364 Before the English Came


The 1630’s saw an acceleration of English colonisation in the Americas. What cultures and peoples will they meet when they get there? A horribly brief survey of cultures north of the Rio Grande before the English came.

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Some resources and Maps

John White created images from his time among the native american peoples in the late 16th century. to see more, visit Images of the New World

I have made a page of maps to cover my 4 episodes on England and the Americas and they can be found on the Maps of the Americas page. On that page you will also find a link to the map of indigenous peoples


Last time we led with Laud into what becomes known as the Great Migration – the exodus of many English people across the Atlantic to the Americas. Now I have been not looking forward to this topic for quite a while, and if you will indulge me let me tell you why.

First of all, it’s not quite the start of the subject of colonisation and Empire, because we’ve already started that with Tudor Ireland, but now we are going to really get going and it is a touchy subject for many obvious reasons; it is at once a story of extraordinary human endeavour and extraordinary human tragedy on a vast scale. Which makes it emotive, and let me give you a little example from my personal experience of an exchange with a very intelligent person who I like very much. At some point said person airily said that the only reason for colonisation was greed, at which I said there were other reasons as well. Before I knew what was happening, I stood accused of justifying genocide. So, 0-60 in 0.5 seconds. Explaining is of course not justification or excusing.

So, it’s emotional. It’s also easy to get wrong from a couple of key angles. One, most complicated is that when I was taught the history of empire at school, and indeed Ireland, the tone was very straightforward, objective and historical there was no trumpet blowing, no Britain coloured the world red and brought civilisation and so on; but nor was there any of the view of the colonised really, which is something which has changed for the better. So I’ll try to do that better, but inevitably I’ll get things wrong. And of course I don’t have much space – this a history of England after all; I have worried about this for some time. I simply cannot do a history of Canada, The US, the Caribbean, India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the pacific Islands and so on; my head would explode and you’d all leave. This is a history of England, and inevitably England within Britain from 1707, not the British Empire. So I apologise in advance for those who would like more depth. And finally, and I mean finally for this naval gazing introduction; I am aware that quite a few of you will know a lot more about American, Canadian and Caribbean history than I do. So I am going to mess up – be gentle with me, though I am always happy to be corrected and indeed educated.

One more bit of preamble and apology. Since I am going to talk about pre Colomban America, I’m obviously going to talk about the nations and people, and since it’s impossible get through a day without a generalisation – I know that from Jeff Goldblum in some film or other by the way – I am going to have to talk about the various peoples that lived there with a general name sometimes. I have been dimly aware of a debate about nomenclature, and have read books and articles on the subject; my understanding is that terms such as Indian, native American, American Indian are all acceptable so that’s what I have done, but if I get it wrong, again please forgive me.

So that’s that then, first preamble completed, first scene setter coming up. The Great Migration is, as I understand it, a phrase coined by historians of New England’s history, and insofar as the phenomenon was covered in my school history education, it is this that was covered. Which, on reflection in the maturity of now, or my later youth as I call it, is a little odd. Because the Caribbean didn’t really get much of a mench; but the lion’s share of English emigration in this period went not to New England but to Ireland and the Caribbean. There are some figures coming up for you all, so you might want to get you pens and paper out – though not if you are driving I would suggest. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

About 540,000 people emigrated from England during this period. Give or take, I would say it’s important to add. I am assuming, because the figures are from Tim Harris, that this figure therefore excludes the Scots. I don’t have the total figures for the Scots to 1700, but by 1641 at least 30,000 Scots had gone to Ireland; to add to the 162,000 English that went to Ireland. So let’s say a marketing exec’s 200,000 to Ireland, fingers crossed Timmy has got it right. The remaining 377,000 went to the Americas; 222,000 to the Caribbean, 116,000 to the Chesapeake and Maryland, and about 39,000 to New England, and smaller numbers to Canada. But in a sense, it is still the New England migration that links us to the theme we are on of the build up to civil war in England, because the story of New England has been dominated by the idea of a flight from religious persecution – though religious motives played a part in many early colonisation efforts, but not specifically to escape persecution. So the timing of the migration to New England is also of interest – pens ready again? [1]

