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Early American Literature: European Settlers and Native American Storytelling

Nancy has a degree in English, a love of literature, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris "The First Thanksgiving"

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris "The First Thanksgiving"

European Explorers and Native American Literature

When the European explorers discovered the New World, it was already inhabited by millions of Native Americans. Despite not possessing a writing system, the Native Americans had a vast oratory literary collection of culture, history, and religion.

The literature of the early explorers was mostly narratives and letters. These writings describe the New World and the explorers’ travels and experiences. Each literary system was unique reflecting the different cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs of each respective group. Eventually, the systems come together and evolve into the literature of modern America. To understand modern literature, one must look back at the beginning of American literature.

Amerigo Vespuccie

Amerigo Vespuccie

Historical Aspects

Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian mapmaker, discovered America in 1507 (Baym, 2008). European explorers found America as a result of questioning the land and water mass of the world by Renaissance scholars and in the search for riches, wealth, and trading routes to the Far East. When European explorers first reached the New World, it appeared to be a paradise.

This naïve presumption was short-lived as the Explorers discovered the Native American people, who the Explorers believed to be pagan savages. The Native American culture was steeped in tradition and honoring the earth. They welcomed the newcomers and helped them to survive the harsh winter. The explorers brought European diseases to the New World that the Native Americans had no immunity to (Baym, 2008). Many died as a result of these diseases. The explorers took advantage of the Native Americans’ hospitality and ignorance of weapons and overtook them. They manipulated the Native Americans, raped and killed their people, and took many as slaves.

The European explorers traveled on behalf of monarchs. This behavior was accepted and encouraged by these monarchs, who took over the land as their own, taking it from people they considered to be pagans (Baym, 2008). Early American literature reflects the distinct differences between the Native Americans and European Explorers. American literature has evolved from these diverse early writings.

"Christopher Columbus Arrives in America" from the United States Library of Congress

"Christopher Columbus Arrives in America" from the United States Library of Congress

Literary Style

European Explorers

The Early American writings from the European explorers are primarily in the form of narratives and letters. These letters describe the explorers’ travels and discoveries and serve as a report for the monarchs for whom they traveled. Because many writings were used to report progress to the monarchs, the accounts may have romanticized the explorers’ experiences in the New World and served as propaganda for their work. Christopher Columbus offers a description of the New World to Luis de Santangel in a letter about his first voyage “many rivers, good and large, which is marvelous…lofty mountains, beyond comparison…trees of a thousand kinds…they never lose their foliage…green and as lovely as they are in Spain in May” (Baym, 2008, p.26, para. 3).

"Sioux Encampment" by Jules Tavernier

"Sioux Encampment" by Jules Tavernier

Native Americans

Native American literature evolved from the oral traditions of storytelling and cultural traditions of narratives, rituals, and ceremonies of the Native American people. The Native American people did not have a writing system, so when the explorers discovered America, there was no written Native American literature; it was all oratory.

Storytelling was a tradition passed down through the generations. These stories included myths about immortal beings to explain creation and natural occurrences beyond human control. “The Iroquois Creation Story” tells the tale of a woman bearing twin sons, an evil son and a good son who enriches the earth by “first he took the parents head...created an orb…and it became of a very superior nature to bestow light upon the world” (Baym, 2008, p. 19, para. 1). The myth tells how the good son creates the sun and moon, and humans and animals for sustenance. This story of Mother Earth and the battle between good and evil is a creation myth similar to many other Native American stories

Jose Maria Obrego's painting "Inspiration of Christopher Columbus"

Jose Maria Obrego's painting "Inspiration of Christopher Columbus"



Early American literature was influenced in many ways. The outside influences are reflected in European explorers’ and Native American literature. The European explorers’ literature was shaped by the political influences of the European monarchs they traveled for. The explorers needed to justify their travels. In their letters to their homeland, they would describe the beautiful landscapes of the New World and the abundant resources to show the value of their travels to their country.

Without justification, the monarchs would no longer fund their journey and send others to take over the exploration. The monarchs expected results, so the explorers’ letters needed to convince them that their work was valuable. Columbus wrote such a letter in “From Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage,” in which he wrote the first printed description of America that was translated and printed throughout Europe (Baym, 2008).

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At this time, the Native Americans had only oral stories. These stories did not offer specific political influence, but the traditions of the tribe could be accounted in stories. From a political perspective, rituals, ceremonies, and narrative stories could recount the positions held within the tribe and the structural relations of the community. Stories could also tell of past experiences with outside groups, such as the explorers. David Cusick, from the Oneida Reservation in Madison County, New York, provides the “Iroquois Creation Story,” which is formed from the collected myths of 25 versions and is influenced by the political threat of Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency and the forces against the Native American people. Still, this story was not written until the late 1700s (Baym, 2008). The written accounts of Native American stories were also recorded by Spaniards in journals, such as Juan Manje and Pedro Font, in the late 1600s (Baym, 2008). There are no earlier written Native American accounts because they did not have a writing system. We can assume that the political influence of the European explorers and their monarch taking their land and enslaving them would be reflected in their stories, some of which are written about later in history when Native American literature moved to the written format, roughly around the mid-1700s (Vizenor, 1995).

"Treaty of Penn with Indian's" by Benjamin West

"Treaty of Penn with Indian's" by Benjamin West


Cultural influences affected early American literature in several ways. Native American literature reflects culture by including the oral passing down of traditions, rituals, and ceremonies (Prairie Edge, 2011). These stories preserve the art and tradition of the various tribes. Stories were passed down from the elders to the younger generations to carry on the Native American culture. The hostility of the European explorers to this time-honored culture and lifestyle changed the lives of Native Americans forever.

