Chapter 4

IN THE AREA around the town of Barquicimeto, in the lowlands near the northern coast of Venezuela, a mysterious fire like a will o’ the wisp sometimes seems to be burning in the marshes. It is, tradition has it, the “soul of the traitor Lope de Aguirre [who] wanders in the savannahs, like a flame that flies the approach of men.”1

Aguirre’s 1561 expedition from Peru, across the Andes and down to the Venezuelan seacoast, has become “a byword for sensational horror,” writes one historian, adding that “no pirates who infested the Caribbean before or since proved more rapacious and merciless,” and no military campaign was more “notorious for its atrocities” than the one driven by “Aguirre’s mad rage.”2 In fact, Aguirre’s rampage through South America was a good deal less destructive than those of any number of long-forgotten conquistadors. What has made it so memorable, so worthy of evocation in books and poems and films, was Aguirre’s propensity for killing Spaniards as well as Indians. This is what made him “the traitor Aguirre”—a traitor to nothing less than his race.

For this reason there never has been any doubt that Aguirre was an evil man. For this reason also, when he was captured, Aguirre’s fellow Spaniards cut off his head and placed it on display in an iron cage. Beyond Aguirre, however, debate has gone on almost non-stop for four centuries about the behavior of other conquistadors—about what in some quarters has come to be called the “Black Legend.” Proponents of this idea hold that the Spanish have been unduly and unfairly criticized for their behavior in the New World. They base this contention on two general principles: first, that the stories of Spanish cruelties toward the Indians, almost entirely traceable, it is said, to the writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas, are untrue, or at least are exaggerations; and, second, that the cruelties of other European nations against the native peoples of the Americas were just as condemnable.3

The first of these charges has now largely fallen into disuse as historian after historian has shown not only that Las Casas’s reports were remarkably accurate (and often, in quantitative terms, even underestimates) but that they were supported by a host of other independent observers who, like Las Casas, spent a good deal of time in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America during the sixteenth century.4 It is the second of the complaints by Black Legend advocates that remains worthy of consideration—that is, as one supporter of this view puts it, that “the Spaniards were no more and no less human, and no more and no less humane” than were other Europeans at that time.5 Of particular concern to those who hold this position is the behavior of the British and, later, the Americans. To be sure, on occasion this line of Spanish defense has been stretched to the point of absurdity. One historian, for example, has suggested quite seriously that—apart from their murderous treatment of the Indians—the Spaniards’ public torture and burning of Jews and other alleged heretics and heathens was simply “pageantry,” comparable, albeit on a different level, to American Fourth of July celebrations.6 But the larger argument that the Spanish were not unique in their murderous depredations—that others of European ancestry were of equally genocidal temperament—is, we shall see, both responsible and correct.


During the latter half of the sixteenth century, while the Spanish and Portuguese were busy “pacifying” the indigenous peoples in Mexico and on to the south (with additional forays up into Florida and Virginia), the English were preoccupied with their own pacification of the Irish. From the vantage point of the present it may seem absurd that the English of this time were accusing anyone of savagery or barbarism. After all, this was a society in which a third of the people lived at the bare margin of subsistence, a society in which conditions of health and sanitation were so appalling that it was rare for an individual to survive into his or her mid-thirties.7 As for the superior qualities of the English cast of mind, in the closing years of the sixteenth century (the era that British historians of philosophy call the dawn of the Age of Reason) the courts of Essex County alone brought in about 650 indictments for more than 1500 witchcraft-related crimes. And this, says the historian who has studied the subject most closely, “was only the projecting surface of far more widespread suspicions.”8

Still, Britain’s people considered themselves the most civilized on earth, and before long they would nod approvingly as Oliver Cromwell declared God to be an Englishman. It is not surprising, then, that English tracts and official minutes during this time described the “wild Irish” as “naked rogues in woods and bogs [whose] ordinary food is a kind of grass.” Less ordinary food for the Irish, some reported, was the flesh of other people, sometimes their own mothers—which, perhaps, was only fair, since still other tall tales had it that Irish mothers ate their children. The Irish were, in sum, “unreasonable beasts,” said William Thomas, beasts who “lived without any knowledge of God or good manners, in common of their goods, cattle, women, children and every other thing.”9

Such brutishness was beyond the English capacity for tolerance. Especially when the vulgarians in question occupied such lovely lands. So, as they had for centuries, the English waged wars to pacify and civilize the Irish. One of the more successful English soldiers in the Irish wars was the Oxford-educated half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, one Humphrey Gilbert—himself later knighted for his service to the Crown. Gilbert devised a particularly imaginative way of bringing the Irish to heel. He ordered that

the heddes of all those (of what sort soever thei were) which were killed in the daie, should be cutte off from their bodies and brought to the place where he incamped at night, and should there bee laied on the ground by eche side of the waie ledyng into his owne tente so that none could come into his tente for any cause but commonly he muste passe through a lane of heddes which he used ad terrorem.10

Needless to say, this “lane of heddes” leading to Gilbert’s tent did indeed cause “greate terrour to the people when thei sawe the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolke, and freinds” laid out “on the grounde before their faces.”11 Lest anyone think to quibble over such extreme methods of persuasion, however, the British frequently justified their treatment of the Irish by referring to the Spanish precedent for dealing with unruly natives.12

In the meantime, a few English expeditions had gone forth to explore the lands of the New World, but they concentrated on areas far to the north of where the Spanish were engaged in their exploits. The first serious attempt by the English to set up a colony in America was on Baffin Island, where they thought they had discovered gold. As it turned out, the mineral they discovered was fool’s gold and the colony was abandoned, but not before the leader of the expedition, Martin Frobisher, had captured and kidnapped a handful of the “sundry tokens of people” he found there.

