When European explorers arrived in the New World around 1500 A.D. they encountered native populations (Native Americans or American Indians) whose background on this continent stretched back for many millenia. Nomadic Asian hunters from Siberia had first followed their game across the Bering Strait about 40,000 years ago. Over the course of the next 10,000 years, through dispersal and adaptation to very different geography and climate, a multiplicity of tribes with widely divergent cultures developed.
Some examples of the diverse tribal cultures European encountered are the Mayas*, the Iroquois*, the Sioux*, and the Pueblos*. The initial contact between Native Americans and Europeans were characterized by cautious, wary, friendly curiosity and cooperation. Few in number, the original European explorers and settlers seemed to pose no great threat to the tribes. As European numbers increased and their desire for Indian goods and land grew, interaction became increasingly hostile, resulting in frequent conflicts. Superior European firepower would prove decisive in establishing control over or driving Indians from their tribal lands.
Spanish conquistadores, spurred on by the abundance of gold and silver possessed by Native tribes, subdued the Indians and enslaved them to work in the mines to produce more wealth. Cortes' conquest of Mexico is one example of this type of encounter. Spain later forbade the enslavement of Indians but provided for royal grants of Indian labor and land called encomiendas. Roman Catholic missionaries also accompanied the Spanish expeditions to convert the natives to Christianity. The Spanish crown intended to spread its power and influence in the New World by conquering the natives, establishing permanent Spanish settlements, and superimposing the Spanish culture on the Indians. Spain became the first European nation to colonize and exploit the peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
The primary motives for all the European nations involved in exploring and settling the New World were the same as those of Spain: (1) to expand national power and prestige through imperial control, (2) to spread the Christian gospel by converting the Indians, and (3) to secure wealth through acquisition of precious metals and other natural resources. "Glory, God and Gold" were the incentives for Spain, France and England as they became the major entrants in the race for empire. Native Americans became the inevitable losers in the European imperial sweepstakes.
When the Norsemen
under Eric the Red "discovered" the New World around 1000 A.D. there
was virtually no follow-up in terms of further exploration and
permanent settlement. By 1500 a number of technological, political,
and economic developments had stimulated Europe's interest in, and
prepared it to explore and colonize, the lands
"newly discovered" by Columbus in 1492. New ship design and construction, and improved navigational lore provided the technological capability. The emergence of nation-states gave the political impetus. And the rise of a wealthy merchant class desiring to find a shorter, cheaper trade route to the spices and silks of the Far East served as the necessary economic motivation.
The interaction of Native and European cultures ranged from peaceful cooperation and trade to fierce conflict. Intercultural exchanges included Native Americans providing agricultural techniques, furs, and foodstuffs in return for European weapons, metal cooking utensils, and clothing. The horse was probably the most important European contribution to Native Americans, while maize (corn) was the most significant Native American exchange. An unintended exchange was that of disease. European borne diseases like small pox and measles decimated Native populations while Europeans were infected by syphillis. Europeans also tried to superimpose all aspects of their culture upon Native Americans, but with quite limited success.
The net results of these intercultural contacts and exchanges included significant loss of Indian life, with some tribes losing up to 90% of their people to European diseases. Another consequence was the loss of large amount of Indian tribal lands. Third was the deterioration of Native American cultures by virtue of loss of life, land, and persistent European efforts at forcing their "superior cultures" upon the natives. European expansion and aggrandizement meant a fearful loss to Native Americans who would have to learn to adapt to European intervention or perish.
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