25 Things You Should Know about the Original Americans

Photo © 2007 Wally Gobetz CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And by “original,” I don’t mean the Pilgrims. I don’t mean the Jamestown settlers, who arrived some 13 years earlier. I don’t mean the first permanent Spanish settlement in 1565. I don’t even mean the African slaves who escaped their Spanish captors, who had landed in 1526 in modern South Carolina. Those Spanish shortly left for Haiti, but their ex-slaves stayed and became American immigrants. These ex-slaves were probably the very first non-native settlers of America, the very first true African-Americans.

But what I mean by “original” Americans— I mean those who traveled across the Bering Strait, into modern Alaska, spreading throughout the Americas, settling and developing that land sometime between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago— We don’t really know exactly when. But we do know a bit about these Americans, when they were no longer just settlers, but rather established residents, from the 15’th century on. And we know a bit about how their culture—then a vibrant and living culture—affected what would become our modern American culture, in ways that you may not realize.

Of course, maybe you are already aware of these bits of knowledge, which I’ve gleaned from my current non-fiction read, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen, (which I should have read many years ago, but which unfortunately is still not completely out of date, even though I’m reading an earlier edition than the latest). Even if you know these, most of us are basically ignorant of them, never having gotten past the myths, popular legends, and one-dimensional factoids.

Note that in the following list, I have done little research beyond merely reiterating some of the points made in Lies My Teacher Told Me, although James Loewen has clearly done his research, judging from his prodigious footnotes. He goes into much more detail than I, of course, and still, there is so much to explore in these topics. All of the following topics—and a few in particular—will make for very interesting reading in my future. I should also add by way of introduction that I the layman have rearranged and paraphrased practically every point in the following list; please correct any errors I’ve inadvertently made.

  1. The original Americans first domesticated and farmed more than half the food crops now grown around the world.

  2. Distinctly American dishes, such as New England pork and beans, New Orleans gumbo, and Texas chili combine European, African, and American cuisine. Similarly, southern soul food, such as cornbread and grits, is derived from American cooking. (And by “American,” I mean native American.)

  3. When Europeans began to settle America, many Americans became linguists, learning multiple European languages. Sometimes, British colonists, for example, would employ an American interpreter in order to communicate with the Spanish or French.

  4. Numerous US place names come from native American languages (e.g., Alaska, Mississippi, Oklahoma), as do some modern English words (such as hurricane and skunk).

  5. Pre-European American spirituality revolved around recognizing that we are part of life, not separate from it, and found spiritual fulfillment living thereby. Writes anthropologist Frederick Turner, comparing European-style religion with American, “We ourselves are the only things in the universe to which we grant an authentic vitality, and because of this we are not fully alive.”

  6. At the time Europeans began exploring America, the American peoples numbered in the tens of millions, including several large cities. But they were generally not as packed as the Europeans and had better hygiene—i.e., they took baths; the Europeans did not—and they experienced far less disease. As a result, they had not built up immunity to European and African viruses. And with European contact, plagues spread across the land, wiping out at least 90% of the original population.

  7. The ending to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds was inspired by these American plagues.

  8. One such plague, in fact, is what the Pilgrims discovered in Plymouth: corn fields left unharvested and bodies left lying in the town (because not enough citizens had remained alive to bury them).

  9. The myth of the wagon-train attacked by Indians: Of a quarter-million Europeans and Africans who traveled the American West between 1840 and 1860, only 362 pioneers and 426 native Americans died in all the recorded battles between the two groups. Rather, the norm in such encounters was that the native residents would help the pioneers find food and water, buy cloth and guns, show them around, introduce them to the local townsfolk, and so forth.

  10. The American peoples had developed a practical, working, democratic, libertarian society. Wrote Benjamin Franklin, “All their government is by Counsel of the Sages. There is no Force; there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.”

  11. American society—that is, native American society—informed and inspired writers like Thomas More, John Locke, Michel de Montaigne, Charles de Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and American statesmen including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention in the US both openly referred to Iroquois ideas. The government of the original Americans was the progenitor of our US democratic traditions, culture of liberty, and the Bill of Rights. For a century after the Revolution, US cartoonists even represented revolutionary figures as native Americans. This is also why the original Tea Partiers dressed as native Americans, in order to symbolize the liberty they sought.

  12. The hunter-gatherer tribes lived in sufficient wealth and comfort and were more peaceful than the relatively warlike farming communities (contrary to popular myth). But the Europeans were more warlike still…

  13. In the Pequot War of 1636-37, the first American war involving the British colonists of New England, Captain John Underhill said of the Narragansetts’ fighting that it was “more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue enemies.” In this assessment, he was correct. Allied with the Narragansetts, the Puritans all but wiped out the Pequots, even making it illegal to say the word Pequot. William Bradford, governor of Plymouth, consequently boasted, “The rest are scattered, and the Indians in all quarters are so terrified that they are afraid to give them sanctuary.”

