Native American-European Conflict

Although Europeans and Native Americans interacted in many different ways over their centuries of colonial contact, the most striking and, arguably, the most pervasive was in the context of warfare. Colonial wars touched every part of North America east of the Mississippi and occurred from the beginnings of European colonization in the Caribbean and Mexico through the era of the American War for Independence.

Sixteenth Century: Wars of European Conquest

Native American-European conflicts in the 1500s were generally affairs of military conquest, but, on occasion, smaller conflicts broke out. Trade, which would become a leading cause of conflict between cultures in the centuries to come, was not really a factor at this early date.

The most famous conflict of the sixteenth century was Hernando Cortz’s conquest of central Mexico between 1519 and 1521. Cortz had superior technology in the form of muskets, but their effect in combat was extremely limited, especially when facing an enemy as numerous as the Aztec people. Rather, Cortz owed his success to the alliance of other enemies of the Aztec, particularly from the city of Tlaxcala. Epidemic diseases from Europe that swept through Tenochtitlán also aided the Spanish. After initially being repelled by a superior Aztec force, Cortz regrouped and returned, conquering the Aztec easily.

Other campaigns conducted farther to the north were much less spectacular, perhaps because other Spaniards failed to follow Cortz’s lead. Juan Ponce de León in search of gold, slaves, and a magical fountain of youth landed near Tampa Bay with only a small party of Spanish invaders (without the aid of native allies) and was promptly shot. He returned to Cuba, where he died of his wounds.

Similarly, Hernando de Soto wrought havoc throughout the southeastern portion of what would later become the United States. He succeeded in spreading disease and terrifying native populations wherever he went, but he failed to find much treasure and lost his life in the process. Native peoples, most of whom still fought in a style reminiscent of the Mississippians (limited goals and prolonged skirmishes, with a heavy emphasis on surprise), succeeded in pushing the explorer out of their respective territories. A pitched battle took place at Mabila, a fortified town in central Alabama in 1540. While the Spanish suffered many casualties, they did manage to repel a force of Tuscaloosas.

An etching from the 1580s (based on the first-hand account of colonist John White) depicts the Native American village of Pomeiooc near the Roanoke settlement. While surrounded by poles stuck in the ground, native settlements in the region were poorly fortified and vulnerable to attack. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado encountered similar problems in his expedition into the American Southwest. Unable to find gold or allies, he marched as far north and east as Kansas but was forced to return with little to show.

It bears mentioning that the Spanish rarely intended genocide. They would have preferred that Native Americans remain alive and labor for them in mines, missions, and farms. Unfortunately, disease, warfare, slavery, and dislocation disrupted native lifeways so severely that genocide was often the result. The clearest example of this was the island of Hispaniola, which may have boasted a population of millions before the Spanish invasion. After less than a century of colonization, it was left with a native population of zero.


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