Maya and Aztec

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations

The Native Americans

Category: History

Who were the first Americans? They were aboriginal dark-skinned people, called by Columbus “Indians”, in the mistaken belief that he had reached the East Indies. The other names for them are “Native Americans”, “Amerindians”, “American Indians”, “indigenous Americans” and “aboriginal Americans”. Their ancestors came to the continent from Asia, Siberia. They crossed the Bering Strait and got to Alaska at various times when the sea level dropped and scattered all over the continent developing many different kinds of societies. Today there are about 1.5 million of them in the United States, and Western states have the largest Indian populations.

American Indians had been living there for about 50,000 years. Numerous tribes of Amerindians were scattered across the grasslands and forests. Some were hunters, some were farmers. Some were peaceful, others – warlike. They spoke over 300 distinct languages.

The tribes followed very different ways of life. Amerindians in Mexico were growing and eating beans, maize, squash and peppers. The best organized were the Pueblo people of present day Arizona and New Mexico. They lived in terraced houses made of adobe(mud and straw) bricks, dried in the sun. The pueblo made clothing and blankets from cotton and wore leather moccasins. Long before Europeans came to America the Pueblo were building networks of canals across the deserts to bring water to their fields.

The Apache were the neighbours of the Pueblo. They were fierce and warlike, they were wandering the deserts and mountains in small bands hunting and gathering wild plants. The Iroquois who were also fierce warriors, skilled farmers, hunters and fishermen lived in the thick woods of northeastern North America in permanent villages. They built long wooden huts and birch bark canoes. On the vast plains of grass that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains lived another warrior nation – the Sioux (or Dakota, as they called themselves). They grew no crops and built no houses. For food, shelter and clothing they depended upon the buffalo. They moved after these huge animals. The Sioux used conical buffalo skin tents – tepees – that have become a symbol of the Amerindians’ way of life. The tribes of the Pacific coast – like the Haida – lived in large houses built of wooden planks. In front of them they placed specially decorated tree trunks – totem poles. The carvings on the totem pole were a record of the history of the family that lived in the house.

Amerindians developed their own way of life lasted for many centures. But the arrival of Europeans eventually destroyed it. It is one of the most brutal stories of genocide in modern history.

The original population of Native Americans was about 12 mln. As many as 280 distinct aboriginal societies existed in North America prior to Columbus. Some of them developed great civilizations (the Incas and the Aztecs) which contributed greatly to the world culture and the welfare of the human race: they domesticated corn, potatoes, peanuts, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, pineapples, cocoa; cultivated tobacco and discovered at least 59 drugs that are now used in medical science today.

The conflict between the Native Americans and the white settlers began in 1822. The latter wanted to dispossess the former of their land and resources, and to get rid of people who could not be exploited. The means included not only mass extermination, but also slavery, bounty-hunting (scalping for profit), massacre of women and children, the assassination of leaders, the forced relocation of people. The slogan “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was used for more than 200 years. Even the Declaration of Independence pronouncing that “all men are created equal” was not true for the Native Americans. The government forced the Indians to sign treaties that were enormous land robbery. Many Indian tribes were removed from their homelands and their lands were taken by the white. According to the General Allotment Act of 1887, by 1930 the Indian lands were cut down from 139 million acres to 47 million acres. This destruction and scattering of the tribes had a devastating effect on Indian life and culture.

While a number of Amerindian nations were fully annihilated, some tribes managed to survive as ethnic communities, like the 130,000 Navajo (Navaho), the 72,000 Cherokee, the 60,000 Sioux and the 35,000 Pueblo. Today there are about 764,000 American Indians and nearly 40 % of them live in 200 reservations under terrible social and economic conditions. There is no running water in many reservations, and most Indian homes are dilapidated, unsanitary and crowded. There is a high death rate for children, a high suicide rate, and a very low educational level of all Amerindians. In the middle of the 20th century they were the most oppressed ethnic minority in the USA.

Of course, the Indians have never stopped their struggle for civil rights.

