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Tuesday, December 31, 2013
History ... Society ...

Despite my interest in history, I’ve never learned all that much about the European conquest of the American continents between the 16th and 19th centuries. Pretty much all that I know came from suburban grammar school in the early 1960s. The flavor of it all was pretty much that there were some people occupying the region stretching from the Bering Strait and Newfoundland down to Cape Horn, and they had some interesting if rudimentary civilizations going for them. But the Spanish first arrived, followed later by English, Dutch, French and others, who brought forth better, more advanced arrangements than the natives could ever dream of. So, even though some of the tactics used by the Euro invaders weren’t very kind, the “Indians” weren’t making all that much out of the rich natural resources surrounding them. It was for the Europeans to come in and set the Americans on the path of progress, to set up some real civilizations that could make the most out of the mostly-untouched natural bounty available in the “New World”. The various Indian nations put up some resistance, in some cases tough and noble resistance, but in the end, the inevitable march of human progress could not be denied.

Of course, that point of view itself could not survive the “march of progress”. The Euro conquest of the American continents is now seen more honestly, basically as an invasion by one people eager to take away the riches that another people enjoyed. One reason why the Spanish and then French and English (and eventually the young American nation) were so successful against the natives was supposedly because the “Indians” were mostly backward. They were small, unorganized groups living in a fashion similar to what the Europeans experienced during the Dark Ages, a millennium before.

Or were they? Before the Europeans started arriving in mass after 1500, modern research shows that the native populations in both North and South American were much larger than what most Euro immigrants saw. And these large populations were supported by rather sophisticated social, economic and governmental arrangements. What caused these civilizations to collapse, what kept them from mounting a credible defense of their home turf against the relatively small bands of white people coming over on boats?

Modern research indicates that the Europeans got lucky in their accidental but highly effective application of biological warfare against the natives. Yes, I am talking about smallpox. Perhaps the most famous smallpox outbreaks occurred in 1520-27, when the Aztec nation in Mexico collapsed against Cortes, and the Inca nation in modern-day Columbia next succumbed. The Euro people had some natural immunity against the disease, whereby the natives didn’t. Spain would soon be the ruler of a large chunk of this New World.

But what is not so well known is that smallpox also did quite a number on the native populations living north of the Rio Grande. Around 1618, some Indian tribes in Massachusetts shrank by up to 90%. The Mohawks and Iroquois were in for their own epidemics in the later part of the 17th Century. Then west coast tribes came down with smallpox and shrank considerably in the 1770’s. The Plains Indians were subject to this plaque about a decade later. The Cree and the Sioux were especially effected.

So, after the Civil War, when the young, reunited American nation decided to conquer the West, the US Calvary and its famous leaders like Custer and Sherman faced off against an enemy that was but a shadow of its former self. Smallpox had decimated the political and economic alliances that once supported a vigorous trade network between urbanized centers (like Cahokia near modern-day St. Louis), and had set the natives back to a world akin to the Euro medieval era (including a return to small, isolated agricultural tribes following the collapse of population, trade, urban cities, and central government). The “Indians” that most older white Americans like myself know from our school history books, TV shows and movies, were living in but a shadow of the glories they once knew.

So, despite all the stories about the “heroic struggles” of our westward settlers and US Calvary in fending off the “noble savages”, the truth was that we were fighting an opponent that had already taken a knock-out blow, due partly to the spread of smallpox. Without the “lucky microbiological accident” of smallpox (lucky for the Europeans, an undeserved curse to the Natives), perhaps the European colonists and the later American nation would never have gained such complete and unfettered dominance over the New World. With all due credit to Jared Diamond, let me say here that if not for a few random twists of proteins and DNA in the germ world, the entire history of the Western continents, and the stories that its victors told of their manifest destiny, could have been entirely different.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:31 pm      

  1. Jim, You are so right! I’ve often tho’t of the numerous nations of Native Americans who have been completely wiped out.

    Altho I love our country and would not want to live anywhere else, every July 4 I find myself wondering just how the Native Americans perceive our celebration of our country. MCS

    Comment by Mary — January 1, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

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