In this part . . .
If the exam questions were in the form of a car you were going to drive on Test Day, history would be the gasoline you put in the tank. Fortunately for your memory, U.S. History is a very cool story starring Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and a cast of thousands, probably including some of your ancestors.
About 20 percent of the questions of the test will cover the period up to 1789. The story starts with American Indians having the whole place to themselves for about 30 times as long as any Europeans have lived here.
Another 30 percent of the questions on the test will be from Independence through the Civil War. That means the history in this section is about half of your tank full of knowledge. It’s an exciting story, but read Chapters 7 through 13 slowly and carefully. Test day is a-comin’ . . .
In This Chapter
● Understanding the first people
● Building empires down south
● Losing the battle with disease
The AP U.S. History exam doesn’t thump heads too much on American Indian history before Christopher Columbus, partly because high-school AP courses vary too much on pre-Columbian American history for the test makers to be sure what students have learned. Also, we historians are a little shaky on just what did go on back then. Nobody took notes.
Although the AP may not have many questions on pre-Columbian America, you’ll want to scan this chapter anyway as insurance, should an early-times question arise. You want to know as much as you can about the long years of our American Indian forebears. After all, if the room you’re sitting in were the history of human beings in North America, the amount of time settlers have lived here would be the space behind the curtains.
Encountering the First Americans
Christopher Columbus wasn’t looking for a new world in 1492; he was just trying to get to China without having to walk, as his Italian predecessor Marco Polo had done more than 200 years before. Polo had reported in his book The Million that China was full of untold riches. Columbus had a well-thumbed copy of Polo’s story by his side as he contemplated a cruise to the jewels of the East. He also saw a map based on one that Polo had brought back with him years before. On this map, you can still make out Europe, Asia, and Africa in blobby form, right where they’re supposed to be. What’s missing is the entire New World.
Not surprisingly, when Columbus landed, he called the people he met Indians. They didn’t look Chinese, so they must be Indians from the East Indies, related somehow to the India that Polo had visited and Alexander the Great had fought way back in Greek times. Columbus took six years of return voyages before he had to confront the fact in a message to his royal sponsors: “I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown . . . .Your Highnesses have an Other World here.”
35,000 years before Columbus
The people Columbus called Indians didn’t think they were in a strange new world; they were home in the land that legends told them had been theirs since the beginning of time. They knew every rock and tree and had a name for every valley and river. These first people had well-practiced ways of surviving with the thousands of plants and animals around them. Actually, even the first American Indians were relative newcomers to their lands compared to the history of the Old World; human beings have lived in the New World for less than a tenth of the time they have been settled in Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Human beings have lived in China and Northern Asia for at least 300,000 years and for as long as 1 million years. About 35,000 years ago, an ice age froze over the water between what are now Siberia and Alaska. Native hunters, probably following migrating herds of game, walked across this convenient ice bridge to Alaska. Because it was cold, they kept heading south.
When the ice age melted about 10,000 years ago, the Bering Straits went back to being water, and the New World was cut off from the Old. This was okay for the American Indians; the same big thaw opened passes through the mountains to the south. Roaming gradually through the beautiful wilderness that still covers much of North America, the first people reached the tip of South America by 9,000 BCE, some 15,000 miles from the land bridge they had crossed from Siberia. That means they averaged about 1 mile of migration every 2 years.
In the year before Columbus landed, 100 million first people probably inhabited the New World. More people lived in North and South America than in Europe. Not all these first people whom Columbus called Indians were hunter-gatherers. The New World had cities before the Egyptians built the pyramids.
At the time of Columbus, the Aztec capital city (in what became Mexico City) was larger than any city in Europe. Unlike the dirty European cities of the 1400s, the Aztec capital had running water, clean streets, and botanical gardens. This beauty didn’t lead to mellow living; as many as 5,000 human beings were sacrificed every year to please the Aztec king and his gods.
Whereas kingdoms like the Aztec were able to control large areas of land for a time, many American Indians were split into small tribes that spoke at least 2,000 different languages — ten times the number of languages spoken in Europe. American Indians spoke a lot of languages because they had little reason to conquer and consolidate with neighboring groups. Hunter-gatherers aren’t very interested in dominating their neighbors. What are they going to get — more room to hunt and gather? Only with the beginning of agriculture did property become worth seizing, and people were vulnerable to domination because they couldn’t move away from their crops to avoid being conquered.
