Why the Native Americans ultimately lost America
What caused the downfall of the American Indian?
HOW GODS OF WAR PAVED THE TRAIL OF TEARS.
Centuries without exposure to war or epidemic diseases led to the developmental inequalities which caused the downfall and conquest of the Native American Indians at the hands of the European settlers.
From the time of Columbus’s first expeditions in the New World, the indigenous population which had been masters of the American continent for 14,000 years began fighting a losing battle which would ultimately end in the destruction of their culture. It was their inexperience at war, plus the fact that they’d never developed formidable weapons, combine with their lack of immunity to the diseases introduced by the Europeans, which led to the Indians—who were initially far superior in number— meeting with ignominious defeat.
One obvious reason for the Euro victory over the Indian tribes was their superior weaponry. They had war technology which the locals could not compete with. But why did the colonists have such superior arms? A sensible guess would be that the Europeans were an older culture. The earliest traces of European ancestry goes back over 100,000 years, compared to 14,000 for the Indians. That head start would logically allow for the superiority of development. Yet, history doesn’t support this theory. For example, sentient life existed in African over a million years earlier than in Europe, and yet the Europeans had guns long before the African people ever imagined such a thing. So, if time is not the key factor, what is?
A reason that the Europeans had weapons beyond the Indians was due to their long history of warfare and violence. Countries on the continent of Europe routinely fought over territory or religion. Even when they set out to colonize, they knew they would also have to deal with rival nations that would be claiming their own share of this vast new land. There had long been animosity between Spain, France, England, and the Dutch. These were opponents who would be difficult to overcome. The Europeans were armed and ready, tempered by years of bloodshed.
Native Americans, on the other hand, knew little of all-out war. Despite their mythical image as savages, they were actually much more civilized in the way they settled their tribal disputes. Battles at the time were ritualistic. Intermittent violence did occur, but the nature of pre-contact Indian war was far different from the wars known in Europe. Both in scale and in duration, their skirmishes were minuscule compared to Europe. The Indian natives could not conceive of the multi-year conflicts that dogged Euro history. Indians fought in small forays, with limited numbers of warriors. Their battles were often a game of ‘chicken’ where one side or the other backed down in the face of the fiercer opponent. They tried not to kill other Indians if it was not necessary and so had no need for guns or cannons. All this caused the American tribes to be very primitive in their weaponry, whereas the Europeans were veritable Gods of War.
For instance, when the Spanish conquered the Incas, they not only brought guns, but had the advantage of armor as well. The Inca’s fought with blunt clubs and had no armor at all. Further, the Incans did not have domesticated animals, and so the Spanish gained a tremendous advantage by charging in on horseback.The psychological effect of seeing men riding on horses had as powerful an effect on the Incans as the Spanish swords did. Soon, Incan leader Athhuallpa fell at Cajamarca and the Spanish claimed their land. Cortes would go on to do the same to Montezuma and the Aztecs, winning for similar reasons. Earlier, they had Slaughtered the tribes of the West Indies, gaining the Conquistadors a scathing indictment from a Spanish Friar in 1542.
Up in North America, the Native American people alternately became allies and enemies of the newly arrived settlers from Europe. Surely there was a sense of dread among the local tribes concerning these mysterious people who arrived by ship, bringing strange animals and stranger weapons? What did they think would happen in the long run?
The Native American tribes were not accustomed to visitors in their lands. These new arrivals confused and frightened them. Therefore, they made some mistakes which exacerbated hostilities with the colonists. A Chesapeake Indian tribe ambushed the first arrivals making landfall in Virginia. Things didn’t start off well and the settlers became very suspicious of the indigenous people. And the Indians surely felt the same, but some had their own motivations for contact.
Powhattan, leader of the powerful Algonquian tribe of Indians, was a clever man. He saw the newcomers as a potential source of power. They had things of value, like guns and gunpowder. Powhattan was in the process of consolidating his power in the region. Weapons would be invaluable to him. To this end, he became a friend and benefactor to the new settlement. Although their presence was a potentially destabilizing element, he felt they were worth the risk. He brought them food to help them survive their first long, cold winter.
He continued to trade with them afterwards, supplying food in exchange for weapons.It was, quite likely, this dependency on the Indians that increased the settler’s distrust of the locals. They needed Powhattan to get through the winter and were very much afraid that he would exploit their weakness. They expected the local Indians to take advantage of their weakness and double cross them. The settlers kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and their increasing paranoia evolved into hostility against the native tribes.
When a misunderstanding between the two sides caused Powhattan to break ties, the settlers immediately assumed this was the double cross they had waited for and started to take food from the Indians by force. Powhattan struck back but he was overwhelmed, and the Indian wars began in earnest in North America. As the Colonial population increased, they began to take what they wanted and enforce their ways upon these people they thought of as merely “primitive barbarians”. They felt they had a God given right to depose those whom they saw as little more than animals. The pattern of “Indian removal” continued until the 19th century, when the last Indian resistance was gone.Thus, the Europeans practiced their time honed art of war, something they had much more experience in than the Indians. They had the better armaments, as well as one other unexpected secret weapon.
A surprise advantage that the Europeans had was that the Native tribes had lived isolated from epidemic diseases. Nor did they have herd animals, which often acted as conduits of infectious diseases. Bacterial infections such as smallpox, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and others were introduced to the Indians who had no natural immunities to them. Cortes’ 1521 victory over the Aztecs was aided by a terrible smallpox epidemic that cut the Aztec population in half. The devastating release of these germs was so catastrophic to the native people, it eventually killed 90% percent of the indigenous population. With their best warriors dead, and the rest demoralized, thinking their Gods had deserted them, the surviving Indians were no match for the growing number of Europeans.
Indian power faded steadily and by the 19th century, they were no longer a military threat to the established government of the United States of America. Steps were taken to “civilize” and indoctrinate the conquered Indians tribes into the culture of the victors. The curse of developmental inequality left them with nothing.
Societies evolve to exactly where they need to be to survive in the time and place. The Indians were well suited for life on the American continent, but that didn’t prepare them for the intervention of an unexpected predator or disease. European settlers and their guns, along with smallpox and other diseases, were outside the scope of what they were prepared to deal with.
The Indians also had no domesticated herd animals. Ironically, they were culpable in the killing and making extinct of large mammals rather than domesticating them, as when the Paleo-Indians killed off the Mastodons. If they hadn’t, could they have used them as the Indians of India do? As transportation and as beasts of burden? Would it have made a difference? And would these herd animals have produced germs that allowed the native population to develop immunities to European diseases? If large mammals still existed during the Euro invasion, would the result have been any different? I believe that this mistake made during their early hunter/gatherer days may have ultimately added a nail to the coffin of Indian culture.
I maintain that centuries of life without war curtailed the Indian ability to develop the technology to defend themselves. And further, that their isolation, the lack of pack animals and the extinction of the Mastodons caused the Indians to have insufficient natural defenses against epidemic diseases. These combined reasons destroyed any chance that the Indians, despite their vastly superior numbers, may have had to drive off the settlers and retain the land of their birth.