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Colonial America | People | Native Americans

Thousands of years before the first Europeans ever set eyes on North America, the continent had been thoroughly explored and widely settled. During the Last Ice Age, perhaps as far back as 40,000 years ago—but most likely around 25,000 years ago—various groups of people migrated from Asia to North America by crossing over the Bering Land Bridge. This area of land, called Beringia, was above sea level at the time and connected what is now Russia and Alaska. Some people settled in Beringia; over time many more migrated throughout the Americas, further south (to South America) and east (to the Atlantic coast).


Map of Beringia. According to the National Park Service:
Toward the end of the Ice Age, the earth experienced prolonged
frigid conditions. In the northern region of the earth, glaciers
began to form. As more and more of the earth’s water got
locked up in glaciers, sea levels began to drop. In some areas,
it dropped up to 300 feet. The land beneath the Bering Strait
became exposed and a flat, grassy, treeless plain emerged,
connecting Asia to North America. This exposed land
stretched one thousand miles from north to south.

Parallel to (and unbeknownst to) the Europeans, the first settlers of the Americas—the Indigenous peoples of North and South America—developed diverse cultures and rich civilizations. In North America, the first contact between Native Americans and Europeans most likely took place around the year 1000 (see the entry for Leif Eriksson in America’s Explorers). By the time the early European explorers and settlers came to the New World in full force, starting in the late 1400s and early 1500s, the Native North American population might have been as high as 18 million people. But by around 1650, the Native North American population had dropped significantly, perhaps to six million or to just 2.5 million people—population estimates vary significantly—due to the spread of diseases, wars, and other causes.

Also of importance in understanding colonial America is that Native Americans and Europeans held very different views of land ownership. For Native Americans, the land was of spiritual (and practical) significance shared by all living creatures. In contrast, the Europeans viewed land as property to be owned. As a result, formal and informal treaties and other agreements led to a tenuous co-existence, with times of uneasy peace intermingled with those of violent conflicts. Native Americans who were captured during times of conflict were often enslaved, which enabled the Europeans to gain more access to Native lands and to a source of cheap labor. The Native American struggle to maintain their homelands and cultures continues to this day.

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    Some Notable Native Americans of the Colonial Era


    Hiawatha Belt. Named after Hiawatha, it
    symbolizes the unity of the Five Nations.
    From left to right: Seneca, Cayuga,
    Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk.

    Hiawatha (c. 1400–c. 1450), Iroquois (Mohawk or Onondaga) Inspired by Deganawida (the Great Peacemaker), Hiawatha created the Iroquois Confederacy, or Iroquois League, that united the Five Nations—Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca. In the early 1700s, it became known as the Six Nations, as the Tuscarora joined the confederation. This government institution remains the world’s longest continuously functioning democracy. (Research continues into exactly when the confederation was formally instituted—newly found archaeological evidence suggests it may go back as far as the 1100s A.D. The League is generally considered to have been formed in the early 1400s or 1500s.)

    The character of Hiawatha in
    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song
    of Hiawatha
    (1855) is not the Hiawatha
    of history. One of the most famous poems
    in literature, and an American epic, Longfellow’s
    Hiawatha mixed up legendary tales and reflected
    a then-common perspective that European
    domination over Native peoples was inevitable.

    Hiawatha, as leader of the Mohawk or Onondaga nation (the historical record is not certain on this point), had tired of the conflicts between various Native nations of what is now the upper Northeast and parts of southern Canada. Inspired by the message of peace that he learned from Deganwida, Hiawatha traveled the region, urging unification. As a result of his efforts, the Iroquois League was formed and thus able to navigate conflicts between the European colonial powers in North America. Throughout the colonial era and into the modern era, the League stay united—and remains strong and intact today.


    To learn more about the Native American roots of democracy in the United States,
    read Tribal Nations and the United States: an Introduction.

    In 1988, the U.S. Congress officially recognized the influence that the principles and practices of the Iroquois League had in binding the Thirteen Colonies together and in the formation of the U.S. Constitution.


    Map of Native American Nations in southern New England, c. 1600.

    Massasoit or Ousamequin (c. 1590–1661), Wamponoag The leader of the Wampanoag nation, Massasoit aided the Pilgrims soon after their landing in 1620 and signed a treaty with them in 1621, essentially ensuring the Plymouth Colony’s success. Through Massasoit’s skillful leadership and negotiations, peace between the two groups lasted for decades. However, the relationship was often tenuous and ultimately shattered after his death.

