Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Previous: Introduction: American Wests
Next: Chapter 2: Empires and enclaves

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is an appropriate perch from which to begin a contemplation of the history of American Wests. The monument was designed to celebrate the westward expansion of the United States and to place St. Louis at its opening. On a clear day, from the top of this edifice more than six hundred feet up, the view to the west dazzles.

Yet the history of Wests requires viewers to take in the entire panorama. While facing east, they might consider the American West that once stretched that way from the Mississippi River. Gazing east, they might also imagine how the landscape looked long before there was a United States or even a St. Louis. With that deeper historical view, the great earthen mounds of Cahokia would dominate the immediate horizon.

Nine hundred years ago, those mounds stood at the center of the largest metropolis in what is now the United States. Cahokia’s influence reached across a vast hinterland. Products flowed to it from all directions. People came to it from afar. And then, for reasons we do not completely understand, Cahokia was abandoned. Its mounds were eroding by the time Europeans arrived in the area.

Much remains a mystery about Cahokia (including what its inhabitants called it) and about Indian words and worlds in the centuries before Europeans envisioned the Americas as their West. From the vantage point of Cahokia unfolds not a static and generic “prehistory” but a dynamic and diverse past defined by peoples in motion, societies in flux, cultures entangling, powers competing, and realms shifting—all with important implications for the colonial trajectories that followed.

The local view

Mounds made of packed earth first appeared in and around the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers around one thousand years ago. Thousands more elevations, mostly in the form of cones and pyramids, but also in a variety of animal shapes, could be found from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Mounds were particularly abundant in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, where the construction of some dated back thousands of years, and where what historians call “Mississippian culture” flourished between ad 900 and 1300.

Cahokia boasted the most impressive constellation of mounds. There some 120 mounds, spread across five square miles, had been built by ad 1100. The largest of these pyramids, which we know as Monk’s Mound, covered fifteen acres, contained twenty-two million cubic feet of dirt, and ascended in three terraces to a platform one hundred feet above the base. A fifty-acre rectangular plaza stretched in front of it. On top of Monk’s and other mounds were staged a variety of rituals and ceremonies witnessed by multitudes on the plazas below. Between the mounds, plazas and residential quarters housed between ten and twenty thousand people at their peak in the twelfth century. Beyond were immense fields that provided the basic subsistence of the largest congregation of inhabitants north of Mexico.

Feeding so many mouths and building so many mounds were enormous and elaborate undertakings. In normal times, Cahokians, like residents of other Mississippian settlements, drew their subsistence from a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and, above all, farming. The latter, which mixed together the cultivation of maize, beans, and squash, was principally the responsibility of women, and it was the most important contributor to Mississippian diets. While the basic technology for cultivating these crops remained simple—sticks to make holes to plant seeds and stone hoes to build up hills around plants—the development of new strains of corn, better suited to colder climates and shorter growing seasons, was essential to the success of farmers at Cahokia and across the woodlands of North America. Absent from diets here and throughout precolonial Indian America were meat and milk from livestock, for the Americas never had or had long lost larger animals suitable for domestication. The lack of sizeable beasts of burden also meant that all of the dirt for all of the mounds had to be carried by humans alone. One basket at a time, it took more than three million hours of human labor to construct Monk’s Mound.

These mounds required that builders be at least partially freed from the demands of food production. Fortunately, during the several hundred years that coincided with Cahokia’s heyday, food was produced easily enough and in sufficient quantities. In these centuries, Cahokians, other Mississippians, and indeed Indians across a good part of North America profited from favorable climate change. Beginning around ad 800 and continuing for around four hundred years, the climate across much of the Northern Hemisphere became wetter and warmer. Longer growing seasons and more predictable rainfall improved yields and permitted agriculture to spread into new regions.

Cahokians benefited as well from far-reaching exchange networks. Drawing resources from distant places was no recent development. Excavations of much older sites in mid-America have uncovered shells from the Gulf of Mexico, copper from the Great Lakes, and obsidian from the Rockies. But no other Mississippian site has revealed a network as vast or extensive as at Cahokia.

