Cultural & Economic Interactions Between Native Americans & Europeans

Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

As Europeans explored and settled in North America, one of the great cultural and economic exchanges in world history began. In this lesson we will learn how Amerinds and Europeans interacted in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Spanish Empire in the Americas

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires, Franciscan missionaries arrived in Mexico in 1524. They traveled to proselytize to Amerinds (indigenous peoples of the Americas), telling them 'Do not believe that we are gods. Fear not, we are men as you are. We are only messengers sent to you by a great lord called the Holy Father, who is the spiritual head of the world, and who is filled with pain and sadness by the state of your souls.'

Spanish Christian missionaries spearheaded European-Amerind interaction
las casas

The Amerinds' defeat and conquest by the Spanish shaped their early cultural interactions. Amerinds believed the conquest illustrated that their own gods were weaker, and that they should worship the stronger gods of the Spanish. This led to the blending of Christian and indigenous traditions, called syncretism, and pushed Amerind societies to accept the new European beliefs as their own.

Spaniards, of course, were not drawn to the New World solely to save native souls. The lure of gold and silver characterized the first economic interactions between Amerinds and the Spanish, who immediately began enslaving natives to work in the silver mines. The mine at Potosi, in present-day Bolivia, became the most profitable silver producer in the world in the 16th and 17th centuries. But massive Amerind deaths by disease made their labor unsustainable, and they were soon replaced by enslaved Africans.

Soon, in areas outside the main urban areas, such as Mexico City, alternate economic relations between Amerinds and the Spanish took shape. Amerinds managed to preserve a self-sufficient way of life, though Spaniards did force villages to provide a certain number of adult laborers during parts of the year, working in mines or on large plantations. In cities and towns, Amerinds played a very minor role, as skilled labor came to be dominated by mestizos (those of mixed European and Amerind descent) and free Africans.

Other Europeans in the New World

As the Spanish claimed most of North and South America, other Europeans competed for access to the New World. For the English, John Cabot explored the coast of modern-day New England, and those who followed in his footsteps interacted with Amerinds, trading furs and food for European goods. The French then got into the act, when in 1603 Samuel de Champlain began exploring the St. Lawrence River in eastern Canada. In 1608 de Champlain founded the city of Quebec in New France (present-day eastern Canada).

This stamp commemorates the claim of Newfoundland by John Cabot

French explorers and missionaries took to the lands around the Great Lakes and down the great Mississippi River as well. The French based their New World claims on the fur trade, in which they exchanged European tools and other goods for valuable animal furs, which were used to make fashionable hats and clothes back home. The Dutch wanted a piece of the fur trade too, traveling up the Hudson River and founding New Netherlands (present-day New York) in the 1620s.

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