    According to Ramona Peters, repatriation coordinator of the Wampanoag Confederation, as quoted in “Ousamequin is a significant figure in our shared history. He stands at the crossroad between the indigenous people of this land and the origins of what would eventually become the United States of America. In the 17th century, when the Wampanoag first encountered the early settlers, Ousamequin had a vision of how we could all live together. . . .”


    Metacomet Historic Marker,
    Plymouth, Massachusetts.
    Photo by J. Emerson.

    Metacom (aka Metacomet or King Philip; c. 1638–1676), Wampanoag Metacom became the leader of the Wampanoags in 1662, upon the death of his brother Wamsutta. However, by the time Metacom came to lead the Wampanoags, tensions had grown between his people and the ever-expanding colonists over Native lands and resources. For over a decade, Metacom was generally successful in navigating peaceful relationships with the colonists and with other Native nations.

    Starting in the 1670s, however, various incidents sparked what many historians consider the most destructive war ever on American soil, King Philip’s War (1675–1676), which was also known as Metacom’s War or Metacom’s Rebellion. (Metacom had taken the English name, Philip, as a sign of honor and mutual respect between his people and the colonists.) For Metacom and other Native nations in New England, this war was a battle for defense of their homelands. After 14 months of brutal fighting, the war effectively ended with the capture of Metacom. He was hung, drawn, and quartered (the typical punishment for treason at the time). His head was then stuck on a stake and displayed in Plymouth Colony for over 20 years.

    One of the cruel ironies of history, it was only about 50 years before Metacom’s execution that his father, Massasoit, had come to the aid of the Pilgrims and ensured the survival of Plymouth Colony. Now, the Wampanoag nation and their allies were decimated, suffering thousands of deaths, many of their people sold into slavery—and their homelands lost as the colonists solidified their control over most of New England.


    Canonicus and Miantonomi, leaders of the Narragansett nation,
    meeting with Roger Williams, who they allowed to establish
    a colony on their lands.

    Miantonomi, or Miantonomo (c. 1600–1643), Narragansett Born before the Pilgrims had arrived, Miantonomi witnessed dramatic and devastating changes take place in his Narragansett homelands, the Narragansett Bay region of what is now Rhode Island. As sachem, or leaders, Miantonomi and his uncle Canonicus initially maintained good relations with the American colonists and developed a friendship with Roger Williams, which enabled him to found the Rhode Island colony.

    However, after the Pequot War (1637–1638), in which colonists had killed Native women and children, Miantonomi considered the colonists a threat to the southern New England Native nations. He visited other Native leaders in the region, proposing that they form an alliance or confederacy to confront the colonists. In 1643, the Mohegans (who remained aligned with the colonists) captured Miantonomi and turned him over to colonial officials. Miantonomi was tried, found guilty, and condemned to death. Because colonial officials did not want to be responsible for Miantonomi’s death, they returned him to the Mohegans and he was executed.


    Pontiac’s Rebellion, 1763, Map.

    Obwandiyag or Pontiac
    (c. 1720–1769), Odawa (Ottawa)
    Obwandiyag, also known as Pontiac, was an Odawa (Ottawa) leader in the Great Lakes region, who championed the struggle against British military rule and colonial expansion. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Pontiac and his people supported the French against the British. After the war, France ceded their areas of control in North America to the British. Pontiac, certain that American settlers would now flood into the region, led an alliance with other Native nations to force British troops out and prevent settlers from moving in. This conflict is called Pontiac’s War or Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763–1766).

    With Pontiac leading the struggle, several forts around the Great Lakes were taken in the early spring of 1763 before a surprise attack on Fort Detroit was made, followed by a siege on this major fort that lasted about 6 months. With winter approaching and Fort Detroit not taken, Pontiac withdrew his forces in the late fall of 1763. By 1766, with Fort Detroit still in British hands, Pontiac (and other Native leaders) signed a treaty with the British, with Pontiac firmly stating that he did so only to make peace, not to give up Native lands. Although Pontiac’s influence seemed to fade after his signing of the treaty, he was still viewed as a threat by many in the region, leading to his assassination in 1769.

    Obwandiyag’s efforts in creating an alliance with other Nation nations and in opposing British rule inspired succeeding Native leaders, such as Tekoomsē (Tecumsah, 1768–1813) and Michikinikwa (Little Turtle, c. 1752–1812) to form Native alliances in the fight to protect their homelands—and future Native generations in the struggle for full recognition of their rights.


    Reconstructed Powhatan village at Jamestown Settlement Living-
    History Museum.

