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

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Next: Chapter 3: Making the first American West

Two hundred years after Christopher Columbus first voyaged from Europe to the Americas, a flurry of witchcraft accusations and executions shook the social order in colonial North America. One episode took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Another occurred far to the west in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The former is much better known today, though the latter claimed many more victims. The western incident also better reflected and was more important to the broader colonial history of North America.

Columbus, we now appreciate, discovered an Old World in 1492; his arrival created a new West, at least from the perspective of Europeans. The reverberations from Columbus’s voyage reached around the globe. Yet the upheaval was greatest in the Americas, where steep population declines reduced Indian numbers by more than 90 percent in the four centuries after 1492. Absent this toll, European occupation of North America could not have proceeded as it did. Over time, microbes, which were part of a broader biotic transoceanic migration, paved the way for European conquests and pushed Indian survivors to accept more of the goods and ideas imposed on them by invaders.

It is essential, however, that even very short introductions not drop the sense of “over time,” not treat the demise of Indian America as wholly determined by environmental forces unleashed in Columbus’s immediate wake. Control over North American lands remained hotly contested and quite uncertain for hundreds of years after 1492. Well into the eighteenth century, the vast majority of North American Indians had not become the subordinates of European colonizers. In fact, in most places there were no European settlements yet. Where there were, the security of these enclaves, like the fate of the empires that Europeans claimed to have built, rested on a variety of negotiated arrangements and cultural mixings with native peoples. And on the grasslands of the Great Plains, the spread of horses, though it was part of the process by which Afro-Eurasian plants and animals supplanted species native to the Americas, wrought a cultural revolution that enabled several Indian groups to dramatically expand their realms.

First contacts

In the first century after 1492, Europeans had trouble holding any place on the continent north of the Caribbean and of Mexico. The vessels of fishers and explorers probed the Atlantic coast, but they could not locate the passage to Asia that they sought. They did find Indians, who thwarted efforts by Europeans to found permanent colonies on the mainland and generally kept trade at the shores and on their terms. When Europeans ventured inland, their forays failed to establish lasting settlements, though what they left behind unsettled scores of Indian communities.

We know very little about the first contacts between North American Indians and Europeans and even less about what the former made of the latter. European witnesses claimed that Indians conceived the newcomers’ ships as floating islands or giant monsters and worshiped their metal tools and weapons. Indians supposedly also assumed Europeans to be supernatural beings.

Whatever the first impressions, more enduring ones soon took hold. Technologies obviously mattered. Indians called Europeans by names that translated as “woodworkers,” “metalworkers,” “clothmakers,” “axemakers,” and “knifemen.” Others simply designated them “strangers,” indicating how quickly the newcomers lost their godly status. This name also reflects how different these bearded men looked (and how bad these infrequent bathers smelled). Strange, too, were the ways of Europeans, whose presumption of superiority and sense of entitlement made them unwelcome guests.

The estrangement complicated, but did not preclude, entanglements between Indians and Europeans. Along the Atlantic seaboard, exchanges accompanied encounters. Indians appreciated the advantages that metal tools offered and (like almost all people) attached added value to certain exotic items that were not produced locally. Yet, in the first century after 1492, Indians held important advantages in shaping barter along the coastline. Europeans needed the foods and increasingly wanted the furs that Indians provided—more than Indians needed and wanted what Europeans offered. That allowed Indians to determine the setting and duration of trading sessions. It also gave them the better of the deals, at least as they saw it. “The Beaver does everything perfectly well,” an Indian informant explained to a French missionary in the early seventeenth century. “It makes kettles, hatchets, swords, [and] knives.” Europeans, from this native’s perspective, “have no sense,” for “they give us twenty knives … for one Beaver skin.”

These European goods circulated inland, following long-standing native trading routes. In these cases, no Europeans were directly involved. Indeed, European things moved far ahead of European people into the interior of North America, as did microbes, plants, and animals from the other side of the Atlantic.

