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Yale University Press
The American West: A New Interpretive History / Edition 2

The American West: A New Interpretive History / Edition 2


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A fully revised and updated new edition of the classic history of western America

The newly revised second edition of this concise, engaging, and unorthodox history of America’s West has been updated to incorporate new research, including recent scholarship on Native American lives and cultures. An ideal text for course work, it presents the West as both frontier and region, examining the clashing of different cultures and ethnic groups that occurred in the western territories from the first Columbian contacts between Native Americans and Europeans up to the end of the twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300185171
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/08/2017
Series: The Lamar Series in Western History
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 520
Sales rank: 551,956
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Robert V. Hine was professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Riverside and Irvine. John Mack Faragher is Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of History and American Studies at Yale University. Jon T. Coleman is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A New World Begins

The Indians who first met Columbus were the Tainos. On their island homes in the Bahamas they cultivated corn and yams, made brown pottery and cotton thread, and fashioned deadly little darts from fish teeth and wood, which they used to protect themselves from their aggressive neighbors, the Caribs (for whom the Caribbean Sea is named). But Columbus thought the Tainos had no weapons, a conclusion he based on a curious test. Handing them swords he observed that they grasped the blades and cut their fingers. Steel had come to a people who previously had worked only with bone and stone. It was a typical surmise for Columbus, who assumed the superiority of his own culture in all things. "They are all naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them," he condescended in his report to the Spanish monarchs. Columbus made his landfall in October 1492, when the prevailing Caribbean temperatures were balmy, and the natives he saw were attired in much the same costume as bikini-clad vacationers who flock to those same beaches today. Although he could not understand the Tainos' language, Columbus believed he could read their minds. When the natives lifted their hands to the sky, it was an indication they considered the Spaniards to be gods. It was only one of several possible explanations. Perhaps the Tainos were exclaiming, "Great God, what now!"

    We are more sure of what was on the minds of the Spaniards. After noting the Indians' loving, cooperative, and peaceful reception, Columbus concluded that "all the inhabitants could be made slaves," for "they have no arms andare all naked and without any knowledge of war. They are fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary, and you may build towns and teach them to go clothed and adopt our customs." His impression of natives as a people vulnerable to conquest is clear in the image produced to accompany the published version of the Columbus report. Before he sailed home Columbus kidnapped a number of native men and women to display for the monarchs at the Spanish court.

    "There are many spices and great mines of gold and of other metals," Columbus reported. In fact, none of the Asian spices familiar to Europeans grew in the Caribbean, and there were only small quantities of precious metals in the river beds of the islands. But noticing the little gold ornaments the Tainos wore, Columbus contracted a bad case of gold fever. More than anything else, it was the possibility of setting the natives to work mining gold that convinced the monarchs to finance a large return expedition. "The best thing in the world is gold," Columbus once wrote in his diary, "it can even send souls to heaven." As Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, once put it: "We Spaniards suffer from a disease of the heart, the specific remedy for which is gold."

    For the native inhabitants, the Spaniards' lust for gold and hostages were ominous signs. The invasion of America would be marked by scenes of frightful violence. In the wake of Columbus, conquering armies marched across the Caribbean islands, plundering villages, slaughtering men, capturing and raping women. The conquistadors who followed Columbus were equally sure of their culture, their God, their church, and their superiority. They were also skilled in the arts of conquest because of their long experience fighting "infidels" in Iberia. Moslems from Africa had flooded western Europe to a high-water mark in the eighth century and thereafter the Christians slowly pushed back. The wars of the "Reconquest" absorbed the energies and directed the crusading propensities of many generations of young Spaniards. In 1492—that most extraordinary year—Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia, fell to the Christian warriors led by Isabella and Ferdinand of Castille and Aragon. The royal couple thereupon united their kingdoms to form the new Christian state of Spain and followed up their victory by expelling thousands of Jews. Now their Catholic majesties turned their attention westward, across the ocean sea.