European explorers brought their own culture from their homelands. The early American writings do not include many cultural references in regard to ceremony or art, but it does offer clear respect and love for their home country and the goal of pleasing the monarchs that they serve. Columbus writes to Ferdinand and Isabella, “the lands which here obey Your Highness” and presents the dedication to the monarchs (Baym, 2008, p. 27, para. 3). The letters from the explorers present disdain for the culture of the Native Americans, considering them pagan savages, such as when Columbus writes about the Native Americans “encompassed about by a million savages, full of cruelty” (Baym, 2008, p. 28, para. 3). The explorers did not respect the Native Americans’ culture, they instead chose to overthrow them and change their way of life.

Statue of Iroquois Native American sitting on a turtle from Iroquois creation mythology

Statue of Iroquois Native American sitting on a turtle from Iroquois creation mythology


Religious influences can be seen in both European explorer and Native American literature. The European explorers often refer to their Christian values and serving God in their letters and narratives. Preserving Christianity and converting the pagans to their religion was important to the explorers. Columbus describes his worry about being away from the church in his letter to Ferdinand and Isabella “so separated from the holy Sacraments of the Holy Church, my soul will be forgotten if it here leaves my body” (Baym, 2008, p. 28, para. 3). Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca describes the explorers’ religious zeal in his narrative “From the Relation of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca” “strangers vie in approbation with those motivated by religion and loyalty” (Baym, 2008, p. 30, para. 2). The Native Americans’ religion reflected their honor of nature and earth.

The Native American people celebrated spiritual presence in all things. Their creation myths offer examples of animals and people with supernatural powers, and the earth as a vessel of sustenance. Their religious ceremonies and rituals were passed down via oral storytelling. “The Iroquois Creation Story” shares a version of the Mother Earth myth along with examples of supernatural animals “the turtle increased every moment and became a considerable island of earth” (Baym, 2008, p. 19, para. 1). Native American literature offers the influence of the importance of nature and honoring the earth.

Winterthur Museum's painting "James Oglethorpe presenting the Yamacraw Indians to the Georgia Trustees"

Winterthur Museum's painting "James Oglethorpe presenting the Yamacraw Indians to the Georgia Trustees"

Modern American literature evolved from the early foundations of the country’s literary ancestors. The European explorers brought their writing system with them to the New World. They wrote journals, letters, and narratives of their experience in this new place. Eventually the Native Americans adopted written language, but in the time of Columbus in 1492 Native American literature was completely oratory. Oral storytelling was the way that history, culture, and religion were passed down. The practical accounting method of writing from the European explorers along with the creative storytelling of the Native Americans can be credited with the origins of American literature.


Baym, N. (Ed.). (2008). The Norton anthology of American literature. (Shorter 7th ed. Vol. 1). New York: NY: W.W. Norton.

Prairie Edge. (2011). Native American storytelling. Retrieved from

Vizenor, G. (1995). Native American literature: a brief introduction and anthology. New York, NY: Harper Collins College Publishers.


Ilona E from Ohio on September 14, 2015:

I like that you bring balance back into the given history of early American beginnings, but some of it concentrates on the extreme. I think the pendulum approach ( countering one view with another) tends to give an off balanced view which results in inaccuracies.

I think part of the problem is how we tend to lump groups together for convenience (all Native American tribes or all European explorers or settlers). It makes for interesting reading, but less understanding of history.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on September 13, 2015:

What a fascinating read, Nancy. Great hub!

Iam proud for these informatin on May 26, 2015:

I'm proud

Nancy Snyder (author) from Pennsylvania on April 17, 2015:

Hello Mark, thank you for clearing that up. I really do find history fascinating. I appreciate your input.

Mark on April 17, 2015:

Hi Nancy,

Well, yes...Leif Ericsson, the Asian crossers of the Bering Straits thousands of years earlier even than the Vikings and the Central Asian astronomer, Biruni, who posited that there just had to be a significant land mass between the western Atlantic and the Easter edges of the Eurasian lands are all suitable candidates. John Cabot, too, has a valid claim to being there before Columbus but Amerigo Vespucci was definitely the last of all the afore mentioned potential candidates, surely?

I was merely using Columbus as the recognised and uncontested European who made the first significant landfalls that would eventually lead to the complete and total colonisation of the continent by the Europeans.

Of course, Columbus wasn't the first but the legend persists (well, what would we do with all those statues?!) and I assumed you were speaking in that context as Vespucci is universally acknowledged to have followed Columbus' voyages. Still, he gets his name on the deeds, though, and Columbia gets relegated to a lesser role. I think, on balance, I'd prefer Vespucci's prize...!



Nancy Snyder (author) from Pennsylvania on April 15, 2015:

Hello Mark. There has been some controversy on this topic, but I respectfully disagree. Columbus was not the first to discover America. Thank you for reading my hub.

Mark Kureishy on April 13, 2015:

Columbus discovered America...

Mark Kureishy on April 13, 2015:

He didn't discover America...Columbus did.

NancySnyder on October 02, 2014:

Ana, of course! I cannot believe I wrote that incorrectly. Thank you for pointing it out, I will fix it right now!

Ana Rodriguez on October 01, 2014:

Americo Vespucci was not german but ITALIAN!

Nancy Snyder (author) from Pennsylvania on September 19, 2013:

Thanks BayAreaMare and anidae, I love history too!

Anita Adams from Tennessee on September 19, 2013:

I enjoy reading about history. I really like Native American history. I liked this hub. You are a good writer.

Marian from San Francisco Bay Area on September 16, 2013:


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