On his first trip to the area Frobisher seized a native man who approached his ship in a kayak and returned with him and his kayak to England. The man soon died, however, so on his next voyage Frobisher took on board an old woman and a young woman with her child—this, after he and his men had “disposed ourselves, contrary to our inclination, something to be cruel,” and destroyed an entire native village. After stripping the old woman naked “to see if she were cloven footed,” they sent her on her way, but kept the young woman and child, along with a man they also had captured in a separate raid.13 They then brought the man and woman together, with the crew assembled “to beholde the manner of their meeting and entertainment,” as though they were two animals. The crew was disappointed, however, for instead of behaving in bestial fashion, the captive Indians showed themselves to be more restrained and dignified and sensitive than their captors.

At theyr first encountering, they behelde eache the other very wistly a good space, withoute speeche or worde uttered, with greate change of coloure and countenance, as though it seemed the greefe and disdeyne of their captivitie had taken away the use of their tongues and utterance: the woman of the first verie suddaynely, as though she disdeyned or regarded not the man, turned away and beganne to sing, as though she minded another matter: but being agayne broughte togyther, the man brake up the silence first, and with sterne and stayed countenance beganne to tell a long solemne tale to the woman, whereunto she gave good hearing, and interrupted him nothing till he had finished, and, afterwards being growen into more familiar acquaintance by speech, were turned togither, so that (I think) the one would hardly have lived without the comfort of the other.14

Much to the surprise of the inquiring English, however, the captive Indians maintained their sexual distance. Although they frequently comforted one another, reported a member of the crew, “only I thinke it worth the noting the continencie of them both; for the man would never shifte himselfe, except he had first caused the woman to depart out of his cabin, and they both were most shamefast least anye of their privie parts should be discovered, eyther of themselves or any other body.”15

Upon their arrival in England the kidnapped man unsurprisingly displayed “an Anglophobia,” reported one observer who disapproved. And when it was discovered that he was seriously ill from broken ribs that had punctured a lung, the presiding physician recommended blood-letting, but “the foolish, and only too uncivilised, timidity of this uncivilised man forbade it.” He died soon thereafter, as had the man they captured on their previous expedition. This was very upsetting to all concerned. As the physician in charge recalled: “I was bitterly grieved and saddened, not so much by the death of the man himself as because the great hope of seeing him which our most gracious Queen had entertained had now slipped through her fingers, as it were, for a second time.”16 His body was dissected and buried, by which time the native woman had also fallen ill. Before long, she was dead as well, and her child followed soon thereafter.

If the fate of Indians captured by the English for display and viewing in London was routinely the same as that suffered by natives in Spanish captivity, there also was a similarity in the fate of those Indians, north and south, who remained at home. By the time the English announced the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia (marking their dominion, as did the Spanish, with a cross), the lands the Spanish and Portuguese had conquered already were an immense and bone-strewn graveyard. Indians in the many tens of millions had died horribly from the blades and germs of their Iberian invaders. As far north as Florida and southern Georgia, for every ten Timucuan Indians who were alive in 1515 only one was alive in 1607. And by 1617, a short decade later, that number was halved again. According to the most detailed population analysis of this region that ever has been done, in 1520 the number of Timucuan people in the area totaled over 720,000; following a century of European contact they numbered barely 36,000. Two-thirds of a million native people—95 percent of the enormous and ancient Timucuan society—had been obliterated by the violence of sword and plague.17

But the Spanish didn’t stop at Florida and Georgia. As early as the summer of 1521, while Cortés and his army were still completing the destruction of Tenochtitlán, Spanish ships under the command of Pedro de Quejo and Francisco Gordillo landed on the coast of what is now South Carolina, near Winyah Bay, north of Charleston. Each man independently claimed possession of the land for his particular employer—and each one also denounced the other for doing so. But on one thing, at least, they agreed. Their mission was to find and capture as many Indians as possible and to bring them back to labor in the Bahamas, whose millions of native people by then—less than 30 years after Columbus’s first voyage—had largely been exterminated. They did their job well. After two weeks of friendly contact with the Indians living around Winyah Bay, Quejo and Gordillo invited them to visit their ships. Once the natives were on board, however, the two captains raised anchor and set sail for Santo Domingo.

There is some dispute as to how many Indians were captured that day by the Spanish—somewhere between 60 and 130—but there is no disagreement about what happened next. Upon their arrival in Santo Domingo the natives were enslaved and put to work on plantations, though for food they had to fend for themselves. They were reduced to scavenging through decaying garbage and eating dead and decomposing dogs and donkeys. By 1526, four years after their capture, only one of them was still alive.18

It was a fitting start for all that was to follow. For the next half-century and beyond, the Spanish and French and English plied the waters off the coast of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia—with raiding parties marching inland to capture slaves and spread disease and depredation. Before the last of the slaves from the Quejo-Gordillo expedition had been killed, Giovanni de Verrazzano was leading a fleet of French ships into the area, followed by Jacques Cartier in 1534, and numerous others after him. Their impact on the lives of the native peoples they encountered varied, as did their specific intentions. But for most, their intentions were clear in what they brought with them. Thus, in 1539, Hernando de Soto landed with a force of 600 armed men, more than 200 horses, hundreds of wolfhounds, mastiffs, and greyhounds, a huge supply of neck chains for the slaves they planned to capture, and a portable forge in case that supply proved inadequate.19