There are hundreds of claims against the federal government by Indian tribes and tribal groups requiring payment for lands taken from them. The Indians have built organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians representing two-thirds of the 600,000 Indians in more than 20 states, the National Indian Youth Council, the United Nations of Pan-American Indians and others. Through these organizations they are demanding self-determination and political independence, i. e. Red Power.

While many Indians have continued to live in their old tribal ways isolated from capitalist life, they exist in a capitalist environment and are basically subject to its economic and political laws. So they are also developing class differentiations. Thus, the Osage Indians of the U.S. (one of the rare cases) have even a few wealthy, land-owning Indians.

Today Native Americans are full citizens of the USA. They are proud of their own cultural heritage: they taught the Europeans to cultivate some crops (see above), canoes and moccasins are their inventions. Their handcrafted artifacts such as pottery, silver jewelry, printings and woven rugs are highly prized.

Many Indian tribes were removed from their homelands and their lands taken by whites in the nineteenth century. After the passage by Congress of the General Allotment Act of 1887, Indian lands were cut down by 1930 from 139 million acres to 47 million acres. This destruction and scattering of the tribes had a devastating effect on Indian life and culture. The terrible hunger, deprivation, disease, illiteracy, suffering and death of Indian men, women and children on the reservations and in the city slums are their current and continuing plight.

There are hundreds of claims against the federal government by Indian tribes and tribal groups requiring payment for lands taken from them – some pending for 20 years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Senecas of New York State were fighting in the courts to prevent their arable land from being flooded by the Kinzua Dam, and the New York State Tuscaroras were fighting in the courts to prevent the building of a reservoir on a large part of their reservation. The Iroquois later picketed the White House and said that they would take their grievances of confiscated lands and destitution to the United Nations as an international problem.

The Indians have built organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians, an organization representing two-thirds of the 600,000 Indians in more than 20 states, and the National Indian Youth Council which grew out of the discussions at the American Indian Chicago Conference of 1961. Others are the young American Indians United and the United Nations of Pan-American Indians. These are developing leadership toward unity in their fight for Indian rights. Indians are demanding fishing rights on rivers through fish-ins, self-determination and political independence – that, Red Power.

While many Indians have continued to live in their old tribal ways isolated from capitalist life, they exist in a capitalist environment and are basically subject to its economic and political laws. They are developing class differentiations. The Osage Indians of the U.S., one of the rare cases, have even a few wealthy, land-owning Indians. Even the most isolated tribes must adopt a commodity economy; more or less in order to get the things that they must have.


As you know, America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 “by mistake”. His intention was to reach India by sailing to the west. Columbus did not know that he had discovered a new continent; he simply thought that he was in an unknown part of India.

America got its name in 1506 after the famous Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci who wrote a lot about this land in his books.

The Colonial Period

The discovery of America took place in an age when the medieval dogmatic system of thought was giving way to a more liberal spirit of philosophical speculations and to the growth of a rich middle class.

The British settled the eastern part of North America in the 1600s. In 1606 a group of London merchants formed a joint stock company known as the Virginia Company of London. They asked King James I of England to allow them to plant a colony in Virginia. The King gave them a charter for a settlement in the new world. So Virginia joint-stock company sent promoters there to find gold. The first English colony – Virginia – was established in Jamestown in 1607. Those were hard times for settlers. But by April 1608 only 53 of 197 Englishmen who landed in Virginia survived. The rest died either in Amerindians attacks, or of diseases, but most people died of starvation (stories reached England about settlers who were so desperate for food that they dug up and ate the body of an Amerindian they had killed during the attack.) Yet new settlers continued to arrive. The Virginia Company gathered homeless children from the streets of London and convicts from London’s prisons and sent them out to the colony. Such emigrants were often unwilling to go. But for some English people Virginia had one great attraction – plentiful land, and a poor man could hope for a farm of his own to feed his family.

Military governors ran the colony like a prison camp. But it was not discipline but tobacco that saved Virginia. The possibility of becoming rich by growing tobacco brought wealthy men to the colony. They used the so called “indentured servants” on their plantations. These workers promised to work for an employer about seven years for food and clothes. At the end – if they were still alive – they became free and got a small piece of land to work for themselves.