    Opechancanough (?–1646),
    Powhatan Chiefdom
    Having gained a reputation as powerful warrior and a dynamic leader, Opechancanough assumed leadership of the Powhatan Chiefdom (see the map below) soon after the death of his older brother (or cousin), Wahunsenaca, who is also known as Chief Powhatan. (For a brief time after Wahunsenaca’s death in 1618, another brother, Opitchapam, ruled—before Opechancanough took over.)

    As the Jamestown colonists grew, increasing their demands on the homelands of the Powhatan Chiefdom, Opechancanough managed to maintain positive relationships with them while planning how to keep them from overrunning his people. In 1622, he launched the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632) with a series of attacks to limit their expansion. By 1632, both sides sought peace and agreed to end the fighting. However, English settlers now flooded into the Virginia colony, increasing the demand for land for cultivation—especially for tobacco—and, thus, conflicts between the two groups also increased. As a result, Opechancanough launched the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646). This war ended in 1646 with Opechancanough’s capture. While in captivity, he was murdered by a guard.

    Many historical accounts cast Opechancanough as a villain in the relationship between the Powhatan Chiefdom and the English settlers during the first half of the 1600s. In reality, Opechancanough honorably and capably served the people of the Powhatan Chiefdom as their political leader, head diplomat, and military general to stop the continued English incursion into their homelands.


    Engraving of Pocahontas, c. 1616. Made when
    she was in England, by the Dutch and British
    printmaker and sculptor Simon van de Passe.
    Courtesy of the British Museum, London.

    According to NOVA’s "Pocahantas Revealed":
    [This engraving] was the first of many depictions
    of Pocahontas intended to demonstrate that a
    Native American could adopt the demeanor of a
    "civilized" European. The Virginia Company—
    backers of the Jamestown settlement—likely
    commissioned the engraving with this in mind,
    hoping to attract more colonists and investors.

    For other historical perspectives on the life of
    Pocahontas, read articles by Phoebe Farris, PhD,
    and Vincent Schilling.

    Pocahontas (aka Amonute and Matoaka) (c. 1595–1617), Powhatan Chiefdom A favored daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas played an essential role in the relationship between the Powhatan Chiefdom (see the map below) and the English settlers of Jamestown. According to English Captain John Smith, Pocahontas rescued him from execution after he had been captured by Opechancanough, one of Powhatan’s brothers (or cousins). Most likely, however, her father had no intention of killing Smith, wanting instead to form an alliance with him. And, most likely, Pocahontas—just about 11 years old at the time—would have been too young to be present at such an event.

    Near the beginning of the First Anglo-Powhatan War (c. 1610–1614), Pocahontas married Kokoum and moved to her new husband’s village. In 1613, however, she was kidnapped by an English ship captain and carried to Jamestown. Kokoum was likely killed. The settlers held Pocahontas as a hostage, and during her captivity she learned English customs and religion. Pocahontas became a Christian, and her name was changed to Rebecca. She married settler John Rolfe, and she gave birth to a son, Thomas, who is considered the first child born to a Native American and a European American.

    The peace that resulted from the marriage of
    Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and the ending of the
    First Anglo-Powhatan War, had far-reaching
    consequences. For the colonists, having learned
    about tobacco cultivation from the Powhatans, this
    peace enabled the colony to flourish by greatly
    expanding the English tobacco trade. However, for
    the Powhatans, this resulted in more and more
    settlers pressing onto their lands and more and
    more conflicts with them. And for Africans, this
    peace would be a key factor in the growth of the
    Atlantic slave trade and their enslavement in the
    colonies, including their forced labor on Virginia’s
    tobacco plantations and those of the other
    southern colonies.

    Most historians agree that the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe helped to bring peace to the region. In 1616, Pocahontas, Thomas, and Rolfe sailed to England and spent time traveling and visiting. As they prepared to return to Virginia in 1617, however, Pocahontas became ill—possibly from tuberculosis, pneumonia, or dysentery—and died.


    Canadian postal stamp honoring Kateri Tekakwitha.

    Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680), Mohawk and Algonquin As a young girl, Tekakwitha became an orphan after surviving a smallpox epidemic that killed her family and most of the people in her village. As a young girl, she was inspired by Jesuit missionaries to lead a holy life. In 1676, she converted to the Roman Catholic faith and left her home. While living in a mission village near Montreal, her acts of faith earned her recognition as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and inspired many biographies over the centuries after her early death. In 2012, Tekakwitha was declared a saint, becoming the first Indigenous person of North America to be canonized. She is considered a patron saint of the environment and of Native people.

