When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World he believed he had reached the West Indies so it was only practical to call the natives he saw "Indians." At that point, everything changed in Native American History.
Within a century of their first contact with the Europeans, the natives would be decimated and two powerful empires would be annihilated.
Soon every European power established a colony within the New World and slowly they began to push the natives off their land.
The Native Americans believed to arrive in the New World by way of the Bering Strait. The Bering Strait was once dry land and it allowed various people groups to cross over and settle on the North and South American continents.
By the time Columbus arrived in the New World, the natives had spread throughout the continents and established a variety of cultures and multiple empires.
Many times the natives have been branded as savage and uneducated when that is the furthest thing from the truth. Each culture had an established government and had accomplished incredible architectural feats.
This is how the Aztec society was described:
Tenochtitlan can be considered the most complex society in Mesoamerica in regard to social stratification. The complex system involved many social classes. The macehualtin were commoners who lived outside the island city of Tenochtitlan. The pipiltin were noblemen who were relatives of leaders and former leaders, and lived in the confines of the island. Cuauhipiltin, or eagle nobles, were commoners who impressed the nobles with their great war skills, and were treated as nobles.Teteuctin were the highest class, rulers of various parts of the empire, including the king. Tlacohtin were individuals who chose to enslave themselves to pay back a debt; they were not slaves forever and were not treated as badly as typical slaves seen in other ancient civilizations worldwide. Finally, the pochteca were merchants who traveled all of Mesoamerica trading. The membership of this class was based on heredity. Pochteca could become very rich because they did not pay taxes, but they had to sponsor the ritual feast of Xocotl Huetzi from the wealth that they obtained from their trade expeditions. People were traded in large buses.
Status was displayed by location and type of house where a person lived. Ordinary people lived in houses made of reeds plastered with mud and roofed with thatch. People who were better off had houses of adobe brick with flat roofs. The wealthy had houses of stone masonry with flat roofs. They most likely made up the house complexes that were arranged around the inner court. The higher officials in Tenochtitlan lived in the great palace complexes that made up the city.
Adding even more complexity to Aztec social stratification was the calpolli. Calpolli, meaning ‘big house’ is a group of families related by either kinship or proximity. These groups consist of both elite members of Aztec society and commoners. Elites provided commoners with arable land and nonagricultural occupations, and commoners performed services for chiefs and gave tribute.
Although the Aztecs lived an ocean away and had never seen European society their society does not look much different than feudalism.
Slavery happened in the New World just as much as in the Old World. The classes of people were based on heredity which is similar to European feudalism.
The main difference was their religious beliefs which I will discuss at another time.
The capital city of Tenochtitlan was believed to have anywhere from 200,000 - 350,000 people living in it (reports vary, but probably closer to the 200,000) which was about the size of Paris, Constantinople, and Venice making it one of the world's largest cities at that time.
To the south of the Aztec empire was the Inca Empire which ruled over close to 10 million people and spanned the length of the Andes mountains.
This Absolute Monarchy was different than that of the Aztecs. They were structured differently, had a different religion, and did not engage in commerce.
To the north of the Aztec Empire lay many hunter-gatherer tribes with their own form of government, language, and culture. They were spread throughout all of North America.
The Dawn of a New Age
Christopher Columbus landed in the New World and made contact with the natives. Some of the natives viewed him as a god or a fulfillment of prophecies, but that quickly ended when he showed his brutality to them.
Columbus is remembered for his discovery, but nobody realizes his brutality towards the natives. His men pillaged their societies, did not trade fairly, raped the native women, enslaved entire tribes, and massacred families. Spain's discovery of America marked the end of most civilizations.
Soon Spanish Conquistadors began their quest for gold and along the way destroyed entire civilizations. However, destructive the Spanish sword was it could not have defeated the entire native civilizations. The Spanish brought with them a secret weapon that they did not know they had, disease.
Europeans had suffered through many diseases and over time developed an immunity to many things, but the natives had never been exposed to these new germs.
If it had not been for disease Hernan Cortes would have probably never defeated the Aztecs. Disease wiped out most of the native population.
When Cortes conquered the Aztecs there were roughly 25 million living in modern Mexico and by the time of the American Revolutionary War there were 1.3 million.
Unlike the Spanish, the English and French treated the Indians with much more humanity.
The Spanish looked to conquer these civilizations to gain wealth while the English traded with the Indians and in some cases purchased the land from them.
However, over time the Natives kept allying themselves with the wrong side and it would cost them.
During the French and Indian War, most of the natives allied themselves with the French and the French were defeated and in 1776 they sided with the British only to see the British be defeated by the Americans.
This probably played a significant role in the treatment of these people by the Americans.
It seemed as though every decade the Native Americans were pushed further and further away from their homeland. Each tribe was either absorbed by America or forced to relocate.
By the time of World War II the native Americans had assimilated into the culture of America and lived on reservations. Many of these natives fought side by side with other Americans to defeat the enemies of the United States.
A key misunderstanding when using the term Native American or Indians is that one may think they were all the same.
Native American is a term used to describe the natives that lived in the New World prior to the Europeans. However, that is not how the natives saw themselves.
Each tribe was a nation. There were different languages among the tribes, different cultures, some were matriarchal while others were patriarchal, some were peaceful and others like the Apache tribe were known for their warlike tendencies, and some were farming cultures whose economy was based on agriculture while others were a hunter/gatherer society. Each tribe was uniquely different.
Some Native American tribes did not mind the intrusion of the settlers and would assimilate with them and even took their religion, while most wanted to hang on to their land and culture and fought to keep it.
However, the Native Americans all had a similarity in that they could not unite against a common enemy. Tecumseh wanted to create an independent Indian Nation that would merge all tribes under a loose confederacy, but the natives were simply unable to do so for a long enough period of time.
- Kid Info - Native Americans
- Native Languages
- Wikipedia - Indigenous peoples of the Americas
- Wikipedia - Mesoamerica
- The History Junkie's List of Native American Tribes
- The History Junkie's Guide to Colonial America
- The History Junkie's Guide to Famous Explorers
- The History Junkie's Guide to European Colonization
- The History Junkie's Guide to the American Revolutionary War