Emigration was concentrated in the period 1628-1640, and within that there are two distinct phases; the first from 1628 to 1633, often referred to as the Winthrop migration, the puritan minister who played such a part in the Massachusetts Bay colony; this involved just 2,500 people; the second phase is sometimes referred to as the Laudian migration 1634 to 1640, and involved many more – between 15 and 20,000. For these groups, the rising tide of Arminianism at the expense of traditional Calvinist practice was a major push factor, so it’s this group who reflect, if you like, one of the measures of the impact of Laud and Charles’ church reformations. It amounts to less than ½ % of the population of England and Wales, which puts it in perspective – though that’s not to say that there were not many more, such as Cromwell, who were tempted but drew back as the fires started to rage in 1641 and kept them at home. That’s not to say either, incidentally, that this represents the populations of the said colonies by 1700; the demographics of each area would be very different; organic growth was probably most successful in New England, where the population had grown to about 100,000 in 1700 a one estimate, 145,000 by another. That’s a lot of stats, but who does not love a stat or two? After all if you can’t measure it, it might just as well not happened. Like walking to get fit. If it’s not on my app, and resulting spreadie, there was not point doing it. I am aware this is dodgy thinking by the way.

It’s clear also that there were other reasons why people went; the aforementioned greed drew many people to the Caribbean in particular, or to put it more kindly for the vast majority, the hope of making a better life for themselves. Because for many  this wasn’t about the difference between being well heeled and heeled with gold, it was the opportunity to escape a life of grinding poverty; the 1620s and 1630s were difficult years economically, in one year wheat prices rose over 50%. Having said that, over 50% of those that left in 1635-8 for example, were artisans, and 20% husbandmen – people not on the edge of poverty, people of the middling sort; but doing not very well in the 1620s and 30s maybe. But to the Chesapeake, there was a strong and continual stream of indentured servants who would have been very poor indeed with very few prospects at home. What I am saying, in short, is that religion did probably provide a push, and emigration fell dramatically after the end of personal rule – but that reasons varied. Which is where we came in.

I’m not quite sure of the best order to do all this in, in terms of our period, we assume it’s 1600 to 1660 sort of thing although I won’t really do Jamaica and the Great Design and we’ll need to talk about the Caribbean, Chesapeake and New England essentially, and it’d be good to talk briefly about the French, Dutch and Swedes to boot from Canada to the Middle colonies. But I’ll start by trying to sketch out a super brief history of the indigenous people of North America before colonialisation, as I tried to do in West Africa, and as I promised Katie I would try to do many moons ago. The episode comes with apologies for the necessary brevity and many mispronunciations, to paint some picture of the world that was to about to be torn apart. Katie did by the way, give me a delightful link to a map which showed the possible ranges of nations; it’s at native-land.ca, and I have put the link on the website episode post. Altogether, the episodes on the English colinisation of the Americas to 1660 will take up 4 epiosdes. Alles Clar?

A number of the authors discussing the Americas before 1492, tend to deal with the southern and central Americas slightly differently, partly because of the population differences. Obviously calculating population is fiercely difficult, so let me put it in terms of the ranges I have seen expressed; ignoring the low end estimates, a mid range for the Americas south of the Rio Grande at about 47m, and a high estimate to 100m. The civilisations the Spanish encountered included many with dense populations and some very big cities by European standards. We’ve talked before about the massive population catastrophes that occurred through disease and violence, but despite the disastrous death rates, the remaining indigenous population remained significant, and does affect the nature of the societies than emerged under Spanish and Portuguese rule, quite different to much of the future further north where for that and other reasons, a much less mixed society emerged in the first century.

For Northern America, the areas covered by the USA and Canada today, the estimates vary from a mid range of about 4 1/2m to a higher of 12 million, and the higher figure seems generally accepted. The general story seems to be that technological, social and political developments came more slowly in the north than central and southern America; possibly because plants that became staples such as corn, squash and beans, originated in southern latitudes and took time to be adapted for cultivation further north. But in the southwest it’s thought that from around 300 BC Hohokam and Anasazi people[2] developed complex irrigation systems for agriculture and lived in centralised towns in structures of stone or adobe. Some buildings were enormous; pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon in modern New Mexico, was spread over 2 acres, had something like 650 rooms in four stories with ceremonial rooms incorporated. Although it fell into disuse by about 1150 AD, the Chaco Canyon culture must have reflected a sophisticated trade network. Acoma pueblo about 100 miles south is I am told one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the US, established around the 12th century AD.

