The European discovery of America was not a discovery of an empty land. For thousands of years the Native Americans have been living there, in the so called “new land”. Thus, the Europeans inevitably came in touch with the native peoples of America when discovering and exploring the land and also during the time of settlement. Before 1700 there were many different encounters between the Europeans and the native peoples of America: peaceful and non-peaceful contacts, trade relations and fights, alliances as well as kidnapping. The first written down contact between Europeans and Native Americans is the myth of the Vikings, also known as the Medieval Norse. Later the first European explorers of North America Jacques Cartier, Martin Frobisher, Samuel de Champlain met the Natives. The life of the Native Americans changed radically after the Europeans had come over. It changed not only because of struggles with the newcomers and the new trading opportunities but also due to new diseases and the different religion that came over. Natives started questioning their old way of life, their traditions and religion.

This article will describe the encounters between Europeans and Natives in Canada before 1700 and present in detail the radical change of the Natives lives due to the Europeans arrival as well as the impact of the cultural clash on the peoples. The Europeans had an influence on the life and the fate of Indian tribes concerning new diseases, social life, religion and the goods they brought over.

According to the Greenlander’s saga and Eirik the Red’s saga the first known contact between Europeans and Native Americans is the Native’s encounter with the medieval Norse during the time period of the 10th to the 14th century.1 The Norse under the leadership of the Icelander Eirik the Red should be landed at the coast of Greenland and established a settlement. During the next centuries they made various exploration voyages and saw amongst others the eastern coasts of North America. It has not been hundred percent proven where the Norse came into contact with Native peoples. Historians assume that they met Natives of “southern Labrador, Newfoundland, Dorset Palaeoeskimos in northern Labrador, Thule Eskimos in Greenland and probably in the eastern Canadian arctic”.2

It is quite likely to assume that the Norse indeed encountered with native peoples. However, there is not much significant information about those encounters. The Greenlander’s saga tells us that in the early exploration time the Norse met no inhabitants but found some properties of them. Later they got in fights with Native groups and did some trading.3 The Eirik the Red’s saga describes also trading relations and fights between Natives and Norse. In addition it gives the information that some Natives were kidnapped and brought to Greenland for baptism4. According to the sagas the relation between the Norse and the Native Americans were very poor and often sanguinary apart from a few trading contacts. The Norse finally left North America without having had a big influence on the Native population of North America. McGhee concludes the impact of their contact as follows: “The most important result of the contact of these groups was the prevention of European colonization of the New World for half a millennium”.5 In contrast to the encounters with the medieval Norse the European’s arrival had an enormous influence on the Native Americans.

John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), the first European who came to North America after the Norse, was an Italian citizen sent by the British to find a passage to Asia. His voyages were in the years 1497-1498. He landed at the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and thus he found fish and discovered new land but he obviously had no contact to Native Americans.6

Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, came to North America in 1534 and returned two times in 1535 and 1536. He landed on the south shore of Labrador, at the west coast of Newfoundland where he “had found nothing but fish to write home about”.7 He rounded several islands on the east coast and finally met an Indian tribe: the Hurons. The Huron chief Donnaconna welcomed them and was interested in becoming friends with the strangers because he obviously needed allies against his enemies. He allows his sons Domagaya and Taignoaguy to go with the Europeans to France.8 The year after, in 1535, the two Indians return with the French, who decide to spend the winter in Canada. The Hurons still wish to ally with the French, help them to survive the winter and finally tell them the myth of the Kingdom of Saguenay, which tells about treasures in the country.9 Cartier decides to kidnap Donnaconna to find out about treasures in the New World. Furthermore the Natives should prove the discovery of a different land. Furthermore, he intended to maintain a good relationship to the Hurons. He took Donnaconna, his sons and seven other Natives over to France. “Not one ever returned to Canada”.10 They died in France.  On Cartier’s third voyage the Natives became more careful towards the French because they considered the kidnapping of their people and disliked the idea of European settlement in Canada.11 The Hurons realized what most of the Natives learned sooner or later: “co-existence with the Europeans meant death for them”.12 The French colonists were attacked by Natives for the first time but most of them could escape. After Cartier’s death in 1557 his follower Roberval was unsuccessfully looking for the Kingdom of Saguenay and came to his personal conclusion that “it was impossible to trade with the people of that country because of their austerity, the intemperate climate of said country, and the slight profit”.13

The English explorer Martin Frobisher was the next European explorer coming to North America. His three voyages in the years 1576, 1577 and 1578 pursued different aims: “the first apparently with the laudable object of geographical discovery, the other two with that of obtaining treasure”.14 On his first voyage to North America Frobisher met Eskimos and got into fights with them. A few English men disappeared and Frobisher assumed that they were kidnapped by Eskimos. They did not retrieve their men, but captured an Eskimo as a countermove.15 After having taken formal possession of the land Frobisher ends his first voyage by then due to his weakened crew.16 On his second voyage, Frobisher again had conflicts with the Eskimos and ended up capturing two women. Furthermore, they found the belongings of their missing comrades in the tents of the Eskimos but did not find them.17 The third voyage did not bring any new encounters with the Natives because they had fled before Frobisher’s third arrival. Frobisher’s time did not develop a relationship with the Natives at all. It induced a high tension within the European contact with the Natives and caused suspicions and awareness towards each other.