    In the New World, Columbus and his successors established a feudal institution known as the encomienda, which placed Indian workers at the disposal of Spanish lords, who set them to work dredging the streams for alluvial gold, working the fields, and building new colonial towns. Rather than work as slaves, many Indians took poison, hanged themselves, and killed their children. Whole villages were rumored to have committed suicide rather than submit to Spanish conquest.

    Although they proved a poor match for mounted warriors with steel swords and vicious bloodhounds, native people resisted the conquest. The Caribs—from the more southeasterly islands of the West Indies—successfully defended their homeland until the end of the sixteenth century, ruthlessly wiping out all Spanish attempts to colonize or missionize. One chronicler of the conquest told of a particularly ironic torture some Indians invented for captured Spaniards with a hunger for gold. Heating the metal to its melting point, they would pour the molten stuff down the throats of their prisoners.

    Soon the alluvial gold on Hispaniola had been depleted, leading to the invasion of Puerto Rico and Jamaica in 1508, then Cuba and Central America in 1511. Over the next few years the Spaniards undertook several expeditions along the mainland Caribbean coast as far north as Yucatán. The people they encountered lived in far more complex societies than those of the Caribbean Tainos, with splendid towns and even libraries of handwritten, illustrated books. One Central American native reacted with surprise when he saw a Spaniard reading a European book. "You also have books?" he exclaimed. "You also understand the signs by which you talk to the absent?" In 1517 a small party of Spaniards became the first Europeans to enter one of the Mayan towns along the coast of Yucatán. The residents offered them many treasures, wrote the chronicler of this expedition, "and begged us kindly to accept all this, since they had no more gold to give us" But pointing westward, "in the direction of the sunset," the Indians insisted that the Spaniards would find plenty. "They kept on repeating: 'Mexico, Mexico, Mexico,'" reads the account, "but we did not know what Mexico meant."

* * *

    Rumors of the land called Mexico created a sensation among officials of Cuba, the center of the growing Spanish empire in the Caribbean. In a search for more sources of treasure, in 1519 a fleet of eleven ships with 530 Spanish soldiers, several hundred Cuban Indian porters, and a number of Africans set out for the unknown lands of the West. There were sixteen horses—"the nerves of the wars against the natives" one Spanish chronicler called them—and numerous fighting dogs. Mexico, they thought, might be some powerful principality of the Great Khan of Cathay (China)—for the Spaniards still believed that the islands of the Caribbean lay directly off the Asian mainland. Nearby must be fabled California, which was said to be located "on the right hand of the Indies ..., very close to the region of the terrestrial paradise."

    Leading this expedition was the man who would become known as the archetypal conquistador, Hernán Cortés. An officer in Cortés's army of conquest, Bernal Díaz, described his commander as sexually attractive and physically strong, with broad chest and shoulders, slow to anger but sometimes roused to speechless fury, the veins swelling in his neck and forehead. He demanded absolute obedience from his men. He also read Latin, wrote poetry, and wore around his neck a golden chain bearing "the image of Our Lady the Virgin Saint Mary with her precious son in her arms." Diaz described Cortés as fond of gambling at cards and dice. Now he gambled for the highest stakes in the New World. The expedition would "bring us both honor and profit," Cortés told his men, "things which very rarely can be found in the same bag" Shortly after his arrival on the Mexican coast, near present day Veracruz, he ordered the ships dismantled. The game was winner take all, and the Virgin Mary was on his side.

    All the while Cortés and his men were being observed by spies of Montezuma II, the emperor of the Aztecs, a powerful empire in the central valley of Mexico. They recorded the strangers' movements in a set of detailed drawings. "Their flesh is very light, lighter than ours" the spies reported, "they all have long beards, and their hair comes to their ears" We know these details because of the extraordinary efforts of a Spanish friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, who after the conquest learned the Nahuatl language and, with the help of native informants, recorded the Aztec view of events.

