Permanent connection between “Old” and “New” Worlds would revolutionize life on both sides of the Atlantic. The easiest way to conceptualize the consequences of this permanent connection, especially early on, is to talk about something historians call the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange refers to the transfer of population, disease, plants and animals, technology, and ideas between Old and New Worlds. We don’t cover all of these in detail today, but let’s look at a few of these categories below to get a better idea of how revolutionary permanent connection really was.
The Columbian Exchange led to both sides of the Atlantic encountering plants and animals entirely unknown to them. Europeans encountered turkey, corn, strawberries, watermelons, potatoes, tomatoes, and chocolate—just to name a few. Meanwhile, Native Americans encountered sheep, pigs, horses, cows, rice, apples, and oats – again, just to name a few! Looking over that list, it’s not hard to see how important the exchange was. Imagine the Comanche or the Sioux with no horses! Imagine Italian food with no tomatoes, or the course of Irish history with no potatoes! In short, encountering new plants and animals could be radically transformative. It could also be destructive at times, as Cherokee farmers discovered when English pigs ran rampant through their corn fields.
The Columbian exchange could also mean encountering new ideas. A good example of this is Native American encounters with Christianity. It’s important to remember that “conversion” is a process that can look very different in various cultures and in various historical periods—even for different individuals within the same culture! So, just because we see groups or individuals in history identifying with Christianity in some way, it doesn’t mean that they always understood this commitment in the same ways that we might as twenty-first century Americans – not that twenty-first century Americans all understand it in the same terms, either!
Many Native Americans rejected Christianity outright; others seem to have embraced the new religion largely in terms of how European missionaries introduced it. More commonly, however, Native American groups adopted aspects of Christianity, incorporating these aspects into existing worldviews. Adopting aspects of Christianity could mean access to new sources of spiritual power—especially in the face of devastating diseases that the newcomers weren’t suffering from (more on that below). In fact, many of the spiritual renewal or millennial movements that we’ll encounter in Indian Country in our series have strong Christian elements. It could also mean access to otherwise unavailable power within a community or region for those who adopted Christianity, thus aligning themselves with the powerful newcomers.
Adopting aspects of Christianity could mean access to European trade goods. A community that accepted nominal conversion and baptism might have an easier time getting their hands on guns, ammunition, and other supplies. Adopting aspects of Christianity could also mean placating powerful newcomers enough to protect traditional practices. This was particularly common in areas where Spanish missionaries tried to co-opt existing indigenous deities or places of spiritual power by associating them with a Christian saint.
Europeans sometimes gained from Native Americans the techniques and technology necessary to survive in new lands that were sometimes very different from where they had come from. Native Americans were also very interested in European technology. However, they did not always incorporate that technology into their own societies in the exact ways that Europeans used the same items. For example, some tribes sought guns early on because of the psychological effect of firing them in battle, rather than using them as weapons at first. Some tribes used iron kettles and other European trade objects as prestige goods, rather than common household objects. In other words, possessing an iron kettle was a way of telling other people that you were powerful enough to acquire exotic trade goods, rather than signaling that you knew how to make a decent stew. As with new ideas like Christianity, then, it’s important to remember that new technology wasn’t always adopted with the original use in mind—or, perhaps to put it better, with only the original use in mind.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Columbian Exchange—and certainly the most one-sided—was disease. For reasons we discussed in the fourth entry, Europeans came to the New World with an unintentional arsenal of biological weapons in the form of many diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. It’s been estimated that nearly 90 percent of the New World population died off between 1492 and 1650. Disease decimated Native American communities, and it left the survivors vulnerable to slavery, forced relocation, and warfare—both with Europeans and with other tribes. Some communities and tribes were wiped out altogether. Some new communities and tribes appeared for the first time after contact, as survivors banded together to make a new future as new peoples. Other survivors might choose to throw in their lot with the European newcomers who were not facing the same devastation. One good example of this is the Praying Towns established by the British missionary John Eliot where remnants of communities devastated by disease, intertribal warfare and European incursion could gather to find stability and access to resources.
Disease particularly targeted the young and the elderly. The loss of children is always a horror, of course, but it also meant that some native communities all but lost the next generation. The loss of the elderly often meant losing access to important ceremonial and traditional knowledge. Most (not all) Native American cultures did not have a written language system. Also, Native American cultures tended to (and still do tend to) view knowledge differently than we might. For many non-natives, the potential power of knowledge means that it ought to be widely shared and available to access. For many Native American cultures, the opposite assumption is true. Since some ceremonial and traditional knowledge is extremely powerful, it ought to be given only to those who need it and have proven they can be trusted with it. So, when elderly populations rapidly died off, a tremendous loss of knowledge naturally followed.
We’ve spent several entries now talking about contact in general terms. Starting next week, we’ll start looking at specific encounters between natives and newcomers, and how these moments of contact, conflict, and cooperation led to a vast remaking of the North American continent—creating in the process what one historian has called “new worlds for all.”