Virgin Mary, who came as a dark-skinned Nahuatl-speaking Indian. Reports of miracles spread across Mexico and the Virgen de Guadalupe became a national icon for a new mestizo society.
From Mexico, Spain expanded northward. Lured by the promises of gold and another Tenochtitlán, Spanish expeditions scoured North America for another wealthy Indian empire. Huge expeditions, resembling vast moving communities, composed of hundreds of soldiers, settlers, priests, and slaves, with enormous numbers of livestock, moved across the continent. Juan Ponce de Leon, the conqueror of Puerto Rico, landed in Florida in 1513 in search of wealth and slaves. Cabeza de Vaca joined the Narvaez expedition to Florida a decade later, was shipwrecked, and embarked upon a remarkable multi-year odyssey across the Gulf of Mexico and Texas into Mexico. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and it remains the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the present-day United States.
But without the rich gold and silver mines of Mexico, the plantation-friendly climate of the Caribbean, or the exploitive potential of large Indian empires, North America offered little incentive for Spanish officials. Still, Spanish expeditions combed North America. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado pillaged his way across the Southwest. Hernando De Soto tortured and raped and enslaved his way across the Southeast. Soon Spain had footholds–however tenuous–across much of the continent.
The “discovery” of America unleashed horrors. Europeans embarked upon a debauching path of death and destructive exploitation that unleashed murder and greed and slavery. But disease was deadlier than any weapon in the European arsenal. It unleashed death on a scale never before seen in human history. Estimates of the population of pre-Columbian America range wildly. Some argue for as much as 100 million, some as low as 2 million. In 1983, Henry Dobyns put the number at 18 million. Whatever the precise estimates, nearly all scholars tell of the utter devastation wrought by European disease. Dobyns estimated that in the first 130 years following European contact, 95 percent of Native Americans perished. ((Henry F. Dobyns, Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983).)) (At its worst, Europe’s Black Death peaked at death rates of 25% to 33%. Nothing else in history rivals the American demographic disaster.) A 10,000 year history of disease crashed upon the New World in an instant. Smallpox, typhus, the bubonic plague, influenza, mumps, measles: pandemics ravaged populations up and down the continents. Wave after wave of disease crashed relentlessly. Disease flung whole communities into chaos. Others it destroyed completely.
Disease was only the most terrible in a cross-hemispheric exchange of violence, culture, trade, and peoples–the so-called “Columbian Exchange”–that followed in Columbus’s wake. Global diets, for instance, were transformed. The America’s calorie-rich crops revolutionized Old World agriculture and spawned a worldwide population boom. Many modern associations between food and geography are but products of the Columbian Exchange: potatoes in Ireland, tomatoes in Italy, chocolate in Switzerland, peppers in Thailand, and citrus in Florida are all manifestations of the new global exchange. Europeans, for their part, introduced their domesticated animals to the New World. Pigs ran rampant through the Americas, transforming the landscape as they spread throughout both continents. Horses spread as well, transforming the Native American cultures who adapted to the newly introduced animal. Partly from trade, partly from the remnants of failed European expeditions, and partly from theft, Indians acquired horses and transformed native American life in the vast North American plains.
The European’s arrival bridged two worlds and ten-thousand years of history separated from each other since the closing of the Bering Strait. Both sides of the world had been transformed. And neither would ever again be the same.
This chapter was edited by Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, with content contributions by with content contributions by L.D. Burnett, Michelle Cassidy, D. Andrew Johnson, Joseph Locke, Ben Wright, and Garrett Wright.
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