Those Europeans who explored inland during the sixteenth century often traveled along those same trails, but they were less interested in establishing trade than in demanding tribute. Consider the expeditions of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Hernando de Soto in the late 1530s and early 1540s. Both men had been part of earlier Spanish conquests, and they borrowed from the playbook for domination developed in the Caribbean and Mexico. Lured by tales of cities of gold, Coronado journeyed north from Mexico, using swords, firearms, horses, and war dogs to terrorize Indian villagers in what is today Arizona and New Mexico. From there the search for precious metals sent him north and east onto the Great Plains, where he found neither gold nor great cities and accumulated expedition bills that bankrupted him. De Soto’s trek from Florida across what is today the southeastern United States took him into a country with bigger towns and chiefdoms, the holdovers from Mississippian cultures. De Soto, too, tried to dominate his way across these countries, and his forces did plenty of damage to the native towns they sought to subjugate. But the invaders did not emerge unscathed. De Soto himself died along the banks of the lower Mississippi River in 1542, and fewer than half of his men made it back alive to Mexico City.

The greater devastation, however, befell Indians and ensued from the germs De Soto’s men brought with them. These continued to spread long after the Spaniards had departed. The trails of specific epidemics are impossible now to recover. What is clear is that the region, so densely settled when De Soto’s expedition passed through it in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, had been significantly depopulated when Europeans returned in the seventeenth century. By then, many towns had disappeared, most chiefdoms had collapsed, and worlds much older than Europeans understood had been swept away.

New England and New Mexico in the seventeenth century

During the second post-Columbian century, Europeans gained a more significant foothold in North America, though their territorial assertions looked far more impressive on the maps they drew than on the ground they presumed to occupy. In a few places, particularly a narrow band along the Atlantic coast, English claims translated into actual colonies where Europeans generally came to dominate Indians. To the west, however, European settlements and settlers were fewer, and relations with Indians more complicated. The colonies that developed during the seventeenth century were diverse, and their interactions with Indians varied, as a brief comparison of two cases, Massachusetts and New Mexico, highlights.

In most American history textbooks, the beginnings of English colonization in Massachusetts date to 1620, when the Pilgrims established a settlement at Plymouth. The colonists survived their initial hardships, the familiar origin story goes, thanks to generous gifts from local Indians. But that chronology and the explanation for the first Thanksgiving ignores earlier contacts and erases the context in which Indians aided Pilgrims. Decades of dealings preceded the Pilgrims’ landing in Plymouth. This locale was the territory of the Wampanoags. Like other coastal tribes, the Wampanoags welcomed foreign goods, while managing the presence of foreigners, allowing mariners onshore only for limited stays. They could not, however, contain the germs of Europeans. Beginning in 1616 and continuing for three years, invasive pathogens decimated the tribe’s ranks. Their communities shattered and their security imperiled by their enemies, the Narragansetts, who had not yet suffered grievous losses, the Wampanoags allowed the English to settle. At the time, the Wampanoags’ decision made sense: the tools of the Europeans had some value, and the inability of Europeans to survive without assistance suggested that the Pilgrims posed a lesser threat to the Wampanoags than did the Narragansetts.

The Wampanoags were not the only Indians in the seventeenth century to make this calculation, but they were among the first to suffer the catastrophic consequences of underestimating the destructive potency of the newcomers. For the assistance of the Wampanoags, the Pilgrims gave thanks, though not so much to the Indians as to their God for miraculously clearing the wilderness for them. Saved from starvation, the colonists at Plymouth and later around Massachusetts Bay multiplied. Pressure on Indian landholdings intensified, sparking bloody wars in the 1630s and 1670s. By the closing years of the seventeenth century, the Wampanoags, along with most of the native peoples in a region that had now been recast as a “New England,” had been largely dispossessed. Their ranks greatly thinned by diseases, warfare, and migrations, the Indians who remained scraped by on the margins of colonial society. Some resided in “Praying Towns,” where missionaries tutored them in the ways of Christianity and “civilization.”

Developments in other English colonies resembled those in New England, but at the end of the seventeenth century the displacement of Indians and the dominion of a settler colonial society extended at most two hundred miles inland from the Atlantic coast. In the few interior spots where Europeans planted outposts, drawing colonists proved difficult, as did efforts to dictate to Indians. Even where colonizers presumed to rule, they learned the limits of their power.