    The people of Mexico differed vastly from the Tainos who had greeted Columbus. They lived in several dozen city-states, most under the domination of the Aztecs, the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán in the central highlands. Built on an island in the midst of a large lake, the Aztec capital was resplendent with stepped pyramids, stone temples, golden vessels, and causeways with cleverly engineered dams and irrigation canals, built and maintained with the tribute the Aztecs demanded from the conquered peoples whom they governed. The Aztecs were as certain of themselves as were the Spaniards. "Are we not the masters of the world?" Montezuma remarked to his council when he first heard of the landing of the Spaniards, and an Aztec poem asked rhetorically:

Who could conquer Tenochtitlán
Who could shake the foundation of heaven?

    Yet Montezuma seems to have sensed that two worlds were on a collision course. The Aztecs had myths of their own. For several years there had been evil omens—strange comets, heavenly lights, monstrous two-headed births, foaming lake waters, an insane woman wailing through the night, "My children, where shall I take you?" Very much like Europe's kings, Montezuma held his office in trust for the gods, and as he and his high priests worried over these signs there came the news of the strange appearance of the invaders from over the waters. Didn't they ride on weird creatures, larger than deer, from whom flecks of foam fell like soapsuds? Were not the bodies and heads of the men covered with iron, and did they not use strange rods that spit fire and killed? Moreover, the year of 1519 was 1-Reed in the Aztec calendar, an ominous year. In the words of one of their old books:

They knew that, according to the signs,
If he comes on 1-Crocodile, he strikes the old men, the old women;
If on 1-Jaguar, 1-Deer, 1-Flower, he strikes at children;
If on 1-Reed, he strikes at kings.

Perhaps Cortés had come to fulfill the prophecy, to strike at the king, Montezuma.

    The Aztecs might easily have crushed the several hundred Spaniards at this point, as they struggled to survive amid the sand dunes and mosquitoes of the Gulf coast. But Montezuma was undecided about the right course to pursue. "If you do not admit the embassy of a great lord such as the King of Spain appears to be," a member of his council advised him, "it is a low thing." But another lord warned him "not to allow into your house someone who will put you out of it." Yet confident of the enormous power of his empire and his army, Montezuma indulged his desire to see these strangers from another world. "Come forward, my Jaguar Knights," the emperor called to his generals, "come forward. It is said that our lord has returned to this land. Go to meet him. Go to hear him. Listen well to what he tells you; listen and remember."

    He sent the Spaniards "divine adornments" and his messengers kissed the earth before Cortés. In the words of the Aztec account: "They gave them emblems of gold, banners of quetzal plumes, and golden necklaces. And when they gave them these, the Spaniards' faces grinned: they were delighted, they were overjoyed. They snatched up the gold like monkeys. They were swollen with greed; they were ravenous; they hungered for that gold like wild pigs. They seized the golden standards, they swung them from side to side, they examined them from top to bottom. They babbled in a barbarous language; everything they said was in a savage tongue." This remarkable description recaptures the native perspective of the dramatic encounter between civilizations. To the Aztecs the Spaniards were outsiders, barbarians, perhaps barely human.

* * *

    How Cortés conquered an empire that could at any time raise thousands of well-trained fighting men remains mysterious. Certainly there was more to it than the Aztec preoccupation with signs and omens. Cortés proved masterful at the art of diplomacy, but he was ignorant of the language and the subtleties of Aztec history and could not have directed these efforts without native help. His first assistance came in the form of one of the cleverest women of history, a girl by the name of Malíntzin, whom the friars baptized Doña Marina but who is best known by the Hispanicized verson of her native name, La Malínche. Malínche was born in a Nahuatl-speaking community but was sold into slavery as a child. Cortés received her from a local Mexican chief who was attempting to curry favor. Malínche made the decision to align herself with the Spaniards. Possessing an enormous talent for languages—perhaps the heritage of a childhood among strangers—she quickly mastered Spanish and made herself into Cortés's indispensable interpreter. But not only did she translate, she also proved a master interpreter of Aztec intentions. In the words of Bernal Díaz, Malínche was "the great beginning of our conquests." In the Aztec images of the conquest Malínche is nearly always shown by Cortés's side.

