American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume1)

American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volume1)

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by Alan Taylor

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With this volume, Alan Taylor challenges the traditional story of colonial history by examining the many cultures that helped make America. Transcending the usual Anglocentric version of our colonial past, he recovers the importance of Native American tribes, African slaves, and the rival empires of France, Spain, the Netherlands, and even Russia in the

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With this volume, Alan Taylor challenges the traditional story of colonial history by examining the many cultures that helped make America. Transcending the usual Anglocentric version of our colonial past, he recovers the importance of Native American tribes, African slaves, and the rival empires of France, Spain, the Netherlands, and even Russia in the colonization of North America. Moving beyond the Atlantic seaboard to examine the entire continent, American Colonies reveals a pivotal period in the global interaction of peoples, cultures, plants, animals, and microbes. In a vivid narrative, Taylor draws upon cutting-edge scholarship to create a timely picture of the colonial world characterized by an interplay of freedom and slavery, opportunity and loss.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Compelling, readable, and fresh, American Colonies is perhaps the most brilliant piece of synthesis in recent American historical writing." —Phillip J. Deloria, associate professor of history and American culture, University of Michigan

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Hist of the USA Series, #1
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Alan Taylor’s previous books include William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, which won the 1996 Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes for history. He is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis. American Colonies is the first volume in the Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner, award-winning author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution and the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.

Booklist Selection, Best Books of 2001

Praise for American Colonies

“Drawing on the latest scholarship, Taylor expands our understanding of our own history in this comprehensive and exciting book. Full of surprising revelations, this superb book is history at its best.”


“A balanced synthesis of recent scholarship. … Alan Taylor expertly weaves together the arguments and evidence of dozens of historians and anthropologists … plac[ing] the familiar themes of early American history within a broad context created by the intersection of the histories of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. [Taylor’s] strategy allows him to highlight the histories of peoples and places neglected in accounts of colonial North America. More than just a formidable work of historical synthesis, American Colonies provokes us to contemplate the ways in which residents of North America have dealt with diversity.”

The New York Times Book Review

“At long last, we have an overview of colonial North America that addresses its full geographic, international, and multicultural sweep. In American Colonies, Alan Taylor transcends the heroic saga of freedom-loving Englishmen clustered along the Atlantic coast with a full-blown narrative that extends from the continent’s earliest inhabitants through Christian-Muslim interactions in fifteenth-century Africa and Europe to the onset of the American Revolution and Captain Cook’s Pacific voyages. Taylor challenges us to rethink the complexity and significance of America’s colonial past.”

—Neal Salisbury, Professor of History, Smith College

“Alan Taylor puts everything we thought we knew about early America in a refreshing international context. All over the country, teachers will be throwing out stale lecture notes. Students will be sitting up attentively. Here is a history that responds to the skeptical questions we ask in the twenty-first century.”

—Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship

“[A] superb overview of colonial America. Alan Taylor … draws upon an extraordinary array of recent scholarship to present a much more comprehensive and complex story. In the process, he punctures many myths and misperceptions. Taylor skillfully integrates social history into his narrative. His accounts of gender roles, family life, and religious beliefs help illuminate the political and economic processes that shape America’s role within the international community. Perhaps Taylor’s greatest contribution to our understanding of early American history is contextual. He is one of the few colonial historians to devote a whole chapter to the settlement of the West Indian islands and their role in the development of South Carolina, and perhaps the only one to include developments on the Great Plains and in California, Alaska, and Hawaii before the Revolution. He also broadens our understanding of the multinational aspects of early American history. American Colonies provides the most comprehensive and textured account of the diverse strands that formed the fabric of early American history. It is destined to become the standard work in its field.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“Crammed full of fascinating material uncovered by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists in the past half-century.”


“Alan Taylor has ranged widely over the best new scholarship in ethnohistory, environmental, imperial, Atlantic, Pacific and Borderlands history, using it not simply to inform, but to transform the narrative of early North America. Compelling, readable, and fresh, American Colonies is perhaps the most brilliant piece of synthesis in recent American historical writing.”

—Philip J. Deloria, Associate Professor History and American Culture, University of Michigan and author of Playing Indian

“Even the serious student of history will find a great deal of previously obscure information. The book offers a balanced understanding of the diverse peoples and forces that converged on this continent and influenced the course of American history.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)




The Penguin History of the United States

Eric Foner, Editor







Christopher Columbus and the worlds he bridged, as imagined by a European artist of the early seventeenth century. From Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis Transacta Navigatio (n.p., 1621).

TO WRITE A HISTORY of colonial America used to be easier, because the human cast and the geographic stage were both considered so much smaller. Until the 1960s, most American historians assumed that “the colonists” meant English-speaking men confined to the Atlantic seaboard. Women were there as passive and inconsequential helpmates. Indians were wild and primitive peoples beyond the pale: unchanging objects of colonists’ fears and aggressions. African slaves appeared as unfortunate aberrations in a fundamentally upbeat story of Englishmen becoming freer and more prosperous by colonizing an open land. The other colonies of rival empires—Dutch, French, and Spanish—were a hazy backdrop of hostility: backward threats to the English America that alone spawned the American Revolution and the United States. And no colonial historian bothered with the eighteenth-century Russian colonization of Alaska or the English probes into Hawaii, although both places later became absorbed into the United States.

By long convention, “American history” began in the east in the English colonies and spread slowly westward, reaching only the Appalachian Mountains by the end of the colonial period. According to this view, the “seeds” of the United States first appeared with the English colonists in 1607 at Jamestown in Virginia, followed in 1620 by “the Pilgrims” at Plymouth in New England. Earlier Spanish and contemporary French settlements were fundamentally irrelevant except as enemies, as “foreign” challenges that brought out the best in the English as they made themselves into Americans. What we now call “the West” did not become part of American history until the United States invaded it during the early nineteenth century. Alaska and Hawaii made no appearance in national history until the end of that century.

That narrow colonial cast and stage made for the fundamentally happy story of “American exceptionalism”: the making of a new people, in a new land. By emigrating to the colonies, white men escaped from the rigid customs, social hierarchies, and constrained resources of Europe into an abundant land of challenge and opportunity. That story persists in our national culture and popular history because it offers an appealing simplification that contains important (but partial) truths. Many English colonists did find more land, greater prosperity, and higher status than they could have achieved in the mother country. After about 1640, the great majority of free colonists were better fed, clothed, and housed than their common contemporaries in England, where half the people lived in destitution. And English colonial societies were truncated, lacking the gentry and aristocracy of the mother country, creating a political vacuum at the top to be filled by prosperous merchants and planters.

But the traditional story of American uplift excludes too many people. Many English colonists failed to prosper, finding only intense labor and early-graves in a strange and stressful land of greater disease, new crops and predators, and intermittent Indian hostility. And those who succeeded bought their good fortune by taking lands from Indians and by exploiting the labor of others—at first indentured servants, later African slaves. The abundant land for free colonists kept wage labor scarce and expensive, which promoted the importation of unfree laborers by the thousands. Between 1492 and 1776, North America lost population, as diseases and wars killed Indians faster than colonists could replace them. And during the eighteenth century, most colonial arrivals were Africans forcibly carried to a land of slavery, rather than European volunteers seeking a domain of freedom. More than minor aberrations, Indian deaths and African slaves were fundamental to colonization. The historian John Murrin concludes that “losers far outnumbered winners” in “a tragedy of such huge proportions that no one’s imagination can easily encompass it all.”

Moreover, not all of colonial America was English. Many native peoples encountered colonizers not as westward-bound Englishmen, but as Spanish heading north from Mexico, as Russians coming eastward from Siberia, or as French probing the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. And each of their empires interacted in distinctive ways with particular settings and natives to construct varied Americas.

Historians have recently broadened their research to recover the enormous diversity and tragic dimensions of the colonial experience. Instead of lurking beyond the colonies in a “wilderness,” Indians have come back into the story as central and persistent protagonists. Instead of dismissing slavery as peripheral, recent historians have restored its centrality to the economy, culture, and political thought of the colonists. And new scholarship illuminates the essential role of women in building colonial societies. With the expanded cast has come a broader stage that includes attention to New France, New Spain, and New Netherland.

Colonial societies did diverge from their mother countries—but in a more complex and radical manner than imagined within the narrow field of vision once traditional to colonial history. The biggest difference was the unprecedented mixing of radically diverse peoples—African, European, and Indian—under circumstances stressful for all. The colonial intermingling of peoples—and of microbes, plants, and animals from different continents—was unparalleled in speed and volume in global history. Everyone had to adapt to a dramatic new world wrought by those combinations. In their adaptions to, and borrowings from, one another, they created truly exceptional societies (which is not to say that they were either better or worse than European societies, just new and different).

To divide the peoples in three, into the racial and cultural categories of European, African, and Indian, only begins to reveal the human diversity of the colonial encounter. For each embraced an enormous variety of cultures and languages. For example, the eighteenth-century “British” colonists included substantial numbers of Welsh, Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish, Germans, Swedes, Finns, Dutch, and French Huguenots—as well as the usual English suspects. Moreover, during the eighteenth century those nationalities were still inchoate, still complicated by powerful local cultures within each kingdom. Both the Londoner and the rural peasant of Cornwall, in far western England, were English subjects of the same king, but they could barely understand one another. Thrown together as neighbors in a distant colony, they had to find a new commonality of identity, dialect, and customs. Until lumped together in colonial slavery, the African conscripts varied even more widely in their ethnic identities, languages, and cultures. A very partial list of West African peoples includes Ashanti, Fulani, Ibo, Malagasy, Mandingo, and Yoruba. In general, their languages differed from one another more than English did from French or Spanish. Most diverse of all were the so-called Indians. Divided into hundreds of linguistically distinct peoples, the natives did not know that they were a common category until named and treated so by the colonial invaders. All three clusters—European, African, and Indian—were in flux when they encountered one another in the colonies; in the process of those encounters they defined an array of new identities as Americans.

European ships served as the medium, and European profit-seeking and soul-seeking as the motives, for bringing Europeans, Africans, and Indians together on the natives’ lands, breaking down the hundreds of localized identities and cultures that had formerly framed their lives. Thrown together in unexpected and kaleidoscopic combinations, the peoples struggled to make sense of one another as they tried to survive in a strange land of strange peoples. As James Merrell has shown, even Indians—no, especially Indians—lived in a new world transformed by the intrusion of diverse and powerful newcomers bearing alien diseases, livestock, trade goods, weapons, and proselytizing beliefs. By necessity, those in the encounter developed a composite culture borrowed in part from their new neighbors. African words and music infiltrated the popular culture of their enslavers, while the African-Americans adapted Christianity to their own needs. In such exchanges and composites, we find the true measure of American distinctiveness, the true foundation for the diverse America of our time.

In these cultural and environmental encounters, the various peoples were not equal in power. In most (but not all) circumstances, the European colonizers possessed tremendous ecological, technological, and organizational advantages, which demanded disproportionate adjustments by the Indians in their way and the Africans in their grasp. But the colonial elites never had complete power. Instead, they constantly had to adjust to the cultural resistance, however subtle, of those they meant to dominate.

Over time, race loomed larger—primarily in British America—as the fundamental prism for rearranging the identities and the relative power of the many peoples in the colonial encounters. A racialized sorting of peoples by skin color into white, red, and black was primarily a product, rather than a precondition, of colonization. At first, during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, colonizing elites thought of their superiority primarily as cultural—as the fruit of their European mastery of civility and Christianity. On those scores, the elites thought of their own peasants, laborers, sailors, and soldiers as only a little better than Indians and Africans. Therefore, the leaders left open the possibility that Indians and Africans could, through cultural indoctrination, become the equals of the European lower orders. Such elites did not yet ascribe status and limit potential primarily on the basis of pigmentation.

From the start, the English subtly differed from the French and the Spanish in a greater readiness to detect fundamental difference in color and to share some political rights with common “white” people. In the colonies, that difference grew stronger over the generations as British America developed an especially polarized conception of race in tandem with greater political power for common whites. Unlike the French and the Spanish, the British colonies relied in war primarily on local militias of common people, rather than on professional troops. That increased the political leverage of common men as it involved them in frequent conflicts with Indians and in patrolling the slave population. In those roles, the ethnically diverse militiamen found a shared identity as white men by asserting their superiority defined against Indians and Africans conveniently cast as brutish inferiors. To avoid alienating the militiamen, British colonial elites gradually accepted a white racial solidarity based upon subordinating “blacks” and “reds.” Once race, instead of class, became the primary marker of privilege, colonial elites had to concede greater social respect and political rights to common white men.

In sum, white racial solidarity developed in close tandem with the expansion of liberty among male colonists. The greater opportunity and freedoms enjoyed by white men in the British colonies were a product of their encounter with a broader array of peoples—some of whom could be exploited in ways impossible back in Britain. Confronting that linkage has been the painful challenge faced by the American republic since 1776. Recognizing both linkage and challenge certainly does not diminish the subsequent achievements of the American people. On the contrary, remembering the painful and powerful legacies of the colonial past can only highlight the progress made in the past two centuries—as well as underline how difficult further progress will be. And in addition to recovering the tragedies and exploitations of colonial America, we can find hope there in the development of popular liberties and representative institutions that made possible the American republic. Although originally limited to propertied white men, revolutionary republicanism claimed to promote human rights universally. Over the generations, those claims have enabled more Americans—including the descendants of slaves and dispossessed natives—to seek justice.


American Colonies draws upon three especially productive lines of recent scholarship: an Atlantic perspective, environmental history, and the ethnohistory of colonial and native peoples. The Atlantic approach examines the complex and continuous interplay of Europe, Africa, and colonial America through the transatlantic flows of goods, people, plants, animals, capital, and ideas. Environmental history considers the transformative impact of those flows on the landscape and life of North America. And ethnohistory focuses on the cultural encounters between Africans, Europeans, and natives in colonial North America. Because all three inquiries are rich and complex, they ordinarily belong to distinct specialists, but their combination is indispensable in any effort to understand the bigger picture of North America in the colonial era.