That was the case in New Mexico, though the Spanish pretended their domination over Indians was as complete as that of the English in Massachusetts (or, for that matter, equivalent to that which earlier conquistadors had achieved in the Caribbean, central Mexico, and the Andes). In 1598, a little more than half a century after Coronado left, the Spanish returned to New Mexico—this time with intentions to stay and to reign. Spaniards quickly made it clear that they would tolerate no opposition. After squashing resistance at Ácoma in 1599, the Spanish commander, Juan de Oñate, decreed that all Indian men in the village over the age of twenty-five would have one foot cut off, while all over twelve would be enslaved for twenty years. On the surface, the brutal crackdown had the desired effect. Divided into dozens of separate communities (the term pueblo was Spanish for town and was used by Spanish colonizers to refer to town-dwelling Indians in New Mexico) that zealously guarded their autonomy, Pueblo Indians could mount no united challenge to Spanish conquest. Those at Ácoma and other towns in the region of the Rio Grande River were left with seemingly little choice but to bend to Spanish authority, forced to pay tribute in labor, crops, and sexual services. Pueblo Indians, like those in Massachusetts, appeared also to have surrendered in the spiritual contest with Catholic missionaries. Some four thousand Indians were baptized in the first decade of Spanish colonization; more than twenty thousand had converted by the mid-1620s.

Yet these numbers deceived. To the dismay of the padres, Indian converts backslid with alarming frequency. Many appeared to treat the Catholic faith and its rites as supplements, not substitutes, for indigenous beliefs and practices. Missionaries responded with harsh punishments, but whippings did not stem the persistence of traditions.

Beyond the fields of the various Pueblos, Spanish control over Indians within the expansive terrain they mapped as New Mexico was even more illusory. Without precious metals to mine or other obvious sources of wealth to harvest, New Mexico was no magnet for men on the make. Unlike Massachusetts, where a sizeable immigration of families combined with natural increases to bolster colonial ranks and tip the balance of numbers (and power) ever more against Indians, New Mexico attracted few European men and almost no European women. The lack of a large settler colonial population made it hard enough for the Spanish to keep Pueblo Indians subjugated, and these Indians lived in contained villages whose homes and fields (and food supplies) were vulnerable to attack. Other Indians within the borders of the colony, especially the Navajos and Apaches, were less sedentary. The Navajos and Apaches were themselves relatively recent arrivals to the region, having migrated from points north and west a few centuries earlier. Since their relocation, Navajos and Apaches had traded with Pueblo peoples, though at times they had raided to get what they wanted. The entrance of the Spanish disrupted these patterns. Spanish levies on Pueblo supplies deprived them of the surplus harvests they had previously been able to exchange with Navajos and Apaches. So the Navajos and Apaches shifted increasingly to raiding. This they could do more successfully thanks to their acquisition of horses (which the Spanish had introduced into the Americas). These raids, in turn, made the Pueblos more dependent on the Spanish for protection. And the failure of the Spanish to defend them emboldened raiders and created greater opposition to colonial rule among the Pueblos.

All of this made the revolt that erupted in 1680 both predictable and unexpected. It was predictable that unrest would trigger some kind of uprising. For decades, religious repression, economic oppression, and sexual exploitation of women had generated discontent among the Pueblos and sparked periodic flare-ups of local, anticolonial fervor. In the 1670s, the burdens of increased raiding and the onset of drought, which further diminished the aura of Spanish protectors, made the situation more combustible. It was no surprise, then, that in 1673 inhabitants at Tewa Pueblo demonstrated their defiance by publicly performing traditional dances. The Spanish responded in their usual way. They arrested and tortured forty-seven Tewas, from whom they extracted confessions of practicing “sorcery”—the Spaniards’ interpretation of Indian efforts to invoke supernatural powers. Three of the convicted were hanged, and a fourth committed suicide; others were whipped and sold into slavery. What was unprecedented was the extent to which Indians from so many different Pueblos joined together seven years later. Crucial to the creation of this united front was Popé, a man who had been among those flogged at Tewa in 1673 and who took the lead in plotting a coordinated attack against the Spanish. When it came on August 10, 1680, it caught the Spanish almost completely unawares and sent survivors fleeing southward.

During the revolt and its immediate aftermath, anticolonial fury targeted particularly the manifestations of Catholicism. Numerous priests were slain, churches burned, and images of saints smeared with excrement. Indians who had converted to Christianity plunged into water to cleanse themselves of their previous baptisms. This was part of a broader movement to revitalize native traditions by renouncing ties to Spanish things and Spanish thinking.

But the restoration of precolonial ways was never complete, and the spirit of unity did not endure. Freed from colonial domination, many Indians wished to keep the tools, crops, and livestock that they had adapted. Others turned against Popé’s leadership, which was at odds with traditions of local autonomy. When neither raids nor drought relented, the fractures deepened—and opened the path for Spanish reconquest in 1692.

