Skip to main content

Essays on American History: Beginnings to Jamestown

The Discovery of America

Europeans didn't discover America in 1492. In fact, Vikings didn't discover America around 1000. America was discovered at some point tens of thousands of years ago by nomadic people who followed their game across a temporary land bridge formed during one of the many Pleistocene ice-ages that periodically lowered global sea levels. Having originated in East Africa a couple hundred thousand years ago, humans had been spreading around the world, an amazing story in and of itself. Once on the American continent, which before the Panama Canal was of course one continuous land mass, they spread slowly but surely all the way down to the southernmost tip of South America, forming distinctive societies all along the way.

That said, what began to occur in 1492 was truly of massive, world-historical importance, even if it's not "the discovery of America." The two branches of the human species had been mutually isolated from the end of last ice age around 10,000 BCE up to 1492 CE, minus the odd, fleeting Viking contact in the far north. Around 1500, these two massive branches of humanity started to mix, with often catastrophic consequences that reverberate to the present day. But before we get to that post-Columbian history, let's take a look at what the American branch of the human family had been up to since 10,000 BCE. 

Pre-Columbian America

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that they'd been up to rather a lot, as is the wont of human beings. And, as is also the wont of human beings, their various societies evolved from and revolved around the basic necessities of life -- food, shelter, child-rearing, and so on -- taking various forms given the materials at hand. Though even "simple" societies are actually quite complex, it's also the case that most societies grow in complexity over time, especially if they make the shift from nomadic to settled life, agriculture, and the rest of what we call "civilization." But exactly how (and even whether) they develop is a matter of dynamic interaction between culture and nature. 

So what happened in the Americas? Let's take a quick tour through pre-Columbian America to see. We'll start in what's south of the current border; then we'll move north to cover the variety within the United States.

Mesoamerican Civilizations

Contrary to what was once thought, settled civilization arose in the Americas around 9000 years ago -- that is, at roughly the same time it arose in what used to be called the Old World and is now referred to as Afro-Eurasia. (After all, the continents themselves are all equally old, and the "New World" was new only to Europeans. Native Americans, as we've seen, had been there for ages.)

In Mesoamerica, settled life was based on the cultivation of what's sometimes referred to as The Three Sisters: maize (corn), squash, and beans. These crops could be rotated in such a way that didn't exhaust the soil. However, unlike Afro-Eurasia, the Americas, due entirely to geographical and evolutionary happenstance, lacked large mammals that could be domesticated as livestock (with the sole exception of llamas/alpacas). This biogeographical limitation shaped pre-Columbian agriculture, as there was no source of power beyond the aforementioned animals and humans.

In the event, that limitation didn't amount to much if the awe-inspiring ruins of the Incas, Aztecs, and Maya are any measure of civilizational development. Tenochtitlan alone, the Aztec Empire's capital in current-day Mexico, was one of the world's largest cities at the time of contact. In short, there's not much Afro-Eurasians were able to accomplish in premodern times that didn't have its rough equivalent among the Native Americans: writing, cities, massive infrastructure (roads, irrigation systems), complex religion and myth systems, stratified and specialized social structures, proto-science, warfare, slavery, trade networks, complex politics -- you name it in Afro-Eurasia and Native Americans somewhere on the continent at some point had it. 

But with certain key and portentous exceptions. Wheels were known but not used on vehicles given the lack of big domesticatable mammals to pull them; gunpowder, too, was unknown in the Americas though the Europeans had finally absorbed it from the Chinese. No gunpowder means no guns, of course, whatever metalworking skills were current. This, in addition to European resistance to diseases which were themselves due to close association with the kind of livestock lacking in the Americas, spelled doom, ultimately, for even the most complex American societies.

North American Civilizations

A good rule of historical thumb is that until a society has reached a certain level of technological complexity, geography accounts for much, though not all, of what societies look like. Thus, if one is living in a sea of bison, one needn't worry about settling down. However, if one lives next to a bountiful ocean, one may well settle down. A little oversimplified, but not as much as one might think.