Horticulture began to emerge in the lower Mississippi valley after 1500BC, and may have domesticated a different range of plants like gourds sunflower, but then began to grow maize as well around this time. Societies in the area before this probably created earthen mounds, some dated as far back as 3500 BC, but in the 1500BC period particularly impressive earth mound structures were discovered at Poverty Point in north eastern Louisiana, standing still 70 feet high above the Mississippi Delta. It’s thought that the mounds were created very quickly and therefore how remains[3] something of a mystery, but must at very least have demanded large amounts of labour and sophisticated organisation.

From sometime around 500 BC, a series of peoples and societies formed around part time or full time farming, emerged in the Midwest and south east of North America, and Middleton & Lombard in their book Colonial America identify some common cultural practices these societies shared. So, they all built mounds for burial or religious ceremonies, they developed urban settlements, practiced horticulture in some way and to some degree at least, they used pottery and made things with copper.

A few cultures and peoples developed within the region. Based on Ohio, the Adena peoples began to focus more on horticulture, showing signs of becoming more territorial as time went by.  The Hopewell people from around 100 BC and 400 AD were based also in Ohio and along the Illinois and Miami Rivers, and also seem to have lived in substantial towns, and objects have been excavated which came from great distances, suggesting widespread trade and commerce.

The next culture to emerge came in an area I’ve seen referred to as the American Bottom. I’d not heard the phrase before, so I had to search the intertubes which led into places I didn’t really want to visit, but I understand that we are talking about the flood plains of the Mississippi river in Southern Illinois, an area of rich alluvial soil perfect for agriculture, and also clay, not ideal for building large mounds. That might seem like a non sequitur, but I mention that because what emerged from about 950 AD was an extraordinary culture, noted for its mound building. The centre of the culture was at Cahoukia, a city I suppose you might call it, which grew to a size of 15,000 people at its height, covering about 6 square miles, with around 120 earthworks. I say might call it, because although the environment was by definition urban there seems to have been little of the kind of specialised craftworkers, merchants and artisans you might expect, more a huge collection of farmers in a centralised area;[4] though I understand substantial copper workshops have been discovered, and copper chisels, awls and various tools along with them, demonstrating that the Mississippian peoples had developed technologies for working metal.

I mentioned the mound building thing and clay, because at the centre of the city was a massive Mound, known as the Monks Mound, about 950 feet long and 650 feet wide, 20 feet tall. Given the civilisation had no beasts of burden, all the clay used to build all the mounds as well as Monks Mound, had to be carried by hand; and it also had to deal with the problems of heave and subsidence – which is why clay is such a band material for such things. So the builders had to build it very quickly, to avoid the expansion and contraction ruining it while going up – and then cleverly put a layer of sand near the top to deal with moisture changes, and capped it with compacted clay. Neat.

Once again, building such a thing so quickly has led to speculation and theories about social structures and society; some posit an autocratic leader, others that the mounds reflect a community-based culture based around ceremony, and experiments suggest that ceremonies from the top of the mound could have been seen and heard clearly by people assembled around its base. But a few things do seem clear enough. Firstly that some burials reflect the appearance of elite, high status individuals, and therefore social hierarchy. Secondly, the success and extent of Cahoukia seems to have been based on the arrival of widespread cultivation of maize in the north. The previous Hopewell cultures seems not to have used it, but plants producing smaller seeds like May grass, less productive and difficult to manage. Maize, along with squash and beans were now becoming the dominant crops and were massively successful. If I can insert the name of an Englishman into this narrative briefly, apologies for that, Thomas Hariot in the 1580s wrote admiringly of maize cultivation, and remarked that an acre of corn ‘yielded at least two hundred London bushels of wheat’. Doing the maths, it appears that in England, 40 bushels of wheat per acre was considered a good yield. So maize seems to have had a stonkingly high yield.

Cahoukia declined and disappeared in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the possible explanations for it are legion, shells on the beach, flies on a…well, legion. One has it that deforestation and securing a water supply led to floods and destruction of agricultural land; or agricultural expansion leading to the destruction of deer and other game that was still needed as part of diets; or climate change that would come with the little ice age, or even outside invasion though there seems little evidence for that. Either way, by around 1300-1350, Cahoukia was abandoned. At the same time, the Hohokm and Anaszi people also abandoned their settlements and migrated to the south west. It’s been suggested that much of this wider change might be connected with climate change; and after all you and I, some time ago, have been through the change in climate from 1300, when the medieval warm period came to a close, resulting in the 1315 famine which may have killed 15% of people in England; and probably worsening the impact of the Black Death.