By the 1560s and 1570s European militiamen were traveling throughout the southeast, spreading disease and bloody massacre everywhere they went. Still, in the early 1570s—even after a series of devastating European diseases had attacked the Virginia Indians for more than half a decade—the Jesuit Juan Rogel, generally regarded as the most reliable of all the early Spanish commentators on this region, wrote of coastal Virginia: “There are more people here than in any of the other lands I have seen so far along the coast explored. It seemed to me that the natives are more settled than in other regions I have been.”20 And Father Rogel previously had lived in densely populated Florida. Twenty-five years later, when the British colonizing troops arrived at Jamestown, they found “a lande,” wrote one of them, “that promises more than the Lande of promisse: In steed of mylke we fynde pearl. / & golde Inn steede of honye.” But by now the people they found were greatly reduced in number from what they had been before the coming of the earlier Europeans. The signs of the previous invaders’ calling cards could not be missed, “for the great diseaze reignes in the [native] men generally,” noted an anonymous correspondent, “full fraught with noodes botches and pulpable appearances in their for-heades.”21

A decade earlier, in 1596, an epidemic of measles—or possibly bubonic plague—had swept through Florida, killing many native people. It may have made its way to Virginia as well, since on previous occasions the two locales had been nearly simultaneous recipients of European pestilence: in 1586, for instance, Thomas Hariot’s English troops left disease and death throughout Virginia at the same time that Francis Drake had loosed some “very foul and frightful diseases” (at least one of which appears to have been typhus) among the Indians at St. Augustine; and in 1564, a six-year siege of disease and starvation began that reduced Virginia’s population drastically, at the same time that a devastating plague of some sort was killing large numbers of Florida’s Timucuan people.22

Invariably, in the New World as in the Old, massive epidemics brought starvation in their wake, because the reduced and debilitated populations were unable to tend their crops. As one Jesuit wrote of Virginia in the fall of 1570:

We find the land of Don Luis [the Spanish name given an Indian aboard ship who had been taken from Virginia to Spain some years earlier] in quite another condition than expected, not because he was at fault in his description of it, but because Our Lord has chastised it with six years of famine and death, which has brought it about that there is much less population than usual. Since many have died and many also have moved to other regions to ease their hunger [and unwittingly spread disease inland] there remain but few of the tribe, whose leaders say that they wish to die where their fathers have died. . . . They seemed to think that Don Luis had risen from the dead and come down from heaven, and since all who remained are his relatives, they are greatly consoled in him. . . . Thus we have felt the good will which this tribe is showing. On the other hand, as I have said, they are so famished that all believe they will perish of hunger and cold this winter.23

It was not likely an exaggeration, then, when the British settlers in Jamestown were told in 1608, by the elderly leader of the Indians whose land they were there to take, that he had witnessed “the death of all my people thrice, and not one living of those 3 generations, but my selfe.”24England’s formal contribution to this holocaust was next.

Despite the horrors they had endured in recent decades, the Indians’ continuing abilities to produce enormous amounts of food impressed and even awed many of the earliest British explorers. Beans, pumpkins, and many other vegetables, especially corn, which was greatly superior in its yield (about double that of wheat) and in its variety of uses to anything Europeans had ever seen, were grown in fields tended with such care that they looked more like huge gardens, it was said, than farmlands. So too did at least some British, despite their general disdain for the Indians, initially praise their technological ingenuity, marveling as well at their smooth-functioning but complex machineries of government—government that was commonly under the control of democratic councils, but that also produced individual leaders of dignity and civility. As one historian has noted, the contrast in regal manner between the Indian and British leaders was especially extreme at the time of the British settlement of Virginia, because England was then ruled by King James I who was notorious for his personal filthiness, his excessive and slobbering ways of eating and drinking, and his vulgar and boorish style of speech and overall behavior.25

Admiration of Indian ways of living—particularly their peacefulness, generosity, trustworthiness, and egalitarianism, all of which were conspicuously absent from English social relations of the time—led to some eloquent early praise of Virginia’s native people, albeit from a distinct minority of British observers. But if those who spoke with their pens are sometimes regarded skeptically, those who voted with their feet cannot be. And it is especially telling that throughout the seventeenth and on into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while almost no Indians voluntarily lived among the colonists, the number of whites who ran off to live with the Indians was a problem often remarked upon. After a century and a half of permanent British settlement in North America, Benjamin Franklin joined numerous earlier commentators in lamenting that

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.26

Children brought up among the Indians were not the only problem. Adult men and women also turned their backs on Western culture, leading J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur to exclaim: “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of these Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!”27 After surveying and analyzing this literature and the narratives of those Europeans who wrote about their experiences with the Indians, James Axtell has concluded that the whites who chose to remain among the natives

stayed because they found Indian life to possess a strong sense of community, abundant love, and uncommon integrity—values that the European colonists also honored, if less successfully. But Indian life was attractive for other values—for social equality, mobility, adventure, and, as two adult converts acknowledged, “the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us.”28

The first colonial leaders, however, would have none of this. Most of them were military men, trained in the Irish wars. Whatever they thought of the Indian way of life, they never failed to regard the Indians themselves as peoples fated for conquest. As a counterweight to that relative handful of writers who were praising the native peoples and their governments, these British equivalents of the conquistadors viewed the Indians as, in John Smith’s words, “craftie, timerous, quicke of apprehension, and very ingenuous. Some,” he added, “are of disposition fearefull, some bold, most cautelous [deceitful], all Savage. . . . Their chiefe God they worship is the Divell”29 For men like Smith, having learned how to deal with what they regarded as the savage people of Ireland was a lesson of importance when they turned their attention to the Indians; as Howard Mumford Jones once put it, the “English experience with one wild race conditioned their expectation of experience with another.”30