Agriculture also fed the large population centers. The Aztecs in Mexico, Mayans in Central America, and Incas in Peru built networks of roads and amazing cities with incredible buildings and artwork. They were experts at raising more than 100 varieties of corn — one kind for every taste and climate. One modern scientific journal calls the American Indians’ development of many corn types from a barely edible wild plant the greatest feat of genetic engineering in history.
If the AP test has a question on pre-Columbian American Indians, it may well contain that favorite buzzword of people who write early-history tests: Mesoamerica. Relax. Meso just means middle of the New World, as in south Mexico and Central America. This term throws a lot of people because it’s not part of the current United States that you thought you were studying.
Blame those advanced southern American Indians; they’re just more interesting than the hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists who peopled what’s now the United States. The Mesoamerican culture area included some of the most complex and organized people of the Americas, including the Olmecs, the Mayans, and the Aztecs. These cultures developed advanced political systems; discovered technological, scientific, and mathematical concepts; and participated in long-distance road networks that covered hundreds of miles and resulted in the transmission of ideas and products. Way to go, Mesoamerica!
The Original Empires Were American Indian
So why do you have to know about the three great American Indian empires that happened 1,000 miles south of the Rio Grande U.S. border? Because these southern American Indian superstates influenced the development of the United States, both directly and indirectly.
The riches that the American Indian empires amassed with the gold they discovered attracted the Spanish conquistadores like flies to a picnic. Easy conquests of large civilizations emboldened Europeans armed with only primitive guns and swords. The Spanish won partly because the American Indians were surprised by their weapons but mostly because the American Indians couldn’t believe how ruthless the Europeans were. Spanish riches sped the development of the New World and provided rich plunder for the buccaneers of other European nations.
The American Indian empires funded the Spanish empire. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588, other nations started colonies in the New World in hopes of finding similar riches. Many of these colonies were investor-owned joint stock companies — undertakings that wouldn’t have found support were it not for the Spanish experience with rich American Indian empires. More on that in Chapter 8.
Tales of cities of gold eventually led explorers overland into what’s now the American Southwest. Accounts of distant civilizations and new worlds to discover always stirred European adventurers into action.
Digging the Big Three cultures:
Mayan, Incas, and Aztecs
The Mayan, Incan, and Aztec Empires were the three large American Indian empires encountered by Spanish explorers. A predecessor civilization called the Olmec died out two thousand years before the Spanish arrived but started some of the traditions common to later American Indian empires.
North of present-day Panama and extending into what’s now southern Mexico, the Mayan (800 CE) built temple cities with tall pyramids surrounding wide plazas in the deserts, mountains, and rain forests. About 700 miles south of what’s now Mexico City, the Mayan were a Mesoamerican civilization noted for having the only fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas. They were also known for their intricate art, building techniques, and mathematical and astronomical developments. Mayan civilization ran until the arrival of the Spanish more than 2,000 years later.
Mayan writing used a system similar to that of the early Egyptians and Chinese. Mayan scribes had picture words, called glyphs, that could stand for a noun or a syllable sound. The Mayan were talented farmers who grew early corn variants, called maize, in raised fields. The Mayan people never disappeared, neither with the rise of other powerful American Indian kingdoms nor with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and the subsequent Spanish takeover. Today, the Mayan and their descendants form sizable populations throughout the Mayan area and maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are the result of the merger of pre-Columbian and post-conquest ideas. The Mayan may seem to worship in Christian churches, but many of their beliefs are thousands of years old.
The Incas (1400) are the second-oldest civilization of the big three, beginning their empire in about 1000 CE. At its height, the Incan empire stretched for 2,500 miles, almost as long as the distance across the continental United States. From 1438 to 1533, the Incas used both conquest and peaceful assimilation to influence a large portion of western South America. The center of their empire was in the Andean mountain ranges, including modern Ecuador, Peru, western and south-central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and north-central Chile, and southern Colombia.
Incan palaces were surrounded by high walls made of huge, closely fitted stones. Like their empire neighbors to the north, the Inca connected their vast holdings with paved roads. Their mountain towns include the stunning Machu Picchu. The Incas developed a system of terraced agriculture fed by canals and aqueducts to allow farming in the mountains; they gave the world the tomato and the potato. Incan government and agriculture were well developed by the time the conquistador Francisco Pizarro (1532) stopped by and led his force to victory over the Inca.