Climate change in north America generally is though to have had some wider impacts; evidence from sites suggests a rising level of violent death when 1000 is compared with 1500, possibly caused by increased competition for scarcer resources, and possibly societal discord leading to the collapse of civilisations like Cahoukia. It seems that larger scale civilisations were replaced by smaller tribal groups and chiefdoms.[5]

Forgive me for digressing briefly before we go on to look at the Eastern Woodlands in particular, but on the word ‘stonking’ front, as in stonkingly high yields. It’s an odd word so I looked it up. Apparently, its use as sort of amazingly, incredible sort of thing comes from either its original use as a noun, a stonk meaning a concentrated barrage of artillery fire, a bit of military slang from the second world war; or maybe further back from the name of a 19th century game of marbles. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Let us then, in this therefore appallingly partial history of the North American peoples, concentrate from say 1000AD on the Atlantic coast, hinterlands and Great Lakes from southern Canada to Florida. Over this area was a linguistically diverse set of nations and peoples, I think broadly four groups. The Algonquian speaking peoples occupied coastal regions from Newfoundland to North Carolina, but also around the Great Lakes. Muskogeans lived in Georgia and Florida, Iroquoian peoples lived mainly inland, from the St Lawrence Valley and southwards to Virginia and the Carolinas, and the Siouan peoples coastal areas in the Carolinas. Linquistic similarities didn’t necessarily mean shared culture or political alliances, but tended to make things easier on occasion. I have put map on the website.

The take up of horticulture varied somewhat region to region for different reasons; in California it’s thought population density was low, with an abundance of natural resources, and therefore peoples chose to continue a hunter gatherer social structure. Further north in Canadian regions, agriculture was adopted less, because it offered little advantage, given the shorter growing season, and game was abundant.

But from southern Canada to Florida farming formed part their subsistence; and social structures changed and adapted to suit. So many Eastern Woodlands peoples began to live in semi permanent villages, with maybe around 100-200 inhabitants; it’s been estimated that a village with about 20-30 dwellings, might have had 200-300 acres under cultivation. Rather later, an English man called John White at Roanoke in Virginia had a load of really rather lovely drawings of the peoples he met and their villages. They are very stylised, but they emphasise highly ordered villages with dwellings organised around small fields, with trees and woodland very close to the villages. One of the many, many things of I was unaware was that Indian societies where farming was adopted still had a mix of hunting and farming; should have realised, I guess, just never thought about it. The proportion of food produced by hunting or farming would vary wildly, with farming generating between maybe 30 and 70% of the food needs.

Planting crops not only varied according to region, but had to cope with a few characteristics; one of these was the absence of animals that could be domesticated- like Oxen, or indeed horses, which came again as something of a shock to me. Good Golly Miss Molly. Some species of what might have been an ancestor of the modern horse had existed thousands of years ago in North American, but had become extinct, until they arrived again with Europeans. So, animal drawn ploughs were a no go. Also trees were all over the place as implied by the name eastern Woodlands, so land clearance was a problem. The main technique used was to kill trees by girdling the tree trunks, cutting into them to make then die essentially, and then burning the undergrowth; crops were then planted between the stumps, and eventually stumps were removed. The limitations of the system tended to make very intensive agriculture difficult, and soil fertility difficult to maintain over the long term, so villages might up sticks and move every 10 or 20 years or so. Alternatively, many coastline or river communities might practice transhumance – moving between a summer place and a winter place. But none the less farming techniques were efficient and productive. Here’s a neat example I’ve seen come people copy to this very day on the allotment. This involved planting maize as the staple, along with beans and squash. The beans and squash could use the maize as support; and they also helped fertilise the soil, since beans replaced the nitrogen. Also, if I may make so bold, my fellow allotment growers, when I was one of their number, made the point that they provided ground cover to supress weeds. Not sure if that’s been mentioned, if not, I offer it up for the general benefit of humankind.

Along with the products of hunting – deer, beaver, raccoon, fish – it meant Native Americans had a pretty good diet. One book noted that beans and maize make a good combination, and I have already mentioned the high maize yields delivered by farming. It’s striking that later, when Europeans start writing about the people the met, they are full of admiration for their physiques; Giovanni Da Verranzzano in the early 16th century met the Narragansett and described the sachem he met, or chief you might say I guess, as mlre

Beautiful of stature and build I can possibly describe

The pilgrim Thomas Morton described people he met as

Proper men and women for features and limbs as can be found

I could go on; John White’s pictures also show hunters with longbows, with physiques covered with six packs in areas I didn’t each know you could have any kind of pack. While reading up about this, just as a by the by, might I mention a Jesuit reporting back on his time with the Wendat in Ontario, and their response to what I consider one of the greatest of inventions of human civilisation, the handkerchief.

