Effects of European Colonization: Christopher Columbus and Native Americans
- 0:06 First Contact
- 1:53 Death
- 3:39 Metal Tools
- 5:25 Horses
- 7:25 Lesson Summary
The earliest explorers in the Western Hemisphere left a legacy that would shape the development of the Americas permanently. No matter what they came looking for, Europeans left behind death, horses, and metal.
Most American school children learn to recite this little phrase: 'In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.' Columbus, in fact, was just one of many explorers sponsored by European monarchs in the 1400s who were all trying to find a better, cheaper, faster route to Asia than their neighbors, in order to get an edge on the lucrative trade goods from the East Indies. Knowing perfectly well that the world was round, Christopher Columbus sailed west, set foot in the Bahamas and other islands, and returned back home with stories of the 'Indians' he had met, believing China was just over the horizon.
Even though Columbus was completely ignorant of the new continent he had encountered, his voyage changed the course of human history - fast. Within two years, the Pope had divided the so-called 'uncivilized world' between Portugal and Spain in a deal known as the Treaty of Tordesillas. The islands Columbus explored became known for all posterity as the West Indies, and the native inhabitants of the entire hemisphere became collectively known as Indians. Columbus was followed by wave upon wave of European explorers and conquerors motivated by God, gold, and glory.
Some of the long term effects of this contact are the subject of another lesson, called the Columbian Exchange, in which people, diseases, foods, and animals moved across the globe. But some of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Native Americans very quickly and permanently shaped the development of North America. Whether they were looking for riches, hoping to spread Christianity, or wanting fame back home, their most important legacy was in the things they left behind.
Everywhere the explorers went, death followed. 'There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians,' noted a Spanish priest named Bartolomé de Las Casas, 'so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines.'
While the priest's estimates of the population before Columbus arrived are probably off by quite a bit, it did only take 30 years to nearly eradicate the native population of the Bahamas. And though there was war and slavery and overwork, the biggest killer by far was disease. The Western Hemisphere had been completely free of infectious diseases that were common in Europe. So the indigenous people had absolutely no exposure or resistance to illnesses like smallpox, which spread from tribe to tribe along the trade routes, even in places where Europeans never even set foot. It's impossible, of course, to get a precise pre-Columbian population count, but by using observable models and reliable censuses, modern historians commonly accept that around 90% of all Native Americans died as a result of contact with Europeans.
In general, the effects were the worst in South and Central America where the Spanish explored in the 1500s. But that's not to say North America avoided the epidemic; it just took a little longer. In 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in Plymouth, they discovered a Patuxet village conveniently empty, because every one of its residents had died. Archaeologists have since discovered evidence of other such civilizations that disappeared from memory.
One of the main motivations for exploration was the search for precious metals. The great irony here is that the metals brought from Europe to America proved to be far more valuable. Of course, steel helped the Europeans conquer the Americas, but tribes across the hemisphere were, in fact, helped by the introduction of metal tools and weapons.
Though some Native cultures were quite advanced in, say, astronomy or agriculture or engineering, they still used Stone Age tools made from bone, wood, stone, or clay with very limited knowledge of metalworking and no steel. It didn't take long for them to realize that metal implements were far more efficient for many uses, and the tribes that got them first had an edge over those who didn't. However, without the right raw materials, knowledge, or conditions, they were unable to reproduce metal goods like knives and hatchets and fishhooks, leaving them completely dependent on trade and at a distinct disadvantage to the whites.
Though European weaponry was superior and proved to be useful in the long term, firearms didn't really present an overwhelming advantage at first contact. Besides the fact that very few soldiers even carried a gun, they were heavy, slow to load, and not terribly accurate. Except at very close range, a skilled archer was faster and more accurate with a bow and arrow than most soldiers would have been with a firearm. And European explorers couldn't repair or replace their weapons, and they only had as much ammunition as they could carry. That balance of power would change in the 19th century as gun technology improved.
While many domesticated animals (like sheep) changed and helped North American tribes over the long term, none of them were as dramatic or as rapid as the reintroduction of horses. Evidence suggests that horses once roamed North America, but they had been hunted to extinction thousands of years earlier along with the memory of their existence. By the time Europeans arrived, the largest domesticated animal in the Americas was the llama.
The Aztecs were immediately intimidated when confronted by a mounted cavalry. But then the conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado began to explore what is now the southwestern United States, bringing with him an army of horses. At first contact, the Plains Indians recognized the value of horses and, over time, acquired them through theft, trade, and as they escaped or were abandoned. Plus, the animals rapidly reproduced in the wild.
It took less than a generation for horses to transform several tribes. They were the first beasts of burden in North America, enabling the transport of heavy loads for nomadic tribes. More importantly, horses can carry people. Hunters on horseback were much more efficient and could cover a whole lot more territory, and horses, of course, transformed the art of war.
The exact effects of European exploration and colonization varied from tribe to tribe, and it didn't happen for every tribe all at the same time. Over the next 250 years, Spanish, French, and English settlers continually encountered new groups of people as they ventured farther into the continent, so the immediate effects of 'first contact' were repeated over and over again over time. There were also many important long-term consequences of European colonization in the New World, which you can learn about in another lesson.
Let's review. The encounter between Christopher Columbus and the Western Hemisphere touched off a new era in the history of the world. European nations raced to the New World for God, gold, and glory, with far-reaching consequences for the people they encountered. The most dramatic effect was the 90% death rate for indigenous people, due mostly to disease but also war and forced labor. Secondly, metal tools far surpassed the utility of many native tools made of bone, wood, or clay. Finally, the reintroduction of horses radically changed life for the Plains Indians especially, giving them a beast of burden and a tool for hunting and warfare. As Europeans pushed farther inland, the effects of contact spread.
Chapters in History 103: US History I
- 1. First Contacts (28,000 BCE-1821 CE) (7 lessons)
- 2. Settling North America (1497-1732) (11 lessons)
- 3. The Road to Revolution (1700-1774) (6 lessons)
- 4. The American Revolution (1775-1783) (10 lessons)
- 5. The Making of a New Nation (1776-1800) (12 lessons)
- 6. The Virginia Dynasty (1801--1825) (11 lessons)
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