When the Native American Indians First Met the European Settlers
What Did the Native Americans and the Settlers Expect When They First Met?
When the Europeans began their settlement of the New World, it was both complicated and aided by its indigenous inhabitants. The native people alternately became allies and enemies of the newly arrived settlers from Europe. These two totally dissimilar cultures were hurtling toward each other in a collision that could be the end for one of them. Did either of them expect what was to come when the first Europeans came to America?
What did the settlers expect of the Native Americans when they arrived? Surely there was a sense of dread among the arriving Europeans concerning these mysterious people who had warred with the early Spanish colonizers. What did they think would happen? And conversely, what did the locals think of these strange intruders?
When the colonists set sail for America, they knew that they’d not only have to find a way to survive in the wilderness, but would also have to deal with rival nations that were claiming their own share of this vast new land. There had been long animosity between France, England, and the Dutch. These were obstacles which would be difficult to overcome. The wild card in all this would be the native population who they knew little about. They’d read the stories of Columbus and his voyages, and heard rumors from traders and fishermen concerning the “primitive” people of the continent, but so few clear-cut facts existed. How would they be received? They had some hopes of trading with the natives. Would these hopes be realized, or were they walking into the lion’s den?
The Europeans had a very mixed view of the Indian natives. On one hand, they were told that Indians could be gentle and receptive, helpful and eager to trade. This may have been a true depiction, or the propaganda of the English government and trading companies which had a vested interest in promoting colonization; it was a very positive image and gave intended settlers hope that they would be welcome with open arms and helping hands. They wanted to believe that they were heading to the Garden of Eden.
However, there was an opposing image of these same Indians. Perhaps these came from the Spanish or from visitors to America who’d had bad experiences with the locals.
Whichever the case, Indians were often described in very unflattering terms. Among these descriptions were terms like, “flesh-eating primitives,” “savage, hostile and beastlike,” and “crafty, loathsome half-men.” These various metaphors could not have inspired much confidence in the people who heard them.
The English had an ace-in-the-hole that kept their courage up. They knew that they had the same level of technology and weaponry as the Spanish. Therefore, they knew that if push came to shove, they could defeat the American natives in a fight, just as the Spanish had. Conquest was always in the back of their minds, as an alternative to peaceful integration.
English pessimism due to Spanish experience with the Indians was no doubt exacerbated when a Chesapeake Indian tribe ambushed the first arrivals making landfall. Things didn’t start off well and the settlers became very suspicious of the indigenous people. And the Indians surely felt the same, but they had their own motivations for contact.
Powhattan, leader of the powerful Algonquian tribe of Indians, was a proud and clever man. He saw the newcomers as a source of power. They had things of value, like guns and knives. Powhattan was in the process of consolidating his power in the region. He already controlled 25 bands of united warriors, and was looking for another advantage.
Weapons would be invaluable to him. To this end, he became a friend and benefactor to the new settlement. Although their presence was a potentially destabilizing element and a dangerously double edged sword, he felt they were worth the risk. He brought them food to help them survive their first long, cold winter, known as “the starving time”. He continued to trade with them afterwards, supplying corn and other foods in exchange for weapons.
It was, perhaps, this dependency on the Indians that helped to increase their distrust of the locals. They needed Powhattan’s food to get through the winter and were very much afraid that he would take advantage of their weakness. They expected the local Indians to act as treacherously and heartlessly as Europeans often did. Many rationalized that the Algonquian assistance was really initiated by their Christian God who was looking out for them. It made them feel better to believe that they were in the hands of God, not the Indians. Colony leader John Smith wrote, “If it had not pleased God to have put a terror in the Savage’s hearts, we’d have perished by those wild and cruel Pagans, being in that weakest state as we were.”
Looking at it from the Indian's point of view, they probably had little reason to suspect the horrors that were to come. They’d had limited interaction with the white man. Most tribes probably had no idea what happened down in South America with the Spanish. Up in Canada, the French had made strides in co-existing wit the regional Indians and even advocated inter-racial marriages. So it’s likely the Indians were leery—the unknown is always frightening—but naïve and confident enough not to view the newcomers as anything to fear. The Europeans came bearing gifts to trade, and some tribes did initially profit off their arrival.