The Aztecs (1300) were the youngest of the Big Three American Indian empires. They hit the big time in modern-day Mexico City in about 1300 CE, just in time for a couple of hundred years of fun before Hernan Cortez and his Spanish buddies arrived to spoil the party. Mexico City was a city in the middle of a lake, with beautiful temples built along canals and a system of floating island gardens that fed much of the population. As the northernmost empire in Mesoamerica, Mexico City was connected with its provinces and tributary states by a good system of roads usually maintained through tribute from local rulers. Because the people had no horses or any kind of wheeled vehicles, the roads favored fast travel on foot. By order of the Aztecs, travelers had places to rest, eat, and even use a latrine at regular intervals — roughly every five to seven miles. Couriers with messages constantly traveled along those ways, keeping the Aztecs informed of events and reporting whether the roads needed work. Due to this steady surveillance, even women could travel alone — a fact that amazed the Spaniards because lone women hadn’t been safe in Europe since the time of the Romans.
The Aztecs were a warlike people with a king, priests, tax collectors, and a merchant middle class. They captured prisoners in constant conflicts and used them for human sacrifices. Their American Indian enemies helped Cortez, with his small band of brave and bloodthirsty soldiers, conquer the Aztecs and kill their king. This event led to an uprising in Mexico City, from which Cortez barely escaped with his life. Other American Indians were glad to see the Aztecs removed from the complete power they’d enjoyed for only a few years.
Don’t get caught confusing the Big Three American Indian empires. Just remember this: I’m not confused, AM I? From north to south, the three empires spell AM, I. The Aztecs are in Mexico, the Mayans are in Central America, and the Inca are in South America. In terms of age of the empires, they run MIA, as in missing in action. Mayans are the oldest, followed by the Incas and then the Aztecs. Both the Incas and the Aztecs got to rule for only a short time before the Spanish arrived. The Mayans had thousands of years to enjoy the limelight and were in serious decline when the Spanish arrived to end the party.
End of an empire
With just 180 men, 27 horses, and 1 cannon, Pizzaro often had to talk his way out of potential fights that could have easily wiped out his little band. The main type of battle in the Andes consisted of siege warfare, in which large numbers of drafted men were sent to overwhelm opponents.
Along with material superiority in the form of armor, weapons, and horses, the Spaniards acquired tens of thousands of native allies only too glad to end the Inca control of their territories. Combined, all of their resources and tactics allowed the Spanish to capture the emperor and subsequently throw the Incan ruling classes into a political struggle. The Spanish also kept increasing their native allies until they had enough people and resources to launch a successful attack on the Incan capital city.
The American Indian empires ended, but their cultural heritage lives on. Most Mexicans and Central and South Americans have American Indian ancestors. Anyone who has ever eaten a burrito, a taco, or even a french-fried potato has eaten American Indian food. Chewing gum, chocolate, and brightly patterned clothing left their American Indian-empire beginnings to become part of the world.
Question: What were the major American Indian empires encountered by Spanish explorers in Mesoamerica?
Answer: The Mayan, Incan, and Aztec empires.
Nothing Corny about Civilization Advancements
Corny as it sounds, corn made all the difference to American Indian civilization. The first planted-corn agriculture occurred in the Mexican highlands in about 5,000 BCE — a full 30,000 years after the first people got to the New World and around the time large-scale cropraising got going in Egypt and the Middle East. Corn-growing took 4,000 years to reach the American Southwest, where corn supported an advancing culture 1,000 years before the birth of Christ.
The Anazazis in what’s now New Mexico managed to build an apartment house with more than 600 interconnecting rooms. When the Spanish explorers reached the Southwest, they found villages of terraced multistory buildings. (Pueblo, the Spanish word now used for these American Indian settlements, means village.)
Another 2,000 years later, the American Indians in what’s now the Eastern United States got the good news about corn-planting. In 1,000 CE, corn helped support a settlement of 25,000 people near modern-day St. Louis. By the time agriculture got to the eastern section of what’s now the United States, the American Indians had only a few hundred years to enjoy cultivation in peace before the arrival of the Europeans.
Charting American Indians in North America
The American Indians living in North America before Columbus’ arrival were divided into Northeast, Southeast, Great Plains, Southeast, Great Basin, Plateau, California, and Northwest Coast civilizations. They consisted of thousands of small groups loosely connected into tribes. Western American Indians were mostly hunter-gatherers. The Eastern American Indians devised a clever system of what they called three sisters agriculture: corn, beans, and squash. Beans grew on the stalks of corn, and squash covered the planting mound to hold moisture in the soil. This method supported some of the largest tribes, including the Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw in the Southeast.
