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Part B: Old History (1500 to 1800)

Europeans came back to the American continent following Columbus’ s voyage of 1492. They settled on the East Coast and around the Great Lakes. England, Spain, France and other European countries wanted to participate in the wealth of the new colonies. They fought among themselves as well as against the Indians. Their presence had a negative effect on many native people. In 1620 a group of families sailed on the Mayflower from Plymouth in England for America. The conditions on board were very poor and the voyage took 65 days.

Wars between tribes, especially among the Great Plains Nations, were fought for many reasons: to seize plunder, to avenge insults, etc. Other nations such as the Hopi and the Shawnee tried non-violent ways to settle disputes. They negotiated, performed special ceremonies or exchanged gifts.

Native American children were taught to have strength of mind, body and spirit, and to respect the warriors and elders as well as the chiefs who had shown their bravery in battle. The young men of some tribes had to take part in long, painful ceremonies if they wanted to become warriors.

Spirituality was an important part of the lives of all Native Americans. They believed in the presence and power of spiritual forces in all things. From everyday activities to special rituals, their behaviour and beliefs showed respect for the power of nature and the world around them. They participated in many activities to communicate with the spirit world: dancing, fasting, offering gifts or willingly experiencing pain. Healing rituals, like the Great Plains Sun dance, involved extreme physical exertion and suffering while others like the Iroquois Green Corn festival were joyful occasions full of celebrations and Thanksgivings. Mandan warriors danced to increase the herds of buffalo and draw them close to their lands.

The Sun Dance was performed once a year, in early summer, to fulfil vows made during time of distress. Dancers moved in a circle, representing the movement of the sun in the sky. The bravest warriors went as far as threading leather thongs through their flesh and dance for hours or days until the skin ripped and they could break free. Music and dancing helped bring native Americans closer to the spirit world.

Shamans were elder Indians (men and women) who acted as magicians, healers and priests. It was believed that shamans could communicate with spirits, see into the future, bring good fortune and heal the sick. Their wisdom and advice were highly respected.

The USA became independent of England in 1783. The new government tried, at first but without success, to limit new western settlements as there was constant fighting between the Native and the settlers who, moreover, were known for their lawlessness. Soon the region became known as the “Wild West”.

The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives, bloodlines and cultures of the peoples of the continent. The population history of American indigenous peoples postulates that infectious disease exposure, displacement, and warfare diminished populations, with the first the most significant cause. The first indigenous group encountered by Columbus were the 250,000 Taínos of Hispaniola who were the dominant culture in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. In thirty years, about 70% of the Tainos died. Enslaved, forced to labour in the mines, mistreated, the Tainos began to adopt suicidal behaviours, with women aborting or killing their infants, men jumping from the cliffs or ingesting manioc, a violent poison. They had no immunity to European diseases, so outbreaks of measles and smallpox ravaged their population.

Cultural areas of North America at time of European contact European colonization
Cultural areas of North America at time of European contact European colonization

The Laws of Burgos, 1512-1513 were the first codified set of laws governing the behaviour of Spanish settlers in America, particularly with regards to native Indians. They forbade the maltreatment of natives, and endorsed their conversion to Catholicism.

Reasons for the decline of the Native American populations are variously theorized to be from diseases, conflicts with Europeans, and conflicts among warring tribes. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives. After first contacts with Europeans and Africans, some believe that the death of 90 to 95% of the native population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases. Half the native population of Hispaniola in 1518 was killed by smallpox. Within a few years smallpox killed between 60% and 90% of the Inca population, with other waves of European disease weakening them further. Smallpox was only the first epidemic. Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618—all ravaged the remains of Inca culture. Smallpox had killed millions of native inhabitants of Mexico. Unintentionally introduced at Veracruz with the arrival of Pánfilo de Narváez on April 23, 1520, smallpox ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlan alone, including the emperor, and was credited with the victory of Hernán Cortés over the Aztec empire at Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) in 1521.

Over the centuries, the Europeans had developed high degrees of immunity to these diseases, while the Native Americans had no such immunity. Europeans had been ravaged in their own turn by such diseases as bubonic plague and Asian flu that moved west from Asia to Europe. In addition, when they went to some territories, such as Africa and Asia, they were more vulnerable to malaria.

The repeated outbreaks of influenza, measles and smallpox probably resulted in a decline of between one-half and two-thirds of the Aboriginal population of eastern North America during the first 100 years of European contact. In 1617–1619, smallpox reportedly killed 90% of the Massachusetts Bay Native Americans. In 1633, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Native Americans were exposed to smallpox because of contact with Europeans. As it had done elsewhere, the virus wiped out entire population groups of Native Americans. It reached Lake Ontario in 1636, and the lands of the Iroquois by 1679. During the 1770s, smallpox killed at least 30% of the West Coast Native Americans. Smallpox epidemics in 1780–1782 and 1837–1838 brought devastation and drastic population depletion among the Plains Indians. In 1832, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans (The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832).

In Brazil, the indigenous population has declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated 3 million to some 300,000 in 1997.

Later explorations of the Caribbean led to the discovery of the Arawak peoples of the Lesser Antilles. The culture was extinct by 1650. Only 500 had survived by the year 1550, though the bloodlines continued through the modern populace. In Amazonia, indigenous societies weathered centuries of colonization.

The Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. The re-introduction of the horse had a profound impact on Native American culture in the Great Plains of North America and of Patagonia in South America. By domesticating horses, some tribes had great success: they expanded their territories, exchanged many goods with neighbouring tribes, and more easily captured game, especially bison.