By design the title speaks of plurality, American Colonies, rather than the singular, traditional Colonial America. The chapters present a series of regional explorations that gradually move forward in time. I favored a regional, rather than a topical, organization lest I confuse myself and my readers by leaping back and forth over broad regions and distinct centuries, comparing British apples to Spanish oranges without first creating a context for understanding both. By exploring regions in sequence and in some detail, I have tried to show how culture, economy, politics, and society fit together in each region, have tried to re-create human places coherent and cohesive to the reader. As that picture becomes clearer and more comprehensive, I increasingly compare the various colonial Americas: Spanish, French, Dutch, British, and Russian.

In recent years, the escalating integration of North America—by treaty, investment, trade, migration, travel, mass media, and environmental pollution—renders our national boundaries more porous. As a result, we may now be prepared to broaden our historical imagination beyond the national limits of the United States, to see more clearly a colonial past in which those boundaries did not yet exist. In attempting a more North American perspective on our history, this book is also a half step toward a more global (and less national) sensibility for our place in time.

That goal is somewhat at odds with the mandate for this volume, as the first in a series meant to cover the history of the United States down to the present. That nation-state defines the subject, setting boundaries for the authors of the subsequent volumes—a luxury not available to the colonial scholar, who writes about a period before the United States existed or was even conceivable. Reading the United States back in time and geography to frame the colonial story has the distorting effect known as “teleology”: making all events lead neatly to a determined outcome, in the colonial case to the American Revolution and its republic. Teleology costs us a sense of the true drama of the past: the “contingency” of multiple and contested possibilities in a place where, and time when, no one knew what the future would bring. As late as 1775, few British colonists expected to frame an independent country. And very few Hispanics and fewer Indians wished for incorporation within such a nation.

Rejecting teleology, however, to wallow in pure contingency is an equal folly. Hindsight affords a pattern to change over time that readers reasonably seek from the historian. As their author, I cannot and should not treat the coming of the United States as utterly irrelevant to the colonial era—just as I cannot and should not allow that knowledge to overwhelm the other possibilities in that past. Instead, my job is to balance the creative tension between teleology and contingency.

Although British America does not warrant exclusive attention, it does deserve relatively greater coverage than that afforded the French, Spanish, Russian, and Dutch colonies. For British America became the most populous, prosperous, and powerful colonial presence on the continent—a development that made the American Revolution possible and successful. That revolution transformed the British colonists into the continent’s premier imperialists. British America left powerful legacies for the United States, which empowered its nineteenth-century conquest of most of the other peoples, both colonial and native, on the North American continent.

Striking a balance between the emerging power of British America and the enduring diversity of the colonial peoples requires bending (but not breaking) the geographic boundaries suggested by the United States today. Hispanic Mexico, the British West Indies, and French Canada receive more detailed coverage than is customary in a “colonial American history” (which has meant the history of a proto–United States). All three were powerful nodes of colonization that affected the colonists and Indians living between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. The internal cultures, societies, and economies of the Spanish, French, and Dutch colonies also warrant attention lest they again appear only in wars, reduced to bellicose foils to British protagonists. Such internal description also affords the comparative perspective needed to see the distinctive nature of British colonial society that made a colonial revolution for independence and republicanism possible first on the Atlantic seaboard.

As I wrote this book, several colleagues asked, “When does your book end?” Although it seemed to me that the end to my writing was nowhere in sight, I knew that they meant “At what year does your version of colonial America conclude?” The question implied the Anglocentric perspective that I hope, in some measure, to shift. So long as the subject was simply the English-speaking colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, the answer was relatively simple and finite: either 1763, when the British imperial crisis heated up, or 1776, when thirteen colonies declared their independence as the United States. But neither date marks an end point for the colonial experience west of the Appalachians. In 1776, the colonial encounter with native peoples was just beginning on the Pacific rim. Consequently, my ending has a sliding scale: about 1775 in the east, where and when the imperial crisis broke into revolution, and approximately 1820 in the west, when colonialism had taken root in California, Alaska, and even Hawaii. By 1820 the United States had emerged from an anticolonial revolution to exercise its own imperial power on the Pacific coast. The former British colonists became the American colonizers of others in their path. In that transition, I end the book.

Ultimately, my geographic and temporal bounds for colonial America are open-ended because process, as much as place, defines the subject as I understand it. A cascade of interacting changes make up “colonization” as the Europeans introduced new diseases, plants, animals, ideas, and peoples—which compelled dramatic, and often traumatic, adjustments by native peoples seeking to restore order to their disrupted worlds. Those processes ranged throughout the continent, affecting peoples and their environments far from the centers of colonial settlement. In turn, resourceful responses by native peoples to those changes compelled the colonizers to adapt their ideas and methods.

Indian peoples were indispensable to colonizers as guides to local plants, landscapes, and animals; as converts for missionary institutions; as trading partners; and as allies in wars with other empires. By the late seventeenth century, when multiple empires competed for advantage in North America, each needed to build networks of influence over native peoples. Rather than imposing a pure colonial mastery, those alliances involved the mutual dependence of both colonists and natives. Although natives increasingly relied on European trade goods, they also compelled colonizers to accommodate to native protocols and alliances—often imposing costs and compromises on imperial visions.

Recovering native importance, however, has sometimes come at the cost of underestimating the importance of European empires to the colonial story. Historians once exaggerated the power of empires to enforce their will upon distant natives and their own colonists. But in recent years, historians have tended toward the other extreme to debunk empires as impotent and irrelevant on the colonial frontiers. The historian John Robert McNeill offers a more balanced perspective. Referring to Europe as the “metropolis” and colonies as its “periphery,” he trenchantly defines a colonial empire as “the product of metropolitan logic and decisions imperfectly inflicted on people and places poorly understood by the metropolitans.”

As McNeill so nicely put it, imperial visions were “imperfectly inflicted.” Imperialists never achieved the full mastery they dreamed of; but the flawed pursuit of their illusions bore powerfully upon peoples in their way—just as those people inevitably deflected the blows of empire. Colonial empires unleashed powerful forces of disease, trade, missionaries, livestock, and war that, although often beyond imperial control, fundamentally disordered the natives’ world. Indians responded to the stresses with remarkable agility, but they did not have the option of ignoring the powerful changes imposed upon their continent by the newcomers. Over time, the natives lost land and freedom to the growing numbers of colonists, especially the proliferating British Americans of the Atlantic seaboard. As catalysts for unpredictable change, empires mattered, even if they were never quite what they claimed to be.

Part I




13,000 B.C.–A.D. 1492

Temple and cabin of the chief of the Acolapissa, 1732, by Alexandre de Batz. In the lower Mississippi Valley, in the early eighteenth century, French colonizers found vestiges of the Mississippian culture featuring powerful priest-chiefs and elaborately decorated temples.

SCHOLARS USED TO THINK of Native American cultures as relatively static, unchanging for centuries until encountered and overwhelmed by the European invaders after 1492. Those scholars assumed that the descriptions of Indian cultures by early explorers could be read backward to imagine their predecessors from centuries past. With the help of recent archaeology and anthropology, we can now see that the explorers encountered a complex array of diverse peoples in the midst of profound change. Far from being an immutable people, the Indians had a complicated and dynamic history in America long before 1492.

Because so much remains controversial about native origins and so many new discoveries are daily made, all of the statements in this chapter are highly speculative and the dates are approximations. The archaeological evidence is fragmentary and limited, suggesting multiple possibilities. In general, I have favored the more cautious interpretations advanced by the debating archaeologists. And we should bear in mind that many contemporary native peoples entirely reject the scholarly explanations for their origins, preferring instead their own traditions that they emerged in the Americas and so literally belong to this land.

Writing about pre-Columbian America is also fraught with controversy because we often enlist ancient natives in contemporary debates over our own social and environmental problems. To highlight the social inequities and environmental degradation of our own society, some romantics depict the pre-1492 Americans as ecological and social saints living in perfect harmony with one another and with their nature. To refute that critique, more conservative intellectuals eagerly point out every example of native violence, human sacrifice, and environmental waste. By generalizing from such examples, the conservatives revive the mythology of the European colonizers: that Indians were warlike savages with a primitive culture that deserved conquest and transformation. Often the debate deteriorates into a competition over who was innately worse: the Indian or the European. In fact, it would be difficult (and pointless) to make the case that either the Indians or the Europeans of the early modern era were by nature or culture more violent and “cruel” than the other. Warfare and the ritual torture and execution of enemies were commonplace in both native America and early modern Europe.

Without pegging Europeans as innately more cruel and violent, we should recognize their superior power to inflict misery. By 1492 they had developed a greater technological and organizational capacity to conduct prolonged wars far from home. They also possessed imperial rivalries and religious ideologies that drove them outward across the world’s oceans in search of new lands and peoples to conquer. Superior means enabled, and ideological imperatives obliged, Europeans to cross the Atlantic and invade North America after 1492. In the process, the newcomers escalated the bloodshed in the Americas to a level unprecedented in the native past.

And although Indians lacked the perfection of environmental saints, they did possess a culture that demanded less of their nature than did the Europeans of the early modern era. Almost all early explorers and colonizers marveled at the natural abundance they found in the Americas, a biodiversity at odds with the deforestation and extinctions that the Europeans had already wrought in most of their own continent. Colonization transformed the North American environment, which had already experienced more modest changes initiated by the native occupation.


With the exception of frozen and isolated Antarctica, North and South America were the last continents occupied by people. All of the human fossils found in the Americas are almost certainly less than fifteen thousand years old and belong to the biologically modern form. Dental, genetic, and linguistic analysis reveals that most contemporary Native Americans are remarkably homogeneous and probably descend from a few hundred ancestors who came to North America within fifteen thousand years of the present (with the exception of the later-arriving Athabascan, Inuit, and Aleut peoples).

Most scholars believe that the first Americans migrated from Siberia in northeast Asia. Genetic and skeletal (especially dental) evidence suggests special affinities between Native Americans and the peoples of Siberia. And the proximity of Siberia to Alaska offers the readiest passage between the Old and the New World, indeed the only practicable route for peoples without the marine technology to traverse the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.

About fifteen thousand years ago the inhabitants of Siberia lived in many small bands that ranged far and wide in pursuit of the roaming and grazing herds of large and meaty (but dangerous) mammals, especially mammoths, musk oxen, and woolly rhinoceroses. It was a hard, cold, and generally short life in which hunger alternated with the episodic binges of a big kill. Because the people had to remain on the move (on foot) in pursuit of the herds, they could not develop permanent villages and did not accumulate heavy possessions.

In their pursuit of the herds, some hunting bands passed into what is now North America. Today the oceanic Bering Strait separates Siberia from Alaska. But between about twenty-five thousand and twelve thousand years ago, a colder global climate—an Ice Age—locked up more of the world’s water in polar icecaps, which spread southward as immense glaciers, covering the northern third of North America. The enlarged icecaps lowered the ocean levels by as much as 360 feet, creating a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska.

Of course, the first people who trekked into Alaska had no notion that they were discovering and colonizing a new continent, nor that they were crossing a land bridge that would subsequently vanish beneath the rising Pacific Ocean when the global climate warmed. The newcomers naturally regarded the flat, gently undulating, cold, and arid grassland as simply an extension of their home.

The period between fifteen thousand and twelve thousand years ago was an ideal time for a crossing into North America, because the global climate was slowly warming and the glaciers were in gradual retreat, sufficiently so to permit an easier passage into the continent but not yet so far as entirely to refill the Bering Strait with water. By about ten thousand years ago the glacial ice had retreated to approximately its present limits in the arctic, and the climate and sea levels stabilized close to their modern configurations. As the icecap receded over the centuries, the migrants found it easier to spread southward and eastward into North America and beyond. Remarkably similar archaeological sites of human encampments suddenly became common about twelve thousand to ten thousand years ago in distant places, from California to Pennsylvania and Florida.

As the land bridge submerged, migration from Siberia became more difficult—but not impossible for people possessing small boats made from animal skins stretched over a wooden framework. At its narrowest, the Bering Strait is only three miles wide. Contemporary Native Americans who speak an Athabascan language descend from a second pulse of emigrants, who arrived about ten thousand to eight thousand years ago. Settling first in the subarctic of Alaska and northwestern Canada, some Athabascan bands gradually worked their way down the Rocky Mountains, reaching the American southwest about six hundred years ago. These people later became known as the Navajo and Apache.

A third surge of colonization began about five thousand years ago and featured the ancestors of the Inuit (or “Eskimos”) and Aleut. Skilled boat builders, they specialized in the hunting of sea mammals—walruses, seals, and whales. The Aleut settled the Aleutian islands southwest of Alaska, while their Inuit cousins gradually expanded eastward along the Arctic coasts of northern Alaska and Canada, reaching Labrador and Greenland by about twenty-five hundred years ago.


We do not know what the people in the first pulse of migration named themselves, but scholars call them the Paleo-Indians. As in their Siberian past, the Paleo-Indians lived by hunting and gathering in small bands of about fifteen to fifty individuals: the optimum size for far-ranging travel in pursuit of animals as well as for cooperation in the hunt and butchering. Their basic weapon and tool was a spear with a sharp, flaked-stone point (usually flint) bound tightly to a wooden shaft. Most of their archaeological sites were temporary encampments near perennial springs, waterholes, and river crossings—places where big game came to drink or to pass. After consuming a kill, they moved on in pursuit of another herd.

At first, the Paleo-Indians primarily found in North America a vast, cool grassland that sustained large herds of slow-moving herbivores initially inexperienced in defending themselves against a predator as cunning, numerous, and cooperative as humans. The beasts included immense mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses, and camels, as well as caribou, moose, and deer. The Paleo-Indians found beavers as big as bears: seven feet long. The giant bison had horns spanning six feet, and the mammoths stood twelve feet high and could weigh ten tons, nearly as big as their modern relatives, the elephants. The Paleo-Indians truly experienced the discovery and occupation of a vast new domain of “free land”: free from other humans and abounding with plant and animal life. After centuries of subarctic hardship and recurrent hunger, the first Americans had found the hunters’ Eden.