    Malínche was a powerfully complex character, and the Mexican people have never ceased arguing over her meaning. Her name symbolizes the betrayal of native culture, synonymous with the worst traitor. Malínche became Cortés's mistress, and she bore him a son before eventually marrying another conquistador. Other Mexicans, however, see Malínche as the mother of la rasa, the new people that arose out of the blending of Indian and Spanish, native and European, ancient gods with new. Thus she symbolizes not only betrayal but also the mixing of cultures and peoples that is the essence of modern Mexico. Malínche stands for much of what is distinctive about the frontier cultures of the Americas.

    Lusting for the treasures of Tenochtitlán, Cortés and his men pushed into the Mexican interior, invading Tlaxcala, a small republic that lived under the heavy heel of Aztec domination. The Tlaxcalans fought fiercely, and the Spaniards lost dozens of men and horses to the Indians' obsidian-tipped wooden broadswords that cut like razors. This was the fiercest fighting the Spaniards had yet encountered in the Americas. The Spaniards knew that the Tlaxcalans had been defeated by the Aztecs, and the soldiers began to mutter that if they had to fight so hard here, what would it be like when they confronted the great Aztec army? But then the Tlaxcalans made an offer of peace. "The Tlaxcalans prefer slavery amongst us to subjection to the Mexica," Cortés remarked cynically. Thousands of Indian warriors now joined the Spaniards on their march over the mountains to the great city of Tenochtitlán. The conquest of Mexico would largely be the work of Indians fighting Indians—this was the most powerful lesson Europeans would draw from Cortés's victory.

    One after another of Montezuma's allies fell before Cortés, yet the emperor vacillated and agonized: "My heart burns and suffers, as if it were drowned in spices!" When the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies arrived at the outskirts of Tenochtitlán, the emperor was present to officially welcome them. He led Cortés and his men down a great causeway leading to the island capital. Bernal Díaz described the scene: "The pyramids and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream.... I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world." Indeed, Tenochtitlán was one of the sixteenth-century world's greatest cities. It seemed as if the age-old dream of a western paradise finally had become real. Writing in the 1570s, fifty years after the conquest, Díaz ended his description of the city on a note of great regret: "Today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing."

    Montezuma gave the Spaniards the use of large quarters near his palace, and across the cultural divide the emperor and Cortés entered into a dialogue, conversations recorded in both the Aztec and the Spanish sources. "I do not understand," Cortés declared, pointing to the Aztec religious shrine in his quarters, "how such a great lord and wise man as you are has not realized that these idols are not gods, but bad things, called devils." He knocked down the objects and set up a little Catholic altar in its place. Montezuma was shocked by such a brazen act. He had been trained as a priest. Aztec priests practiced rituals of human sacrifice, inflicting terrible death on captives by cutting open their chests and tearing the pulsing hearts from their living bodies. But the priests also subjected themselves to terrible self-torture, spending their days and nights praying, slashing their own bodies with obsidian blades, and piercing their tongues and penises with cactus thorns to draw the blood that was the ultimate sacrifice to the gods. The Aztecs were, in short, as thoroughly committed to their religious beliefs and practices as were the Spaniards. And so Montezuma replied to Cortés: "We have worshipped our own gods here from the beginning and know them to be good. No doubt yours are good for you also. But please do not trouble to tell us any more about them."

* * *

    Cortés now conceived the impossibly bold plan of seizing Montezuma and making him a prisoner in his own palace, thinking that perhaps with a single blow he could behead the Aztec kingdom and place himself on its throne. Incredibly, Montezuma allowed himself to be taken. To his council the emperor explained that he had prayed about it, "but the gods no longer replied as of old," and he took this as a sign that he must acquiesce. Constantly praying and sacrificing captives to the gods, Montezuma and the Aztec priests desperately looked for a sign for what they should do.

