A Rapidly Changing World

It is important to examine how the world the natives of the Wyoming Valley inhabited was changed on a macro level in order to fully understand and contextualize the unique and specific experiences of the peoples discussed elsewhere in this project. Thus, a broad analysis of European settler colonialism and the three pronged change that it brought to the Americas – war, trade, and disease – must be observed. Further, the roots of strategic settler colonialism for the sake of removal will be examined below.

With the arrival of Europeans in North America came new material goods. While this is obvious, imagine being a Native American introduced to European material culture for the first time. Europeans had guns, high quality coats, basic household cooking materials, alcohol, and jewelry, among other things, that made life for natives in some ways easier, but certainly more materialistic. The problem with European trade goods is that it is very hard to live without them once one is accustomed to the relative ease of living afforded by them. So, natives needed to maintain trade relations with Europeans.

Chief among European goods were most certainly guns. With guns, natives were able to make war like they never had before. Securing trade relationships with European colonists meant being able to dominate smaller nations without guns. Simply, Europeans created an arms race. In order to secure guns, natives needed to provide the settlers with pelts to be sold abroad. As a result, native peoples began overhunting animals. For example, the beaver was pushed toward near extinction. This was a tremendous corruption of commonly held native values. Respect and spiritual reverence for the land were diminished in favor of European goods that could help peoples both survive the changing world, and dominate their neighbors. Thus, European material culture impacted native culture on a spiritual level and it sowed chaos by enabling mass warfare through guns that natives had not seen before.

The arrival of Europeans brought increased violence and warfare to Native America. In order to maintain status as a supplier of pelts to European traders, tribes warred with each other for land and resources. Ultimately, they warred with each other in order to continue to partake in European material culture, and because if they did not, some other tribe would most certainly assert their dominance over them. The Beaver Wars of the 17th century are the most famous example of natives warring over land for the sake of resources for trade (see “Haudenosaunee” tab under “Nations” tab for more). This need for conflict was only exacerbated by a far greater weapon brought to the Americas by Europeans – disease.

The havoc that disease wrought on Native America cannot be overemphasized. Upon contact with Europeans, approximately 90% of a tribe’s population would typically be lost to disease within a couple years. Native Americans simply did not have the immunities for the plethora of diseases brought by Europeans. Europeans had lived in cities with vast trade networks stretching across Eurasia for centuries. This sort of life meant many pandemics throughout European history, but also many immunities. In contrast, Natives typically lived semi-nomadic lives in small bands of a few dozen to a couple hundred people. They were far healthier than the average European thanks to their lifestyles, but also not immune to much of anything because of their isolation from the rest of the world. Thus, the tendency for disease to ravage Native communities. In particular, smallpox was the deadliest germ introduced to the Americas, accounting for the most deaths due to disease.

As disease destroyed entire communities, Native peoples needed to find new ways to survive. This only amplified need for trade goods, and to make war with one’s neighbors for power and, simply, survival. Couple this with practices like mourning war (see “Haudenosaunee” tab under “Nations” for more), and chaos is unavoidable. On top of this, losing ninety percent or so of one’s people obviously takes a serious toll on the human psyche. Many natives turned to alcohol to numb their harsh existence. While it was previously thought that Natives were genetically predisposed to alcoholism because they never had it prior to European arrival, it is now clear to scholars that even if they are, which is uncertain, the driving factor of Native alcoholism was and is hardship. Natives lived in a rapidly changing world, life as they knew it was turned upside down by European arrival.

While these three factors – war, trade, and disease – are independent in some ways, they are inextricably tied to one another. Together they changed the face of North America. The change and tragedy wrought by the three killers of settler colonialism can seem like an unforeseen consequence of natural human inclinations, and in some cases, particularly with regard to early Swedish and Dutch settlement for example, it was. However, with English colonization and especially later American manifest destiny, the brutal outcomes were part of a larger strategy perfected through early seventeenth century British settlement of the Ulster province in the north of Ireland.

Under the rule of King James I in the early 1600s, England sponsored and promoted emigration of primarily Scottish Presbyterians loyal to the throne of England to Ulster province. The goal was to gain control of the fertile land, push the Irish off the land through murder and forced homelessness, and to anglicize the remaining Irish Catholic population. Many Irish were told “to hell or to Connaught,” meaning they would be killed if they did not leave their homes and move to the west of Ireland. Over the years, the British asserted their control over the region and relegated the remaining native Irish population to second class status. The conflict between the descendants of settler colonists and the native Irish population continues today. However, the height of the tensions was approximately 1969-1998 during the period known as “The Troubles.” Although a fascinating and complex issue, this website is about natives of the Wyoming Valley, and what is important to note is that the plantation of Ulster was very successful and the tactics were used and improved upon in the Americas through forced relocation, intentional disruption of local customs through the corrupting force of material culture, and the provocation of war. English colonists and later Americans stood to gain from native warfare as it reduced native populations in a given region and made natives easier to deal with as competitor nations were diminished. Further, disease was even deliberately employed as a weapon in certain cases. For example, the siege of Fort Pitt in 1763 saw British forces under the command of Jeffrey Amherst and Henry Bouquet give natives smallpox infected goods with the purpose of killing them. Thus, the tragic consequences that came of colonization were often intended outcomes of empires with strong interests in Indian removal. The United States would perfect the strategy that underpinned the plantation of Ulster through the wars they waged against Indians throughout the nineteenth century and through the reservation system, which Adolf Hitler would later commend and draw inspiration for his concentration camps from. 

Despite the horrors of life during the period of colonization, and the seeming incapacity of natives to do anything about it, it is important to remember that they were humans beings who reacted to complex situations fluidly, boldly, and courageously, often with much internal disagreement like any other people. Although it seems, in retrospect, that native peoples lost all agency in the new world, natives were, in fact, active agents in their own lives, even if the odds against them were so great that their efforts would never result in freedom and sovereignty. Please explore the “Nations” section of this website to see the ways that native peoples responded to the new world being created.

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