But no Eden lasts for long. An abundant diet permitted an explosive population growth, which, in turn, pressed against local supplies of plants and animals. As bands grew too large for a locale to sustain, they subdivided, with new bands hiving off in pursuit of more distant animal herds. By about nine thousand years ago, people could be found from Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America, a distance of some eight thousand miles.

Through some combination of climatic change and the spread of highly skilled hunters, almost all of the largest mammals rapidly died out in the Americas. The extinctions comprised two-thirds of all New World species that weighed more than one hundred pounds at maturity—including the giant beaver, giant ground sloth, mammoth, mastodon, and horses and camels. It is ironic that horses and camels first evolved in North America and migrated westward into Asia, where they were eventually domesticated, while those that remained in the Americas became extinct. The giant bison died out, leaving its smaller cousin, the buffalo, as the largest herbivore on the Great Plains. Of the old, shaggy great beasts, only the musk oxen survived and only in the more inaccessible reaches of the arctic.

At the same time that the largest mammals became extinct, the environment became more diverse. Over the generations, the global warming gradually shrank the grasslands and expanded the forests. The revival of complex forest environments expanded the range of plant and small animal species that could be gathered for food.

The changing climate and the demise of the mega-animals induced the nomadic bands to pursue more diversified strategies to tap a broader range of food sources. The natives had to learn their local environments more intimately to harvest shellfish, fish, birds, nuts, seeds, berries, and tubers. The Indians obtained more of their diet from fishing as they developed nets, traps, and bone hooks. Their hunting evolved into the patient and prolonged tracking of more elusive mammals, especially deer, pronghorn antelope, moose, elk, and caribou. Beginning about nine thousand years ago the Indians adjusted to their smaller, fleeter prey by developing the atlatl—a spear thrower that provided increased thrust, velocity, and distance.

American archaeologists distinguish the peoples leading this more complex and more locally framed way of life between about nine thousand and three thousand years ago as “Archaic” to distinguish them from their “Paleo-Indian” ancestors. As the Archaic Indians exploited a broader array of food sources, they more than compensated for the loss of the great mammals. Obtaining more to eat, more reliably, they resumed their population growth. The more local and eclectic Archaic way of life could sustain about ten times as many people on a given territory as could the Paleolithic predation on herds of great beasts. From a late Paleolithic level of about 100,000 people, North America’s population probably grew to one million by the end of the Archaic period. Obliged to change by the potentially disastrous demise of the megafauna, native peoples innovated to develop a more efficient and productive relationship with their diverse environments.

In the temperate climes, people began to live for longer periods in semipermanent villages located beside rivers and lakes or along seacoasts, at places where fish and birds and shellfish and wild food plants were most abundant. They also settled in larger groups within smaller territories. Each band developed a seasonal round of activity and movement within a more defined territory, harvesting those plants and animals as they became abundant at different seasons. For example, in the southwest during the summer and fall the people dispersed to hunt rabbits, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and antelope. The onset of winter with its cold rains led them to gather in larger groups in caves and rock shelters in the sides of canyons, where they harvested prickly pear and piñon nuts. In the spring, they scattered again in pursuit of roots and berries and game.

Archaic Indians also began to modify the environment to increase the yields of plants and animals that sustained them. In particular, they set annual fires to reduce small trees and encourage edge environments that, by providing more browse and better grazing, promoted a larger deer herd for the people to hunt. In some places the Indians weeded out inedible plants to encourage clusters of edible plants such as wild onions, sunflowers, and marsh elder. These practices brought a people to the verge of horticulture.

Gender structured work roles: men were responsible for fishing and hunting while women harvested and prepared wild plants. In general, men’s activities entailed wide-ranging travel and the endurance of greater exposure and danger, while women’s activities kept them close to the village, where they bore and raised children. We can intuit this from burials, for the dead were interred with the tools they needed in the afterlife: men with hunting, fishing, woodworking, and leatherworking tools; women with tools to dig and grind nuts and roots. Women probably gained in status as their gathering activities became more critical to their band’s survival.

The Archaic way of life was a decentralizing phenomenon as many far-flung peoples figured out how best to exploit the mix of resources peculiar to their locale. The immense continent of North America offered extraordinary climatic and environmental diversity. Peoples living along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, on the Great Plains, in the Rocky Mountains, in the interior deserts, on the edges of the Canadian arctic, or in temperate forests had to pursue different strategies for survival, had to adapt to different seasonal cycles affecting distinctive sets of plants and animals.

As the Archaic Indian bands proliferated and specialized in harvesting the particular local resources, they became distinguished culturally, developing different languages, rituals, mythic stories, kinship systems, and survival strategies. The native peoples of North America spoke at least 375 distinct languages by 1492. The process of cultural differentiation proceeded most elaborately and rapidly in the Pacific northwest and northern California, where the general abundance and the subdivision into many localized micro-environments led to the development of some five hundred culturally diverse communities speaking nearly fifty distinct languages.

Cultural differentiation did not mean cultural isolation. Trade networks developed over very long distances. Archaeologists have found that some relatively small and highly valued objects could pass hundreds and even thousands of miles through multiple bands. At Archaic sites in the midwest or Great Basin, archaeologists find marine shells from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts; on the coasts they uncover copper from the Great Lakes and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains. Ideas and innovations traveled along with these objects so that the trading peoples influenced one another over long distances.


Through trial and error, over many generations, horticulture evolved from the practices of gathering wild plants, rather than by sudden and conscious invention. As some Indian bands protected, watered, and harvested productive patches of wild plants with edible seeds, they also gradually developed hybrids of increasing reliability and productivity. For example, wild maize has a single inch-long ear with fifty tiny kernels. By 1500 B.C., Indians in central Mexico had learned how to cross maize—“Indian corn”—with other wild grasses to create hybrids with multiple ears, protective husks, and cobs with multiple rows of kernels.

The Indians of central Mexico pioneered the three great crops of North American horticulture: maize, squashes, and beans. As these domesticated plants became more important in their diet, the peoples of central Mexico devoted less time to hunting, gathering, and fishing. Indeed, the expansion of cleared fields and the growth of the human population reduced the habitat for wildlife. By expanding the food supply, horticulture permitted a renewed surge in the human population and a more sedentary life in larger and more permanent villages. Indeed, maize requires permanence, for unless carefully tended, guarded, and watered through its growing season, the crop will succumb to pests, weeds, and drought. As people became dependent on corn, they had to live most of the year in villages near their cultivated fields. The new horticulture also promoted economic differentiation and social stratification as the food surplus enabled some people to specialize as craftsmen, merchants, priests, and rulers.

But the new dependence on horticulture also had negative consequences. The crops were vulnerable to catastrophic collapse from a prolonged drought or infestations of insects and blights. Horticulture also demanded more sustained and repetitive work than did the hunting-and-gathering life, in which temporary bursts of exertion alternated with longer stretches of rest. And a horticultural diet that relies too heavily on one plant, particularly maize, is not as healthy as the diverse diet of hunter-gatherers. The skeletons of early farmers reveal a want of sufficient salt or protein, episodes of early childhood malnutrition, and an overall loss of stature. Moreover, the denser populations of horticultural villages facilitated the spread of communicable diseases, principally tuberculosis, which was less common among dispersed hunter-gatherers.

Consequently, native peoples were often slow to adopt Mesoamerican horticulture. By about 1500 B.C., peoples in the American southwest and midwest had begun to cultivate some maize and squash, but only as a minor supplement to their hunting and gathering. Not until about 500 B.C. did native peoples north of the Rio Grande develop strains of maize better suited to their cooler climate and shorter growing season. Thereafter, cultivation spread more rapidly. Between about A.D. 700 and 1200, maize, beans, and squash became fundamental to the native diet in the American southwest, midwest, and southeast and the more temperate portions of the northeast.

In Mexico and the American southwest, where maize cultivation was most advanced, Indian men reduced their hunting and became the primary cultivators. In those relatively arid regions, maize fields required the laborious construction and maintenance of extensive irrigation ponds, dams, and ditches. In the more humid stretches of central and eastern North America, maize cultivation arrived relatively late and required less labor. Consequently, there the native peoples regarded horticulture as an extension of gathering, which was a female responsibility, while the men remained preoccupied with hunting and fishing.

Horticulture never spread universally among the Indians. Some lived where the growing season was too short: in the vast arctic and subarctic regions of Alaska and Canada or in the high elevations of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Or they dwelled where there was too little water: in the western Great Plains and in most of the Great Basin between the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Where either the growing season was too short or water too scant, the inhabitants continued to live in small, mobile, highly dispersed, and relatively egalitarian groups. Rather than horticulture, the most significant development for these people was their adoption of the bow and arrow after about A.D. 500.

Natives also did not develop horticulture in the temperate and humid coastal zone of California and the Pacific northwest, despite its sufficient growing seasons and abundant water. Along the Pacific coast, the hunting-gathering-fishing complex was so productive that the native peoples did not feel the pressures that elsewhere led to horticulture. In California an abundance of acorns and other edible wild plants supported an especially large population. Similarly, in the mild and rainy Pacific northwest, the people lived plentifully on fish (especially salmon) and sea mammals. Endowed with a bountiful diet and leisure time, the Indians of the northwestern raincoast could develop and sustain elaborate rituals, art, and status hierarchies without developing horticulture.


Between about A.D. 300 and 1100 two especially complex and populous cultures emerged in the American southwest: the Hohokam and the Anasazi. The names are scholarly conventions, for we do not know what those peoples called themselves. “Hohokam” and “Anasazi” signify broad cultural similarities rather than linguistic and political unity. Neither constituted a nation-state, to say nothing of an empire. Instead, both cultures consisted of several linguistic groups and many politically independent villages or towns (later called pueblos by the Spanish). Neither the Anasazi nor the Hohokam had beasts of burden (other than dogs), developed a system of writing, or employed the wheel. Nonetheless, both built substantial stone and adobe towns directed by a social hierarchy headed by men who combined the roles of chief and priest.

The Anasazi and Hohokam annually conducted public rituals meant to sustain the harmony and productivity of their world. Far from taking harmony and abundance for granted, they regarded constant ritual exertion as essential to prevent nature’s collapse into chaos. Their arid land of limited resources and competing villages afforded good cause for their existential anxiety.

Both the Anasazi and the Hohokam manifested, to varying degrees, the influence of central Mexico, the preeminent cultural hearth of the continent. In trade with central Mexico, they exchanged turquoise stones for parrots, copper bells, and maize seed. In addition to transmitting their food crops, Mesoamericans taught the Hohokam and Anasazi how to cultivate cotton and to weave cloth. The largest Hohokam villages constructed ball courts and platform temple mounds resembling those of central Mexican cities.

In the arid southwest, horticulture required elaborate systems of dams, reservoirs, and ditches to catch, retain, and channel water to irrigate the plants. In the Gila River and Salt River valleys of southern Arizona, the Hohokam built and maintained over five hundred miles of irrigation canals to water thousands of acres devoted to maize, beans, and squash. To the north, the Anasazi occupied upland canyons that captured more moisture in winter than did the low desert. The Anasazi irrigation system caught and retained winter’s rainwater on the mesa tops for spring and summer release via diversion channels to low-lying fields beside the intermittent streambeds, where the people cultivated their crops.

The irrigation works demanded extensive, coordinated labor to build and maintain, while the abundant crops enabled many people to live clustered together. The preeminent Hohokam pueblo, known as Snaketown, had about a thousand residents living in adobe row houses, some of them two and three stories tall. The Anasazi constructed even larger, rectangular pueblos of mortared sandstone blocks roofed with rafters and adobe tile. The largest pueblo, at Chaco Canyon, required thirty thousand tons of sandstone blocks, stood four stories tall, and contained at least 650 rooms.

During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, both the Hohokam and the Anasazi experienced severe crises that began in environmental degradation associated with local overpopulation and an excessive reliance on maize. Although highly productive, corn rapidly depletes the soil of nutrients, especially nitrogen. Repeated crops in the same fields led to diminishing yields. In the southwest, between 1130 and 1190, an especially prolonged period of drought years exacerbated the subsistence crisis, setting off a chain reaction of crop failure, malnutrition, and violent feuds.

The Hohokam apparently concluded that their leaders could no longer win favor from the spirits of the plants and the rain. The hard work of supporting their chiefs and priests and maintaining the irrigation systems or the earthworks came to seem futile. During the thirteenth century, most of the Hohokam abandoned their towns and dispersed into the arid hinterland, where they reverted to a mobile strategy of hunting and gathering that shifted with the seasons. They harvested cholla, yucca, saguaro fruit, prickly pear, and mesquite pods, and they hunted for rabbit, deer, and pronghorn antelope. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers found the probable descendants of the Hohokam divided into many small villages. They called themselves some variant of “O’odham,” which simply means “the people,” but the Spanish named them the Pima and the Papago. Some lived beside the rivers and maintained smaller-scale versions of the ancient irrigation system, but most lived in the hills.

Between 1150 and 1250, the Anasazi responded to their growing violence by shifting their pueblos to more defensible locations atop mesas, which they fortified. Skeletons from this period reveal a surge in violent death, mutilation, and perhaps ritual cannibalism. At the end of the thirteenth century, most of the Anasazi abandoned their homeland and fled south and east, seeking locales with a more certain source of water and with soils not yet exhausted by corn. Some regrouped in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona to build the Acoma, Hopi, and Zuni pueblos. Founded in 1300, Acoma is probably the longest continuously inhabited community within the United States. Other Anasazi traveled still farther east to settle along the upper Rio Grande, which offered sufficient year-round water to sustain irrigation even in drought years. Later collectively called the Pueblo Indians by the Spanish, the Rio Grande peoples in fact belonged to dozens of autonomous villages, and they spoke at least seven different languages. Instead of “collapsing,” the Anasazi culture moved, shifting into impressive new pueblos to the south and east of its former homeland. The oral traditions of the Pueblo, Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma agree that their ancestors were uprooted from old homes by a combination of drought, famine, disease, and violence.


