First European Exploration and Exploitation

At the time the first European explorers and conquerors were following in the wake of Columbus's voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, some 200,000 indigenous people were living in North America east of the Mississippi River. One loose confederation of tribes, the Algonquins, controlled a large region stretching from Canada southward into the Ohio Valley. The Iroquois League dominated the middle Atlantic region and contended with tribes of the Algonquin nation for domination in parts of the Ohio Valley. In the southern region three primary groups prevailed: the Cherokee, Tuscarora and Muskhogean. All of these tribes were eventually overwhelmed by the in-migration Europeans (and their descendants), the diseases brought with them and the wars of annihilation they conducted to gain control over the land of North America.

The southern tribes successfully fought off Spanish incursions repeatedly during the second half of the sixteenth century but were finally forced in 1598 to submit to Spanish control. Thereafter throughout the Florida territory the Spanish established a series of Franciscan missions, whose friars set about converting the indigenous tribes to Christianity and teaching them the rudiments of agriculture. These warrior-dominated tribes still depended on hunting for subsistence and could not be subdued easily or forced to labor on plantations or in mines; the Spanish were forced to import Africans to replace the central and south American people whose populations had been decimated by Spanish occupation (a period described by historian Eric Wolf as "the great dying"). The Spanish were the first to introduce diseases against which the indigenous people had no natural resistance, then totally disrupted the systems of wealth production on which the survival of the indigenous people depended. In the same way that the enclosures were forcing peasants from the land in Europe, "[i]n many parts of Mesoamerica, as in Spain, sheep began to "eat" men."

Those who followed the Conquistadors into the Americas to cultivate the land made use of the indigenous labor force as long as possible. To meet the demand in Spain and Portugal for cocoa and indigo, as well as for precious metals, the indigenous population was brutalized, exploited and nearly exterminated. In Florida, however, the tribes were still semi-nomadic and too few in number to subdue in a similar manner. As a result, by the mid-seventeenth century the indigenous people (numbering over 25,000) had become extremely loyal to their Spanish wards and defended the Florida frontier against both indigenous and European enemies.

In the far north, the French established a settlement in 1603 on St. Croix Island in the Bay of Fundy; two years later they moved to Port Royal (Nova Scotia), where they built an extensive settlement and initiated a trading relationship with the indigenous people living in the area. A second settlement, Quebec, was established in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. The French were once more able to establish good relations with the Montagnais, Algonquin and Huron tribes they met, openings that were to serve as the basis for the northern fur trade.

Before long, these northern tribes also looked to the French for assistance in war against their age-old enemy and competitor for territorial control over the St. Lawrence Valley, the Iroquois League. Manpower assistance was one thing, but what the tribes sought most from the French were the firearms and powder that would give them the decisive advantage in these territorial struggles. In response to the northern threat, the Iroquois of the Mohawk Valley turned first to the Dutch and eventually the English to balance the scales. As time would show, however, reliance on assistance from the Europeans carried a heavy price for the tribes. The Europeans were inconsistent allies and far more opportunistic than the indigenous tribes in the conduct of warfare. Treaties were to the Europeans and the European-Americans neither solemn nor permanent; any change in government or shift in perceived self-interest among the European powers threatened whatever treaties were made between their agents in the Americas and the indigenous peoples. Moreover, a system of land tenure that permitted small numbers of colonists to monopolize large tracts of fertile land exerted a near-ending pressure on the indigenous people to relinquish territory. Even had the European governments or their colonial counterparts proclaimed these treaties as solemn and final, they possessed neither the force of law nor the power of arms to restrain the frontiersmen or settlers.