“They say we place what is unclean in a fine white piece of linen and put it away in our pockets as something very precious, while they throw it away upon the ground”

Now I take the point and if you put it like that, well it seems odd.  And the handkerchief I appreciate is a highly contested item of body furniture, but I think the Wendat may have been underestimating the versatility of this pieces of fine white linen. Not only does it allow the contexts to be carefully inspected for…well for no apparent reason but inspected, but also to be used for a variety of supplementary roles; For example, mopping up a spillage of tea or some other beverage, cleaning the faces of small children, with the judicious addition of some parental saliva, of course, or for use in wiping oil from the dipstick of a car – and I have only just started on the benefits. I’ll leave that one with you, but I think my argument is pretty irrefutable, though you may try to fute it if you wish.

Now Indian societies tended to have a gender split of responsibilities – generally foraging and hunting was the bloke’s job, and farming down to the women; and men would often leave the village for long periods, while the women, being based in one place would also build dwellings, make baskets, mats and cooking implements, prepare food and so on. Together with those communities that moved between seasons, one anthropologist has spoken of communities that were constantly joining and splitting; in addition as villages moved as described, it might often happen that they could combine with other villages and groups of similar culture and language.

As far as hunting is concerned, I am told men invented many ways of hunting and trapping; for example, deer might be driven by creating fire in the undergrowth into an ambush. Together with the burning of undergrowth to create space for crops, this created in many places a sort of parkland appearance to the countryside. This put me in mind, to turn to darker matters, of an article I read about Australasian techniques of land management, how we are only now beginning to understand that like many cultures the world over, people found ways appropriate to their needs and environment to manage the landscape; as a keen but incompetent lover of reading the English landscape, it’s a subject close to my heart.

The point is that the peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, like anywhere else managed their environments according to their needs; they burned undergrowth and moved on rather than practising intensive agriculture; they didn’t need to store much food, apart maybe for corn and some dried fish, because the turning of the seasons would provide the next type of food. When colonists came, including the English, they judged these practices from their own outlook and idiom; they didn’t recognise that the parkland type landscape was moulded by human intervention, they thought the lack of food storage to indicate lack of fore thought and idleness, the lack of intensive agriculture to being backward. Parallels are often drawn between English colonisation with Ireland as England’s first colony; and there, the English sought to bring what they thought of as civilisation, to create what they considered a better life for all, colonisers and colonised, by imposing their own method of land management, and saw the pastoral way of life of the Irish as backwards. It is something of a tragedy, and returning to my argument with my mate that the motivation for colonisation wears many faces, not just greed, I would argue that it’s the often the good intentions you’ve got to watch.

Anyway, back to native American societies of the Eastern Woodlands, where were we? I’ve mentioned something of gender roles, and its generally agreed that relations between men and women were rather more egalitarian that the patriarchal societies of Europe. Most groups were matrilineal; the children took their mother’s name and looked to her relatives for support and protection; they were often matrilocal, which is a bit of jargon which I am told means the dwelling belonged to the women; divorce was pretty straightforward meaning just an agreement between the pair, and it would be the man that left the household in such cases. The basic social unit was the clan, or kinship group, again based around matrilineal lines, and in addition to a kinship relationship to their father, the kin was the group that supported each other and helped women bring up children. A village however was almost always led by a male, by a chief or head man, usually acquired through inheritance – which in the Algonqhuin peoples was through the female line; among the Iroquois, it was the women who chose the chief, or sachem, though generally decisions about war and peace were made by the men in war making councils – which required the agreement of all. The role of the Sachem was to uphold the law and adjudicate in farm disputes, negotiate treaties, control foreign contacts, collect tribute, and so on.

And so to war. One crucial difference between Indian and, say, English and many European cultures, was that ownership of land did not lie at the basis of society and economy; particularly before 1300, when land and resources were plentiful and therefore competition for resources limited. Obviously there is some way in which land played a part in prompting warfare – in that tribal groups might need to control access to hunting grounds ad so on, but tribe or individual landownership is not the key. War was mainly about restoring the harmony and balance to clans. If someone was killed, the response was not punishment so much as restoring the balance – a life for a life, and the taking of the second life restored balance. In war the object was not to kill the opponents’ warriors, but to capture members of the opposing tribe and incorporate them into their tribe – and the clan would decide whether they were adopted as an equal, or enslaved.