In contrast to the arid American southwest, the Mississippi watershed enjoys a humid and temperate climate. The great river collects the waters of wide-ranging tributaries, including the Tennesee, Cumberland, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, and Red rivers, to drain an area of nearly 1.25 million square miles. Unlike the Hohokam and Anasazi, the Mississippi people did not need irrigation systems to sustain horticulture. Indeed, the mild and moist conditions probably delayed the advent of horticulture by sustaining the inhabitants with an abundance of wild plants and animals. Beginning about 2000 B.C., Mississippi Valley farmers experimented with the cultivation of marsh elder, goosefoot, sunflowers, and gourds. But they continued to depend upon hunting, fishing, and gathering for most of their diet until about A.D. 800, when they adopted the trinity of maize, beans, and squash. The broad floodplains of the Mississippi Valley proved ideal for the new horticulture: well-watered, well-drained soils easily tilled with stone hoes and replenished with fertile silt by annual spring floods. The highly productive new horticulture permitted the population to quadruple, as the Mississippi Valley became the most densely settled region north of central Mexico.

Drawing upon Mesoamerican precedents, the Mississippian peoples built substantial towns around central plazas that featured earthen pyramids topped by wooden temples that doubled as the residences of chiefs. Like the people of central Mexico, the Mississippians regarded the sun as their principal deity, responsible for the crops that sustained their survival; they considered their chiefs as quasi-sacred beings related to the sun; and they practiced human sacrifice. When a chief died, his wives and servants were killed for burial beside him, as companions for the afterlife.

Paying tribute in labor and produce, common people erected the earthworks, built the towns, and sustained a local chief. In turn, the local chiefs usually paid tribute to a paramount chief, who dwelled on top of the largest pyramid in the region’s largest town.

The great valley was a vibrant and diverse landscape of paramount and local chiefdoms, of rising and falling power, never stable and never united. There was a “cycling” process by which certain towns emerged for a century or two to dominate their region only to decline in favor of a rival chiefdom. The chiefdoms conducted chronic warfare. Burials reveal skeletons scarred with battle wounds; many towns were fortified with wooden palisades, and their art often celebrated victorious warriors displaying the skulls, scalps, and corpses of their victims. Of course, none of this rendered them more warlike than their contemporaries elsewhere in the world; European graves, cities, and art of the same period (“the Middle Ages”) also displayed the prominence of war and the honors bestowed upon victors.

The largest, wealthiest, and most complex of the political and ceremonial centers was at a place now called Cahokia, located near the Mississippi River in Illinois just east of St. Louis. Cahokia arose in the midst of a broad and fertile floodplain, extending over about 350 square miles. In addition to hosting cornfields, the floodplain featured dozens of oxbow lakes and marshes, rich in fish and waterfowl. Located near the junctures of the Missouri, Tennesee, and Ohio rivers with the Mississippi, Cahokia could also dominate both north-south and east-west trade in precious shells and stones.

Developed between A.D. 900 and 1100, Cahokia and its immediate suburbs covered about six square miles and had a population of at least ten thousand (some estimates run as high as forty thousand). Even at the smallest calculation, Cahokia ranked as the greatest Indian community north of Mexico. At its peak, Cahokia contained about one hundred earthen temple and burial mounds as well as hundreds of thatched houses for commoners. The city was surrounded by a stockade, a wall of large posts two miles in circumference with a watchtower every seventy feet. Outside the palisade stood a precise circle 410 feet in diameter, featuring forty-eight large posts. Called “Woodhenge” by archaeologists, this was a calendrical device to determine the solstices and equinoxes—apparently to guide the ritual cycle of the city.

Cahokia’s greatest monument was an immense earthen pyramid containing over 800,000 cubic yards of earth, covering sixteen acres, and rising 110 feet high. The Cahokia pyramid was the third-largest in North America, ranking behind two in central Mexico. The flat top bore a wooden temple with a thatched roof. The temple contained a sacred fire representing the sun, and it housed the chief, along with his family and servants. The chief served as the town’s preeminent priest, responsible for conducting rituals to maintain a spiritual harmony between the people and their cosmos. The inhabitants sought a supernatural security from catastrophic variations in their climate, especially droughts and crop blights. Endowed with great structures, Cahokia appeared as a center of great spiritual and temporal power that must be honored and sustained.

During the twelfth century, however, Cahokia began to decline in population and power, and it was abandoned in the middle of the thirteenth century—at the same time that the Anasazi and Hohokam experienced their crises. As in the southwest, the archaeological evidence suggests that environmental strains initiated the demise of Cahokia. The growing population gradually depleted the local resources, initiating a destructive cycle of malnutrition, disease, demoralization, and infighting. Too many hunters killed the nearby wild animals faster than they could reproduce, reducing animal protein in the people’s diet, which led to an unhealthy overreliance on maize. The people also chopped down most of the nearby forest, exhausting the wood needed for fires and to repair their homes and the defensive stockade. Urban concentration also accumulated the wastes that bred the pathogens of some endemic diseases. The environmental strains became exacerbated into a severe crisis in those years when unusually hot and dry summers withered the crops. As the people’s material circumstances decayed, they doubted the efficacy of the paramount chief in securing favor from the sun. Doubts encouraged dissension and rebellion, especially by the subordinated villages on Cahokia’s periphery. In the elaborate and strengthened stockade there is evidence of growing external resistance. Burials throughout the upper midwest also indicate a greater frequency of violent death.

Although in decline around Cahokia, Missisippian culture remained vibrant in substantial southern towns, including Moundville in Alabama, Etowah in Georgia, and Spiro in eastern Oklahoma, which surged in size and apparent power after Cahokia collapsed. The southern Mississippian culture survived for description by the chroniclers attached to a Spanish expedition commanded by Hernando de Soto in the years 1540–42. They were impressed by the numbers of the Indians, the extent of their maize fields, the quantities in their storehouses, the dignity and power of their chiefs, and their disciplined warriors. From the top of one town’s temple mound the Spanish could usually see the palisades and mounds of several neighboring towns. “That country is populous and abundant,” concluded a Spaniard.

Soto foolishly claimed that he could command the sun and summoned a paramount chief to his camp. The chief contemptuously replied:

As to what you say of your being the son of the Sun, if you will cause him to dry up the great river, I will believe you: as to the rest, it is not my custom to visit any one, but rather all, of whom I have ever heard, have come to visit me, to serve and obey me, and pay me tribute, either voluntarily or by force. If you desire to see me, come where I am; if for peace, I will receive you with special goodwill; if for war, I will await you in my town; but neither for you, nor for any man, will I set back one foot.

A Mississippian chief could be as imperious as any European warlord. But the arrival of the Europeans, bent on conquest and bearing disease pathogens, introduced a radical and catastrophic acceleration of change. Within a century, European diseases, supplemented by European violence, killed most of the Mississippian peoples and transformed the world of the survivors.


The Anasazi, Hohokam, and northern Mississippians all put excessive pressure on their local environments, leading to increased violence and the collapse or relocation of their largest communities. Although their experiences contradict the romantic myth of the Indian as environmental saint, it would be equally misleading to depict all natives as just as environmentally destructive as their European contemporaries. In their urban concentrations and dependence on maize, the Anasazi, the Hohokam, and the Mississippians were conspicuous exceptions to the general pattern in native America. North of central Mexico, most native peoples lived in smaller, more dispersed, and more mobile bands that placed less of a burden on their local nature. And even the urbanized peoples produced less long-term, accumulative damage than did their European contemporaries. The urban centers tended to collapse within two centuries of their peak, which obliged their inhabitants either to relocate or to revert to a more decentralized and less hierarchical mode of life, which allowed the recovery of wild plants, animals, and soils. Because native peoples more promptly felt the negative consequences of their local abuse of nature (relative to Europeans), they more quickly shifted to alternative environmental strategies.

Natives could and did damage their local environments, but they certainly did less enduring harm than the colonizers who displaced them. By all accounts, the nature found by European explorers was far more diverse and abundant in plants and animals than the nature they had left behind in their Old World. Having depleted the forests and wildlife of Europe, the colonizers came to do the same in their New World.

When the Europeans invaded, the native North Americans painfully discovered their profound technological and epidemiological disadvantages. They lacked the steel weapons and armor and the gunpowder that endowed the invaders with military advantage. Native peoples also could not match the wind or water mills that facilitated the processing of wood and grain. Lacking horses and oxen, native North Americans knew the wheel only in Mesoamerica as a toy. For maritime navigation, the natives possessed only large canoes and rafts incapable of crossing an open ocean in safety. Their lone domesticated mammal was the dog, which provided far less protein and less motive power than the cattle and horses of the Europeans. Only the elites in parts of Mesoamerica possessed the systems of writing that facilitated long-distance communication and record-keeping. Consequently, in the North America of 1492, only the Aztecs of Mexico constituted an imperial power capable of governing multiple cities and their peoples by command. In addition, no Native Americans possessed an ideology that impelled them far beyond their known world in search of new lands and peoples to conquer and to transform. Finally, compared with Europeans, the natives of America carried a more limited and less deadly array of pathogenic microbes.

By contrast, the Europeans of 1492 were the heirs to an older and more complex array of domesticated plants and animals developed about nine thousand years ago at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The European mode of agriculture featured domesticated mammals—sheep, pigs, cattle, and horses—endowing their owners with more fertilizer, mobility, motive power, animal protein, and shared disease microbes. Building on a long head start and the power of domesticated mammals, the Europeans had, over the centuries, developed expansionist ambitions, systems of written records and communication, the maritime and military technology that permitted global exploration and conquest, and (unwittingly) a deadly array of diseases to which they enjoyed partial immunities. Lacking those peculiar ambitions, technologies, diseases, and domesticants, the Indians did not expand across the Atlantic to discover and conquer Europe.

The technological differences reflected contrasting spiritual commitments. Compared with Europeans, Indians possessed a more complex understanding of the interdependent relationship between the natural and supernatural. Where Europeans believed that humanity had a divine duty and an unchecked power to dominate nature, North American Indians believed that they lived within a contentious world of spiritual power that sometimes demanded human restraint and at other moments offered opportunities for exploitation.

North American natives subscribed to “animism”: a conviction that the supernatural was a complex and diverse web of power woven into every part of the natural world. Indeed, Indians made no distinction between the natural and the supernatural. In their minds, spiritual power was neither singular nor transcendent, but diverse and ubiquitous. Their world was filled with an almost infinite variety of beings, each possessing some varying measure of power. All living things belonged to a complex matrix that was simultaneously spiritual and material. Indeed, spirit power could be found in every plant, animal, rock, wind, cloud, and body of water—but in greater concentration in some than others. This power pulsated, ebbing and flowing from interaction with every other being—including the ritual magic practiced by humans bent on exploiting their nature. If properly approached and flattered (or tricked), the spirit “keepers” of animals or plants could help people find, catch, and kill what they needed.

Because of their animistic convictions, Indians lived very differently within their nature than Europeans did within theirs. Natives believed that humans lived inside, rather than apart from, that web of the natural and supernatural. They conceived of their actions with all other-than-human beings as essentially social, as involving creatures more like than unlike themselves. Indeed, in their myths and dreams, people and the other-than-human could metamorphose into one another. As in all aspects of native life, the fundamental principle in harvesting nature was the pursuit of reciprocity. People felt justified in claiming a share in the other life around them, but felt obligated to reciprocate by paying ritual honor and by minimizing waste.

Indians understood that humans could live only by killing fish and animals and by clearing trees for fields, but they had to proceed cautiously. Natives usually showed restraint, not because they were ecologically minded in the twentieth-century sense, but because spirits, who could harm people, lurked in the animals and plants. A healthy fear of the spirits limited how the Indians dealt with other forms of life, lest they reap some supernatural counterattack. Offended spirits might hide away the animals or the fish, afflict the corn crop, or churn up a devastating windstorm. Any success in hunting, fishing, or cultivating had to be accepted with humility, in recognition that the fruits of nature were provisional gifts from temperamental spirits.

Indian animism should not be romantically distorted into a New Age creed of stable harmony. In fact, the natives regarded the spiritual world as volatile and full of tension, danger, and uncertainty. To survive and prosper, people had to live warily and opportunistically. Engaged in an always difficult balancing act, humans had to discern when they could trick and manipulate the spirits and when they should soothe and mollify them. Sometimes people could take fish or kill game with exuberance; more often they had to limit their take. The logic of restraint was animist rather than ecological—but that restraint tended to preserve a nature that sustained most native communities over many generations.

Dreams and visions enabled native people to communicate with the spirits to enlist their aid in hunting, gathering, cultivating, and war. Natives regarded the nocturnal dreamworld as fundamentally more real and powerful than their waking hours. They also provoked visions by prolonged fasting and isolation (sometimes aided by ingesting psychotropic plants). The most adept dreamers and visionaries became shamans, who acted as intermediaries between people and the other-than-human beings. Shamans conducted rituals to promote the hunt, secure the crops, and protect their warriors. Shamans could heal or inflict illness, and could predict, and sometimes magically influence, the future. But even the most skilled shaman often failed in the complex contests to influence, lull, and propitiate spirit beings. Only constant effort and varying tactics could preserve the reciprocities between people and other life.

An animist perspective discouraged the sort of mechanistic development practiced by Europeans. Lacking domesticated animals and metal tools and weapons, the Indians seemed a primitive people to the Europeans. The natives, however, regarded themselves as more intelligent and resourceful than the Europeans. Animism both derived from and encouraged the distinctive forms of perception and ingenuity demanded by hunting and gathering—practices essential to almost all native peoples, even those who also cultivated domesticated plants. Native peoples keenly observed the diverse forms of edible or healing life in the forest and waters, and they mastered the best times and techniques for finding and harvesting wild plants and animals. Because Europeans lacked these skills and that knowledge, they struck the Indians as clumsy babes in the woods. From the native perspective, it seemed that the colonizers had exhausted their intelligence in making their metal and cloth goods. Preoccupied with dead matter, they appeared insensitive to living nature.