And so, based on that experience, founding colonial leaders like Smith and Ralph Lane routinely carried out a policy of intimidation as the best means of garnering their hosts’ cooperation. Observing the closeness of Indian parents and children, for example, and the extraordinary grief suffered by Indian mothers and fathers when separated from their offspring, Smith and Lane made it a practice to kidnap and hold hostage Indian children whenever they approached a native town.31 As for those Englishmen among them who might be tempted to run off and live with the Indians, the colonial governors made it clear that such behavior would not be tolerated. For example, when in the spring of 1612, some young English settlers in Jamestown “being idell . . . did runne away unto the In-dyans,” Governor Thomas Dale had them hunted down and executed: “Some he apointed to be hanged Some burned Some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked and some to be shott to deathe.”32

This was the treatment for those who wished to act like Indians. For those who had no choice in the matter, because they were the native people of Virginia, the tone had been set decades earlier in the “lost colony” of Roanoke. There, when an Indian was accused by an Englishman of stealing a cup and failing to return it, the English response was to attack the natives in force, burning the entire community and the fields of corn surrounding it.33

Such disproportionate responses to supposed affronts was to mark English dealings with the Indians throughout the seventeenth century. Thus, in Jamestown in the summer of 1610, Governor Thomas West De la Warr requested of the Indian chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock) that he return some runaway Englishmen—presumably to be hanged, burned, “broken upon wheles,” staked, and shot to death—whom De la Warr thought Powhatan was harboring. Powhatan responded in a way that De la Warr considered unsatisfactory, giving “noe other than prowde and disdaynefull Answers.” So De la Warr launched a military campaign against Powhatan headed by George Percy, the brother of the Earl of Northumberland and De la Warr’s second in command. Here is Percy’s own description of what he did:

Draweinge my sowldiers into Battalio placeinge a Capteyne or Leftenante att every fyle we marched towards the [Indians’] Towne. . . . And then we fell in upon them putt some fiftene or sixtene to the Sworde and Almost all the reste to flyghte. . . . My Lieftenantt bringeinge with him the Quene and her Children and one Indyann prisoners for the Which I taxed him becawse he had Spared them his Answer was thatt haveinge them now in my Custodie I might doe with them whatt I pleased. Upon the same I cawsed the Indians head to be cutt of. And then dispersed my fyles Apointeinge my Sowldiers to burne their howses and to cutt downe their Corne groweinge aboutt the Towne.34

With the Indians thus dead or dispersed, their village destroyed, and their food supplies laid waste, Percy sent out another raiding party to do the same to another Indian town and then marched back to his boats with the Indian “queen” and her children in tow. There, however, his soldiers “did begin to murmur becawse the quene and her Children weare spared.” This seemed a reasonable complaint to Percy, so he called a council together and “it was Agreed upon to putt the Children to deathe the which was effected by Throweinge them overboard shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water.” Upon his return to Jamestown, however, Percy was informed that Governor De la Warr was unhappy with him because he had not yet killed the queen. Advised by his chief lieutenant that it would be best to burn her alive, Percy decided instead to end his day of “so mutche Blood-shedd” with a final act of mercy: instead of burning her, he had the queen quickly killed by stabbing her to death.35

From this point on there would be no peace in Virginia. Indians who came to the English settlements with food for the British (who seemed never able to feed themselves) were captured, accused of being spies, and executed. On other occasions Indians were enticed into visiting the settlements on the pretence of peace and the sharing of entertainment, whereupon they were attacked by the English and killed. Peace treaties were signed with every intention to violate them: when the Indians “grow secure uppon the treatie,” advised the Council of State in Virginia, “we shall have the better Advantage both to surprise them, & cutt downe theire Corne.” And when at last the Indians retaliated strongly, killing more than three hundred settlers, the attack, writes Edmund S. Morgan, “released all restraints that the company had hitherto imposed on those who thirsted for the destruction or enslavement of the Indians.”36 Not that the restraints had ever been particularly confining, but from now on the only controversy was over whether it was preferable to kill all the native peoples or to enslave them. Either way, the point was to seize upon the “right of Warre [and] invade the Country and destroy them who sought to destroy us,” wrote a rejoicing Edward Waterhouse at the time, “whereby wee shall enjoy their cultivated places . . . [and] their cleared grounds in all their villages (which are situate in the fruitfullest places of the land) shall be inhabited by us.”37

Hundreds of Indians were killed in skirmish after skirmish. Other hundreds were killed in successful plots of mass poisoning. They were hunted down by dogs, “blood-Hounds to draw after them, and Mastives to seaze them.” Their canoes and fishing weirs were smashed, their villages and agricultural fields burned to the ground. Indian peace offers were accepted by the English only until their prisoners were returned; then, having lulled the natives into false security, the colonists returned to the attack. It was the colonists’ expressed desire that the Indians be exterminated, rooted “out from being longer a people uppon the face of the earth.” In a single raid the settlers destroyed corn sufficient to feed four thousand people for a year. Starvation and the massacre of non-combatants was becoming the preferred British approach to dealing with the natives. By the end of the winter of 1623 the Indians acknowledged that in the past year alone as many of their number had been killed as had died since the first arrival of the British a decade and a half earlier.38

The slaughter continued. In 1624—in a single battle—sixty heavily armed Englishmen cut down 800 defenseless Indian men, women, and children in their own village. And, of course, as elsewhere, British diseases were helping to thin out whatever resistance the Indians could hope to muster. Long before the middle of the century was reached the region’s largest and most powerful Indian confederation, known to historians retrospectively as Powhatan’s Empire, was “so rowted, slayne and dispersed,” wrote one British colonist, “that they are no longer a nation.” At the end, Powhatan’s successor chief, Opechancanough, was captured. An old man now, “grown so decrepit that he was not able to walk alone . . . his Flesh all macerated, his Sinews slacken’d, and his Eye-lids become so heavy that he could not see,” Opechancanough was thrown into a cell in Jamestown and displayed like the captive beast that the colonists thought he was. But not for long. Within two weeks a British soldier shot him in the back and killed him.39

When the first 104 English settlers arrived at Jamestown in April of 1607, the number of Indians under Powhatan’s control was probably upwards of 14,000—a fraction of what it had been just a few decades earlier, because of English, French, and Spanish depredations and disease. (Estimates of the region’s native population prior to European contact extend upwards of 100,000.) By the time the seventeenth century had passed, those 104 settlers had grown to more than 60,000 English men and women who were living in and harvesting Virginia’s bounty, while Powhatan’s people had been reduced to about 600, maybe less.40 More than 95 percent of Powhatan’s people had been exterminated—beginning from a population base in 1607 that already had been drastically reduced, perhaps by 75 percent or more, as a result of prior European incursions in the region.