Thus, contiguity, both cultural and geographical, encouraged the spread of maize cultivation north into the current southwestern United States. Maize cultivation requires irrigation systems and settlements. Settlements -- including of course the ability to construct, maintain, and defend irrigation systems -- themselves require an advanced level of social specialization and stratification. The so-called Pueblo peoples, such as the Hopi and Zuni, had by around 900 CE, after thousands of years of settled civilization, developed such wonders as five-story "apartment buildings" fed by a sophisticated system of dams and canals. The Pueblo civilization ultimately collapsed because of climate change -- increasing aridity trumped even the Pueblo irrigation system. A grim warning, that.

Covering much of the current American West, minus the west coast, the Great Plains and Great Basin are wide open spaces then full of easily huntable game. There was little impetus to move to settled life, that is, and so the peoples of this region remained mostly nomadic. Conversely, the Mississippi river system, one of the largest on earth, waters a gigantic area; this geographical fact encouraged more of a mix of nomadic and settled lifeways. In the coastal and river-based societies on the east coast and northeast, there, too, for reasons of geography, a more settled existence mixed in with nomadic traditions. In the northwest and Pacific coast, again, there were lots of calories swimming around without one having to move around much to ingest them. If one lived a bit more inland, away from the sea and also away from rivers, one would expect to find human societies following the mobile calories, as it were, and that was indeed the case.

That's a whirlwind tour of pre-Columbian America. Now let's take a look at what Europe looked like before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Then, we'll be better able to appreciate the crash that occurred when the two "worlds" came together.

Pre-Columbian Europe

Why Europe Broke Out of Europe

It's hard to think back to a time when Europe was just a relatively minor player on the world stage -- just a big peninsula off western Asia, really. But that wasn't so long ago, in historical terms. Throughout most of the middle ages, the advanced societies (however defined) were outside of currently constituted Europe: China, and much of the medieval Islamic world much of the time, to name two uncontroversial examples. World trade (meaning, Afro-Eurasian trade) was pretty much in the hands of non-Europeans: both the Asiatic Silk Road and the Indian Ocean trade were controlled by Mongols, Muslims -- anyone but Europeans who had to pay many a middle-man to get goods into and out of Europe. Naturally, cutting out these middle-men was much desired.

What the Europeans did was take advances usually made elsewhere (gunpowder, metal-working) and fuse them with an expansionist ideology in order to serve a burgeoning domestic power sector based on trade. These proto-capitalists sought to gain control over world trade through increased sea power. And over a couple of centuries, they pretty much succeeded.

The first "New World" in this sense was Africa. The Portuguese, a seafaring people close to Africa and thus preadapted to be first up in the colonial-imperial sweepstakes, linked up with coastal African traders and polities, outflanking the Muslim-dominated trans-Siberian trade routes. (Ocean-based trade is usually far faster and more reliable than land-based trade; something always to keep in mind.) A natural extension of this success, which everyone in Europe noticed, was to extend sea lanes to the East. The race was on.

Since economic expansion for its own sake is rarely considered noble enough to reorient massive resources, such motivations are usually accompanied by claims, often completely sincere, of spreading civilization. In this case, European Christianity, which, unsurprisingly, was deemed by those who fostered it to be superior to all other civilizations. (This civilizational narcissism is a universal constant in human affairs, of course. One reason we are told that China did not break out is because Chinese elites couldn't imagine what they could possibly need or learn from the barbarians.)

How America Killed European Feudalism (Eventually)

We can keep this very short: the next time you're amazed by the wealth of Europe, keep in mind that a gigantic portion of that wealth was imported (to put it politely) from the Americas. A tidal wave of precious metals began to flow Europe-ward soon after 1500. Possibly of greater economic importance was the wave of American organisms, mostly plant-foods like the potato, that essentially increased the carrying capacity of European society. Along with other factors indigenous to Europe, these injections of capital helped to break down feudalism in favor of what was later labelled capitalism.

Fortunately for Europe, returning explorers brought only diseases like syphilis, as opposed to, say, airborne pandemics like what Eurasian smallpox quickly became in the Americas. Imagine world history had the Americans had had resistance to livestock-generated diseases, not the Europeans. Luck plays a still-underappreciated role in human history.