A few colonizers recognized that native intelligence and creativity ran in different channels. William Wood concluded that the natives were “by nature admirably ingenious.” Another seventeenth-century New Englander, Thomas Morton, decided, “The Salvages have the sence of seeing so farre beyond any of our Nation, that one would almost believe they had intelligence of the Devill.”

Even a relatively sympathetic observer like Morton could not accept native beliefs on their own terms. Instead, Europeans forced animism into their polarity between the divine and the diabolical. They generally regarded the Indians’ beliefs as dictated by the devil and considered their shamans to be witches, possessed of an evil power to inflict harm on other Indians but not on European Christians.

In contrast to the animism of the natives, the Europeans had begun conceptually to segregate the natural and the spiritual. Christianity fundamentally invests supernatural power in a single God located away in heaven, above and beyond the earth. Even the evil power of the devil and his minions was subordinate to God: allowed in the short term but ultimately doomed to destruction. Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans continued to believe in supernatural intervention, both divine and diabolical, in human events. But they regarded the supernatural intervention as coming from without, rather than from within particular plants, animals, and places. Belief in a transcendent God enabled educated Europeans to disenchant the world, to treat it as purely material and its animals as without souls. Of course, many European peasants continued to merge old pagan beliefs in fairies and other nature spirits with their Christian notions. But such rustics exercised no intellectual, political, or economic power in the hierarchical societies of Europe and their colonial ventures.

The Christian alienation of spirit from nature rendered it supernaturally safe for Europeans to harvest all the resources that they wanted from nature, for they offended no spirits in doing so. In wild plants and animals, the colonizers simply saw potential commodities: items that could be harvested, processed, and sold to make a profit. Indeed, European Christians insisted that humanity had a divine charge to dominate and exploit the natural world. In the first book of their Bible, God ordered people to “subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing that moves on the earth.” As a result, colonizers regarded as backward and impious any people, like the Indians, who left nature too little altered. By defaulting in their divine duty, such peoples forfeited their title to the earth. They could justly be conquered and dispossessed by Europeans who would exploit lands and animals to their fullest potential.

The “anthropocentric” implications of Christianity enabled western Europeans to develop the economic culture of capitalism (to varying degrees) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Spain, Portugal, and France were hybrid economic cultures in which capitalist enterprise remained inhibited by feudal traditions and especially powerful monarchs. By comparison, England and the Netherlands more quickly and more fully developed capitalist societies, in which the means of production—land, labor, and capital—were privately owned, available for sale, and devoted to harvesting or making commodities for sale in pursuit of profit. Although neither the Dutch nor the English had yet developed the mature form of capitalism characterized by industrial production and a propertyless proletariat, both nations had passed into that early stage known as mercantile capitalism. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Dutch and English merchant classes were constructing innovative combinations of land, labor, and capital meant to accumulate profit for yet further investment and production. Their ambitious new ventures included trading voyages to, and plantations within, the North American colonies.

Capitalist societies compel much more work from common people and extract far more energy and matter from nature than do the less ambitious economies of aboriginal peoples subscribing to animism. Capitalism demands ever greater production and innovation in a relentless drive for increased profits. Competitors who cannot keep up go bankrupt. Unless regulated, capitalism encourages individuals to harvest wealth from nature as quickly as possible.

Seventeenth-century capitalism already had its discontents. Although Christianity was compatible with the emergence of capitalism, that does not mean that they lacked tensions. Indeed, the materialism and individualism encouraged by capitalism profoundly troubled early modern clergymen. Catholic friars, as well as Protestant ministers, worried that the pursuit of wealth distracted people from attending to their proper goal: the salvation of their souls for an enduring afterlife in heaven. People were supposed to labor diligently at their worldly calling, yet never mistake its rewards as their ultimate purpose in life.

In the less hurried, more egalitarian, and less propertied ways of Indians, some critics saw an opportunity to score points against their own uneasy culture. A French priest in Acadia noted of the Indians, “They are never in a hurry. Quite different from us, who can never do anything without hurry and worry; worry, I say, because our desire tyrannizes over us and banishes peace from our actions.” Similarly, Thomas Morton, a fur trader in New England, observed: “These people lead the more happy & freer life, being voyde of care, which torments the minds of so many Christians. They are not delighted in baubles, but in useful things.” He added, “If our beggars of England should with so much ease (as they) furnish themselves with foode, at all seasons, there would not be so many starved in the streets. Neither would so many gaoles be stuffed, or gallows furnished with poor wretches.”

But neither the priest nor the trader deserted European society to embrace life among the natives. Both men remained fundamentally committed to the superiority of the Christian faith and the European economy. For all their criticism of European materialism, these critics insisted that natives must eventually forsake their own culture and accept that of their invaders. However astute, their critiques were the fleeting indulgence of men bent upon converting Indians or upon trading with them for profit.

By offering such moral criticism, however, Christians helped to preserve a capitalist society from consuming itself. Indeed, without some moral counterweight and some sense of a higher purpose, capitalist competition degenerates into a rapacious, violent kleptocracy. Without a God, the capitalist is simply a pirate, and markets collapse for want of a minimal trust between buyers and sellers. The seventeenth-century English minister Thomas Shepard aptly commented that self-interest was a “raging Sea which would overwhelm all if [it] have not bankes.” Shepard did not wish to abolish self-interest, merely to strengthen its restraining banks. Christianity provided the banks that permitted capitalist enterprise to persist, prosper, and expand into the Americas.




The departure for Columbus’s second voyage, with representations of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand on the shore of Iberia. Although a fanciful depiction of the ships, the image conveys the European mastery of the Atlantic and determination to colonize the Americas. An engraving from Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis Transacta Navigatio (n.p., 1621).

DURING THE LATE FIFTEENTH and early sixteenth centuries, Europeans developed the maritime technology and imperial ambitions to explore and dominate the world’s oceans. Long a barrier to Europeans, the Atlantic became their highway to distant lands and unknown peoples. Between 1450 and 1500, European mariners, in dozens of voyages, found the Americas and rounded Africa to cross the Indian Ocean to India and the East Indies. In the years 1519–22 the Spanish sailors of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage first circumnavigated the globe, confirming that the oceans formed an integrated system that European ships could probe. On distant coasts, the mariners established fortified outposts to dominate local trade, creating the first transoceanic global empires. It was an extraordinary and unprecedented burst of geographic understanding, daring, and enterprise.

As the Europeans expanded their geographic range, they also developed a combination of science, technology, and commerce that gave them growing mastery over what they found. The various advances fed upon one another as the mariners tested innovations in mathematics, astronomy, geology, medicine, and weaponry. And the distant discoveries brought new commercial riches to Europe: precious metals, sugar, tobacco, vital new foods such as maize and potatoes, and new sources of slave labor. By enriching Europe, the new resources financed further exploration and conquest.

The discovery and exploitation of the Americas and the route to Asia transformed Europe from a parochial backwater into the world’s most dynamic and powerful continent. Europeans delighted in the sudden and dramatic change in their circumstances, perspective, and prospects. A sixteenth-century Italian physician marveled “that I was born in this century in which the whole world became known; whereas the ancients were familiar with but a little more than a third part of it.” Perceptive Spaniards celebrated their new centrality in the world. During the 1560s, Tomás de Mercado commented that “previously, [the Spanish provinces of] Andalusia and Lusitania used to be at the very end of the world, but now, with the discovery of the Indies, they have become its center.”

The first European explorers were stunned by the distinctive flora, fauna, and human cultures found in the Americas. In the West Indies, Christopher Columbus marveled, “All the trees were as different from ours as day from night, and so the fruits, the herbage, the rocks, and all things.” Subsequent explorers recognized the obvious: that the Americas constituted a distinctive, hitherto unknown hemisphere. During the 1550s the explorer Jean de Léry reported that America was so “different from Europe, Asia and Africa in the living habits of its people, the forms of its animals, and, in general, in that which the earth produces, that it can well be called the new world.”

But the differences began to diminish as soon as they were recognized. The invasion by European colonists, microbes, plants, and livestock eroded the biological and cultural distinctions formerly enforced by the Atlantic Ocean. Newly connected, the two “worlds,” old and new, became more alike in their natures, in their combinations of plants and animals. In 1528 the Spanish writer Hernán Pérėz de Oliva explained that Columbus’s voyages served “to unite the world and give to those strange lands the form of our own.” American colonization wrought an environmental revolution unprecedented in pace, scale, and impact in the history of humanity.

The environmental revolution worked disproportionately in favor of the Europeans and to the detriment of the native peoples, who saw their numbers dwindle. Although never under the full control of the colonizers, the transformation enhanced their power by undermining the nature that indigenous communities depended upon. Colonization literally alienated the land from its native inhabitants. In particular, the colonizers accidentally introduced despised weeds, detested vermin, and deadly microbes. All three did far more damage to native peoples and their nature than to the colonists. While exporting their own blights, the European colonizers imported the most productive food plants developed by the Indians. The new crops fueled a population explosion in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Part of that growth then flowed back across the Atlantic to resettle the Americas as European colonies.


The stunning expansion of European power, wealth, and knowledge would have seemed improbable in 1400, when the Europeans were a parochial set of peoples preoccupied with internal and interminable wars. Europe was also slowly recovering from a devastating epidemic of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, which during the 1340s had killed about a third of the population. Moreover, relative to Asian peoples, the Europeans had shown less interest in new science and technology. Their spiritual and intellectual leaders usually insisted that everything worth knowing had already been discovered by the ancient Greeks and Romans, or had been revealed by their God and recorded in the Bible. Men who indulged in innovative scientific speculation risked prosecution for heresy by church courts.

European Christians also felt hemmed in by the superior wealth, power, and technology possessed by their rivals and neighbors the Muslims, who subscribed to Islam, the world’s other great expansionist faith. Dominated by the Ottoman Turks, the Muslim realms extended across North Africa and around the southern and eastern Mediterranean Sea to embrace the Balkans, the Near East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The long and usually secure trade routes of the Muslim world reached from Morocco to the East Indies and from Mongolia to Senegal. Within that range, Muslim traders benefited from the far-flung prevalence of Arabic as the language of law, commerce, government, and science.

Fifteenth-century Christians felt beleaguered, on the losing end of a struggle for the future of humanity. During the preceding three centuries, European crusaders suffered bloody and humiliating defeats in their botched attempts to capture and hold Jerusalem. Worse yet, during the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Turks invaded southeastern Europe, capturing the strategic Greek city of Constantinople in 1453. The Turkish advance created in Europe a powerful sense of geographic and religious claustrophobia, which generated a profound longing to break out and circumvent the Muslim world.

European leaders concluded that the Muslims’ power fed upon the wealth generated by their control of the most lucrative trade routes. By paying premium prices to Muslim merchants for the gold and ivory of sub-Saharan Africa and for the silks, gems, and spices of Asia, European consumers enriched the Islamic world while draining wealth from Christendom. Moreover, the Turkish sultan collected taxes on the luxury trade passing through his vast empire to Europe. Visionary Europeans hoped to weaken their enemy and enrich themselves by seeking an alternative trade route by sea to bypass Muslim merchants and Turkish tax collectors to reach sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia.

Popular literature reinforced the European longing for a new trade route to the fabled riches of the Far East. During the second half of the fifteenth century, the development of the printing press immensely lowered the cost and increased the volume of book publishing. More people learned to read, as books became available to more than the wealthy and leisured elite. By the end of the century, Europeans possessed twenty million copies of printed books. Readers especially delighted in vivid accounts of the wealth and power of India and China. These included the real travels of Marco Polo, an Italian merchant, as well as the pure fictions attributed to John de Mandeville. Inspired by their literary fantasies, European visionaries longed to reach the Far East to enlist their peoples and wealth for a climactic crusade against Islam. As a fabulous land that could fulfill Europeans’ dreams, eastern Asia (and especially China) rendered the intruding barrier of the Muslim world all the more frustrating.

European expansionists could find hope to the southwest, on the Iberian Peninsula, where the kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, and Portugal gradually rolled back the Muslim Moors. In 1469 the marriage of Queen Isabella and Prince Ferdinand united Aragon and Castile to create “Spain.” Zealous, able, and expansionist, Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492 completed the reconquista (“reconquest”) by seizing Granada, the last Muslim principality in Iberia. They also looked westward, into the Atlantic, for new opportunities to extend their crusade. Close to Africa and facing the Atlantic, Spain and Portugal were well situated to lead the maritime expansion of Europe. In addition, the long and violent reconquista had institutionalized a crusading spirit in Iberia, developing an especially militant clergy and an ambitious warrior caste known as the hidalgos—the two groups that would spearhead the conquest of the Americas. For maritime exploration and trade, the Spanish and Portuguese found reinforcements by welcoming Italian immigrants, especially merchants and mariners from Genoa, who included Christopher Columbus.


Along with the motives to explore the wider world, Iberians also cultivated the means. During the fifteenth century, the Spanish and Portuguese developed new ships, navigation techniques, geographic knowledge, and cannon that would enable their mariners to voyage around the globe and dominate distant coastal peoples. At first, the Iberians made none of these improvements with the intention of crossing the Atlantic. Instead, the innovations were incremental and stimulated by the growing commerce from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic to trade with northern Europe. But the improvements enabled daring Iberian mariners to expand their horizons, to explore the northwestern coast of Africa and to exploit newfound islands in the eastern Atlantic. Emboldened by those modest successes, at the end of the century some mariners attempted two especially bold and risky extensions: southeastward around Africa into the Indian Ocean and westward across the Atlantic in search of Japan and China.

During the fourteenth century, the focus of European trade shifted westward beyond the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. The Iberian reconquista opened the western mouth of the Mediterranean to Christian shipping at the same time that the Turkish conquests tightened Muslim control over the eastern Mediterranean. Blocked to the east, the resourceful merchants and mariners of northwestern Italy, principally Genoa, sought alternatives to the west by developing a trade to northern Europe via ports in Iberia.