  14. One of the reasons Europeans came to America was to capture Americans to trade as slaves. Christopher Columbus was infamous for trading in slaves. Ponce de Leon went to Florida, not to seek the fountain of youth, but primarily to capture slaves for Hispaniola. American slavery in New England led directly to African slavery there. And in South Carolina, European settlers traded American slaves (who might otherwise escape) to the West Indies (whence they would never escape) in exchange for African slaves. Further west, so many Pawnees were sold as slaves, that in the plains the word pawnee came to refer to any slave, of any ancestry. Many Americans, who valued liberty and freedom and were used to living in it, even killed their own children and committed suicide, rather than allowing themselves to be sold into slavery.

  15. A story from the Old West (a little later in history): “Some cowboys came upon Indian families without their men present. The cowboys gave pursuit, planning to rape the squaws, as was the custom. One woman, however, pushed sand into her vagina to thwart her pursuers.” The act of resistance is what makes this particular story noteworthy.

  16. To address the European threat, American chiefs increased their power, ruling over unprecedentedly broad areas. Large American nations grew, taking in Europeans and Africans, as well as other Americans whose tribes were too small or had been wiped out. New tribal confederations also developed, and American culture became more male-dominated.

  17. The tribes closest to the Europeans got guns first, and they often used those guns to wage war on the more interior tribes. European powers sometimes used this to their advantage, dividing the Americans and making them easier to conquer.

  18. General Philip Sheridan, who said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” also wrote, “We took away their country and their means of support, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could anyone expect less?”

  19. War with the American peoples occupied 80% of the entire federal budget during George Washington’s administration. This was the typical situation for a century before and a century after, almost continuous warfare.

  20. If it had not been for the plagues, American history might have turned out very differently, because the European colonists may not have been able to maintain military supremacy over the American peoples.

  21. In the US Revolution, most of the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British. After the Revolution, though Britain surrendered, their American allies did not, and US insistence that they had defeated the Americans led to the Ohio War of 1790-95 and the War of 1812.

  22. The most violent American war began in 1675, when New England colonists executed three Wampanoags. So-called “King Philip’s War,” this war cost more lives in combat (on both sides) than the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, or the Spanish-American War. As a percentage of population, it had a greater casualty rate than any other war in American history.

  23. Americans understood land ownership perfectly, and they also understood the value of land. When the Dutch bought Manhattan for $24 from the Canarsees, the latter were quite happy indeed— because they did not even own Manhattan. (They were from Brooklyn, not Manhattan.) The Weckquaesgeeks, who did own Manhattan, were somewhat less happy; they ended up warring with the Dutch for years afterward. In fact, Europeans frequently paid the wrong tribe for land, or paid only a small faction within a larger nation; and often, the Europeans didn’t even care about property rights, as they were merely looking for a rationalization to take the land by force.

  24. When Jefferson doubled the size of the US by buying Louisiana from France, Louisiana wasn’t the French’s to sell. Jefferson failed to consult with the American owners of that land, and as a result the US was still paying those Americans for that land throughout the 19’th century, and fighting them for it, too.

  25. The War of 1812 was primarily over American land. (Not, as was the official explanation, over how Britain treated American ships.) After the US won, however, native Americans were no longer conflict partners with the US; and their contribution to our heritage, all began to fade from our collective memories. Before the war, the word American referred to the native American peoples; after 1815, it referred to European-Americans. The popular perception of the American peoples also degraded, no longer calling to mind all that they contributed, but rather primitive ignorance and savagery… which they did not personify in real life.

This last is a particularly significant point. It’s a process psychologists call “cognitive dissidence,” which has been demonstrated in psychological experiments and in real life. After you take a certain action, you’ll be more likely to modify your opinions to rationalize what you’ve done, even if you have to contradict something you’ve said before. Even George Washington, having formerly praised American culture, looked down upon it after unleashing the Ohio War of 1790, subsequently disparaging the Ohio Americans as “having nothing human except the shape.”

So the War of 1812 was a major turning-point in our history. Because we no longer had to deal with the native Americans, we ignored them and looked down on them. We denied their contribution to our culture and society, and as a result they no longer contributed to it. The situation before the War of 1812 was far from ideal, but as it turned out in the end (as so often is the case in war), both sides lost.

After the War of 1812, the US also stopped spreading the idea of democracy and began spreading hegemony, over Mexico, the Philippines, and much of the Caribbean.