By the time the first European explorer set foot on the North American continent, a thriving and diverse population of humans had been in existence here for thousands of years. These indigenous peoples had built communities, developed unique specialized cultures, and each group had adapted to the area and environment in which they lived. From the time the first Europeans arrived through the end of the eighteenth century those peoples endured an irreversible loss of population, a changed living environment, and an attempted destruction of their religious culture.
Demographically, when the explorers arrived in the early fifteen hundreds, there was an estimated indigenous peoples population of approximately 25,000,000, spread out across the North American continent. In a space of time covering a little more than 100 years, by the early sixteen hundreds, the indigenous peoples population is estimated to have fallen to somewhere between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000. In the area that would become the United States, the population was estimated to initially stand at between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000, and by the sixteen hundreds it also had fallen dramatically.
What happened in that timeframe to cause such a catastrophe? The primary cause was disease. Prior to those early arrivals, there had been no contact between Europeans and indigenous peoples; and as a result, indigenous peoples had not built-up any immunity to the germs and viruses that the Europeans carried.
For example, in the New England area in the early seventeenth century, the English introduced diseases such as smallpox, influenza to the Wampanoag People. Since the Wampanoag had never been exposed to these diseases before they were devastated by the diseases. Something as simple as saying hello or touching another person can begin to spread germs. Once the chain has begun, without the proper medicines those who do not have immunity will begin to die and this will continue unabated until there is no one left to infect.
While disease played a significant role is the demise of the indigenous peoples population, it was not the only cause. Conflict between the colonists and the indigenous peoples also played a role. With the arrival of the English in 1607 at Jamestown, and more settlers arrived in the Americas, demand for land to grow crops grew. This encroachment on the traditional hunting lands caused tensions that would erupt into open conflict.
During the seventeenth century, these conflicts occurred on a regular basis. One such battle took place in Virginia in 1622; Opechancanough led an uprising that resulted in the deaths of around 300 settlers. In revenge, the colonists organized themselves, went on a rampage, and essentially tried to wipe the Tsenacomoco from the face of the earth. 22 years later, Opechancanough tried again, and this time killed 500 colonists, and after the colonists quashed the revolt, the Indian population was reduced to around 2,000 and they were forced to give up their lands.
In addition to causing a drop in population, as more colonists arrived on the shores of North America, the demand to expand colonial settlements grew, and the very environment where the Native Americans had inhabited, hunted, and fished on for generations began to change. When the first English colonists arrived, they found in the Eastern and Northern parts of America a combination of good soil and lush forests. That environment had supported tribes such as the Algonquin for generations, but more importantly to people arriving from crowded England it meant a chance own land. So while the Algonquin and other tribes not only hunted and fished, but also grew crops and the English viewed them as savages.
In Virginia once tobacco became the major crop, the colonists pushed the Algonquin further off their traditional lands. This almost unceasing demand for land in Virginia seemed to culminate in 1676 in a rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon. There was an incident between colonists and Indians, and the colonists demanded that all Indians be removed from the colony.
Virginians were not the only ones with a lust for land, in Pennsylvania; years of relative peace between Indians and whites began to unravel with the arrival of German and Scotch-Irish settlers who all moved into land traditionally occupied by the Indians. In 1737, Governor James Logan defrauded the Lenni Lanape Indians out of a large tract of land and relations between whites and Indians became even more strained.
As the population of Native Americans declined, and the environment they lived in changed, these events irreversibly altered their social structures and culture. As the Indians in the Eastern and Southern parts of the Americas came into closer exposure to the English, they eventually began to modify how they lived. As they began to use more goods from Europe they started changing their farming, hunting, and cooking practices and the introduction of alcohol damaged many tribes.
Perhaps one of the most signification ways colonization impacted tribes culturally is in the practice of Religion. When in 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano, wrote about ‘Encountering Native Americans’, he wrote “We consider that they have no religion…” The reality is Native Americans did in fact have a belief system. Europeans had a difficult time understanding those beliefs because it was a natural world-based belief system. Spirits existed in every living thing, including the wind. They also believed in a single creator, just not the same one as the Europeans.
Over time as more colonists arrived, many considered the Indians to be living a wild unnatural type of freedom. In the English colonies, there was not a major push to convert the Indians to Christianity, land was the most important thing, and the Indians were in the way of that land acquisition. The puritans while seeking freedom thought that the Indians held to a belief of ‘natural liberty’, which was the opposite of ‘moral liberty’, which was based in their version of Christianity. Because of this belief, the Indians were an obstacle that needed to be removed, not souls to be saved or understood.
In those areas settled by the Spanish, especially in the Southwest, Franciscan Priests and the Spanish Army established a series of Missions, primarily using forced labor and it was from those missions priests tried to convert the Indians. In 1680, this culminated in a revolt of Pueblo Indians led by a leader named ‘Pope’. This uprising did succeed in driving the majority of the Spanish settlers out of the area. In 1692, the Spanish retook New Mexico, but as a result, they developed a more relaxed attitude religion and no longer insisted that the Indians convert.
The French took an entirely different approach to their relations with the Indians, especially concerning religion. Jesuit priests who accompanied the explorers had a degree of success in converting Indians. The biggest difference between the Spanish and the French is the French did not insist that the Indians drop all their traditional practices.
When it comes to religion, the impact of the different colonizers on Native Religious practices there are three things that stand out. The Franciscan priests of the Spanish tried to force convert the Indians to Catholicism, which lead to bloodshed. The English did not seem to care if the Indians became Protestant or converted to Christianity and just wanted their land, which lead to bloodshed. The French Jesuit priests did the best job of merging traditional Catholicism with Native practices and stayed peaceful.
Looking back over the time after the first colonists landed on the shores of the American continent; it is clear that the eventual overall impact on the lives of the Native Americans would prove to be negative. From a hugely diminished population due to disease and violence, to the loss of habitat and forced removal from traditional living environments, and the attempted modification of cultural beliefs, specifically in the area of spiritual or religious beliefs, the long-term effect those colonists had on the Native American population was disastrous.