Conflict, Violence and Bloodshed Between Cultures

Although a peace spanning 50 years was able to be achieved between the colonists at the Plymouth settlement and their Native American neighbors, peace did not last. In many areas of Colonial New England, peace failed before it began.  This can be attributed to many factors, none the least of which was a very deep difference in cultural understanding between the two very different peoples.  Native American customs and rituals were foreign to the settlers, and in many cases, little (if anything) was done to make the effort to attempt to understand native cultures.

By example, when the Native Americans delivered heads or other body parts to the colonists, they did it as a symbol of mutual trust and friendship, seeing themselves as equals and pledging assistance to each other.[1]  The colonists, on the other hand, saw it as a sign of submission to English/colonial rule, placing the Native Americans beneath the European settlers.[2]

A marked difference between the colonists and their native neighbors lay in their methodology in conflict itself. For Native American cultures, massacres were unnecessary and wasteful, continuing the cycle of violence into future generations.[3]  The Europeans, however, saw it as a necessary and even justifiable evil in order to further weaken their enemy in not only numbers but in morale and willingness to fight as well.[4]  Colonial leaders like Commander Gardner made it plain that the European settlers set down an “us or them” attitude towards the Native Americans in terms of hostilities amongst Native Americans, giving potential allies and enemies alike the option to either join with the colonists against any aggressive Native American action or to face the consequences of being hostile themselves, even if they did not fight against the English.[5]

In addition to all of that, although colonists were at times desperate to enter into peace agreements with the Native Americans – especially in light of potential war with France and its allied native populations – the colonists were not keen on keeping to their agreements.[6]  Native Americans did not view land, resources or hunting grounds the same way that Europeans did, and despite numerous agreements with various tribes, settlements kept expanding and pushing onto lands that the Native Americans viewed as their traditional/historical territory, though they did not have a concept of “ownership” as the West would view it today.[7]  Despite numerous attempts to bring their grievances before colonial governments, resolution was not forthcoming, making conflict, violence and bloodshed an unavoidable consequence of these cultures colliding.

[1]  Andrew Lipman, “’A Meanes to Knitt Them Togeather’: the Exchange of Body Parts in the Pequot War,” The William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2008): 3-28.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jenny Hale Pulsipher “’Dark Cloud Rising from the East’: Indian Sovereignty and the Coming of King William’s War in New England,” The New England Quarterly, Inc. 80, no. 4 (2007): 588-613.

[7] Ibid.

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Settlers, Native Americans and Alliances

Unlike the later history of conflict, animosity and violence between North America’s immigrant settlers and their Native American natives, the colonists at Plymouth managed to carve out a relatively peaceful prolonged period of piece with several of the neighboring native tribes – at least compared to some of the other settlements at the time.

Within months of the Plymouth colony’s settlement on the shores of the brave new world, the leadership of the settlement had forged a peace and trade agreement with Massasiot, the leader of the local Wampanoag people.[1]  The negotiated peace dictated that neither the Wampanoag people nor the settlers would cause harm to each other, that any violations of the agreement would be dealt with by the offender being turned over to the side that was harmed, that they would not steal tools or resources from each other, and that each group would assist each other in the event of any military conflict.[2]  While both sides had their strengths and their weaknesses at the time this agreement was reached, both sides also benefited from the peace terms.  The settlers were incredibly few in number, especially after their first winter in the new world.  The Wampanoag people were decimated by disease in 1617, and their numbers were incredibly low compared to some of the other neighboring tribes.[3]  Signed in 1621, the peace treaty between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag lasted for 50 years until King Philips’ war – perpetrated by the son of Massasoit, Metacom, otherwise known as King Philip.[4]

Not all native/settler relations were positive, however, and it was clear that continued conflict between the settlers and other tribes like the Narragansets and ultimately King Philip’s war led to a shift in the delicate balance of the colonist/native relationship.[5]  Despite the assertion of equality under the law of the land, Native Americans were often treated more leniently (legally speaking) than their settler counterparts, and while this may initially seem like a nod to a different culture and belief system, it underlines the belief – subconsciously held or not – that the Native people of the new world were beneath the English settlers, and that they couldn’t possibly be expected to live up to the same standards due to being “savages” and not cultured, refined Europeans.[6]  This can be argued against, however, by pointing out that more lenient sentences helped maintain the tenuous and often strained relationship between the settlers and the Native Americans, but that argument seems to lose standing when considering the fate of a large majority of the native population by 1676.[7]  By the time King Philip’s war was over, there was a marked difference in the way that Native Americans were seen and treated, as evidenced by the fact that the Nipmucks, Wampanoags and Narragansetts were almost completely subjugated by the European settlers, and a large number of Native Americans were already enslaved, with many more in the process of becoming so.[8]  Thus began the terrible history of relations between immigrant Americans and the actual NATIVE Americans that continued on long into the future.

[1] James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony (New York: Random House, 2000), 63-64.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, pg. 142

Cross-Cultural Exchange

It’s clear from the early readings of this module that a lot had changed in the landscape and structure of Native American communities prior to their first contact with European explorers or settlers reached North America.[1]  As contact between Europeans and Indians increased, however, the nature of their contact and relationship changed depending on the settler (even potentially the settler’s country of origin), the end desired result, the circumstances of the contact and even which Native American culture they encountered.[2]  Native Americans were a varied and diverse collection of people, social groups, trade arrangements and cultures for centuries prior to the introduction of European people, and different groups reacted to each other in varied ways.[3]

Native American societies had drastically shifted in the centuries prior to the first European settlers in North America due to economic, political or environmental pressures of a combination thereof.[4]  In many ways these pressured seemed to influence or define the manner in which they interacted, allied or fought against the Europeans that they encountered in later centuries, and many Native American cultures experienced periods of intense instability, violence and conflict with other tribes in nearby areas.[5]

The Spanish are the first European contact that many Native American tribes in the south encountered, and these explorers carried with them epidemic diseases that decimated large swaths of Native American population throughout the region, forcing them to abandon villages and homes and establish alliances with other tribes.[6]  While many Europeans, namely French traders, sought exchange relationships with Native tribes, the Spanish used a different tactic, viewing Europeans as superior to the barbarians of the Americas, seeking to control them and demand tribute.[7]

While Native American values were centered on exchange relationships, many European encroachers on the land viewed it as theirs for the taking, despite the centuries-long claim native tribes had on the land in question.[8]  It is this aspect of Native American history that tends to disturb me – the arrogance and superiority of many Europeans to claim a land that was already inhabited by ancient and rich cultures and to claim it as their property, regardless of the fact that it was already occupied, in some cases for hundreds of years.  That being said, however, many settlers carried on peaceful exchange and mutually beneficial relationships with many native tribes, at least for a time.  Had those relationships failed to exist, it’s possible that many English settlers in particular may have not survived the diverse and strange climate that they first found themselves in as they ventured to the new world.

[1] Neal Salisbury, “The Indian’s Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” The William and Mary Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1996): 435-458.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.