When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, native tribes there believed the visitors were powerful spirits who came from the sky. If only they had known the devastation that would follow for their people. Columbus’s discovery brought new opportunity for Europeans. Some settlers came looking for gold and wealth; others came hoping for religious freedom. Some came as prisoners or slaves, while others came merely looking for a better way of life. Few European colonists considered the impact their conquests had on the native people. Many colonists saw Native Americans as savages who had little in common with them and did not need or deserve the same rights or treatment. Those who spoke out in favor of Native American rights were rarely heeded.
In 1492, there were between 5 and 15 million Native Americans in Canada and the United States. Over the next 300 years, those numbers dropped by 90 percent.
European settlers didn’t understand Native American culture. They viewed Native Americans as a wild, godless people. Europeans wanted to teach them European ways of dressing, eating, living, and learning. Missionaries tried to convert Native Americans to their religions.
European settlers often had disputes with Native Americans over land. The Native Americans, with their swords, knives, and bows and arrows, were no match for European guns.
Many Native Americans died in combat. Thousands more died from diseases, such as smallpox, measles, mumps, influenza, chickenpox, and tuberculosis, brought by the Europeans. The Indians had never been exposed to these diseases and had no resistance.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill requiring Native Americans to move from their tribal homelands to reservations – or land set apart for them. Native Americans weren’t allowed to argue their cases in court. If they resisted moving, they could be killed.
Soon after, soldiers forced Native American tribes in the Southeast to move west to what is now Oklahoma. Many of these Indians had adopted European ways. These Indians had built homes, churches, and schools, and taught their children to read and write. Over 16,000 Cherokees were forced to march to their new home. Two thousand died during the journey; another 2,000 died shortly after they arrived in Oklahoma. The Cherokees named this journey, “The Trail of Tears.”
Unfortunately, most of the reservations were placed on poor soil and in harsh climates – places the Europeans didn’t want. The Native Americans struggled to survive here. In 1850, the land set aside for reservations included almost all the land from the Missouri River to the West Coast. Today, reservations make up a tiny portion of land in states like Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho.
Devastation: total loss or ruin
Savage: wild, lawless
Dispute: conflict, disagreement
Visit the History Channel to watch a video about the last battle of the Sioux Indians.