Powhatan’s Empire was not the only Indian nation in Virginia, of course, but his people’s fate was representative of that of the area’s other indigenous societies. In 1697 Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Andros put the number of Indian warriors in the entire colony at just over 360, which suggests a total Indian population of less than 1500, while John Lawson, in his New Voyage to Carolina, claimed that more than 80 percent of the colony’s native people had been killed off during the previous fifty years alone. In time, a combination plan of genocide and enslavement, as initially proposed by the colony’s Governor William Berkeley, appeared to quiet what had become a lingering controversy over whether it was best to kill all the Indians or to capture them and put them to forced labor: Berkeley’s plan was to slaughter all the adult Indian males in a particular locale, “but to spare the women and children and sell them,” says Edmund Morgan. This way the war of extermination “would pay for itself,” since it was likely that a sufficient number of female and child slaves would be captured “to defray the whole cost.”41

By the time this clever enterprise was under way in Virginia, the British had opened colonies in New England as well. As usual, earlier visits by Europeans already had spread among the Indians a host of deadly plagues. The Patuxet peoples, for example, were effectively exterminated by some of these diseases, while other tribes disappeared before they were even seen by any white men. Others were more fortunate, suffering death rates of 50 and 60 percent—a good deal greater than the proportion of Europeans killed by the Black Death pandemic of the fourteenth century, but still far short of total liquidation. These were rates, however, for any given single epidemic, and in New England’s sixteenth and seventeenth centuries few epidemics traveled by themselves.42 The extant descriptions of what life and death were like at times like these are rare, but the accounts we do have of the viral and bacteriological assaults are sobering indeed, reminiscent of the earlier Spanish and Portuguese accounts from Mesoamerica and Brazil. Wrote Plymouth Colony’s Governor William Bradford, for instance, of a smallpox epidemic from which huge numbers of Indians “died most miserably”:

For want of bedding and linen and other helps they fall into a lamentable condition as they lie on their hard mats, the pox breaking and mattering and running one into another, their skin cleaving by reason thereof to the mats they lie on. When they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold. And then being very sore, what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep. The condition of this people was so lamentable and they fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead. But would strive as long as they could, and when they could procure no other means to make fire, they would burn the wooden trays and dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows and arrows. And some would crawl out on all fours to get a little water, and sometimes die by the way and not be able to get in again.43

While “very few” of the Indians escaped this scourge, including “the chief sachem . . . and almost all his friends and kindred,” Bradford reported, “by the marvelous goodness and providence of God, not one of the English was so much as sick or in the least measure tainted with this disease.” Time and again Old World epidemics such as this coursed through the veins of the native peoples of the North Atlantic coast, even before the arrival of the first great waves of British settlers, leaving in their wake so many dead that they could not be buried, so many piles of skeletal remains that one early colonist referred to the land as “a new found Golgotha.”44 But it was a Golgotha the Puritans delighted in discovering, not only because the diseases they brought with them from England left the Puritans themselves virtually unaffected, but because the destruction of the Indians by these plagues was considered an unambiguous sign of divine approval for the colonial endeavor. As the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote in 1634, the Puritan settlers, numbering at the time “in all about four thousand souls and upward,” were in remarkably good health: “through the Lord’s special providence . . . there hath not died above two or three grown persons and about so many children all the last year, it being very rare to hear of any sick of agues or other diseases.” But, he noted in passing, as “for the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so as the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.”45

God, however, was not enough. At some point the settlers would have to take things into their own hands. For, terribly destructive though the Old World diseases were, some Indians remained alive. The danger posed by these straggling few natives was greatly exaggerated by the English (as it remains exaggerated in most history textbooks today), not only because their numbers had been so drastically reduced, but because their attitudes toward the colonists and their very means of warfare were so comparatively benign.

We have seen in an earlier chapter that the native peoples of this region (as elsewhere) combined in their everyday lives a sense of individual autonomy and communal generosity that the earliest Europeans commented on continuously. This was a great cultural strength, so long as the people they were dealing with shared those values and accepted the array of culturally correct reciprocal responses to them. However, just as their isolation from Old World diseases made the Indians an exceptionally healthy people as long as they were not contacted by disease-bearing outsiders, once Europeans invaded their lands with nothing but disdain for the native regime of mutual respect and reciprocity, the end result was doomed to spell disaster.

