What happened to Native American populations after Columbus arrived?
The history of Native Americans following Columbus' arrival is a sordid tale of subjugation, exploitation and ultimately devastation. The population was reduced to miniscule numbers due to abuse by Europeans and also exposure to European diseases.
Exploitation and subjugation began almost immediately. Upon landing in the Caribbean, Columbus noted
I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.
Columbus almost immediately enslaved Indians, forced them to work searching for gold, and cut off the hands of those who did not meet their gold quota. He hanged those guilty of the slightest offense, whether real or perceived. Later treatment by the Spanish was no better. Indians were forced to work in gold and silver mines and sugar plantations. Since agriculture was considered woman's work in Indian culture, this was especially demeaning to the men who were thus subjugated.
Treatment in British America was likewise deplorable. The economy of South Carolina was originally based on the export of Indian slaves to the Bahamas for work on sugar plantations. Friendly Indians were often encouraged to make war on other Indians for the purpose of securing captives who could be sold into slavery. In Jamestown, land was taken from Indians with abandon, and Indians frequently killed as if they were vermin. In New England, an entire palisade of Indian women and children was set fire. Cotton Mather described the screams of those dying in the flames as a "sweet sacrifice" to God.
For all the atrocities committed wilfully, the most devastating factors were European diseases, such as chickenpox, mumps and smallpox. Indians had no natural resistance to these diseases, and died wholesale. Best estimates are that there were over four million Native Americans in North America at the time of Columbus' arrival. By 1800, this number had been reduced by over 90%.
Native American populations declined disastrously after the
arrival of Columbus. Some historians have used terms such as "holocaust" or "genocide" to describe what happened. These terms do not fit; they usually refer to the systematic destruction of entire peoples, such as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The motivations of the Europeans who came to the Americas differed. Indeed, many colonists depended on the Indians. The Spanish needed them to work the mines, till the soil, and build
roads and buildings. French traders needed them to provide furs. English settlers depended on Indians for additional food and knowledge of how to survive in North America. The Spanish practiced deliberate and extraordinary cruelty in an attempt to subjugate Indian populations. This led to a reputation for barbarity that the English and French regarded as unapproachable. In fact, the English rivaled the Spanish in that regard.
Of all the diseases Europeans brought with them to the western hemisphere, the most potent were diseases for which Indians had no immunities. These diseases devastated Indian populations.