In the northern woodlands of what are now New York and New England was a remarkable alliance called the Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the League of Peace and Power, the Five Nations, the Six Nations, and the People of the Longhouse). This group of First Nations/American Indians originally consisted of five tribes: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca.
A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined after the settlers came. Their constitution, called the Great Law of Peace, was handed down from the Middle Ages, when Europe was just a collection of feuding local rulers. The Iroquois Confederation actually served as one model for the development of the U.S. Constitution.
Although what’s now the United States had some centers of development, the American Indian population of this area before Columbus probably never exceeded 4 million. Agriculture simply arrived too late to support large urban areas. In some areas, planting never arrived at all. The California American Indians spoke more than 200 languages and lived in small, stable communities near rich seashore and mountain food sources. These early Californians had the chance to develop agriculture but never bothered. Surf’s up, man.
Carrying Death in a Handshake
Explorers are biological weapons. They don’t mean to, but they carry diseases for which native populations have no immunities. These diseases killed many — perhaps most — of the American Indians in the New World before they had ever seen a European.
Good roads in the American Indian empires and nomadic migration by the plains American Indians allowed diseases to spread like wildfire. American Indians had no tradition of quarantine, which Europe had learned to use for epidemics; American Indians stayed close to their sick friends. Although staying close to those who are ill is good for human support, it’s bad for the transmission of infectious diseases. Europeans brought smallpox, measles, bubonic plague, influenza, typhus, diphtheria, and scarlet fever to the New World, and close American Indian communities spread these diseases.
When explorers spread out to settle new lands, their diseases went with them. Friendly Taino natives met Columbus when he landed on Hispaniola, the island the Spanish named for themselves. Within 50 years, the estimated 1 million local people on Hispaniola were reduced to a pathetic and lonely 200. The conquistadores managed to defeat big American Indian empires largely because these empires were already collapsing from within. With friends and allies dying all around them, the American Indians fought desperate wars among themselves for the few resources left. Fighting and illness left them relatively easy conquests for the Europeans.
Europeans had fished in southern New England for more than 100 years before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. They met the American Indians and, without meaning to, passed on some diseases. The native inhabitants had no resistance to the illnesses brought by the Europeans, and within a few years, a plague wiped out 90 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England. This death rate was unknown in all previous human experience. Even the Black Plague in the 1300s left 70 percent of Europe’s population alive. The American Indians who met the Pilgrims were a confused and disorganized remnant, fighting among themselves.
When most of your friends are dead, part of your spirit dies with them. American Indians felt that their Supreme Being must have abandoned them. Some survivors of the Cherokee lost all confidence in their religion and destroyed the sacred objects of their tribe. American Indians were so reduced in numbers that they offered little real opposition to European invaders; some even looked upon the settlers for possible salvation.
Before the arrival of European explorers, the native population of North and South America may have been 100 million in 1491. The entire population of Europe at the time was 70 million. If colonists hadn’t been able to take over lands that the American Indians had already cleared and cultivated, and if the American Indian population hadn’t suffered devastating epidemics, the landing of the explorers may have been a very different story.
Question: What was the largest cause of death for American Indians during the European conquest?
Answer: The largest cause of death was disease unintentionally spread by explorers.
By 1900, the American Indian population of the New World was less than 1 million — a drop of 99 percent from Columbus’s day. The United States had only 250,000 American Indians. Today, people are proud of their American Indian blood. In the 2000 U.S. census, more than 4 million Americans listed themselves as all or part American Indian.
Uneven Gift Exchange
What settlers brought to the New World versus what they took home leaves the American Indians way ahead on the gift exchange. The Old World brought death and domination to the people who lived in North and South America; the New World gave the Old World a new life. Eventually, European ideas of individual freedom would bring more options to American Indian survivors, but in the short run, the settlers profited far more than the American Indians.
Spain was poor and barely united when Columbus sailed. Through New World gold and silver, Spain was the richest country in Europe within a few decades. After the importation of corn, potatoes, pineapples, tomatoes, beans, vanilla, and chocolate from the New World, Europe had a chance to get fat and happy. The population of Europe more than doubled while Europeans spent the money and passed around the great food. Tobacco and syphilis also came from the Americas, but getting involved with either was generally a personal choice. Europe got tomato sauce for spaghetti and pizza, potatoes to go with meat, plus vanilla and chocolate for ice cream. What a deal!