This probably is seen most dramatically in the comparative Indian and European attitudes toward warfare. We already have observed one consequence of the differing rituals that were conventional to Europe and the Americas in Montezuma’s welcoming Cortés into Tenochtitlán in part because Cortés claimed he was on a mission of peace; and one inviolable code of Mesoamerican warfare was that it was announced, with its causes enumerated, in advance. Cortés’s declared intentions of peace, therefore, were supposed by Montezuma to be his true intentions. A similar attitude held among Indians in much of what is now the United States. Thus, as a seventeenth-century Lenape Indian explained in a discussion with a British colonist:

We are minded to live at Peace: If we intend at any time to make War upon you, we will let you know of it, and the Reasons why we make War with you; and if you make us satisfaction for the Injury done us, for which the War is intended, then we will not make War on you. And if you intend at any time to make War on us, we would have you let us know of it, and the Reasons for which you make War on us, and then if we do not make satisfaction for the Injury done unto you, then you may make War on us, otherwise you ought not to do it.46

The simplicity of this seems naïve and even quaint to modern observers, as it did to seventeenth-century Britishers, but it made perfect sense to native peoples who simply did not wage war for the same reasons that Europeans did. “Given ample land and a system of values by and large indifferent to material accumulation,” writes a scholar of military law, “the New England tribes rarely harbored the economic and political ambitions that fueled European warfare.” Instead, an Indian war usually was a response to personal insults or to individual acts of inter-tribal violence. As such, it could be avoided by “making satisfaction for the injury done” (as noted in the quotation above), but even when carried out “native hostilities generally aimed at symbolic ascendancy, a status conveyed by small payments of tribute to the victors, rather than the dominion normally associated with European-style conquest.” Moreover, given the relative lack of power that Indian leaders had over their highly autonomous followers, Indian warriors might choose not to join in battle for this or that cause, and it was even common for an Indian war party on the march to “melt away as individual warriors had second thoughts and returned home.”47

Prior to the European assaults on their lands, Indians throughout the continent held similar attitudes toward the proper conduct of war. The idea of large-scale battle, wrote Ruth Benedict more than half a century ago, was “alien” to all these peoples. Of the California Indians, even long after they had almost been exterminated by white malevolence, Benedict wrote: “Their misunderstanding of warfare was abysmal. They did not have the basis in their own culture upon which the idea could exist.”48 As for the Indians of the Plains, who have been turned into the very portrait of aggression and ferocity by purveyors of American popular culture (and by far too many serious historians as well), wrote George Bird Grinnell:

Among the plains tribes with which I am well acquainted—and the same is true of all the others of which I know anything at all—coming in actual personal contact with the enemy by touching him with something held in the hand or with a part of the person was the bravest act that could be performed . . . [This was known as] to count coup on—to touch or strike—a living unhurt man and to leave him alive, and this was frequently done. . . . It was regarded as an evidence of bravery for a man to go into battle carrying no weapon that would do any harm at a distance. It was more creditable to carry a lance than a bow and arrows; more creditable to carry a hatchet or war club than a lance; and the bravest thing of all was to go into a fight with nothing more than a whip, or a long twig—sometimes called a coup stick. I have never heard a stone-headed war club called coup stick.49

Commenting on this passage, and on the generality of its application to indigenous warfare, anthropologist Stanley Diamond has noted that to people such as the American Indians “taking a life was an occasion,” whereas warfare of the type described “is a kind of play. No matter what the occasion for hostility, it is particularized, personalized, ritualized.” In contrast, by the time of the invasion of the Americas, European warfare had long since been made over into what Diamond describes as “an abstract, ideological compulsion” resulting in “indiscriminate, casual, unceremonious killing.”50

Not surprisingly, then, the highly disciplined and ideologically motivated British expressed contempt for what Captain John Mason called the Indians’ “feeble manner . . . [that] did hardly deserve the name of fighting.” Warfare among the native peoples had no “dissipline” about it, complained Captain Henry Spelman, so that when Indians fought there was no great “slawter of nether side” instead, once “having shott away most of their arrows,” both sides commonly “weare glad to retier.” Indeed, so comparatively harmless was inter-tribal fighting, noted John Underhill, that “they might fight seven yeares and not kill seven men.”51 Added Roger Williams: “Their Warres are farre lesse bloudy, and devouring than the cruell Warres of Europe; and seldome twenty slain in a pitcht field. . . . When they fight in a plaine, they fight with leaping and dancing, that seldome an Arrow hits, and when a man is wounded, unlesse he that shot followes upon the wounded, they soone retire and save the wounded.” In addition, the Indians’ code of honor “ordinarily spared the women and children of their adversaries.”52

In contrast, needless to say, the British did very little in the way of “leaping and dancing” on the field of battle, and more often than not Indian women and children were consumed along with everyone and everything else in the conflagrations that routinely accompanied the colonists’ assaults. Their purpose, after all, was rarely to avenge an insult to honor—although that might be the stipulated rationale for a battle—but rather, when the war was over, to be able to say what John Mason declared at the conclusion of one especially bloody combat: that “the Lord was pleased to smite our Enemies in the hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance.”53 Because of his readers’ assumed knowledge of the Old Testament, it was unnecessary for Mason to remind them that this last phrase is derived from Deuteronomy, nor did he need to quote the words that immediately follow in that biblical passage: “Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth. . . . But thou shalt utterly destroy them.”

The brutish and genocidal encounter to which Mason was referring was the Pequot War. Its first rumblings began to be heard in July of 1636—two years after a smallpox epidemic had devastated the New England natives “as far as any Indian plantation was known to the west,” said John Winthrop—when the body of a man named John Oldham was found, apparently killed by Narragansett Indians on Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast.54 Although he held positions of some importance, Oldham was not held in high regard by many of the English settlers—he had been banished from Plymouth Colony and described by its Governor Bradford as “more like a furious beast than a man”—and those whites who found his body had proceeded to murder more than a dozen Indians who were found at the scene of the crime, whether or not they were individually responsible.55 Even in light of the colonists’ grossly disproportionate sense of retribution when one of their own had been killed by Indians, this should have been sufficient revenge, but it was not. The colonists simply wanted to kill Indians. Despite the pledge of the Narragansetts’ chief to mete out punishment to Oldham’s murderers—a pledge he began to fulfill by sending 200 warriors to Block Island in search of the culprits—New England’s Puritan leaders wanted more.