    The Aztecs finally were forced to act when the Spaniards attacked an assembly of the nobility, gathered for a religious festival. In the words of the Aztec account, at the very moment of the festival "when the dance was loveliest and when song was linked to song, the Spaniards were seized with an urge to kill the celebrants." Brandishing their swords they ran headlong into the dancers. "They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off his arms. They cut off his head, and it rolled across the floor. They attacked all the celebrants, stabbing them, spearing them, striking them with their swords. They attacked some of them from behind, and these fell instantly to the ground.... They struck others in the shoulders, and their arms were torn from their bodies. They wounded some in the thigh and some in the calf. They slashed others in the abdomen, and their entrails all spilled to the ground. Some attempted to run away, but their intestines dragged as they ran; they seemed to tangle their feet in their own entrails. No matter how they tried to save themselves, they could find no escape." The massacre destroyed the flower of the Aztec ruling class, but it also precipitated a revolt within Tenochtitlán. The army rallied and besieged the Spaniards within the emperor's palace. "Mexicanos, come running!" the surviving leaders cried to the people. "Bring your spears and shields! The strangers have murdered our warriors."

    Cortés marched the prisoner Montezuma to a balcony overlooking the public square and told him to call off the Aztec forces. "We must not fight them," the emperor shouted to the people, according to the Aztec account. "We are not their equals in battle. Put down your shields and arrows.... Stop fighting, and return to your homes." But the people cursed him, crying out, "Who is Montezuma to give us orders? We are no longer his slaves," and then "it seemed as if the sky was raining stones, arrows, darts, and sticks" Montezuma was hit three times. According to legend, the stone that killed him was thrown by his cousin Cauauhtémoc, who would lead the Aztec defense against the invaders.

    After a siege of seven days, the Spaniards made a bold attempt to flee the city by night. An Aztec woman, drawing water at the edge of a canal, spied them and cried out, "Mexicanos, come running! They are crossing the canal! Our enemies are escaping." Two-thirds of the Spanish troops died that night. Dressed in heavy armor, loaded with gold and precious stones looted from Montezuma's treasure house, many drowned in the canals, poetic justice for those afflicted with gold lust. So clogged did the channel become with their bodies, it was said, that those who managed to escape did so by running across the backs of the dead. After the battle the Aztecs dredged the canal and brought up the bodies in order to retrieve the treasure—but left the carcasses to rot in rows along the roadway, a warning if the Spaniards thought to return.

    But return they did, reinforced by troops from Cuba as well as thousands of Indian allies who now grabbed the opportunity to overthrow their Aztec overlords. During the intervening year Tenochtitlán was struck by an epidemic plague of smallpox spread to them by the invaders. "They died in heaps, like bedbugs" one Spaniard wrote unsympathetically. Compare the Aztec account: "There came amongst us a greatsickness, a general plague. It raged amongst us, killing vast numbers of people. It covered many all over with sores: on the face, on the head, on the chest, everywhere. It was devastating. Nobody could move himself, nor turn his head, nor flex any part of his body. The sores were so terrible that the victims could not lie face down, nor on their backs, nor move from one side to the other. And when they tried to move even a little, they cried out in agony.... The worst phase of this pestilence lasted 60 days, 60 days of horror." This epidemic killed thousands; some contemporaries estimated that it reduced the population by half. Cortés attacked the city at the conclusion of the plague. After terrible fighting, the invaders fought their way to the central pyramid, where the final battle took place. After it was all over, wrote Díaz, "we could not walk without treading on the bodies of dead Indians.... The dryland and the stockades were piled with corpses. Indeed, the stench was so bad that no one could endure it" Modern estimates are that as many as a hundred thousand Aztecs died in the fighting. The Aztec leaders were captured and tortured to reveal the location of the state treasure house.

    The Spaniards imposed the encomienda system on the Mexicans, forcing them to build the new capital of Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlán and to labor in the fields or in the fabulous gold and silver mines the Spaniards opened in northern Mexico. Unlike the peoples of the Caribbean, the peoples of Mexico were familiar with a system of tribute and taxation, and they were better at adapting to their new rulers. Catholic missionaries also began a wholesale assault on Aztec religion. A few years ago, in the Vatican archives, researchers discovered an eloquent Aztec plea for the survival of their traditions: "Do not force something on your people that will bring them misfortune, that will bring them catastrophe.... Is it not enough that we have already lost? That our way of living has been lost, has been annihilated?"