Maritime Technology: An Example of the Dynamic Interaction between Economics and Technology

Causation in history is usually quite complex unless one is asking the simplest kind of question. A kind of dynamic interaction between events often captures causation far better than billiard-ball cause-and-effect. Take the example of European maritime technology. Was it caused by perceived economic needs or did earlier stages of technology themselves create the possibility of increased economic activity? The answer is, actually, "yes." It's hard to pick out which phenomenon was "the cause" of the other; they interacted so intimately that it's best to simply note the specific interactions.

For our purposes, not only did each drive the other -- economics and technology -- but new institutions were invented to lubricate the interaction, as it were. For example, joint-stock companies were invented in order to spread the risk of long-term trade, technological development, and colonialism itself over time and many people. This was a crucial institutional development without which capitalism could not have developed.

So, in sum a vibrant, socially variegated "New World" met an expansionist piece of the "Old World" then breaking out and soon to use the riches of the "New World" to outpace its "Old World" rivals. Much of the fight between the two "worlds" was over before it began -- and for reasons of geography and ecological history. That is, much of the outcome had little do with the supposed "superiority" of the eventual winners, which is itself a historiographical belief about the United States that was widely shared up until about the 1960s. This belief has not only shaped how American historians have portrayed the story of their country but has also deeply informed how American statesmen have behaved in the world. And thus must be confronted in any history of the United States: this widespread belief is itself a historical fact, that is, and causative, to boot. Agree with it or not; it cannot legitimately be ignored.

Historians refer to the interaction of cultural, geographic, and ecological/evolutionary features of both "worlds" as the Columbian Exchange. What was exchanged was thus not merely human beings or even social and cultural ideas but also organisms of all kinds, from microbes to horses and beyond. We've already seen how mineral resources themselves helped to enrich and transform Europe and how epidemic diseases mostly crushed the Americans, but not the Europeans. It's estimated that between disease and European rapacity, about 80 million people, or about one-fifth of the human species at that time, died because of what stemmed from 1492.

Let's take a closer look.

The Columbian Exchange

The Spanish in America: The Biological Impact

Columbus sailed under Spanish auspices. He and the subsequent explorers and conquistadors, themselves often having just expelled the last of the Muslims from the Iberian peninsula, began the process of exchange. Spanish brought the kinds of diseases (such as smallpox) one would expect from people who had lived around large domesticated mammals for countless centuries. They, of course, had resistance; the Americans did not. The Spanish had guns; the Americans did not. The Spanish had horses; the Americans did not. It's not too surprising that the Spanish quickly took control and wiped out just about all the cultures in their eventual orbit, especially since the Spanish thought that by doing so, by bringing Christianity, they were doing a holy favor to the poor Americans. 

Let's not, however, single out the Spanish, who merely led the charge. The rest of Atlantic-facing Europe -- France, England, the Netherlands, Portugal -- got in on the game just as soon as they could. Moreover, European competition between Protestants and Catholics inevitably spilled over into colonial land-grabs, each side angling to convert the Americans to the proper form of Christianity. Within each religious tradition, competition was often managed: for example, the pope soon decreed a longitudinal line of division between Spain and Portugal's claims in the Americas. Portugal basically got Brazil; Spain got everything else -- that is, until French, English, and Dutch claims (and the power to back them up) entered the scene. We shall pick up this thread in the next chapter.

Meanwhile, along with shipping an endless river of gold and silver back to Europe, the Spanish brought back crops like the potato, the tomato, tobacco, and so on -- that is, both food crops and cash crops. Crops went in the other direction, too, but the Europeans clearly got the best of it: Europe took off while the Americas were reduced to a kind of economic servitude that varied depending on time and which European power was in control in which place, but which was ever-present. Until, that is, the American Revolution.