On their return, the Spanish initially resorted to retribution. In 1692, the same year that nineteen convicted witches were hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, more than three times that number of Indians were executed for sorcery and sedition in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In the following decades, however, the Spanish adopted a softer stance toward the Pueblos. Not wanting to stir another Indian rebellion, Spanish authorities showed more tolerance for indigenous practices and reduced their economic demands on Pueblo communities. Through the eighteenth century in New Mexico and beyond, Spanish officials looked for alternative models by which to maintain and expand their place in North America.


1. Like many maps that delineate territories in colonial America, this one treats the claims of European powers as if they represented the situation on the ground in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These maps are still used today, even though they distort the history.


Alternatives abounded in the vast country between New Mexico and New England. In the first half of the eighteenth century, France claimed much of the territory between the supposed English and Spanish realms. It was, however, home to few French. Unable to dominate natives militarily and dependent on them economically, French colonists and colonial officials learned to accommodate Indian ways. The slippery common grounds that French and Indians created together in the interior of North America included an array of cultural fusions and a variety of political, economic, and religious arrangements. And in the middle of the continent, some Indians asserted their dominance by overrunning the claims of other Indians and eclipsing the imperial designs of Europeans.

The French did not initially intend to be cocreators of such alternatives, but the policies of the French state and the conditions and cultures they encountered in North America pushed their colonial regime away from the models of occupation and domination constructed by the English and the Spanish. Like their imperial rivals, the first French explorers sought a path to riches, preferably by finding a passage through North America to Asia. Failing that, men on the make hoped to exploit the resources and peoples of North America, while men on a mission aimed to save the souls of Indians. To these ends, the French established Québec in 1608. From there, Frenchmen made their way up the St. Lawrence River and into a network of inland waterways. None, however, led across the continent. Nor did the dense forests that surrounded the rivers and lakes of northeastern North America bear any signs of gold or silver, and the short growing season limited the region’s agricultural potential. All this dampened any ardor for permanent relocation from France to New France, which the French monarchy did little to encourage. By the middle of the seventeenth century, fewer than two thousand French colonists, almost all men, inhabited New France, a census that was one-twentieth the settler population in neighboring New England.

Among them, and often well ahead of most in bringing a French presence deeper into the interior of North America, was a determined cadre of Catholic priests. As in New Mexico and Massachusetts, missionaries in New France aimed to convert Indians to Christianity. Saving Indians meant they must give up most of their customary practices, beginning with what missionaries identified as the natives’ licentious sexuality. Still, French missionaries showed greater tolerance for the persistence of some traditions than did their Spanish or English counterparts. They also prepared themselves far better to live among Indians, learning specific native languages and gaining a degree of familiarity with native customs before commencing their work among Indians. Unlike Spanish and English missionaries, French priests needed those skills because they set up their outposts in Indian villages far beyond the realm of French control.

Along with missionaries, traders led the French advance. Their pursuit of animal skins, especially beaver pelts, required that they, too, develop greater understanding of Indian ways and come to better understandings with them. Although French authorities tried to keep colonists laboring in the fields that stretched along the St. Lawrence River, the lure of the forests was too great. Running into the woods (hence the name coureurs de bois) without official sanction, traders moved into the Great Lakes region and later into the Mississippi Valley. But this expansion did not displace Indians. To the contrary, the French lacked the numbers to impose their will on Indians. Besides, the venture that brought traders into the continent’s interior depended on the continued presence and participation of Indians. It was Indian men who hunted and trapped the animals and Indian women who prepared the skins. To secure the cooperation of Indian partners, French traders adjusted their expectations about prices and commerce and respected the different protocols of reciprocity and gift-giving that governed exchanges in woodland Indian societies. To create ties to Indian communities and to provide themselves with essential partners, coureurs de bois married Indian women. What emerged was a world of mixed ways and mixed-race offspring, which facilitated trade but concerned colonial officials. From their standpoint, the blendings threatened to turn fur traders into cultural traitors, into “white Indians.”

Yet French authorities made many concessions of their own to Indians. In need of allies against their more populous English adversaries, French officials had good reason to bridge cultural differences and make common cause with Indians, especially with Algonquian speakers in the Great Lakes region. Having suffered at the hands of the Iroquois, the Algonquians were equally in need and welcomed the protection of the French “father.” But though the French referred to Indians as “children,” the relationship between French fathers and Indian children was quite different from the patriarchal norms of European families (and societies). While Indians expected protection and provision from a father, these did not translate as they did in Europe to the right to discipline or the power to dominate. The alliance that French and Algonquians fashioned remained a delicate arrangement, whose maintenance required that rituals of conciliation be repeatedly performed and useful misunderstandings go unchallenged.