In 1619 there was an important change in the life of settlers. The Virginia Company allowed a body called the House of Burgesses to be set up. In it the representatives from the various small settlements met to advise the governor on the laws the colony needed. Few of them were realized, but the Virginia House of Burgesses was the start of an important tradition in American life – that people should have a say in decisions about matters that concern them.

In the same year the first black Africans were brought to America to work in the tobacco fields. Unlike the white servants their indenture was for life – in fact, they were slaves.

By 1624 when the Virginia Company ran out of money the English government made itself responsible for the Virginia colonists. The hardships toughened the survivors. The first society of English people overseas had put down living roots into the American soil.

One more important group of settlers arrived in 1620 in Massachusetts – they are known as the Pilgrim Fathers.

The Pilgrim Fathers

The Protestant Reformation, as you know, began in 1517 and reached England some twenty years later. A lot of dissenting minorities appeared who were more ascetic in the practice of their new faith than the Church of England. Of these, the plain-living Puritans were the most overt and became the most oppressed. They experienced discrimination in England. In 1609 in search of religious freedom, 35 Puritans left the country for Holland. But after ten years, concerned with losing their cultural identity, the Puritans began to seek a better place to live. For this they looked to America where the first successful English colony – at Jamestown, Virginia – had been established in 1607.

In the summer of 1620 the Puritans and another 66 settlers sailed to North America in a small-sized ship named the Mayflower. It was hardly ideal for ocean sailing. The ship was overcrowded that is why the infectious disease carried off several of the passengers. Besides, the voyage itself had seen tensions build up between the Puritan minority and the non-Puritans who made up three-quarters of the settlers. Eventually on December 25th the “Mayflower” fetched up at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in Native Americans’ territory. Later the second successful English colony was founded at Plymouth.

December was a bad time to start a settlement and the colonists faced a lengthy series of challenges, from diseases, famine and internal conflicts to sabotage and uncertain relations with the indigenous people. Several colonists made it clear that they would not be bound by any of the Old World’s rules or any rules at all. Fortunately, 41 of the settlers had a greater sense of discipline and responsibility. They drafted the Mayflower Compact which laid down the basis of government and ensured rights for all the settlers. There were three strong personalities among the Pilgrims who saw to it that the Compact was observed – John Carver, the 1st governor of the colony, Yorkshire-born William Bradford who became second governor and remained at this post for 35 years, and Lancashire-born Myles Standish chosen as military captain for the new colony – his quick, determined action saved the colonists when they were attacked by the local natives.

But happily, there were friendlier Native Americans who helped those Pilgrim Fathers who survived the harsh winter. They showed them how to sow maize and how to raise crops as the seeds brought from England were of little use in their new environment. The natives acted as guides through the forests and taught the colonists woodcraft, trapping, hunting, how to make maple sugar, moccasins and birch-bark canoes. They also introduced the colonists to the turkey, which was native to North America. But for these Indians, the Pilgrims might never have survived. The survivors showed they had learned the lessons well. In the autumn of 1621, the settlers produced their first successful harvest and in gratitude, celebrated their first Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the United States in 1863, and has been observed on the fourth Tuesday in November ever since, with the turkey as a centrepiece of the festivities.

By 1622 the Pilgrim Fathers had built a fort to protect themselves. It also served as a meeting place to discuss issues of government within the new colony. Over the next few years, as life for Puritans became more uncomfortable in England, more and more made the journey across the Atlantic. By 1630, their numbers were such that the Puritans were able to establish the Massachusetts Bay Company and the town of Boston, which was to grow as a major port.

In the end the Puritans founded many colonies that thrived and their success depended on fishing, shipbuilding, trade and farming. But it was the establishment of the first two successful English settlements – in Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and at Plymouth in 1620 – that has become a central theme of the United States history and culture.


On arriving in America Europeans had to learn to cope with the variety of unfamiliar climates and vegetation. European climatic experience was not a very useful guide for survival in America. That was especially true in the subtropical South and the arid West, regions that provided unexpected opportunities but also posed obstacles for which there were no obvious analogies in the Old World.

Europeans expected America to be much the same, as America faced the Atlantic, just like Europe. The truth was quite different. America’s western air comes not from the ocean, as in Europe, but from the continental interior which is extremely cold in the winter and oven like in the summer.