Or alternatively, they might be executed for revenge. Executions were carried out by the whole clan, and could be every bit as gruesome as a hanging drawing and quartering or a boiling in England; the victim was often progressively maimed, such as having fingers cut off or being scalped, before being burned. All the while the victim was expected to demonstrate courage throughout. The grief of the clan was thereby supposedly alleviated and balance restored. Wars conducted like this have been called ‘mourning wars’, that is relating to tears rather than time for breakfast.

Particularly before 1300, this attitude to war tended to limit their ferocity; things change a little afterwards as we’ll cover in a moment. But even English colonists remarked that wars between Indians were limited affairs; and were over once retribution was achieved, and women and children rarely killed, though sometimes abducted and forced to join the winning group. They were, as on colonist, Roger Williams, noted

Far less bloody and devouring than the cruel wars of Europe

Things may have changed along with the advent of climate change from 1300, and global cooling. The impact was particularly harsh on cultures that had become dependent on agriculture – hence the devastating impact of the 1315 famine in Europe. The changes increased pressure on resources, and increasing the need for peoples to migrate in search of better living. Competition for the best land began to appear and grow more violent and protracted, and as occasional skirmishes became frequent raids, the concept of restoring balance became something of an escalator rather than a limit to warfare. The tradition of young warriors proving their courage in war became increasingly embedded. This kind of competition and warfare will have a direct impact on the behaviour of peoples in the North East as the English start arriving there in the wake of the Mayflower and onwards.

Peoples tried to cope in different ways. So, archaeologists have found evidence that stockades around villages became much more common in the 15th and 16th centuries. But there were other important mechanisms they used as well, which will be particularly important for our next episode on the arrival of colonists from these ‘ere foreign parts. One was in Trade, and the development of much more intricate trading patterns. One very bamboozling difference between the Native Americans and Europeans was the attitude to trade. For Europeans, obviously it’s about getting to yes – the echo there of a negotiating course I went on many moons ago in my salesman’s youff, it still burns – but the objective of a trade negotiation is still to drive the very best possible bargain. For Indians, trade meant much more than a commercial relationship – it was an important way of building trust, friendship and relationships. It was in effect a form of mutual gift giving, an aim for both partners to leave feeling magnanimous and grown in status by the generosity of their goods. Gifts were also an important part of treaty making. It meant that many peoples started producing more decorative or tradeable goods such as copper ornaments, shell beads, ceramics. The increased pressure on resources even to led peoples to over produce food, both as a precaution and for trade. Trade in food had never been a big thing before, in the land of plenty. One French Monk in the 1630s remarked that the Hurons in the Great Lakes area sowed corn now to produce enough crop for 2 or 3 years

Either for fear that some bad season may visit them or else in order to trade it to other nations for furs and other things

The other thing then, which can lead us up to the point where we re-connect with our story of the English, is the development of more complex and consolidated forms of political authority. Let me give you two examples, both of which will have a direct effect on English colonists.

The first is the league of the Five Nations of the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (hor-din-oh – Shauney), the League of Great Peace. How and indeed when the league came about is, possibly predictably, a matter of debate, and even legend. In one version, the idea for the league came from an outsider, Dekanawudeh, the determined man. In the words of a Mohawk historian writing in 1901 Dekanawudeh was

‘deep in thought and did not notice, perched on the top-most point in the pinery, the Great white Eagle…under the bird’s keen eyed scouting protection, Dekanawudeh’s great idea evolved itself into specific form. Drafting a plan as he sat on the grass…taking an eagle feather, placing it on the ground ’That’ he said’ shall represent the Great idea’. Such is the story handed down for the ages not from father to son, but from mother to children’[6]

Whether Dekanawudeh existed or not is under consideration, and when the idea came to fruition is also under serious consideration; Charles Mann records a tradition back to 1150,[7] but there are those who reckon it to be much more like 1450 – but either way, pre Colombus. The league involved an agreement of 117 clauses, between the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca, and then after 1720 the Tuscarora too. The agreement defines how decisions would be made, with the agreement of all, and annual meetings to renew bonds of friendship. The lords of the nations were required to refer important decisions of war or peace to all the peoples of the nation – and I do mean all, men and women.

