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Effects of European Colonization: Christopher Columbus and Native Americans

  • 0:06 First Contact
  • 1:53 Death
  • 3:39 Metal Tools
  • 5:25 Horses
  • 7:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

The earliest explorers in the Western Hemisphere left a legacy that would shape the development of the Americas permanently. No matter what they came looking for, Europeans left behind death, horses, and metal.

First Contact

Most American school children learn to recite this little phrase: 'In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.' Columbus, in fact, was just one of many explorers sponsored by European monarchs in the 1400s who were all trying to find a better, cheaper, faster route to Asia than their neighbors, in order to get an edge on the lucrative trade goods from the East Indies. Knowing perfectly well that the world was round, Christopher Columbus sailed west, set foot in the Bahamas and other islands, and returned back home with stories of the 'Indians' he had met, believing China was just over the horizon.

Even though Columbus was completely ignorant of the new continent he had encountered, his voyage changed the course of human history - fast. Within two years, the Pope had divided the so-called 'uncivilized world' between Portugal and Spain in a deal known as the Treaty of Tordesillas. The islands Columbus explored became known for all posterity as the West Indies, and the native inhabitants of the entire hemisphere became collectively known as Indians. Columbus was followed by wave upon wave of European explorers and conquerors motivated by God, gold, and glory.

European explorers followed Columbus motivated by God, gold and glory
Europeans Followed Columbus

Some of the long term effects of this contact are the subject of another lesson, called the Columbian Exchange, in which people, diseases, foods, and animals moved across the globe. But some of the earliest contacts between Europeans and Native Americans very quickly and permanently shaped the development of North America. Whether they were looking for riches, hoping to spread Christianity, or wanting fame back home, their most important legacy was in the things they left behind.

Death

Everywhere the explorers went, death followed. 'There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians,' noted a Spanish priest named Bartolomé de Las Casas, 'so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines.'

While the priest's estimates of the population before Columbus arrived are probably off by quite a bit, it did only take 30 years to nearly eradicate the native population of the Bahamas. And though there was war and slavery and overwork, the biggest killer by far was disease. The Western Hemisphere had been completely free of infectious diseases that were common in Europe. So the indigenous people had absolutely no exposure or resistance to illnesses like smallpox, which spread from tribe to tribe along the trade routes, even in places where Europeans never even set foot. It's impossible, of course, to get a precise pre-Columbian population count, but by using observable models and reliable censuses, modern historians commonly accept that around 90% of all Native Americans died as a result of contact with Europeans.

It took about 30 years for the native population of the Bahamas to be nearly eradicated
Natives Wiped Out in Thirty Years

In general, the effects were the worst in South and Central America where the Spanish explored in the 1500s. But that's not to say North America avoided the epidemic; it just took a little longer. In 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in Plymouth, they discovered a Patuxet village conveniently empty, because every one of its residents had died. Archaeologists have since discovered evidence of other such civilizations that disappeared from memory.

Metal Tools

One of the main motivations for exploration was the search for precious metals. The great irony here is that the metals brought from Europe to America proved to be far more valuable. Of course, steel helped the Europeans conquer the Americas, but tribes across the hemisphere were, in fact, helped by the introduction of metal tools and weapons.

Though some Native cultures were quite advanced in, say, astronomy or agriculture or engineering, they still used Stone Age tools made from bone, wood, stone, or clay with very limited knowledge of metalworking and no steel. It didn't take long for them to realize that metal implements were far more efficient for many uses, and the tribes that got them first had an edge over those who didn't. However, without the right raw materials, knowledge, or conditions, they were unable to reproduce metal goods like knives and hatchets and fishhooks, leaving them completely dependent on trade and at a distinct disadvantage to the whites.

Metal tools introduced by the Europeans gave tribes an edge over those without metal tools
Metal-Tools-Helped-Natives

Though European weaponry was superior and proved to be useful in the long term, firearms didn't really present an overwhelming advantage at first contact. Besides the fact that very few soldiers even carried a gun, they were heavy, slow to load, and not terribly accurate. Except at very close range, a skilled archer was faster and more accurate with a bow and arrow than most soldiers would have been with a firearm. And European explorers couldn't repair or replace their weapons, and they only had as much ammunition as they could carry. That balance of power would change in the 19th century as gun technology improved.

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