The new long-distance trade routes into stormy waters required versatile new vessels suitable to both Mediterranean and Atlantic conditions. Involving bulkier commodities, especially grain, the new routes also demanded ships with larger cargo capacities. The relatively shallow and more protected Mediterranean Sea favored maneuverable vessels with triangular lateen sails, while the longer hauls and stormier waters of the Atlantic Ocean demanded strong and durable ships with square sails. To facilitate a trade that traversed both the ocean and the sea, Iberian and Genoese shipbuilders developed a hybrid vessel, the caravel, that combined northern solidity with southern maneuverability. The caravel boasted three masts, with square sails on the main and fore masts and a lateen sail on the mizzen (rear) mast.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Iberian (and Genoese) mariners gradually refined their new ships and navigational techniques as they pressed southward along the Atlantic coast of West Africa. Lacking the means to organize and finance maritime exploration, the monarchs of Portugal and Castile relied on the private enterprise of profit-seeking merchants and adventurers willing to pay fees in return for royal licenses. Practical men, the adventurers did not pursue exploration for a pure love of geographic knowledge. Rather than launch especially risky voyages directly into the Atlantic unknown, they invested in more modest voyages that seemed likely to generate profits quickly. They proceeded incrementally along the northwest coast of Africa, seeking the sources of known commodities: fishing grounds and the gold, ivory, pepper, and slaves that Muslim North Africans had long tapped by their overland caravan trade with sub-Saharan Africa.

While probing along the northwest coast of Africa, Iberian and Italian mariners discovered three sets of islands in the eastern Atlantic: the Canaries, Azores, and Madeiras. Surrounded by rich fisheries and heavily forested with trees that yielded valuable dyes, the Atlantic islands provided immediate commodities. In turn, the Atlantic islands provided safe harbors and bases that facilitated voyages farther along the coast of Africa.

From bases on the Atlantic islands, Portuguese sailors took the lead in the contest to explore and exploit the western coast of Africa. By 1475 they had passed the equator to reach the powerful and prosperous West African kingdom of Benin. At first, the Portuguese practiced hit-and-run raids for plunder, but staunch African resistance obliged them to reconsider. Superior ships and guns enabled the Portuguese to dominate the coastal trade but did not suffice to overcome the immensely superior numbers of Africans on land. To procure gold, ivory, pepper, and slaves more securely, the Portuguese needed the cooperation of local rulers, who could bring the commodities from the interior. After 1450 the Portuguese wisely negotiated commercial treaties with African rulers, who permitted the construction of a few small fortified trading posts on the coast. The fortifications served primarily to keep away rival European vessels. Indeed, the Portuguese treated interlopers brutally, confiscating vessels and cargoes and casting crews into the sea.

The small but fertile Atlantic islands tempted exploitation by another, more intensive mode of colonization: settlement. In this mode, Europeans emigrated by the thousands to establish permanent new homes for themselves and their slaves. By hard labor, the settlers and slaves transformed the colonial environment to cultivate commodities for the European market. The absence of native peoples facilitated settlement on the Azores and Madeiras, which the Portuguese began to colonize in the early fifteenth century, but a people known as the Guanche inhabited the Canaries.

Numbering perhaps thirty thousand in 1400, the Guanche were an olive-complexioned people related to the Berbers of nearby North Africa. After emigrating to the islands about 2000 B.C., the Guanche neglected their means of navigation, losing contact with the continent. They cultivated wheat, beans, and peas and raised goats, pigs, and sheep. But the Guanche lacked cattle and horses and, for want of metallurgy, depended upon stone tools and weapons. They were not politically united, but divided into rival chieftainships not only between but also within the seven major islands.

The Canaries had been known to the ancient Romans as the Fortunate Islands, but the fate of the Guanche at the hands of the Iberians was anything but fortunate. The Iberians turned Guanche resistance to colonial advantage by capturing them for sale as slaves to work on sugar plantations. In effect, enslavement converted the Guanche from an obstacle into a valuable asset that could finance the further process of conquest and colonization. Iberian slave-raiding expeditions began in the late fourteenth century and escalated early in the fifteenth.

Conditioned by the reconquista, the Iberians believed that the Guanche deserved to be conquered and enslaved for two reasons: they were neither civilized nor Christian. Making his own culture the standard of humanity, the Portuguese king assured the pope that the Guanche were “like animals” because they had “no contact with each other by sea, no writing, no kind of metal or money.” The techniques and technologies that facilitated the Iberian conquest were also, by their absence among the natives, invoked to justify that conquest. In addition, the Iberians argued that they were obligated to spread the Christian faith to unbelievers. Any people who resisted that faith could justly be enslaved for the greater good of their souls and the profit of their Christian conquerors. By exposing the Guanche to Christian indoctrination, slavery might save their souls from hell, rendering their brief bondage on earth a small price to pay for their eternal salvation. But, with more greed than consistency, the Iberians also enslaved Guanche who had converted to Christianity in the vain hope of living peaceably beside their invaders.

In the mid-fifteenth century the Spanish pushed out the Portuguese and took over the further conquest of the Canary Islands. In 1483, after five hard years of fighting, the Spanish overcame the guerrilla resistance on the largest island, Grand Canary. The Guanche on La Palma and Tenerife did not succumb until the 1490s—at the same time that Columbus sailed west via the Canaries to America.

Mounted on horses and armed in steel, the Iberians possessed military advantages over the unarmored Guanche fighting on foot with stone weapons. But the deadliest advantage enjoyed by the invaders was unintentional and beyond their control. Within their bodies the Iberians carried especially deadly and secret allies: an array of microscopic pathogens previously unknown to the Canaries. Lacking the partial immunities enjoyed by the Iberians from long experience with the diseases, the Guanche died by the thousands from epidemics of bubonic plague, dysentery, pneumonia, and typhus. Death and demoralization undercut their ability to resist invasion. A Spanish friar reported, “If it had not been for the pestilence, [the conquest] would have taken much longer, the people being warlike, stubborn, and wary.” In their invasion of the small and long-isolated Canaries, the Iberians reaped the perverse advantage of their relatively large population located at a nexus of commercial exchange, which made for an especially diverse and regularly reinforced pool of diseases.

Although welcoming the reduction of Guanche armed resistance, the Spanish regretted the loss of so many valuable slaves. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Guanche were virtually extinct as assimilation and intermarriage enveloped the few survivors into the settler population and colonial culture. So complete was the cultural destruction that only nine sentences of the Guanche language have survived. The Guanche’s fate did not bode well for subsequent native peoples who would experience European colonization.

During the fifteenth century, Iberians settled on the Azores, Canaries, and Madeiras in growing numbers. Colonists cleared the forest to cultivate fields of domesticated plants—especially wheat and grapes—and to pasture grazing animals introduced from Europe. The products of these activities were not just for their local subsistence but for profitable export in ships to markets in Europe. Although lucrative to landowners and merchants, the transformation proved ecologically costly. By 1500, trees were so scarce that the colonists lacked sufficient firewood and timber for building. Deforestation also induced erosion, depleting the soil on the hillsides. Droughts increased, for want of the trees that formerly captured the moisture in the oceanic fogs.

On the semitropical Madeiras and the Canaries (but not the cooler Azores), the Iberians succeeded in raising sugar, which was in great and growing demand in Europe. Enjoying high value per volume, sugar could be transported over long distances and still reap a profit at sale. Offering a warmer climate superior to the Mediterranean for the cultivation of sugar, the Madeiras and the Canaries became Europe’s leading suppliers by 1500.

To produce sugar, the colonists developed the plantation mode of production. A plantation was a large tract of privately owned land worked by many slaves to produce a high-value commodity for export to an external market. As plantation colonies, the Canaries and Madeiras depended upon long-distance merchants and their shipping to carry away the sugar and to bring in tools, cloth, food, and new slaves.

At first, most of the slaves were Guanche, but they inconveniently and rapidly died from the new diseases. To replace the dead, the colonists imported Africans to work the sugar plantations. West African societies had long enslaved war captives and convicted criminals for sale to Arab traders, who drove them in caravans across the Sahara to the Mediterranean. This caravan trade was relatively small in scale, with a volume of only about one thousand slaves per year in the early fifteenth century. After 1450, however, the advent of European mariners along the West African coast expanded the slave trade. By 1500, the Portuguese annually bought about eighteen hundred African slaves, primarily to labor on the Canaries and Madeiras.

The conquest and transformation of the Atlantic islands prepared for the discovery, invasion, and remaking of the Americas. To colonize the islands (especially the Canaries) the Portuguese and Spanish learned how to organize and sustain prolonged oceanic voyages that were predatory as well as exploratory. The expeditions successfully tested steel weapons, mounted men, and war dogs upon natives on foot armed with stone implements. The invaders also learned how to exploit rivalries between indigenous peoples as well as their devastation by disease. By turning native peoples into commodities, for sale as plantation slaves, the invaders developed a method for financing the further destruction of their resistance. In the Atlantic islands, the newcomers also pioneered the profitable combination of the plantation system and the slave trade. In the fifteenth-century Atlantic islands (and principally the Canaries), we find the training grounds for the invasion of the Americas.

The discovery and profitable exploitation of the Atlantic islands also set precedents that encouraged Europeans to seek more islands just over the horizon to the west. Optimistic mapmakers began to enter imaginary western islands called Brazil and Antilla—names that would become attached to real places in the Americas by the end of the century. Indeed, such acts of European imagination inspired the discovery and conquest of those real places, which proved far larger, richer, and stranger than anticipated. For in 1492 no one in Europe had any idea that the next islands farther west lay close to two immense continents inhabited by millions of people.


As the colonizers of the Azores and Madeiras, the Portuguese might have maintained their westward momentum across the Atlantic. Instead, they turned south and east, probing along the African coast in search of a trade route to Asia. Their decision made perfect sense. Along the way they could reap the immediate and profitable commodities of Africa to finance further voyages to the ultimate prize: the trade of India, the East Indies, and China. By comparison, voyages due west into the Atlantic were shots into the unbounded unknown.

In 1487 the Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias discerned how to use the counterclockwise winds of the South Atlantic to get around southern Africa. In 1498 Vasco da Gama exploited that discovery to enter and cross the coveted Indian Ocean, the gateway to the trade riches of the East. The profits kept the Portuguese focused on the southern and eastward route to Asia, leaving the westward route largely unguarded for their Spanish rivals to explore by default.

Spain pioneered transatlantic voyages, thanks to the aggressive ambition, religious mysticism, and navigational prowess of the Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus. In popular histories and films, Columbus appears anachronistically as a modernist, a secular man dedicated to humanism and scientific rationalism, a pioneer who overcame medieval superstition. In fact, he was a devout and militant Catholic who drew upon the Bible for his geographic theories. He also owned, cherished, and heavily annotated a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo, which inspired his dreams of reaching the trade riches and the unconverted souls of East Asia. Columbus hoped to convert the Asians to Christianity and to recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem. Such a victory would then invite Christ’s return to earth to reign over a millennium of perfect justice and harmony.

A man of substance as well as vision, Columbus was a talented navigator and experienced mariner. He had sailed the Atlantic northward to England and Ireland (and perhaps even to Iceland), west to the Azores, and as far south as the Guinea coast of West Africa. Everywhere he investigated stories and clues about mysterious islands presumed to lie farther west. If Columbus did indeed make it to Iceland, he probably heard something about the transatlantic voyages and discoveries of the Norse people of western Scandinavia.

During the ninth and tenth centuries, the Norse had explored and colonized a succession of austere islands, progressively larger, colder, and farther west and north: the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. About the year 1000, Norse mariners from Greenland discovered the northeastern margin of North America: Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland. The Norse called the southern reaches of the new land Vinland, asserting that they had found wild grapes there. At Vinland the Norse established a small and shortlived colony—the first European settlement in North America. The Vinland colonists could not endure their isolation, their long and vulnerable supply line to Greenland, and the hostilities they provoked with the numerous natives, whom they named Skraelings (which meant “ugly wretches”). During the 1950s, archaeologists found the remains of a Norse settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland—the probable site of Vinland.

The settlement collapsed within a generation, and Greenland entered a long, steady decline that reversed the Norse advance. An epidemic of bubonic plague reduced the Greenland Norse, and an increasingly cold global climate curtailed their agriculture and reduced their livestock. They also suffered from debilitating conflict with the more numerous Inuit (Eskimo) peoples of the north. At the end of the fifteenth century, the last Greenland Norse died out, just as Columbus was pioneering a new, more southern and enduring route across the Atlantic to America.

As early as 1484, Columbus hatched his scheme to head west across the Atlantic to find East Asia and open a profitable trade. Because no private merchants possessed the capital or the inclination to finance such an expensive and risky voyage, Columbus sought royal patronage. He first approached the Portuguese crown, the leading promoter of long-distance exploration. After a careful hearing, the Portuguese authorities declined, regarding the western route as too speculative and dangerous. Columbus then tried the royal courts of France and England, without success, before turning to Spain as a last resort. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand approved, providing three small ships and most of the funding. They reasoned that even if Columbus failed to reach Asia, he might instead find valuable new islands like the Canaries.

Contrary to popular myth, fifteenth-century European intellectuals and rulers did not think that the world was flat. On the contrary, since the ancient Greeks, learned men had agreed that the world was round. They also accepted the theoretical possibility of sailing west to come up on the East Asian side of the known world. Although they expected to find some more Atlantic islands to the west, no Europeans anticipated that any large continents would obstruct a westward voyage to Asia. And given the high value of Asian commodities, there was a powerful commercial incentive for testing Columbus’s theory.

What deterred Europeans from sailing due west for Asia was not a fear of sailing off the edge of the world but, instead, their surprisingly accurate understanding that the globe was too large. Ancient Greek mathematicians and geographers had determined that the world had a circumference of about 24,000 miles, which suggested that Asia lay about 10,000 to 12,000 miles west from Europe. Fifteenth-century European ships were too small to carry enough water and food to sustain their crews on a 10,000-mile voyage beyond contact with land.

