Module 3. Our Story: Native Americans


English explorers intended to take the same routes into the west as the Spanish but were most successful in the settlement of North America. Two primary colonies were established in what is now the American east coast – the colonies of New England, now mainly Massachusetts, and Virginia. In each of these regions, English settlers also encountered indigenous peoples; however, the English approach was initially different than the Spanish. The English sought to forge alliances with Natives, learn the territory, and convert the Natives to Christianity. Eventually, the desire for expanding territories, along with the general beliefs of White superiority, would break down attempts of coexisting.

However, we must not assume that indigenous peoples had no agency or free will. As the English began to populate North America to form colonies that would become America itself, they encountered Natives that saw opportunities for trade with the light skinned newcomers (Lepore, 1998). Evidence shows that the weapons Europeans welded were coveted by some tribes to give them power over tribal disputes. Native Americans also traded with the English for glass beads that they considered valuable, but the English viewed as meaningless. These trinkets circulated amongst the tribes as currency.

As the English flooded into the eastern seaboard of North America, they quickly became the dominant colonial power. Settlement was difficult and intermittent conflict with Native Americans kept the English close to their fortified settlements. At times, Native Americans worked with colonists as exemplified in the story of Squanto, who was said to have been present during the first Thanksgiving feast. Squanto was a man who had already had some exposure to the English and could communicate with the colonists. This brief period of harmony would be short lived in the New World.

When the English came and settled, the fundamental changes to the land and its people were significant.  First, the impact of disease has to be considered. Native Americans had no immunities to diseases that the Europeans brought with them, and their communities were tragically impacted. These diseases included smallpox, influenza, and plagues that decimated Native populations. Next, there was a culture clash that caused many problems. The English brought herding animals like cattle and sheep that were not native to the Americas and needed land to graze. These wandering animals often disrupted Native life and the forest ecosystems. Trees were also felled to create space for planting crops, sustenance for the influx of colonists in the lands. Over time, the settlers would need more and more land to spread out, and territorial lines would be both fought over and ignored. In certain areas, finite resources and trade disputes occurred, resulting in a need for revenge and retaliation.


old illustration of room full of English settlers speaking to a Native American man
“Wampanoag” by Wikimedia. is in the Public Domain, CC0

One of the more significant was the Pequot Massacre, which occurred in May of 1637. Exhibiting the land lust of the colonists, a militia of soldiers from New England stormed into the region they referred to as Mystic and attacked the Pequots. The village was set on fire, and any Pequots attempting to escape were shot. Survivors were sold into slavery, and the whole affair was justified by the will of God, as the colonists were Christians. This was viewed as a triumph for the English, and more land was used to settle upon.

Tensions continued to mount in the New England region until all-out war broke out. The body of an Englishman named John Sassamon was found and suspicion turned quickly to the Wampanoags, the prominent tribe in the area. The Native American’s men suspected of the murder were put to trial, found guilty of the crime, and executed. The Wampanoags retaliated and killed nine English colonists. This violence would escalate into a violent and bloody conflict called King Phillip’s War. The Native American leader Metacom, known to the English as King Philip, led a coalition of Natives in the attack of several Puritan townships. Metacom had previously maintained a modicum of peace, and even small conflicts were negotiated by both parties. The execution of the three Natives proved a step too far and showed that the colonists were overstepping their boundaries. The colonists, however, viewed the Native Americans as godless savages and an impediment to English success and growth in the new world. It was widely believed that natives were inferior to Europeans and were not using the land to its full potential. With these ideas in mind, war was easy and simple. War waged for months as the English attempted to chase Metacom and their supporters in lands they did not know well. Finally, the sachem Metacom was captured and put to death. The war was over, and the English remained dominant.

One weakness in the eyes of the English was the fact that the Native Americans seemed fractured and easily manipulated. This was due to the numerous tribes that existed in North America, each with varied culture, loyalty, and territory. Although the natives might have appeared the same to the English, they were not united. These tribal differences were often exploited by the colonists, and their loyalties were traded and bought by the different groups in colonial times. This is best exemplified during the French and Indian War, sometimes also called the Seven Years’ War.  In the colonies, this conflict was fought between the French and the English, each with their own Native American allies. One of the boons of this war was the area known as the “middle ground” or the Ohio River Valley territory. Again, we can observe another instance of colonists wanting to spread and continue to settle westward. The end of the war resulted in victory for the English; however, Parliament also passed the Proclamation Line of 1763, an act that prevented the colonists from settling past the territorial line along the Appalachian Mountains and the far eastern boarders of the English colonies. Essentially, the English colonists did not gain control of the Ohio Valley as they hoped. Despite the boundary set by Parliament, many colonists ignored the law.  Violations were common, and even General George Washington himself crossed this territorial divide.

Throughout the colonial period into the formation of the United States, Native Americans saw their lands taken over by English settlers. Once the revolution ended and the Americans achieved freedom from the British, the Americans looked to the west to expand their territories. Some attempts of pan-Indian alliances were forged to fight against the American aggressors. The term Pan-Indian refers to a coalition of Natives from different tribes working in unity against a common enemy. These attempts were led by Native Americans such as Tecumseh during the War of 1812, who sought to use force to defend and take back their lands. Tecumseh asserted that their land once “belonged to red men” and had “since made miserable by the White people” (Tecumseh, 1810). Although Native Americans were treated as sovereign nations when signing treaties, the respect for Natives was often ignored when they were regarded as inferior and unable to maintain control of their lands. The American government repeatedly reneged on treaties, and new states formed as populations expanded.  When U.S. citizenship was established, Native Americans were not extended the rights of other White Americans, not for more than 100 years later.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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