That Algonquians accepted the French both as “fathers” and as husbands did not indicate their subordination, but over time, trade and both human and ecological imperialism created among them a growing dependency on European goods and a weakening of their position. The beaver could do “everything perfectly well” as long as there were lots of beavers and the Indians’ demand for European things was limited. But as French and English traders introduced guns into the exchange networks, they initiated an arms race among Indians. To get more guns, Indians had to collect more skins, which resulted in the depletion of beavers in heavily trapped areas. That, in turn, pushed Indians to expand their hunting/trapping zones, which heightened conflicts between groups. Alcohol, too, became a potent weapon for Europeans. It further tipped the balance of trading power by giving Europeans a commodity that Indians wanted badly enough to undermine long-standing understandings of the relationship between humans and animals and to overwhelm strictures against overhunting.

Taken together, guns, alcohol, and especially germs changed the means and ends of warfare. Where earlier combat among woodland Indians had emphasized captive-taking and honor-making, the so-called Beaver Wars of the seventeenth century showed that Indians, in this case the Iroquois, now looked to take over territories, even at the cost of higher casualties. The Iroquois emerged in the short term as the winners in the Beaver Wars; their invasions scattered Algonquians, driving them to the west and into alliance with the French. In the longer run, as became apparent in the first half of the eighteenth century, both Iroquois and Algonquians, along with many other woodland Indians, were losing ground to Europeans in eastern North America.

To the west, some Indian peoples were also losing ground to newcomers, but on the Great Plains in the eighteenth century, the winners were other Indians. On the northern plains, the Sioux (as their enemies called them), who had migrated westward onto the grasslands, emerged as the most successful expansionists. Coming eastward, the Comanches reigned across a vast swath of the southern plains. These and other invaders displaced existing indigenous societies from some lands, added to their ranks by capturing and often enslaving large numbers of people, especially females, and enriched themselves by their raiding and through their control over trading. The effective realm of “Comanchería” included territory that the Spanish mapped as theirs and extended not only over other Indians in the area but also over Spaniards. This was especially true of the new colony that the Spanish tried to plant in Texas. Comanche bands plundered older settlements in New Mexico and northern Mexico as well.

There was considerable irony in this imperial inversion. The Spanish, after all, had brought horses to the Americas. These animals abetted their conquest of native societies. But the acquisition of horses revolutionized Indian life, empowered the expansions that took place on the Great Plains, and made Indians much more formidable foes. Recognizing the importance of horses, the Spanish had tried and failed to keep them out of Indian hands. Once introduced into Indian circuits, the animals dispersed and flourished on the grasses of the Plains. So did those Indians who had greatest access to horses and most decisively adapted to equestrianism. On horseback, Indians could kill bison much more effectively, which encouraged some groups to forsake farming for hunting and other groups, like the Sioux and Comanches, to move onto the Plains and move around them in pursuit of buffalo. On horseback, Indians also gained military superiority over more sedentary peoples.

Within horse cultures, new inequalities materialized. The gains of nomadic equestrians often came at the expense of those who remained wedded to a mixture of horticulture and hunting. More successful raiders and hunters not only earned greater honor but also acquired more horses—and with more horses usually came higher status and more wives. The status of women generally declined in this transition from horticultural to hunting societies. Their burdens, however, did not, as there were now more buffalo waiting to be turned by women into the products that sustained Plains Indian life.

Two hundred fifty years after Columbus bumped into the Bahamas, Europeans claimed to have carved up most of North America. That is how it appeared on the maps that Europeans made, which assigned most of the continent to one or another of their empires, a view that continues to hold sway in the geographic depictions that accompany recent editions of American history textbooks. Colonial control did, indeed, characterize Salem, Massachusetts, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. But it was not how the situation looked in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or in almost all of the lands between Salem and Santa Fe. Then and now, our colonial maps deceive us by erasing the presence and diminishing the power of Indians. Better maps, and better histories, depict the array of Indian-European interactions on the continent—and heed not only the contractions but also the expansions of Indian countries.

Previous: Chapter 1: The view from Cahokia
Next: Chapter 3: Making the first American West