Why these items came in such quantities to Cahokia is a subject of debate. Archaeologists generally believe that much of the flow owed to Cahokia’s place as a religious and imperial center and was tribute from subordinated peoples. Deer remains found at Cahokia, which include few lower limb, skull, or neck bones, have led archaeologists to the conclusion that the animals were likely killed elsewhere than Cahokia and only prime cuts were transported there. Burial practices provide additional confirmation of social hierarchies in Cahokia and between it and its hinterlands. How else to explain the presence of vast quantities of exotic goods, often carefully laid out in the form of an animal, in the graves of a favored few? Not just goods, but also other people were interred alongside these presumably high-status individuals. Many of these skeletons, sometimes numbering in the dozens and typically young women, displayed signs of malnourishment and ritual mutilation, which suggests that they were enslaved captives who were sacrificed during funeral ceremonies.

If some people in Cahokia’s expansive orbit acceded to the supremacy of the center, others resisted its domination. In the former category were those villages (generally in the vicinity of Cahokia but some at a greater distance) where Cahokian ways, rites, and symbols blended with or replaced indigenous cultural elements. Yet even in these places, demands from Cahokia’s imperial-religious masters seem to have generated resentments. Whether such anger turned into armed clashes is not clear, though in the third quarter of the twelfth century, Cahokians built a two-mile palisade around the central city to protect against attackers. In these same years and in ensuing decades, warfare appears to have become more frequent.

Mounting defense costs contributed to Cahokia’s decline in the thirteenth century, but environmental changes proved more devastating. To be sure, a connection existed between the two. The palisades, for example, required thousands of logs to construct, and cutting so many trees exacerbated shortages of wood. Deforestation, in turn, left fields more vulnerable to flooding and soil erosion, which reduced harvests and brought food scarcity where there had been surplus. An even greater challenge to the well-being of Cahokians came from climate changes that affected peoples across much of the globe. After several hundred years of generally wetter and warmer times, coinciding with Cahokia’s rise, in the thirteenth century came a prolonged period in which the climate grew colder and rainfall less consistent. The “Little Ice Age” shortened growing seasons on both sides of the north Atlantic, disrupting long-standing agricultural practices and forcing farmers to change their ways. Some of Cahokia’s neighbors adapted more readily by planting new varieties of corn. By contrast, Cahokia’s growers kept closer to custom and experienced diminishing harvests.

As food supplies decreased and other necessities, such as game and timber, became harder to find, the glory days of Cahokia faded. By 1200, its population was probably half of what it had once been. Fifty years later only around two thousand people were there. Through the remainder of the thirteenth century, the population continued to fall. No single catastrophe seems to have occurred to cause this decline. Emigration—not starvation—appears to have reduced Cahokia’s population. By around 1400, Cahokia had been entirely depopulated, its magnificent mounds abandoned.

The continental view

Exceptional as the rise and fall of Cahokia was, it exemplifies more general rules about the history of precolonial North America (which for the purposes of this book refers only to that portion of North America that is north of present-day Mexico). True, Cahokia’s mounds were taller and more numerous, its population many times larger, its radius much wider than any other Mississippian site, or any metropolis north of Mexico. To survey precolonial American history exclusively from Cahokia would be akin to treating a study of Paris or London in the Middle Ages as a stand-in for all of medieval Europe. Still, in the case of Cahokia, the differences between it and its hinterlands were more a matter of degree than of kind.

Unlike the European cities to which its population compared, Cahokia lacked the administrative apparatus and occupational distinctions of those capitals. It developed no imperial bureaucracy or standing army. Nor, despite Cahokia’s extensive exchange relations, did its population include a distinct set of merchants. In contrast with European towns, Cahokia also had no specialized artisans. Instead, people farmed. More specifically, women cultivated, with assistance from men. Cahokia’s men, like Indian men across much of North America, supplemented the foods produced and prepared primarily by women by hunting and fishing. In between these activities, they engaged in the raids that brought captives to Cahokia and demonstrated their worthiness as warriors.

Such patterns of life and labor came to characterize Indian societies across those portions of North America where maize-growing took hold. The correspondences were most obvious in other Mississippian towns, which established their own chiefdoms with expansive trading and raiding networks, featured similarly built-to-awe mounds, and venerated corn for its life-giving qualities. Like Cahokia, the inhabitants of these sites suffered as well when climate change cut harvests and intensified competition for vital resources. In the face of prolonged difficult times, they, too, likely doubted the spiritual powers on which the authority of rulers rested. Under environmental and human pressure, some chiefdoms collapsed completely during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; other Mississippian towns hung on, albeit in much reduced states.