* * *

    There were Spaniards who protested the horrors of the conquest and worked to obtain justice for the Indians. Principal among them was Bartolomé de Las Casas, a priest who had participated in the plunder of Cuba in 1511 but afterward suffered a crisis of conscience and began to denounce the conquest. The Christian mission in the New World was to convert the Indians, he argued, and "the means to effect this end are not to rob, to scandalize, to capture or destroy them, or to lay waste their lands." Centuries before the world recognized the concept of universal human rights, Las Casas proclaimed that "the entire human race is one." His brave stand earned him a place as one of the towering moral figures in the history of the Americas.

    The controversy over the treatment of the Indians was waged at the highest levels of the Spanish state. In 1512 the crown responded to criticisms of its Indian policy by issuing stricter protections, but abuses continued. Las Casas became a troublesome critic, and his moral critique persuaded many members of the royal court. Finally in the 1540s he was permitted to organize an official debate over the treatment of the Indians. Those seeking to justify the conquest argued that the Indians were savages who practiced horrible vices, for which they deserved to be punished. It was widely reported, for example, that the Indians were drug users. One of the first published accounts, written by a man who accompanied Columbus, described how the Indians of Hispaniola used a little straw to sniff a powder up their noses. "This produces such intoxication," he wrote, "that they do not know what they are doing, and they say many senseless things." The Spanish also noted the wide use of coca leaves in South America and peyote in Central and North America.

    Another charge was that the natives were sexual libertines and homosexuals. "The Indians are sodomites," declared one conquistador. "Very common is the nefarious sin against nature. The Indians who are headmen have youths with whom they use this accursed sin, and those consenting youths, as soon as they fall into this guilt, wear skirts like women." The Indians "did not keep faith or order," wrote a Franciscan priest, "husbands were not loyal to their wives nor wives to their husbands." But the most common complaint was that the Indians were cannibals. Images depicting the Caribs (from which was derived not only the word Caribbean but also the word cannibal) devouring the flesh of captured Spaniards were used to justify the conquest. In Mexico, Cortés argued that the ultimate goal of the conquest was to stamp out the horrible rituals of human sacrifice.

    These charges were a slander against the native peoples of the Americas, Las Casas replied. "The Spaniards have defamed the Indians with the greatest crimes," making them seem "ugly and evil." The charge of sodomy he dismissed as "a falsehood," and he compared the native use of drugs to the communion of the Catholic church, pointing out that it was part of a ceremony of divination in order to "learn what good, adversity, or evil were to come." He even made a remarkable effort to explain Aztec human sacrifice in its own terms. "It is not surprising that when unbelievers who have neither grace nor instruction consider how much men owe to God," he explained to the court, "they devise the most difficult type of repayment, that is, human sacrifice in God's honor." To think this way was an error, Las Casas admitted, but the Church should aim to correct such practices through enlightenment, not punishment.

    Las Casas carried the day in this official debate, and the Spanish monarchy concluded by declaring the Indians fully human and demanding that they be treated fairly. Las Casas was appointed a bishop in Chiapas, Mexico, where he experimented with colonies that excluded soldiers and firearms. But his was a voice in the wilderness, and in time these ideals gave way to more typical patterns of colonization. As Cortés once said, "I came to get gold, not to till the soil like a peasant." Dreams of riches easily corroded ideals.

    Perhaps Las Casas's most enduring contribution was his brilliant history of the conquest, The Destruction of the Indies, published in Spain in 1552. In this book, one of the most influential in the history of the early modern world, Las Casas blamed Spaniards for the deaths of millions of Indians and indicted them for what today we would call genocide. His arguments were later used by other European powers to condemn Spain while covering up their own dismal records of colonial conquest. Subsequent scholars, doubting Las Casas's estimates of huge population losses, criticized his work as part of a "Black Legend" of the Spanish conquest. Even the good bishop himself anticipated such doubts. "Who of those born in future centuries will believe this," he wrote. "I myself, who am writing this and saw it, and know most about it, can hardly believe that such was possible."