The Spanish in America: The Human Impact

The impact of 1492 on the millions of people in the Americas was nothing short of utterly catastrophic: massive epidemics, total domination, and the near-death of native culture. It's very hard to sugar-coat it, actually, though it's also a fact that some Europeans were horrified, including the famous Bartolomé de las Casas, discussed below. The Europeans, on the other hand, came out of it quite well -- as the dominant power center on earth, a fact that has not changed since, if one considers the United States to be outgrowth of Europe.  

At first, the Spanish enslaved the Indians in what was called the encomienda system: conquerors owned pretty much everything, from land to people, and could do what they wanted to extract wealth. This, however, was seen by de las Casas and others as somewhat inimical to converting the Indians to Christianity, which was generally agreed to be the only moral justification for the conquest of the Americas. Furthermore, both epidemics and brutal slave-labor conditions also had the inconvenient effect of dangerously reducing the workforce needed to extract silver and gold for export to Spain. Spain wanted both profits and to spread Catholicism; these dual imperatives were beginning to clash. What to do?

Pope Paul III had declared early in the sixteenth century that Indians were fully human. De las Casas agreed. Luckily for Spanish exploitation of the Americas, Africans were not then included in the human family, so the importation of Africans began in earnest. De las Casas had even recommended this solution in his jeremiad against the appalling treatment of the Indians. So, Indians were promoted from slaves to serfs; Africans were imported as slaves, thus kicking off the centuries-long transatlantic slave trade; and white Europeans rested atop the entire social structure.

That social structure lasted for centuries and its effects continue to this very minute. On top were the peninsulares, white Europeans born in Spain (on the Iberian peninsula) who had emigrated to Spanish America. Next came creoles, white Europeans born in the Americas, followed by mestizos, people of "mixed" European-Indian origin. Underneath that layer were those few "pure" Indians who survived; last came the Africans and any "mixed" progeny of Africans and non-Africans, known as mulattos. 

Four centuries later, class power and race still tend to correlate in most of formerly Spanish America. In 2006, Evo Morales of Bolivia became the first arguably indigenous leader of any part of the former Spanish empire in America since the early sixteenth century. Analogous correlations persist in North America, too; it took over two centuries for a person of African descent to become the leader of the United States. Some historical trends are exceedingly long-term.

Beyond First Contact: Interaction, Encroachment, and Debate

Much, if not most, of human history has been the often violent movement of peoples into (or over) each other. What sets 1492 apart is, as we've seen, the fact that the two branches of humanity, long separated, flowed into each other. And while it's obvious that the Europeans got the better end of the deal, as it were, it's not the case that they remained unchanged. Or even Europeans, for that matter -- former Europeans mixed at least to a significant degree with both Indians and Africans forming a new culture made up of elements of each. Eventually, all of these new cultures in the Americas capped their independent development with the usual final step: political independence from former colonizers.

Some of the interaction was violent; some was not. Domination and resistance coexisted over the ages with other forms of interaction. If history is the appreciation of unintended consequences, then here is an object lesson: the same empire-building, colonizing, basically exploitative process that led to a racist caste system also led to such things as Latin music, new cuisines, and so on. Take, for example, the deep-fried bean dish called acarajé that is typical of the northeastern Brazilian region of Bahia. It is quite similar to a West African dish called àkàrà in the Yoruban language. This, too, is a consequence of the slave trade. 

Consider the following. From almost the very start, some European voices, imperfect as they may sound to our contemporary ears, wondered quite loudly whether Europeans -- that is, Christians -- had any right to dominate other human beings. The all-too-common solution -- and one hardly limited to post-1492 Europeans, of course -- was to submerge this ethical impulse, which threatened profits if taken too seriously, by demoting the conquered to something less-than-human. 

Thus, modern racism itself, the ranking of human beings by a construct called "race," is in large part the cultural leftovers of a reaction the conquering Europeans had to their own innate empathy for other human beings. It's apparently quite difficult for human beings to enslave, dominate, and exterminate others they take to be fully human. This is an oddly hopeful thought that directly reflects the best of the ideas upon which the United States was eventually founded, however hypocritically: that all men (sic, human beings) are created equal and thus endowed with certain inalienable rights.

But let's not jump ahead!