Native Americans

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What effect did European settlement have on American Indians—the people who already lived on this vast continent?

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Arguably the greatest effect European settlement had on indigenous American people was exposing them to diseases to which they had no immunity, including smallpox, measles, influenza, and other viruses. As a result, epidemics soon became a common occurrence after contact between the two cultures. Sometimes entire communities were wiped out. The effect was greater in denser populations such as the Aztecs in Mexico than those that were more spread out, such as the Plains Indians in the U.S. Contact with Europeans benefitted the Plains populations in one major way, bringing them the horse, which made following and hunting bison herds easier.

Early relations between the colonists and the Indians were an uneasy balance of cooperation and conflict. Although the Europeans brought access to new technology and trade, including weapons, tools and other goods, which was a life changing experience for the Native Americans’ way of life, conflict became more regular and brutal as the Europeans began to seek more and more land in the New World as their own.

Slavery was another major and unfortunate consequence of European settlement. The Europeans realized they needed labor to help build houses and clear fields in the new land. Instead of using their own workers, they began to trade goods such as tools and weapons to certain American Indian tribes in exchange for other Indians captured in tribal wars. The Europeans then utilized these captured Indians as slaves.

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The consequences of European settlement for Native-Americans were completely disastrous. In the short-term, the influx of newcomers meant disease, war, and the systematic theft of native land. In the long-term, it meant the almost complete destruction of Native-American heritage and culture as tribes were gradually robbed of their land and eventually herded into cramped reservations, where they were forced to endure great hardship.

Some historians have described the treatment of the Native-Americans as nothing short of genocide, the deliberate killing of a large group of people, often those of a particular nation or ethnicity. Whether such an interpretation is accurate remains a bone of contention. But there can be no doubt whatsoever that the effects of European settlement in America was a disaster for the native tribes who'd lived there for generations.

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In the long term, the answer to this question is obvious. As a consequence of European settlement, Indian people found themselves dispossessed of their lands, decimated by disease, and in many cases stripped of many aspects of their culture. But it is easy to forget that English settlement began in North America in 1607, and that the process of settlement and interaction that spanned this long period was complex and often resistant to narratives of "winners" and "losers" in the short term. 

In most cases, Native Americans attempted to incorporate Europeans into preexisting commercial and diplomatic networks. The newcomers quickly found themselves enmeshed in complex alliance systems. For example, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims became friendly precisely because both needed allies. As more and more settlers arrived, Indian people began to lose lands, and often bloody conflicts occurred, such as King Philip's War in Massachusetts, and the Powhatan Wars in Virginia. Still, even as late as the War of 1812, Native peoples allied themselves with Europeans out of self-interest (or self-preservation.) Culturally, Indian peoples adapted European goods and beliefs to their own needs, and many Indian groups, decimated by war and disease, joined with others out of a need for protection. Many of the major eastern tribes, including almost all of the Six Nations, the Creek, the Seminole, and the Catawba were in fact formed by many different peoples who adopted each other into kinship networks. 

The point is not to downplay the impact of European contact on Native Americans, which was unspeakably tragic and utterly disastrous. Rather, it is to emphasize that Indians were not passive victims. They responded to European settlement through a combination of strategies that reflected their own complex histories.

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