The northernmost zone, adjacent to the Canadian border, is region of northern forest that stretches from Maine across northern New England and the upper Great Lakes. Here the growing season very short, and the winters are long and fiercely cold. For farmers has always been miserable country.

Southward the temperature moderates. The growing season longer, winters are milder, and summers are hot. Because America, summers were considerably hotter and longer than in Europe. American crops often yielded a larger harvest.

Still farther southward one crosses an invisible but crucial line called the Mason-Dixon Line. The central features of Southern climate are hot humid summers and a long growing season. The climate is good for a variety of valuable subtropical crops, such as indigo, rice and cotton. Monopoly of the American South came to an end in the century as a result of competition from Indian cotton.

The climate of the Central Basin is rather moderate. Moist and dry years alternate. Intensive plowing exposed the cultivated soil to the storms.

Further west, in the semi-arid region of short grass where farms and cattle ranches begin. In years when rain is plentiful, the prairie grasses grow well and the herds of cattle grow fat. But during frequent droughts large herds of cattle suffer and may even die. The first farmers and ranchers had to learn climatic laws the hard way.

The only substantial humid region in the western United States is wedged into a narrow strip between the Pacific coast and the Sierra-Cascade ridge line. Unlike the East, with its continental extremes of summer and winter temperature, West Coast temperatures are moderated all year long by westerly winds from the ocean so that the entire coast from Canada to Mexico enjoys cool summers and mild winters.

On the West Coast, winter is the rainiest time everywhere, and summers almost everywhere are very dry. Under natural conditions brushfires are part of the natural ecological cycle, and periodic burning keep brush down and grasslands open. But when fires get started in California cities – and it is impossible to prevent them all – they can be devastating.

Despite drought and fire, Americans have found California’s Mediterranean climatic zone a particularly alluring place. Near the coast summers are cool and pleasant, and even the mild rainy winter is often not very rainy, except in the far north. The combination has attracted both tourists and permanent residents from harsher climates in the North and East.

So the large variety of geographic and climatic environments in America guaranteed that people in America would find both opportunities and challenges.

The Population

When the first census was taken in 1790, much of the country had not even been explored, and much of it did not belong to the United States, but to France and Spain. The “western settlers” of that day were in the Appalachian Mountains.

By 1854, the United States had acquired the western part of the country by purchase and by treaty. This region had been unified politically, and there were about as many people living west of the Appalachians as east of them. At that time people seriously believed that the task of settling and developing the country would require at least 500 years. The speed with which it actually was settled is one of the most exciting stories in American history.

At first, the settlers pushed westward in thin lines along the rivers; then they began to fill the intervening spaces throughout the middle of the country. And there, dramatically, the movement of the population jumped to the Pacific.

As of the census taken in the year 2000 the population of the United States was 281, 421, 906. Just over three quarters of the people live in urban areas and the rest in rural areas. The peoples of the United States represent many cultures and ethnic groups from around the world. After a growth of 13 million since the 1990 census Hispanics primarily from Latin America) number about 35 million people, just about equal to the number of Afro-Americans, who had previously been the largest minority in the country. Native Americans comprise less than one half of one percent of the total population. Minorities of Asian descent include Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, as well as people from India and Pakistan. More and more people are now claiming to belong to more than one of the government’s official ethnic and racial categories.

The United States is similar to most other countries in the world. Like other countries the United States changes quickly. Values and people are changing and many people are afraid of these changes.

The 1950s was the last decade of calm for this country. It was a problem free time when life was predictable. Since that time there have been many changes in the country. Americans are getting older and the number of senior citizens increases. People have fewer babies because of birth control, the high cost of raising children and because of the uncertainty about the future.

Americans are moving, too. They go to the warmer parts of the country, to some of the older cities, to some large suburban areas. They have to create new friends wherever they go. Sometimes, the office becomes the new neighborhood and people at the office become their friends and “neighbors”.

America is a wealthy country, but wealth is not evenly distributed. There are homeless people, hungry children, and crime in the country. Some foreigners have the idea that “the streets are paved with gold”. Hard work brings great results but unemployment is a problem in many parts of the country. For some Americans, the United States is not a land of opportunities.