Those were the first people who started the transformation of the whole world of the Native Americans. The old world has been a totally different one than their new world, which changed due to the Europeans arrival. The encounter of Native Americans and Europeans now and then led to fights but also to alliances. For instance, in the 17th century the Iroquois, an Indian tribe, were continuously in war with the French to defend their land and also because of the French’s alliance with the Hurons, their mortal enemy.  The Iroquois allied with the British and therefore chose sides within a war, hoping this decision could help their own interests:

“The Iroquois were not passive observers of these struggles between the European powers, not helpless bystanders watching foreign armies tramping back and forth their territory. They were a formidable nation, armed and organized. They chose sides and in doing so were guided by what the conceived to be their own interests. These shifting Iroquois alliances were not whimsical: at all times they sought to defend their sovereignty and their land”. 18

Decades later they remained neutral during the French and British wars19. The Indian tribes had also fought against each other before the Europeans came. However, not only additional wars came with the Europeans. European goods, that were new to America, had also a big influence on the Indian’s lives. Europeans and Native American’s started trading with each other. The Europeans were attracted by the Indians’ goods, especially by the fur.20 European goods were indeed attractive for the Natives. Apart from the already mentioned alcohol trade, they also bought agricultural goods as well as weapons. The agricultural goods provided advantages in agriculture and farming. However, the weapons did not only provide advantages for the Native peoples. On the one hand they could use them for defense reasons but on the other hand the possession of weapons caused more violence within the Native American tribes and  “with the greater killing power of the weapons they obtained from European traders, they threatened their own basis of livelihood”.21 Thus, the European’s arrival in the New World did not only create tensions between the newcomers and the Natives but also caused more violence and more opportunities to practice violence between the different Native tribes and also even within Native communities.

“More generally, European colonizers brought a complex of demographic and ecological advantages, but most notably epidemic diseases and their own immunity to them, that utterly devastated Indian communities; ideologies and beliefs in their cultural and spiritual superiority to native peoples and their entitlement to natives’ lands; and economic, political, and military systems organized for the engrossment of Indian lands and the subordination or suppression of Indian peoples”.22

Thus, the Native American’s lives were changed not only by direct contact with the newcomers that resulted in violence from time to time but also by the new diseases that came with the Europeans. Berger gets to the heart of the European’s influence on the Native’s by saying:

“For the impact of the advent of the Europeans was not limited to the regime of violence that they brought to the New World. They also brought European diseases, which irrupted among Indian peoples with no history of exposure and no immunity against them”.23

The diseases of the Europeans were dangerous but the Europeans had a long time developing immunity against them. Their diseases developed within a long time period so the Europeans were mostly able to survive them. The Native Americans, living separate from Europe and their diseases, have never been faced with their diseases before. Due to their often nomad lives and the habit to live in small and isolated tribes, diseases could hardly spread all over the country. Thus, the Indians were not used to epidemics.24 When the Europeans came over, the Indians were faced with many new diseases within a very short time period and suffered dramatically because they had no chance to develop immunity against them.  The diseases were for instance smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, influenza, tuberculosis, syphilis, measles, chickenpox, pneumonia, scarlet fever and typhus.25 The diseases killed many Indians and “devastated whole Indian populations”.26 Historians say that during the first 130 years, estimated 95% of Native Americans died, probably because of the new diseases.27 The few who survived were often shortly afterwards infested by a new disease, so that many Indian communities were much weakened:

“Often when European invaders arrived, their Indian enemy was already weakened and demoralized by diseases against which they had no immunity and for which they had no remedy”.28

Thus, the Indians underwent a radical change due to the European’s arrival. The devastation led to radical social and political change. They questioned their traditions, religions and old way of life, which has not saved them from suffering. Furthermore, due to their weakness they had trouble defending their land against the newcomers.29 Another danger the Europeans brought over was alcohol. Apparently some natives had already known alcohol before the European’s arrival but the excessive consumption of alcohol, which threatened the life and society of the Native American’s, occurred afterwards.30 Another important issue is the cultural and religious tension between Europeans and Native Americans. Not only that there were huge differences between the European cultures and the Indian tribes’ cultures but also that the Europeans intended to change the Native Americans into Europeans turned out to be an enormous problem.

“The nature of the mission was variously phrased, but essentially it amounted to an unremitting effort to make Europeans out of the New World inhabitants, in social practices and in value concepts”.31

Many Europeans considered the Natives as primitive because they did not understand their way of life. So, they strove to teach the Indians the European way of life and often did not respect Indian rights or land boarders.32 This effort also included religion. Priests and missionaries came over to make the Native Americans convert to Christianity.33 But the priests and missionaries were often not welcomed, feared or not understand.