In the metropolis of Cahokia and in small Mississippian villages, daily existence and rituals were quite similar because of the common denominator of corn. Although it had taken thousands of years for the cultivation of maize to spread from its Mesoamerican points of origin into North America, its realm expanded far more quickly during the favorable climatic period that coincided with Cahokia’s rise. Crossing longitudinal lines much more readily than it had during its long northward march from Mexico, maize had come by ad 1000 or 1100 to supply the foundations of subsistence for most peoples across the eastern woodlands (at least south of the Great Lakes). Its cultivators also pushed westward from the Mississippi River onto the eastern plains. When corn gained primacy, it not only fed people but also suffused the stories they told about their origins, inspired the ceremonies they performed to keep their worlds in order, and reshaped the roles and powers of men and women.

In addition, as at Cahokia, when corn-growing became more difficult, the problem created social instability in societies and promoted more violence between them. One response, of which the archaeological record provides abundant evidence, was to abandon fields (and villages) in no longer productive areas and seek opportunities elsewhere. Another was to fight over suddenly more scarce resources. That seems to explain an attack in the early fourteenth century on a community along the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota. The victims, who numbered nearly five hundred men, women, and children, were already malnourished when their enemies, possibly in the same condition, burned their fortified settlement and mutilated its inhabitants.

The closest parallel to Cahokia’s rise and fall was in Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. Around the same time that Cahokia and other Mississippian sites were taking off, the people of Chaco (whose name for themselves we also do not know, but whose enemies referred to them as the Anasazi) were expanding their settlements. By the end of the eleventh century, a dozen towns and scores of smaller hamlets dotted the canyon floor and the surrounding area (now the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado converge), which was home to several thousand people. Most impressive was what is now known as Pueblo Bonita. There the edifices that inspired awe were not earthen mounds but multistory buildings, which, like Cahokia’s pyramids, required the marshaling of an immense labor force. Approximately one million dressed stones were used in the buildings at Pueblo Bonita, along with two hundred thousand logs, most of them transported more than forty miles into the canyon. As at Cahokia, none of this would have been possible without a large workforce and an ample food supply. These existed, because the people of Chaco Canyon had learned to grow corn. Indeed, Chaco was closer to Mexico, and corn had come earlier there than to Cahokia. But in the more arid environment of Chaco, its successful cultivation necessitated the construction of an elaborate complex of dams, ditches, canals, and reservoirs to keep fields sufficiently watered. In addition to the waterworks, the people of Chaco also built hundreds of miles of roads to connect their towns and to foster the movement of goods and people in and out of the canyon.

This system functioned well for several hundred years—until fifty years of drought struck, beginning around 1130. Prayers for rain went unanswered, and storehouses of corn were depleted. Population declined, and some communities were abandoned. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the drier climate and the downward trends continued. Competition once again bred increased warfare and decreased quality of life. As had happened at Cahokia, the descendants of those who had built Pueblo Bonita and other sites in Chaco Canyon and its vicinity ultimately gave up and moved on.

Where did they go? The most common supposition is to the Rio Grande Valley, where they became the progenitors of the Pueblo peoples. A few centuries later, the region the Anasazi (or Ancestral Pueblo peoples) had left was resettled by migrants who had journeyed into the Four Corners region from previous homes a thousand or so miles to the north and west. These newcomers split into the Navajos and the Apaches, extending their domains around the Pueblo towns and territories. A new world developed in the aftermath of Chaco Canyon’s demise, one whose trajectory would be profoundly altered when newer comers arrived from the south at the end of the seventeenth century.

The comparative view

Moving around was a time-tested survival strategy for Indians across North America. Even relatively settled farming peoples undertook seasonal migrations in search of wild game to supplement their agricultural production. When resources were exhausted, more permanent relocations, as at Cahokia and Chaco Canyon, occurred. For nonfarming peoples, whose territory still encompassed the majority of North America, itinerancy was essential. While favorable climate shifts permitted the expansion of corn’s realm, the crop still required a 120-day growing season, which excluded most of Canada. It also needed approximately twenty inches of rain spread across the year—or, barring that, a major manipulation of water supplies as at Chaco Canyon. Most of the western half of North America lacked that amount of rain, and very few of the societies that developed were inclined or organized to carry out significant irrigation projects. The more mobile societies that inhabited the west and the far north of North America relied exclusively on hunting, fishing, and gathering. These modes of subsistence and the mobility they required add to the remarkable diversity of Indian America and further differentiated societies on the western side of the north Atlantic from those on its eastern flank.