Led by Captain John Endicott, a heavily armed and armored party of about a hundred Massachusetts militiamen soon attacked the Block Island Indians. Their plan was to kill the island’s adult males and make off with the women and children; as with Governor Berkeley’s later scheme in Virginia, the venture would pay for itself since, as Francis Jennings puts it, “the captured women and children of Block Island would fetch a tidy sum in the West Indies slave markets.”56 The Indians scattered, however, realizing they had no hope against the colonists’ weapons and armor, so the frustrated soldiers, able to kill only an odd few Narragansetts here and there, had to content themselves with the destruction of deserted villages. “We burnt and spoiled both houses and corn in great abundance,” recalled one participant.57

From Block Island the troops headed back to the mainland where, following the directions of their colony’s governor, they sought out a confrontation with some Pequot Indians. The Pequots, of course, had nothing to do with Oldham’s death (the excuse for going after them was the allegation that, two years earlier, some among them may have killed two quarrelsome Englishmen, one of whom had himself tried to murder the Governor of Plymouth Colony), so when the soldiers first appeared along the Pequots’ coastline the Indians ran out to greet them. As Underhill recalled: “The Indians spying of us came running in multitudes along the water side, crying, what cheere, Englishmen, what cheere, what doe you come for: They not thinking we intended warre, went on cheerefully untill they come to Pequeat river.”58 It soon became evident to the Pequots what the soldiers had come for, even if the cause of their coming remained a mystery, so after some protracted efforts at negotiation, the Pequots melted back into the forest to avoid a battle. As they had on Block Island, the troops then went on a destructive rampage, looting and burning the Indians’ villages and fields of corn.

Once the Massachusetts troops left the field and returned to Boston, the Pequots came out of the woods, made a few retaliatory raids in the countryside, and then attacked nearby Fort Saybrook. Casualties were minimal in all of this, as was normal in Indian warfare, and at one point—presumably feeling that their honor had been restored—the Pequots fell back and asked the fort’s commander if he felt he had “fought enough.” The commander, Lieutenant Lion Gardiner, made an evasive reply, but its meaning was clear: from that day forward there would be no peace. Next, the Pequots asked if the English planned to kill Indian women and children. Gardiner’s reply was that “they should see that hereafter.”59

For a time small troubles continued in the field, while in Hartford the Connecticut General Court met and declared war against the Pequots. John Mason was appointed commander of the Connecticut troops. Rather than attack frontally, as the Massachusetts militia had, Mason led his forces and some accompanying Narragansetts (who long had been at odds with the Pequots) in a clandestine assault on the main Pequot village just before dawn. Upon realizing that Mason was planning nothing less than a wholesale massacre, the Narragansetts dissented and withdrew to the rear. Mason regarded them with contempt, saying that they could “stand at what distance they pleased, and see whether English Men would now fight or not.” Dividing his forces in half, Mason at the head of one party, Underhill leading the other, under cover of darkness they attacked the unsuspecting Indians from two directions at once. The Pequots, Mason said, were taken entirely by surprise, their “being in a dead indeed their last Sleep.”60

The British swarmed into the Indian encampment, slashing and shooting at anything that moved. Caught off guard, and with apparently few warriors in the village at the time, some of the Pequots fled, “others crept under their Beds,” while still others fought back “most courageously,” but this only drove Mason and his men to greater heights of fury. “We must burn them,” Mason later recalled himself shouting, whereupon he “brought out a Fire Brand, and putting it into the Matts with which they were covered, set the Wigwams on Fire.”61 At this, Mason says, “the Indians ran as Men most dreadfully Amazed”:

And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and run into the very Flames, where many of them perished. . . . [And] God was above them, who laughed his Enemies and the Enemies of his People to Scorn, making them as a fiery Oven: Thus were the Stout Hearted spoiled, having slept their last Sleep, and none of their Men could find their Hands: Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling the Place with dead Bodies!62

It was a ghastly sight—especially since we now know, as Francis Jennings reminds us, that most of those who were dying in the fires, and who were “crawling under beds and fleeing from Mason’s dripping sword were women, children, and feeble old men.”63Underhill, who had set fire to the other side of the village “with a traine of Powder” intended to meet Mason’s blaze in the center, recalled how “great and doleful was the bloudy sight to the view of young soldiers that never had been in war, to see so many souls lie gasping on the ground, so thick, in some places, that you could hardly pass along.” Yet, distressing though it may have been for the youthful murderers to carry out their task, Underhill reassured his readers that “sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents.”64 Just because they were weak and helpless and unarmed, in short, did not make their deaths any less a delight to the Puritan’s God. For as William Bradford described the British reaction to the scene:

It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.65

Added the Puritan divine Cotton Mather, as he celebrated the event many years later in his Magnolia Christi Americana: “In a little more than one hour, five or six hundred of these barbarians were dismissed from a world that was burdened with them.” Mason himself counted the Pequot dead at six or seven hundred, with only seven taken captive and seven escaped. It was, he said joyfully, “the just Judgment of God.”66

The Narragansetts who had accompanied the Puritans on their march did not share the Englishmen’s joy. This indiscriminate carnage was not the way warfare was to be carried out. “Mach it, mach it,” Underhill reports their shouting; “that is,” he translates, “It is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slays too many men.”67 Too many Indians, that was. Only two of the English died in the slaughter.