    Las Casas's claims continue to arouse a great deal of controversy among historians, although many find his numbers more believable. Lacking good statistics, all population figures for this period are educated guesses. Estimates of the indigenous population of Hispaniola, for example, range from several hundred thousand to several million. But the indisputable fact is that by 1517, as one Spanish official observed, the Indians had diminished to "as few as grapes after a harvest," and fifty years after Columbus's landing the native population of the island numbered but a few hundred. The Tainos eventually disappeared completely from the face of the earth. Faced with severe shortages of Indian labor, the Spaniards began importing slaves from Africa, and by 1560 Africans had become the majority population on Hispaniola. By the end of the sixteenth century African slaves vastly outnumbered both the native and European populations in the Caribbean colonies.

    Estimates of the size of the native Mexican population on the eve of conquest range from eight to twenty-five million. A century later it stood at little more than million. For the rest of the continent, north of Mexico, historians argue over estimates that vary from four million to eighteen million native inhabitants at the beginning of the sixteenth century. But there is no disputing the fact that over the next four hundred years the native population dropped to about 250,000. Despite disagreement over the number of Indians in the Americas before European conquest, most scholars now acknowledge that the collapse of native populations was the greatest demographic calamity in human history.

* * *

    Las Casas attributed the destruction of the Indians to warfare and overwork. But by far the greatest loss of life resulted from the introduction of Old World diseases. Pre-Columbian America seems to have had no contagious epidemic diseases, and because of this, Indian peoples lacked the antibodies necessary to protect them from European germs and viruses. A shipload of colonists from Spain carried smallpox to Hispaniola in 1516, and the expedition of Cortés brought it to Mexico, where it devastated the Aztecs. Infected Indians unintentionally spread the disease along the trading network linking distant communities. Thus disease frequently preceded conquest. Peru was devastated by smallpox in 1524, strategically weakening the Inca empire eight years before it was attacked by conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Spanish chroniclers wrote that this initial pandemic of smallpox killed up to half the Native Americans it touched.

    Disease was the secret weapon of the European invaders of the New World, and it helps explain their almost unbelievable success at conquest. The outstanding difference between the European colonial experience in the Americas and elsewhere—Africa and Asia, for example—was this extraordinary reduction in the Indian population. After the conquest, the Indians of Mexico sang of earlier times:

There was then no sickness.
They had then no aching bones.
They had then no high fever.
They had then no smallpox.
They had then no burning chest.
They had then no abdominal pains.
They had then no consumption.
They had then no headache.
At that time the course of humanity was orderly.
The foreigners made it otherwise when they arrived here.

    Yet, because the rate of Spanish immigration was relatively low, Indians continued in the majority, and by the end of the sixteenth century native populations in Mexico had begun to rebound from their disastrous collapse. The cities and towns were predominantly Spanish, while the countryside remained predominantly Indian. "This state of New Spain," observed a convention of missionaries meeting in Mexico City in 1594, "is made up of two nations, Spaniards and Indians." But a third group was becoming increasingly important. Because the great majority of the Spanish immigrants to the New World were young, single men, there quickly developed a pattern of cohabitation between colonists and native women, and soon there arose a large population of mixed ancestry, the mestizos. By the eighteenth century mestizos constituted nearly a quarter of the whole population of New Spain, and by the nineteenth century they had become the majority. Mestizaje, or ethnic intermixing, was one of the most important phenomenons of post-conquest societies in the New World.


Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition ix

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Dreams and Homelands 1

Chapter 1 A New World Begins 12

Chapter 2 Contest of Cultures 39

Chapter 3 The Struggle of Empires 73

Chapter 4 The Land and Its Markers 106

Chapter 5 Finding Purchase 135

Chapter 6 War and Destiny 177

Chapter 7 Machine 223

Chapter 8 A Search for Community 270

Chapter 9 The Urban Frontier 310

Chapter 10 New Frontiers 339

Chapter 11 As the West Goes … 387

Chapter 12 "It Ain't Where You're From, It's Where You're At" 428

Notes 457

Index 477

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