Breaking with geographic orthodoxy, Columbus dared the westward trip to Asia because he underestimated the world’s circumference as only 18,000 miles, which placed Japan a mere 3,500 miles west of Europe. In other words, a critical, and potentially fatal, mistake in calculations inspired his eccentric confidence that he could sail westward to Asia: the exact opposite of the popular myth that Columbus understood world geography better than his allegedly benighted contemporaries. Columbus was fortunate indeed that the unexpected Americas loomed at about the 3,000-mile mark to provide fresh water and provisions before his men mutinied. It is one of the ironies of world history that profound misunderstanding set in motion Columbus’s discoveries.

In 1492, with three ships and about ninety men, Columbus followed the well-tested route southwest from Spain to the Canaries. Exploiting the trade winds, he turned west into the open ocean and had clear, easy sailing, reaching a new land after just thirty-three days. He first landed at the Bahama Islands, just east of Florida. Turning south, Columbus encountered the West Indies, islands framing the Caribbean Sea. But Columbus supposed that all of the islands belonged to the East Indies and lay near the mainland of Asia. Although the native inhabitants (the Taino) were unlike any people he had ever seen or read about, Columbus insisted that they were “Indians,” a misnomer that has endured.

The colonial enterprise arrived in the Americas in Columbus’s mind. From the start, he treated the Caribbean Islands and their Taino inhabitants exactly as the Spanish had treated the Canaries and the Guanche—as places and people to be rendered into commercial plantations worked by forced labor. He rationalized that such treatment would benefit the Indians by exposing them to Christian salvation and Hispanic civilization. To justify their enslavement, Columbus emphasized their weakness:

They do not have arms and they are all naked, and of no skill in arms, and so very cowardly that a thousand would not stand against three [armed Spaniards]. And so they are fit to be ordered about and made to work, plant, and do everything else that may be needed, and build towns and be taught our customs, and to go about clothed.

To impress and intimidate the Taino, Columbus publicly demonstrated the sound and fury of his gunpowder weapons.

Columbus unilaterally declared the natives subject to the Spanish crown. He reported, “I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” Of course, not understanding a word of Spanish, the Indians failed to recognize any cue to oppose Columbus’s ceremony. As a further act of possession, he systematically renamed all of the islands to honor the Spanish royal family or the Christian holy days. Columbus even renamed himself, adopting the first name “Christoferens”—meaning “Christ-bearer,” testimony to his sense of divine mission.

After his largest ship ran aground, Columbus decided immediately to start a colony by obliging thirty-nine crew members to remain on the island he called Hispaniola. They built a crude fort from the timbers of their wrecked ship. In the two remaining vessels Columbus sailed home, taking a roundabout route north and then east, to catch winds bound for Europe. He reached Spain in March 1493 to receive a hero’s welcome from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

What happened next rendered Columbus’s voyage of enduring and global significance, far beyond the achievements of his Norse predecessors. The Norse discoveries proved a dead end because they remained largely unknown outside of the northwestern fringe of Scandinavia. Thanks to the newly invented printing press, word of Columbus’s voyage and discovery spread rapidly and widely through Europe. Eagerly read, his published report ran through nine editions in 1493 and twenty by 1500. Publication in multiplying print helped to ensure that Columbus’s voyages would lead to an accelerating spiral of further voyages meant to discern the bounds and exploit the peoples of the new lands.

Intrigued by Columbus’s glowing reports of the Indians’ gold jewelry and their supposed proximity to Asia, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella promptly decided to send Columbus back with another, larger expedition of exploration and colonization. The king and queen declared Columbus admiral and governor of the new islands and promised him a tenth of all profits made by exploiting them. Devout Catholics, Ferdinand and Isabella also vowed to convert the Indians to Christianity, dreading that otherwise so many thousands would continue to die in ignorance to spend their eternity in hell. The monarchs acted so quickly from a well-founded fear that the newly alarmed Portuguese would soon send their own expeditions to the west.

With the assistance of the pope, the Spanish and the Portuguese negotiated the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which split the world of new discoveries by drawing a north-south boundary line through the mid-Atlantic west of the Azores. The Portuguese secured the primary right to exploit the coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean, while the Spanish obtained Columbus’s western discoveries. Further exploration determined that South America bulged eastward beyond the treaty line, placing a land called Brazil in the Portuguese sphere. In dividing the world, no one bothered to consult the Indians, for the Iberians and the pope considered them pagan savages without rights under international law. The other western European kingdoms refused to recognize the treaty, for they denied that the pope could exclude them from exploring and exploiting the new lands. But no European leaders thought that the Indians could, or should, be left alone in their former isolation and native beliefs.

In September 1493, Columbus returned to the West Indies with seventeen ships, twelve hundred men (including farmers and artisans, but no women), sugarcane plants, and much livestock. The new colony was supposed to feed itself; recoup the costs by remitting hides, gold, sugar, and slaves to Spain; and serve as a base for further exploration in search of Japan and China. The Spanish were coming to stay, to dominate the land and its natives, and to weave the new lands into an empire based in Europe.

At Hispaniola, Columbus discovered that the Taino Indians had killed the thirty-nine men he had left behind the year before. In the Spanish deaths, Columbus found the pretext for waging a war of conquest. Employing the military advantages of horses, trained dogs, gunpowder, and steel, Columbus killed and captured hundreds of Indians on Hispaniola and adjoining islands. In 1495 he shipped 550 captives to Spain for sale to help pay for his expedition. Because most died during the voyage or within a year of arrival from exposure to European diseases, Columbus had to abandon the project of selling Indians in Spain. Instead, he distributed Indian captives among the colonists to work on their plantations and to serve as sex slaves. By 1496, Hispaniola’s surviving “free” natives had been rendered tributary—obliged to bring in a quota of gold for every person over the age of fourteen.

Columbus’s slaughter and enslavement of Indians troubled the pious Spanish monarchs, who declared in 1500 that the Indians were “free and not subject to servitude.” But Ferdinand and Isabella failed to close the legal loophole exploited by Spanish colonizers. It remained legal to enslave Indians taken in any “just war,” which the colonists characterized as any violence they conducted against resisting natives.

In addition to killing and enslaving the Taino, Columbus antagonized most of the colonists, who bristled at his domineering manner and hot temper. As a Genoese upstart, Columbus commanded little respect among the Spanish colonists, especially when he sought to enrich himself by restricting their undisciplined pursuit of easy wealth. Violent mutinies and more violent reprisals by Columbus induced the monarchs to revoke his executive authority in 1500. Hispaniola became a crown colony governed by a royal appointee, rather than the feudal fiefdom of Columbus. Although displaced as governor, Columbus continued to serve the Spanish as a maritime explorer. In 1498 and 1502 his third and fourth transatlantic voyages revealed long stretches of the South and Central American coast. Nonetheless, to his death in 1506, Columbus stubbornly insisted that all of his discoveries lay close to the coast of Asia.

Other explorers, often working for rival powers, expanded upon Columbus’s discoveries to demonstrate that he had, instead, found a “New World.” In 1497 the English king employed John Cabot, a Genoese mariner, to seek a northern route across the Atlantic to Asia. Instead, Cabot also ran into a continent, rediscovering the northern shores previously explored and briefly colonized by the Norse. In ignorance of the former Vinland, Cabot called his landfall Newfoundland. Far to the south, in tropical waters, a Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered the coast of Brazil in 1500. A year later, Amerigo Vespucci, a Genoese mariner who alternated between Spanish and Portuguese employ, explored enough of the coast of South America to deem it a new continent. Consequently, European map-makers began to call the new land by a variant of his first name—America. But the Spanish avoided the new term, clinging instead to Las Indias (the Indies), as Columbus had insisted.

Although Columbus had not reached Asia, he did find the substance of what he sought: a source of riches that would, in the long term, enable European Christendom to grow more powerful and wealthy than the Muslim world. During the next three centuries, the mineral and plantation wealth of the Americas financed the continuing expansion of European commerce, the further development of its technology and military power. Moreover, the very encounter with strange lands and people contributed to the broadening horizons of Europe’s intellectual leaders, spurring the sustained pursuit of scientific advances.


The Spanish invaded America with remarkable rapidity as their growing shipping, cargoes, and colonists connected the European and the American shores of the Atlantic. In 1508 alone, forty-five vessels crossed from Spain to the Caribbean islands. With the Canaries as their colonial model, the Spanish aggressively modified Hispaniola, introducing new crops, especially sugarcane, and new animals, including cattle, mules, sheep, horses, and pigs. Assisted by their plants and animals, the invaders remade the environment to sustain themselves, to obtain commodities valuable enough to ship to market in Spain, and to dominate and convert the local natives, the Taino. A Spaniard explained, “Without settlement there is no good conquest, and if the land is not conquered, the people will not be converted. Therefore the maxim of the conqueror must be to settle.” The conquest of nature and the domination of natives worked reciprocally.

Transatlantic colonization was difficult and often deadly. The first colonists on Hispaniola suffered severely from malnutrition and sickness. Crowded into small, filthy ships for long voyages, they arrived weak, hungry, and diseased. Barely able to work, they failed to grow enough food during the early years, prolonging their vulnerability to sickness. Probably two-thirds of the Hispaniola colonists died during the first decade of settlement, 1493–1504. But the natives suffered even more severely, as the colonists shared their diseases and forced the Taino to provide food and labor.

As with the Guanche on the Canaries, colonization rapidly destroyed the Taino people of Hispaniola. In 1494 a Spaniard reported that more than 50,000 Taino had died, “and they are falling each day, with every step, like cattle in an infected herd.” From a population of at least 300,000 in 1492, the Taino declined to about 33,000 by 1510 and to a mere 500 by 1548. The great missionary friar Bartolomé de Las Casas mourned the virtual extermination “of the immensity of the peoples that this island held, and that we have seen with our own eyes.”

Like the Guanche, the Taino died primarily from virulent new diseases unintentionally brought to the Americas by the Spanish, but the colonizers compounded the destructive impact of the diseases by callous exploitation. With armed force, the Spanish drove the Taino to labor on colonial mines, ranches, and plantations, where they suffered a brutal work regimen. Natives who resisted Spanish demands faced destructive and deadly raids on their villages by colonial soldiers. Abandoning their crops and villages, thousands of Taino refugees starved in the densely forested hills. Dislocated, traumatized, overworked, and underfed, they proved especially vulnerable to disease. Las Casas interpreted the 1518 smallpox epidemic as sent by a merciful and angry God “to free the few Indians who remained from so much torment and the anguished life they suffered from, in all types of labor, especially in the mines, and at the same time in order to castigate those who oppressed them.” In sum, the natives suffered from a deadly combination of microparasitism by disease and macroparasitism by Spanish colonizers, preying upon native labor. Although not genocidal in intent—for the Spanish preferred to keep the Taino alive and working as tributaries and slaves—the colonization of Hispaniola was genocidal in effect.


Although extreme in its rapidity and thoroughness, the depopulation of Hispaniola was far from unique in the Americas. Everywhere the first European explorers and colonists reported horrifying and unprecedented epidemics among the native peoples. For example, in New England during the 1620s, a colonist reported that the Indians

died on heapes, as they lay in their houses; and the living, that were able to shift for themselves, would runne away and let them dy, and let their Carkases ly above the ground without burial. … And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle after my coming into those partes, that as I travailed in the Forrest, nere the Massachusetts [Bay], it seemed to mee a new found Golgotha.

The observers also marveled that so few of their own people succumbed to the same diseases.

The epidemics spread in association with the newcomers. First colonized, the Caribbean islands suffered the first great epidemics. Spanish soldiers unwittingly exported the diseases to the mainland between 1510 and 1535, when they conquered Central America, Mexico, and Peru. During the mid-sixteenth century, Spanish invaders introduced epidemics into the American southwest and southeast. Epidemics afflicted the natives of New England and eastern Canada during the early decades of the seventeenth century, as they encountered European fishermen and fur traders. Along the Pacific coast and in the Great Plains, deaths peaked when explorers, traders, or missionaries arrived in the late eighteenth century. In 1793 an English explorer in the Pacific northwest found the beaches littered with skulls and bones and saw the faces of Indian survivors pocked by the scars of smallpox. The Mandan Indians of the northern Missouri Valley (in present-day North Dakota) escaped the worst ravages until 1837, when, in the course of a few weeks, smallpox destroyed all but forty of their two thousand people.

In any given locale, the first wave of epidemics afflicted almost every Indian. Within a decade of contact, about half the natives died from the new diseases. Repeated and diverse epidemics provided little opportunity for native populations to recover by reproduction. After about fifty years of contact, successive epidemics reduced a native group to about a tenth of its precontact numbers. Some especially ravaged peoples lost their autonomous identity, as the few survivors joined a neighboring group. Consequently, the Indian nations (“tribes”) of colonial history represent a subset of the many groups that had existed before the great epidemics. Historian Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., vividly characterizes the population collapse as “surely the greatest tragedy in the history of the human species.”

Recognizing this demographic catastrophe, recent scholars have dramatically revised upward their estimates of the pre-Columbian population in the Americas. Because the natives lacked statistical records (and their first conquerors rarely kept any), all calculations of the contact populations are highly speculative. Early in the twentieth century, most scholars were “low counters,” who estimated native numbers in 1492 at only about ten million in all of the Americas, including about one million north of the mouth of the Rio Grande (i.e., the present United States and Canada). More recent scholars, the “high counters,” claim that their predecessors neglected the abundant evidence for the dramatic depopulation of the Americas during the sixteenth century. The high counters also draw upon archaeological evidence that much of the Americas was densely settled in 1492, and upon generous calculations for the capacity of given environments to support large human populations.