During the colonial era, Europeans conceived a ladder of cultural development that assigned the top rung to those with dense sedentary populations and expansive trade networks. Europeans also deemed agriculture an essential mark of improvement. At the bottom of this hierarchy were hunter-gatherers. Through this lens, which has continued to influence evaluations of human progress, Cahokia and Pueblo Bonita earn pride of place among Indian societies of precolonial North America. By contrast, more nomadic hunting bands get designated primitive and static.

In fact, these Indians, like those at Cahokia and Pueblo Bonita, engineered profound changes to the world around them. Everywhere that Indians lived, landscapes bore the imprint of human activity. Fire was a particularly important means of improvement for those who hunted. Although such people did not turn forests into fields, they did burn woodlands to make meadows or clear underbrush, the better to attract and the easier to kill game.

Lack of agriculture did not always correlate with lower population density. In the centuries before Europeans arrived in the Americas, California’s population probably topped three hundred thousand. Then, as now, most of its inhabitants lived close to the coast or in nearby interior valleys. The higher density of population in these parts was not a result of agricultural surpluses; farming made almost no inroads into precolonial California, whose inhabitants hunted, fished, and gathered. These activities sustained a relatively large total population, thanks to a wealth of resources and to the ingenuity with which natives adapted to and altered local ecosystems.

In California and across North America, political and linguistic diversity went hand in hand. The primacy of local control and the absence of centralized states with administrative agents worked against the development of common tongues. The lack of written languages in North America also stood in the way of any standardizing tendencies.

It is easy to overstate the degree to which these unifying and standardizing trends had triumphed on the other side of the north Atlantic. One thousand years ago, or for that matter five hundred years ago, most Europeans could not read or write, and they spoke a local language that seemed at best a very distant cousin to the ones used at court in London, Paris, Madrid, or other capitals. Still, Latin provided a common tongue for Europe’s literate minority, and the promotion of the “King’s English” in England (and its equivalent in other European monarchies) gave Europeans far more linguistic unity than had developed in North America. Likewise, the consolidation of monarchies was a work in progress in Europe, still challenged by jealous nobles and the presumptive royalty of smaller states that were being swallowed up. Again, however, the consolidation of larger kingdoms and the creation of centralized administrative structures and standing armies went well beyond anything in North America.

The mobility of Indians introduces another wedge between the worlds on one side of the Atlantic and those on the other. European peasants were often bound to the piece of land they worked, while Indian farmers relocated their fields and villages occasionally and always spent a portion of the year away hunting. The circuits of Indians who did not farm were even longer and wider. By contrast, various laws prohibited European commoners from hunting at all; this was a right reserved for nobles. For meat and animal power, Europeans depended instead on livestock, as the peoples of the Americas could not.

Early modern European theories of social stages have bequeathed to us the tendency to perceive these dissimilarities as evidence of European progress and Indian backwardness. The grip of these theories continues today. History books mark the maturation of European societies in the consolidation of monarchies, the creation of coercive mechanisms of authority under state control, the standardization of language, and the presence of sedentary populations. This schema becomes even more pronounced when lining up the technologies of Europeans and American Indians. Here, the Europeans’ wheeled vehicles, oceangoing vessels, and metal weapons are set against their absence in the Americas. Taken this way, the different records of social and technological development get mistaken for manifestations of destiny.

This ledger offers a flawed reckoning of precolonial Indian achievements. It fails to account for the adjustments that Indians made that allowed them to persevere when the climate shifted. Great centers like Cahokia and Chaco Canyon were lost, and peoples around North America endured hardships. Yet in the centuries before the Atlantic was crossed, Indians were generally better fed and more physically robust than Europeans. Although it was Europeans who moved across the ocean, the mobility and adaptability of Indians within the Americas protected them more successfully from devastating famines, which periodically ravaged Europe during the Little Ice Age.

This accounting of visible divergences also misleads as an explanation for what followed the European “discovery” of the Americas. Precolonial developments influenced the ways in which Indians viewed the newcomers—the ways they met, mingled with, mated with, borrowed from, traded with, raided, and fought Europeans. The Indians’ experiences and memories equipped them to adapt to the unfamiliar plants, animals, tools, and weapons the Europeans brought with them. The Indians’ adaptability allowed them to accommodate the even stranger rules and rites that Europeans sought to impose on their intercourse and combat. But nothing could prepare Indians for that which they could not see, which proved to be the deadly agents of conquest on which the foundations of American Wests rested.

Previous: Introduction: American Wests
Next: Chapter 2: Empires and enclaves