“As several scholars have recently stressed, the brand of Christianity propounded by seventeenth-century missionaries- Catholic or Protestant- did not easily cross the cultural divide that separated European from Native American. People who had no experience with kings, states, or justice based on the punishment of individual offenders initially saw little relevance in Christian notions about an all-powerful God, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the damnation of unrepentant sinners […] The thoroughgoing religious change that the Jesuits demanded came only later, as missionaries and Indians learned more about each other”.34

The income of a new religion to America caused not only tension but also serious religious conflicts- between Europeans and Natives but also within the Native tribes. The Native society was split concerning the missionaries: One side considered them dangerous because they obviously brought diseases with them and their rite of baptism ostensibly seemed to kill people. On the other side there were Natives who were curious and some of them even converted to Christianity.35

To sum up, the first time of the encounters of Native Americans and Europeans was a time full of misunderstanding. There were difficulties with cultural barriers and fights for land. Different aims clashed together, suspicions arose and many people suffered or died due to fights, diseases or the loss of hope and comfort.  On the one hand, Europeans and Native Americans profited from each other due to trading, the possession of new goods and alliances. The contact also brought consequences that should not be estimated like the getting to know of new cultures, the converting to new religions and the adaption to new lifestyles. On the other hand, the encounter had often fatal consequences for the Natives: death, suffering, kidnapping, and increasing violence, abuse of European goods (alcohol, weapons), the loss of land and also loss of hope and tradition. Also the Europeans lost people in fights with the Native Americans and had to suffer from kidnapping and the different climate and environment. The unexpected encounter of two societies had a deep impact, especially on the Natives’ lives. Besides devastating almost their whole society, their lives changed radically forever.

 

Citation: Blümel, Katharina (2009): The encounters of European and Native peoples before 1700 in Canada. In: JBSHistoryBlog.de. URL: http://jbshistoryblog.de [Acess: DD:MM:YYYY]

 


Bibliography and further reading:

 

Becher, A.B. “The Voyages of Martin Frobisher.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 12, (1842):1-20.

Berger, Thomas R. “A Long and Terrible Shadow: White values, Native rights in the Americas 1492-1992.” Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas &McIntyre. 1991.

McGhee, Robert.Contact between Native North Americans and the Medieval Norse: A Review of the Evidence.” American Antiquity, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Jan., 1984):4-26.

McNickle, D’Arcy. “Indian and European: Indian-White Relations from Discovery to 1887.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 311, American Indians and American Life (May, 1957): 1-11

Morison, Samuel Eliot. “The European Discovery of America.” New York: Oxford University Press. 1971.

Richter, Daniel K. “Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1686.” Ethnohistory, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Winter, 1985): 1-16.

Salisbury, Neal. “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 53, No. 3, Indians and Others in Early America (Jul., 1996): 435-458.

 

 

  1. Cf. McGhee, Robert.Contact between Native North Americans and the Medieval Norse: A Review of the Evidence.” American Antiquity, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), p.4.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Cf. ibid. p.9-10.
  4. Cf. ibid. p.10.
  5. McGhee p. 4.
  6. Cf. Morison, Samuel Eliot. “The European Discovery of America.” New York: Oxford University Press. 1971., p.157 ff.
  7. Ibid. p.359.
  8. Ibid. p.375.
  9. Ibid. p.418 ff.
  10. Morison, p.420.
  11. Cf. Ibid. p.439.
  12. Ibid. p.441.
  13. Ibid. p.451-454.
  14. Becher, A.B. “The Voyages of Martin Frobisher.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 12, (1842), p.2.
  15. Cf. Morison, 507-508.
  16. Cf. Morison, p.508.
  17. Cf. Ibid. p. 526
  18. Berger, Thomas R. “A Long and Terrible Shadow: White values, Native rights in the Americas 1492-1992.” Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas &McIntyre. 1991., p.56.
  19. Cf. Ibid. p.55 ff.
  20. Cf. Salisbury, Neal. “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 53, No. 3, Indians and Others in Early America (Jul., 1996).
  21. McNickle, , D’Arcy. “Indian and European: Indian-White Relations from Discovery to 1887.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 311, American Indians and American Life (May, 1957), p.3.
  22. Salisbury p.458.
  23. Berger, p.27.
  24. Cf. Ibid. p.27-28.
  25. Cf. Ibid.
  26. Ibid. p.28.
  27. Cf. Berger, p.33.
  28. Ibid. p.29
  29. Ibid. p.29
  30. Cf. Ibid. p.35.
  31. McNickle p.2.
  32. Cf. Ibid. p.3.
  33. Cf. Richter, Daniel K. “Iroquois versus Iroquois: Jesuit Missions and Christianity in Village Politics, 1642-1686.” Ethnohistory, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Winter, 1985).
  34. Ibid. p.4.
  35. Cf. Ibid. p.3.
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