    According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Tekakwitha’s history has prompted different perspectives on her life: While Canadian Catholics see this sainthood as a source of pride, others view Catherine [Kateri] Tekakwitha as a powerless victim of colonialism. It is true that in the numerous biographies written about her, authors often give more pages to the legend than to the historical context. In a period when the Catholic Church wanted to encourage the conversion of Aboriginal peoples, her mysticism and piety made Catherine a model to follow.


    Portrait of Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant).
    Painted in London, 1785, by Gilbert Stuart.

    Thayendanegea (aka Joseph Brant; c. 1743–1807), Mohawk One of the most prominent figures of the Six Nations, particularly after the Revolutionary War, Thayendanegea was a political and military leader of the Mohawk nation. (The Mohawks were aligned with five other Iroquois nations to form the Iroquois League, or Six Nations.) Thayendanegea was fluent in English and many Iroquoian languages; he was skillful at navigating between both worlds as a translator and especially as a leading diplomat.

    Thayendanegea aligned with the British in the French and Indian War and in the Revolutionary War. Although the Six Nations tried to remain neutral during the Revolutionary War, he was able to convince four of the nations to side with the British—based on promises made to protect the Six Nations’ homelands and sovereignty. After the war, these promises were ignored by the American victors and the British. The Treaty of Paris “ceded” huge tracts of Native lands to the Americans, prompting Thayendanegea to claim that the British had “sold the Indians to Congress.” As conflicts and land disputes arose, he would ultimately lead many of his nation’s people to Canada.

    For the rest of his life, Thayendanegea battled and negotiated with the United States and Britain for the sovereignty of the Six Nations over their homelands, particularly in New York and the Northwest Territory. He strenuously urged the Native nations of the region to join together to fend off further U.S. expansion. Thayendanegea’s message of unity served as a model for Tecumseh’s Confederation of the early 1800s and continues to inspire people today.


    Top: Uncas Wampum collar (c. 1638).
    This is the only known wampum in
    New England that Native Americans have
    kept in their possession since the 1600s.
    Note the two white triangles, which
    symbolize the division in the 1600s
    between Mohegan and Pequot villages.
    Bottom: Uncas stone engraving.

    Uncas (c. 1598–c. 1683), Mohegan The son of the Pequot sachem Owaneco, Uncas became leader of the Mohegan clans, who split off from the Pequots and settled along what is now the Thames River in Connecticut. In the 1630s, Uncas formed an alliance with the colonists. He fought with the colonists in the Pequot War; after their victory, the Mohegans took control over many Pequots and much of their land. Later, Uncas joined with the English against the Wampanoag during King Philip’s War.

    Under the leadership of Uncas, his relatively small group would become the most powerful Native nation in southern New England. The colonists viewed Uncas as their ally, but he skillfully navigated between the various colonies and Native nations in the region to protect his people and their homelands first and foremost. Unlike many Native Americans in colonial America, he refused to convert to Christianity and lived a long, relatively peaceful life.


    Map of the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom
    in 1607. This map shows the rough boundaries
    of the Algonquian nations that made up the
    Powhatan Chiefdom in the early 1600s.

    Wahunsenaca (aka Wahunsunacawh, Wahunsonacock, or Powhatan) (?–1618) Powhatan refers to an organization of Algonquian nations—the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom (also called the Powhatan Chiefdom, Powhatan Confederation, or Powhatan Confederacy). The people of the Powhatan Chiefdom lived in the Chesapeake Bay region of what is now Virginia and Delaware, mainly the Tidewater Virginia region and parts of the Eastern Shore. Chief Powhatan was the title given to Wahunsenaca, who ruled this confederacy when English colonists first settled in the area in the early 1600s. During Powhatan’s rule, he expanded the confederacy from just a few Native nations to more than thirty, consisting of more than 20,000 people—before the English and unknown diseases arrived and decimated the population.

    At first, Powhatan and the confederation welcomed the English settlers and ensured their survival by teaching them how to grow crops, especially corn and tobacco, and to hunt. Then, tired of the settlers demands for more help and more land, Powhatan tried to prevent Jamestown colony from expanding by limiting trade and conducting occasional minor raids, which erupted into the First Anglo-Powhatan War, c. 1610–1614. By war’s end, the aging Powhatan had yielded most of his leadership duties to his younger brother (or cousin) Opechancanough. For a brief time after Powhatan’s death in 1618, another brother, Opitchapam, ruled—before Opechancanough took over and as relationships between the settlers and the Powhatans deteriorated.

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