Although some Native Americans such as the Taino, Aztec, Timucuan, and Pueblo peoples met European explorers face to face, many more groups experienced their early presence through new trade goods and the diseases brought unwittingly by the Europeans. Disease was a serious killer of Native Americans throughout the colonial period, but perhaps never more so than in the earliest years of contact. Some estimates place the population of North America north of the Rio Grande at 5 to 7 million in 1492. By 1900, this number was around 250,000.
While disease colored interaction between Europeans and Native Americans, it was not the only factor that brought about the precipitous decline in native populations. The short- and long-term effects of colonization dislocation, war, and psychological trauma should not be overlooked.
Early contacts between Native Americans and Europeans ran the gamut from peaceful trading partnerships to skepticism of each other’s intentions and outright warfare. The Spanish were the first Europeans to take a serious interest in North America. Having successfully emerged from the Reconquista (their campaign to remove the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula), they demonstrated a burning desire to convert natives to Christianity at the same time as they exhibited a lust for conquest and treasure.
The first attempts by the Spanish to explore and colonize north of the Rio Grande can be seen as little more than a series of miserable failures. In Florida, Ponce de León searched fruitlessly for gold and slaves and was shot and mortally wounded by local natives in 1521. In 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez’s voyage to the Gulf of Mexico ended in tragedy: most of his party died and a handful of survivors walked overland for six years until they reached Mexico.
The entradas of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in the Southwest (1540–1543) and Hernando de Soto in the Southeast (1539–1542) were larger and more adequately funded. They fared slightly better but did not improve the sorry state of Native American-Spanish relations in North America. De Soto, for instance, would move through various chiefdoms in search of gold, taking headmen and women hostages, looting graves, and shooting resisters or throwing them to war dogs as examples. He faced not only constant harassment, but, in 1540 at Mabila (in central Alabama), he nearly lost a pitched battle to Tuscaloosa warriors. Coronado pushed his way through Pueblo country and reached western Kansas in search of mythical golden cities. Finding none, he battled his way back to Mexico.
If the Spanish were mainly concerned with extracting precious metals and using native labor to do it, the French were mainly concerned with removing another sort of wealth: beaver fur. Accordingly, early contacts with the French in Canada were somewhat less hostile. Jacques Cartier traveled up the St. Lawrence River from 1534 to 1541 and established a fur trade that would profit the French and the tribes that joined them for many years.
French traders, and later settlers, were overwhelmingly men. They established themselves in native communities and, with their native wives and partners, created a substantial number of biracial offspring, known in Canada as the Métis people. Although there were intimate physical relationships between Europeans and natives in all parts of North America, they were far more common in areas settled by the French and Spanish.