Conflict and Cooperation: Native Americans and European Settlers in Early America
The early history of the settlement of what would eventually become the United States has many competing narratives. Many people view the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers as fundamentally combative. While at times the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans was certainly one of conflict, this period was also full of significant curiosity, education and cooperation that went on between both groups. Many times, each group was inquisitive about the other and knowledge was exchanged. The Native Americans were often portrayed as brutal savages, but current literature shows that this was not often the case. The apparent viciousness of the European settlers towards the native peoples, particularly in terms of cultural destruction and land acquisition, is also more complicated than it initially seems. Though the eventually dominance of the Europeans over the Native Americans lead to increased conflict, one cannot discount the importance that shared learning and cooperation had for both the settlers and the Native Americans. This sense of curiosity and collaboration is, in the end, more important and interesting than the simple narrative of brutal conflict between the Europeans and the Native Americans.
The suggestion that the natives were vicious and unaccommodating towards settlers is still widespread, and the Indian Massacre of 1622, which occurred in Virginia, is often cited as an example of such brutality. However, in many circumstances the idea that Native Americans were intrinsically combative is at best overly simplistic and at worst highly prejudiced. Upon early encounters with Native Americans, Europeans were truly impressed by their hospitality. Kupperman describes how Arthur Barlow, on a voyage to Roanoke in 1584, describes how when their party stumbled upon an Indian village, the newcomers were invited to an elaborate meal, even though their arrival had not been expected.
English writers in the early 17th Century often expounded on the friendliness, honesty, and general good nature of the Native Americans, although they were still highly suspicious of them.
The story of Squanto (whose real name was Tisquantum) also illustrates the complexities between the Native Americans and the Europeans. Squanto had been raised near present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts where the Puritans had originally settled in 1620, but then captured by the British with the intention of selling him into slavery in Spain.
Squanto, however, escaped to England where he learned to speak English. He then returned to America, where he served as an interpreter between the Europeans and the Native Americans. He is credited with teaching English settlers how to plant Indian corn.
Since spoke English, he was often relied upon assist negotiations between the English and the Native Americans, though it is also known that he used this ability to wield power and influence among the local Indian tribes.
His complex existence is a testament to the fact that relationships between Europeans and Americans were nuanced rather than immediately combative.
On many other instances Native Americans cooperated and exchanged knowledge with colonists. At times the relationship between the Europeans and the Native Americans was simply one of curiosity. Kupperman writes, "The first response on all sides was curiosity; the Americans and the English were drawn to early meetings because they wanted to understand something about the different people they met."
The native peoples were often impressed with European tools and technology, and were interested trading partners. Native Americans were not only a source of goods for trade, but they provided skills that cannot be easily economically classified. Piker writes that some Indians in Georgia provided services as navigators in the early 1700s, guiding colonists down rivers to help track down runaway slaves. During this same time period, some Native Americans were also enlisted by the English as mercenaries against competing Spanish settlers.
Conversely, many also believe that the European settlers were also violent and uncompromising, destroying native culture and taking land and resources at their convenience. Though abuse of native peoples has been documented, this was not necessarily the case in all situations. Initially, European writers often praised the qualities of the native peoples. They were often said to be good-natured and trustworthy.
Kupperman points out that, most importantly, they were seen as dignified; their chief men were seen as "grave and wise."
Besides respect for the natives' dignity, the Europeans had intense curiosity about their lifestyle and habits. This is evident in the materials that were often published about the Native Americans overseas, as descriptions of the Americans was popular reading back in Europe.
Many European writers also showed a keen interest and respect for Indian methods of agriculture. They were able document what crops the Indians grew and how they grew them, which was essential for survival in the North American Colonies.
Early writings about the Indians showed not only intense curiosity and admiration, but they showed an intense desire to understand them in order to better facilitate interactions.
As Peter Silver discusses in his book Our Savage Neighbors, viewing European colonists as a monolithic force is also problematic. In early America, Europeans of various cultures and religions were as likely to vilify, persecute, and even kill each other as they were to vilify and persecute Native Americans. Furthermore, the promotion fear and violence against natives that did occur was often strategic, a means of increasing the power of specific groups within the various communities of European settlers.
The immediate reaction to the Native Americans was more nuanced than simply a basic desire to violently conquer them and take over their land; promotion of fear against Indians was often a political strategy rather than a natural state of affairs.
Given that the two above circumstances are both often exaggerated, what one should ultimately concentrate on is the relational characteristics of both groups, and how these groups interacted during the early years of English colonization. As one can expect based on the above research, there is no easy way to describe the various relationships between the Native Americans and the European colonizers. Their interactions were often ambivalent, and guided by misperceptions on both sides. Moreover, as Kupperman documents, both the Native Americans and the English were undergoing serious cultural changes during the 17th century, especially during the initial period of British colonization. The way the Native Americans and the Europeans interacted denies simple categorization, and examples of shared learning and cooperation exist. During the early settlement in Roanoke, Virginia, for example, the native peoples expressed interest in European technology that was new to them. The English, on the other hand, while able to hunt for meat, had no idea how to grow crops, and thus traded with the local population for other food products.
"Europeans were always amazed at the tremendous yield of Indian corn compared to European grains." Kupperman writes of the Roanoke settlement.
Though the early settlement did not take hold, it can be seen as an example of the complexities that were inherent in encounters between the Native Americans and the Europeans.
Finally, however, one cannot deny that the balance of power shifted toward the Europeans as they gained control of what would become the original United States colonies. This increasingly imbalance of power needs to be taken into account as one discusses the relationship between the settlers and the Native Americans, as it had an increasingly negative effect on relations between the two parties. For example, during first part of the 17th Century, the native population of New England dropped dramatically compared to the European population, because of a combination of disease, land acquisition, and political dominance. Tensions between the colonizing Dutch and the Native Americans occurred in the 1630's and the 1640's, as the Dutch colonizers began to take over the Hudson River Valley.
The encroachments of the Europeans also eventually lead to a native rebellion that is referred to as "King Phillip's War." This conflict, which took place in New England 1675 was, for the British, one of the most destructive conflicts with the Native Americans for the British.
Consequently, while one can see that the initial encounters between the Native Americans and the Europeans were more based on mutual inquisitiveness and potential collaboration, the growing dominance of the Europeans caused Native Americans to become more hostile to their presence. King Phillips's War exemplifies this increased hostility. As Europeans began to populate the Southern backcountry in the mid-18th Century, tensions increased there as well.
It was shared learning and cooperation, rather than conflict that had the most visible impact on both groups. "Frontier exchange encouraged Indians and colonists to interact, but it could not ensure such contact would produce peaceful relations." What should be emphasized is that these groups interacted, and violence should not be viewed as inevitability. As one can see from the explanations above, interactions between the Native Americans and the European settlers were more complicated than can easily be described. In the New World there were neither bloodthirsty savages nor conquering imperialists. Instead there were a diverse set of peoples on both sides, and…