At a minimum, the high counters double the estimated population of the pre-Columbian Americas to twenty million. Some insist upon 100 million or more. Narrowing their view to just the lands north of the Rio Grande, the revisionists claim that the future United States and Canada together contained at least two and perhaps ten million people in 1492. Most scholars now gravitate to the middle of that range: about fifty million Indians in the two American continents, with about five million of them living north of Mexico. Even this middle range represents a fivefold increase over the former “low count.”

Our revised understanding of a well-populated North America in 1492 belies the former characterization of the continent as a “virgin land” virtually untouched by humans and longing for European settlement. According to the nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft, in 1492 the future United States was “an unproductive waste … its only inhabitants a few scattered tribes of feeble barbarians.” Ideologically charged, such a description celebrated colonization as entirely positive. More recently, the historian Francis Jennings aptly describes colonial America as a “widowed land,” rendered so by the deadly microbes that accompanied the European invasion.

The exchange of infectious diseases between the invaders and the natives was remarkably one-sided. American pathogens did not kill the colonizers in anything approaching the proportions that European diseases claimed among the natives. Apparently only one major disease, venereal syphilis, passed from the Americas into Europe with the returning explorers and sailors. If so, syphilis exacted a measure of revenge on behalf of the native women raped by the invaders. Although painful and sometimes fatal, syphilis did not kill enough people to stem Europe’s population growth during the sixteenth century. After about 1600, the disease lost much of its virulence as European bodies adjusted to it and as the pathogen adapted to a longer life within its hosts. The Europeans died in far greater numbers when they tried to colonize sub-Saharan Africa, where they did encounter relatively novel and especially virulent tropical diseases, principally falciparum malaria and yellow fever. Unwittingly, the Europeans imported those African diseases into the American tropics and subtropics with the slaves brought to work on their plantations. Those African maladies then added to the epidemics that devastated the Native Americans.

In part the exchange of pathogens was so one-sided because the Indians lived in a hemisphere with fewer and less virulent diseases. Passing from Siberia into North America about twelve thousand years ago, the Paleo-Indians spent many generations in the subarctic, where the long and bitter winters discouraged many pathogenic microbes that thrive in warmer climes. Moreover, the arctic rigors tended quickly to kill humans suffering from debilitating diseases, leaving a healthier population of survivors. And as nomadic hunter-gathering peoples scattered over an immense territory, the Paleo-Indians did not sustain the “crowd diseases” that need a steady succession of hosts. In the Americas, the natives gradually developed new diseases. Studies of pre-Columbian skeletons reveal the marks of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, pinta, yaws, hepatitis, encephalitis, polio, tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, and venereal syphilis. All were formidable but endemic enemies that killed their share of natives every year, but not enough to prevent the overall growth of the Indian population. Meanwhile, in Europe and Asia the world’s champion killers evolved after the Paleo-Indians had emigrated from Asia to the Americas. The newer Eurasian diseases included smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, bubonic plague, malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and influenza.

Three factors helped develop especially powerful pathogens in the Old World. First, long-distance trade and invasions were more routine in Europe and Asia, providing vectors for the exchange and mutation of multiple diseases. In effect, the Old World diseases benefited from a much larger pool of potential hosts. Passing to and fro, these pathogens gradually strengthened the immunities of the disease-embattled peoples of the Old World, rendering them deadly carriers when they passed into places where those diseases were not endemic.

Second, urbanization was older and more widespread in the Old World than in the New—and especially virulent diseases develop where people live in permanent concentrations. Crowded populations keep diseases cycling among numerous inhabitants, which is especially important to deadly diseases with only human carriers, such as smallpox. Concentrated human populations also accumulate more garbage and excrement, which breed many microbes that inflict gastrointestinal diseases. And the filth also sustains enlarged populations of vermin—mice, rats, roaches, houseflies, and worms—which serve as carriers for some diseases. The most notorious example is bubonic plague, which is borne by fleas carried by rats (as well as people).

Cities were fewer in North America, largely restricted to central Mexico, and usually much cleaner than their European counterparts. By living in filth, urban Europeans paid a high price in steady losses to endemic disease and occasional exposure to new epidemics. But they also rendered themselves formidable carriers of diseases to distant and cleaner peoples with far less experience with so many pathogens.

Third, the people of Europe, Africa, and Asia (but not the Americas) lived among large numbers of domesticated mammals, including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses, which share microscopic parasites with humans, encouraging the development of new and especially powerful diseases as viruses shift back and forth between the species. We call one strain of influenza “swine flu” because pigs exchange it with humans. By domesticating several mammals, the early herders and farmers of the Old World helped breed new pathogens unknown to their hunting-and-gathering ancestors. In contrast, North American natives domesticated only one mammal, the dog, which rarely shares diseases with its best friends.

Beginning in 1492, Europeans suddenly carried their legacy of more extensive and virulent diseases to the Americas. The breath, blood, sweat, and lice of the colonizers (and of their livestock and rats) conveyed especially deadly pathogens that consumed Indians who lacked the immunological resistance of past experience. The greatest killers were eruptive fevers, especially smallpox, measles, and typhus. But Indians also suffered from new respiratory infections, such as whooping cough and pneumonia. Even the mild childhood ailments of Europeans, such as chickenpox, killed Indians of all ages. One disease often weakened a victim for a second to kill. For example, many Indians barely survived smallpox only to succumb to measles, pneumonia, or pleurisy.

Because nearly everyone in a village became ill at the same time, few could care for the sick. During the 1630s in New England, a colonist described a smallpox epidemic among the Massachusetts Indians:

They fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, not to make a fire nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead. … They would burn the wooden trays & dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows & arrows. And some would crawl out on all fours to get a little water, and sometimes die by the way and not to be able to get in again.

For want of healthy people to tend the sick, to fetch food and water and keep fires going, many victims died of starvation, dehydration, or exposure.

Smallpox was the most conspicuous and devastating of the new diseases. A highly communicable virus, smallpox passes through the air on moisture droplets or dust particles to enter the lungs of a new host. Consequently, the breath of victims conveyed death to those in their vicinity. After an incubation period of twelve days, the victims came down with a high fever and vomiting, followed three to four days later with gruesome sores over their entire bodies. Painful, incapacitating, and disfiguring, smallpox transformed people into a hideous mass of rotten flesh. In sixteenth-century Mexico an Indian described smallpox victims:

They could not move; they could not stir; they could not change position, nor lie on one side; nor face down, nor on their backs. And if they stirred, much did they cry out. Great was its destruction. Covered, mantled with pustules, very many people died of them.

Survivors bore scars for the rest of their lives, and some suffered blindness as well. In addition to depleting the Indians’ numbers, the new diseases sapped their morale. After one epidemic, a New England colonist said of the Indians, “Their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted.”

Neither sixteenth-century natives nor colonizers knew about the existence of microbes, much less that some caused disease. Instead, both assumed that the epidemics manifested some violent disruption of supernatural power. Colonists interpreted the diseases as sent by their God to punish Indians who resisted conversion to Christianity. Indians blamed the epidemics on sorcery practiced by the newcomers. When the native shamans failed to stop or cure a disease, they became discredited as ineffectual against the superior sorcery of the newcomers, who survived epidemics that slaughtered the natives. Because kinship ties defined native society and culture, the rapid destruction of so many relatives was profoundly disorienting and disruptive. Natives lamented that their guiding elders were all dead “and their wisdom is buried with them.” In search of new wisdom, a new supply of supernatural power, the most devastated native peoples gave Christian missionaries their desperate attention.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the colonizers did not intentionally disseminate disease. Indeed, they did not yet know how to do so. Especially during the sixteenth century, the colonizers valued Indian bodies and souls even more than they coveted Indian land. They needed Indians as coerced labor to work on mines, plantations, ranches, and farms. And Christian missionaries despaired when diseases killed Indians before they could be baptized. Only later, and almost exclusively in the English colonies, did some colonists cheer epidemics for depopulating the lands that they wanted for settlement.

During the sixteenth century, the European colonizers had expected to live as economic parasites on the labor of many Indians, but the epidemics upset their best-laid plans. Left with large tracts of fertile but depopulated lands, the colonists cast about for a new source of cheap and exploitable labor that was less susceptible to disease. Beginning in 1518 to Hispaniola, the colonizers imported growing numbers of slaves from West Africa. Prior to 1820, at least two-thirds of the twelve million emigrants from the Old to the New World were enslaved Africans rather than free Europeans. Most of the slaves were put to work on tropical or subtropical plantations raising cash crops—primarily sugar, rice, indigo, tobacco, cotton, and coffee—for the European market. By 1700, people of African descent prevailed in the American tropics, especially around the Caribbean.

In the temperate zones, the epidemics opened up lands for colonial settlement by free European farmers. In one famous example, the Plymouth colonists of New England in 1620 had their pick of recently abandoned Indian villages with conveniently cleared land. One colonist remarked, “Thousands of men have lived there, which died in a great plague not long since: and pity it was and is to see so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same.” Imagine how much more difficult the colonists’ lot would have been if instead they had come to a crowded land of well-defended villages, or to a truly virgin continent without any already cleared lands.

American colonization tapped Europe’s growing population, which swelled from about 80 million in 1492 to 105 million in 1650 and nearly 180 million by 1800. The increase was especially dramatic and significant in the British Isles (including Ireland), the greatest source of North American emigrants prior to 1800. From a population of 5 million in 1492, the inhabitants of Great Britain surged to 16 million by 1800, when another 5 million Britons already lived across the Atlantic. The post-1492 growth nearly doubled Europe’s share in the world’s population from about 11 percent in 1492 to approximately 20 percent in 1800. At the same time, the Native American proportion of the global population collapsed from about 7 percent in 1492 to less than 1 percent in 1800. The forced marriage of the two hemispheres meant a demographic boom for Europe but a demographic disaster for the Americas, with enduring consequences for world history.

The demographic and colonial history of Africa offers an instructive contrast to North America. Despite inferior firepower, until the nineteenth century the Africans more than held their own against European invaders because African numbers remained formidable. Unlike the Native Americans, the Africans did not dwindle from exposure to European diseases, with which they were largely familiar. On the contrary, African tropical diseases killed European newcomers in extraordinary numbers until the development of quinine in the nineteenth century. Thereafter, European soldiers conquered most of Africa, but European colonists remained small minorities amid immense African majorities. Without a demographic advantage, colonial rule proved short-lived as the Africans reclaimed power during the twentieth century. In stark contrast, by 1800 in present-day Canada and the United States, only about 600,000 Indians remained, already a small minority in a region dominated by five million Euro-Americans and one million African-American slaves.


What can account for the dramatic new growth of Europe’s population after 1492? We cannot credit advances in medical science or public hygiene, which were few and barely affected the mass of the population prior to 1800. Indeed, the Europeans were proverbial for their backward medicine and filthy cities. In 1519, Spanish soldiers marveled that the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was much larger and yet far cleaner than anything they had known at home.

An expansion of the food supply offers a better explanation for the European growth. As Thomas Malthus noted in the late eighteenth century, human populations tend to grow up to the limit of their food supply and then stagnate as malnutrition, famine, and disease keep pace with reproduction. But populations surge whenever people can increase their supply of nutrition, for an abundant diet encourages good health and rapid reproduction.

After 1492 the European diet improved, in part from enhanced longdistance transportation for produce and better techniques for rotating and fertilizing traditional grain crops. But above all, the improvement derived from the adoption of new food crops first cultivated in the Americas.

Native Americans had developed certain wild plants into domesticated hybrids that were more productive than their Old World counterparts. Measured as an average yield in calories per hectare (a hectare is ten thousand square meters, the equivalent of 2.5 acres), cassava (9.9 million), maize (7.3 million), and potatoes (7.5 million) all trump the traditional European crops: wheat (4.2 million), barley (5.1 million), and oats (5.5 million). By introducing the New World crops to the Old World, the colonizers dramatically expanded the food supply and their population.

A tropical plant, cassava (also known as manioc) could not be cultivated in Europe, but it thrived in Africa after its introduction (along with maize) by Portuguese mariners during the sixteenth century. The resulting surge in African numbers supplied the outflow of slaves to the American tropics and subtropics, where enslaved Africans replaced the natives decimated by the pathogens recently introduced from the Old World.

In Europe, maize and potatoes endowed farmers with larger yields on smaller plots, which benefited the poorest peasants. It took at least five acres planted in grain to support a family, but potatoes could subsist three families on the same amount of land. In addition, the new crops were more flexible, enabling European farmers to cultivate soils hostile to their traditional grains. Unlike wheat, maize can grow in sandy soils and thrive in hot climes, and potatoes prosper in cold, thin, damp soils unsuitable for any grain. In effect, maize and potatoes extended the amount of land that Europeans could cultivate either to feed themselves or to produce fodder for their cattle.

From a slow start, maize and potatoes proliferated in European fields. In 1498, Columbus wrote of maize: “There is now a lot of it in Castile.” During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, maize cultivation spread eastward around the Mediterranean to become fundamental to the peasant diet in Italy and southern France by 1700. Potato cultivation expanded more slowly, primarily after 1680 in northern, central, and eastern Europe—often with encouragement from governments eager to alleviate famines and promote population growth. During the eighteenth century, the potato first gained its close association with Ireland, and Irish numbers grew from 3 million in 1750 to 5.25 million in 1800. The Irish then became vulnerable to any blight that devastated their potato crop. When such a blight struck during the 1840s, thousands starved to death and millions fled overseas, primarily to North America.

In microcosm and in exaggerated form, Ireland tells a common European story. The new crops developed by Native Americans and introduced to Europe by their conquerors contributed to a great surge in the Old World’s population. That growth eventually caught up to the food supply, producing renewed hunger. But, in contrast to the past, the European hungry could seek relief by emigrating thousands of miles over the ocean to help settle the Americas. There they found underpopulated lands, recently rendered so by the diseases that Europeans had exported to the New World.

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"Compelling, readable, and fresh, American Colonies is perhaps the most brilliant piece of synthesis in recent American historical writing." —Phillip J. Deloria, associate professor of history and American culture, University of Michigan


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