The impact of the league was to stop violence between these nations. It was not to stop violence completely however, but move it instead towards the League’s neighbouring nations, which meant other nations were forced to adapt; the Susquehannocks migrated into Maryland to escape aggression; and the Wendats, or Hurons formed themselves into a confederacy also to protect themselves.

Other tribal groups also formed, one of them in what would become Virginia. Between 1571 and 1607 a small number of tribes became part of a confederacy under the leadership of Wahunsonacock (wha-hum-sanna-quat) – or Powhatan as the English would call him. By the time the English arrived in the area, the confederacy included about 30 tribes with over 600 warriors. Powhatan ruled as primus inter pares you might say – a chief, among many district chiefs. Powhatan and his allies knew something of the Europeans, and particularly of the Spanish and a massacre they had inflicted in 1571. The pressures and fears of European and Indian incursion, and Powhatan’s desire to continue to expand his power and confederation would have a major impact on how the English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 would be received. As would the horrors of disease and depopulation.

[1] Harris, T, ‘Rebellion’ p 342

[2] Middleton & Lombard, Colonial America, pp7-25

[3] Kidd, American Colonial History p3

[4] Mann, C, 1491: The Americas before Columbus’ pp259-267

[5] Middleton & Lombard, Colonial America, p9

[6] Lewis, J Eds ‘The mammoth book of Native Americans’ p17

[7] Mann, C, 1491: The Americas before Columbus’ pp332-3




5 thoughts on “364 Before the English Came

  1. Excellent, well researched episode, David!

    One interesting point about the great mounds in what is now the Eastern U.S. In the 19th century, when the mounds had long been uninhabited, many Americans refused to believe that such sophisticated structures could have been built by indigenous Native Americans, and had to have been the remains of some lost European civilization that had come to the Americas in pre-Columbian times. Much like the reaction of white Rhodesians to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, which in their view couldn’t possibly build by indigenous Africans.

  2. Another great episode!

    With regard to terminology in Canada, “Indian” has a very precise meaning as a result of the Indian Act, which itself is bound up in problems of colonialism. The result is not all indigenous peoples are “Indian”.

    The US and Caribbean are a little different in how the word “Indian” is perceived. I cannot comment on how to navigate issues to my south as my legal education was in the British/Canadian aboriginal law. When referring to the indigenous population of Canada at least, I recommend First Nations or Indigenous unless you are speaking of specific nations.

  3. David,
    Hearing the English viewpoint on the “colonization of America” comes as quite a shock to a person raised in the USA with a navel-gazing history of public school here.
    To hear that many more Englishmen “immigrated” to Ireland, than to N.A. to the Carribean is amazing. How are the Irish still standing? And there is the whole Gaelic Irish, Olde English, both Catholic) and the Scotch settlers in the North and new English, both Protestants. And then you have Charles trying to make an Arminion Church “The Universal Church in the three Kingdoms (poor Wales always forgotten.)”
    (Are they the United Kingdoms, yet?)

    1. Hi Frank, and that’s really interesting; people have said that they’d be interested to hear the English view; given that so much of what I read was from US authors, it’s been very interesting to see if some difference survived; and I’m glad that it has! The question of how the Irish survived is a very interesting question to me, which I hope to continue to learn. We;ve already had one period of atrocity under Elizabeth; another is to come of course under the Civil Wars. One thing of course is numbers; Ireland was much more populous that Scotland for example, over 1 million, and so even immigration from Scotland and England of 100,000 is a relatively small number.

      Then also estimates of depopulation in the 17th century are often wildly exaggerated, brutal though it is. It’s very hard to estimate until 1700, and I’ve seen daft estimates of 83% dying; Charles Carlton gave a very rough guess at 40%. Padraig Lenihan goes for 20%; and bear in mind that if Ireland’s population is 1 million in 1640 and 2 million in 1700, his estimate makes sense. And then there’s cultural assimilation; Irish culture and Catholicism remains extraordinarily robust, south of Ulster, and many settlers marry into local families outside of Ulster.

      Wales is by this stage termed as a Principality of the Kingdom of England, officially, since 1542. The truth about Wales is that it assimilates really quite painlessly or relatively so; the Gentry in particular, but Welsh language remains string, and no government attempt is made to remove it.Wales becomes largely protestant too, so there us less friction

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