American women work more now, but still do not have the same opportunities for equal salaries and career as men. They often find that they have two jobs now: taking care of the house and the children and working at the office. Since 1960s the number of single-parent families increased.

Americans bring up their children to be independent. It is a part of American culture. Small children learn to do things on their own. They learn to take care of themselves, clean their rooms, help with the dishes and the laundry, spend time away from their parents in day care, with a baby sitter or alone. Most teenagers try to find summer or after-school jobs, so that they can have their own money. Students usually work part-time and during summer vacations.

Young people get married later than they used to. Women usually get married at the age of 24, men – at the age of 26. Newly married couples often postpone having children, while they are establishing their careers.

Racial discrimination is illegal, but prejudice and fear of other groups still exist. Religion is a private issue.

Americans worry about the same things as other people around the world, about their children, and how their lives will be. They worry about nuclear war, international terrorism. They know that this time is a period of change and face many difficulties, but perhaps the pioneer spirit which built the country will help Americans change, improve and adapt to the future.


The English were slow to establish settlements in North America. Their first colonization efforts were stimulated by their hostility to Spain, when Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the Church of England. The accession to the throne in 1558 of a protestant, Elizabeth, left the nations bitter enemies. The English were trying to find some base for attacks on New Spain, which had already founded its colonies in the New World. Two Englishmen, Sir H. Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh, persuaded the Queen that New World colonies would serve as bases for attacks on New Spain. But their attempts at colonization in Newfoundland and in present day North Carolina failed. However, two decades later a new monarch, James I, authorized the chartering of a joint stock company to colonize Virginia, the name Raleigh had given to the English New World.

The most important aspect of the first 50 years of English colonization was the meeting of Europeans and Native Americans. The key occurrence of the next century was the importation of more than two hundred thousand Africans into North America. That massive influx of black slaves and the geographical patterns it took, has dramatically influenced the development of American society ever since.

Many other major events also marked the years between 1650 and 1750. New colonies were founded, populating the gap between the widely separated New England and other settlements. England also took over the coastal outposts established by other European nations. As English settlements spread to the north, west, and south, they moved onto territory controlled by powerful Indian native tribes of the interior. Colonists and Native Americans went to war and for the most part the colonists emerged victorious. After a century and a half of English colonization the American provinces assumed a mature form.

One of the most striking characteristics of the mainland colonies in the 18th century was their rapid population growth. In 1700 only 250,000 people resided in the colonies; by 1775 it had become 2.5 million. Immigration accounted for a considerable share of growth, but most of it resulted from natural increase. European immigration flooded England’s mainland colonies. Some of the immigrants were from overpopulated and distressed areas of Europe, especially Scotland, Northern Ireland (Ulster), and Germany. They found in America opportunities undreamed of in their homelands. Many Germans arrived in America as redemptioners. Under that form of indentured immigrants paid as much as possible of the cost of their passage before sailing from Europe. After they landed in the colonies, the rest of the fare had to be “redeemed”. They were indentured for a term of service proportional to the amount of money they still owed. The term extended from one year to over three, but was more likely to be four. The largest groups of white non-English emigrants were the Scots and Irish who fled economic distress and religious discrimination. They moved west and south. If they could not afford to buy land, they squatted on land belonging to native tribes.

When 18-centuiy immigrants came to the New World, they found themselves at the bottom of the social scale. By the time they arrived, American society was already dominated by wealthy, native-born families. Unlike their 17-century predecessors, the new non-English immigrants had little opportunity to improve their circumstances dramatically. They could only accumulate a modest amount of property over a lifetime of hard work. Increasing social stratification – a widening gap between rich and poor – was most noticeable in the cities.

A majority of colonists, black and white, were now native born, and the colonies were beginning to develop a distinctive identity of their own. Colleges had been founded, newspapers established, social clubs and literary societies formed, a regular postal service begun, roads built, laws codified, and histories of the colonies written. The colonies could no longer be seen as extensions of England. Individually and collectively, they had become quite different.

« |||

Comments are closed.