From then on the surviving Pequots were hunted into near-extermination. Other villages were found and burned. Small groups of warriors were intercepted and killed. Pockets of starving women and children were located, captured, and sold into slavery. If they were fortunate. Others were bound hand and foot and thrown into the ocean just beyond the harbor. And still more were buried where they were found, such as one group of three hundred or so who tried to escape through a swampland, but could make “little haste, by reason of their Children, and want of Provision,” said Mason. When caught, as Richard Drinnon puts it, they “were literally run to ground,” murdered, and then “tramped into the mud or buried in swamp mire.”68

The comparative handful of Pequots who were left, once this series of massacres finally ended, were parceled out to live in servitude. John Endicott and his pastor, for example, wrote to the governor asking for “a share” of the captives, specifically “a yong woman or girle and a boy if you thinke good.”69 The last of them, fifteen boys and two women, were shipped to the West Indies for sale as slaves, the ship captain who carried them there returning the next year with what he had received in exchange: some cotton, some salt, some tobacco, “and Negroes, etc.” The word “Pequot” was then removed from New England’s maps: the river of that name was changed to the Thames and the town of that name became New London.70 Having virtually eradicated an entire people, it now was necessary to expunge from historical memory any recollection of their past existence.71

Some, however, remembered all too well. John Mason rode the honor of his butchery to the position of Major General of Connecticut’s armed forces. And Underhill, as Drinnon notes, “put his experience to good use” in selling his military prowess to the Dutch. On one subsequent occasion “with his company of Dutch troops Underhill surrounded an Indian village outside Stamford, set fire to the wigwams, drove back in with saber thrusts and shots those who sought to escape, and in all burned and shot five hundred with relative ease, allowing only about eight to escape—statistics comparable to those from the Pequot fort.”72

Meanwhile, the Narragansetts, who had been the Pequots’ rivals, but who were horrified at this inhuman carnage, quietly acknowledged the English domination of the Pequots’ lands—their “widowed lands,” to borrow a phrase from Jennings. That would not, however, prove sufficient. The English towns continued to multiply, the colonists continued to press out into the surrounding fields and valleys. The Narragansetts’ land, and that of other tribes, was next.

To recount in detail the story of the destruction of the Narragansetts and such others as the Wampanoags, in what has come to be known as King Philip’s War of 1675 and 1676, is unnecessary here. Thousands of native people were killed, their villages and crops burned to the ground. In a single early massacre 600 Indians were destroyed. It was, says the recent account of two historians, “a seventeenth-century My Lai” in which the English soldiers “ran amok, killing the wounded men, women, and children indiscriminately, firing the camp, burning the Indians alive or dead in their huts.” A delighted Cotton Mather, revered pastor of the Second Church in Boston, later referred to the slaughter as a “barbeque.”73 More butchery was to follow. Of these, one bloodbath alongside the Connecticut River was typical. It is described by an eyewitness:

Our souldiers got thither after an hard March just about break of day, took most of the Indians fast asleep, and put their guns even into their Wigwams, and poured in their shot among them, whereupon the Indians that durst and were able did get out of their Wigwams and did fight a little (in which fight one Englishman only was slain) others of the Indians did enter the River to swim over from the English, but many of them were shot dead in the waters, others wounded were therein drowned, many got into Canoes to paddle away, but the paddlers being shot, the Canoes over-set with all therein, and the stream of the River being very violent and swift in the place near the great Falls, most that fell over board were born by the strong current of that River, and carryed upon the Falls of Water from those exceeding high and steep Rocks, and from thence tumbling down were broken in pieces; the English did afterwards find of their bodies, some in the River and some cast a-shore, above two hundred.74

The pattern was familiar, the only exception being that by the latter seventeenth century the Indians had learned that self-defense required an understanding of some English ideas about war, namely, in Francis Jennings’s words: “that the Englishmen’s most solemn pledge would be broken whenever obligation conflicted with advantage; that the English way of war had no limit of scruple or mercy; and that weapons of Indian making were almost useless against weapons of European manufacture. These lessons the Indians took to heart,” so for once the casualties were high on both sides.75 There was no doubt who would win, however, and when raging epidemics swept the countryside during the peak months of confrontation it only hastened the end.

Once the leader of the Indian forces, “a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast,” the English called him, was captured—and cut in pieces—the rest was just a mop-up operation. As one modern celebrant of the English puts it: “Hunting redskins became for the time being a popular sport in New England, especially since prisoners were worth good money, and the personal danger to the hunters was now very slight.”76 Report after report came in of the killing of hundreds of Indians, “with the losse only of one man of ours,” to quote a common refrain. Equally common were accounts such as that of the capture of “about 26 Indians, most Women and Children brought in by our Scouts, as they were ranging the Woods about Dedham, almost starved.” All this, of course, was “God’s Will,” says the British reporter of these events, “which will at last give us cause to say, How Great is his Goodness! and how great is his Beauty!”77 As another writer of the time expressed the shared refrain, “thus doth the Lord Jesus make them to bow before him, and to lick the Dust.”78

Typical of those being made to bow and lick the dust by this time was “a very decrepit and harmless Indian,” too old and too weak to walk, who was captured by the Puritan troops. For a time, says the eyewitness account of John Easton, the soldiers contented themselves with merely “tormeriting” the old man. Finally, however, they decided to kill him: “some would have had him devoured by dogs,” wrote Easton, “but the tenderness of some of them prevailed to cut off his head.”79

The only major question remaining as King Philip’s war drew to its inevitable close was how to deal with the few natives who still were alive. So many Indians had been “consumed . . . by the Sword & by Famine and by Sickness,” wrote Cotton Mather’s father Increase, “it being no unusual thing for those that traverse the woods to find dead Indians up and down . . . there hath been none to bury them,” that there now were “not above an hundred men left of them who last year were the greatest body of Indians in New England.”80 As to what to do with that handful of survivors, only two choices—as always—enjoyed any support among the English colonists: annihilation or enslavement. Both approaches were tried. Allegedly dangerous Indians (that is, adult males) were systematically executed, while women and children were either shipped off to the slave markets of Spain or the West Indies, or were kept as servants of the colonists themselves. The terms of captured child slaves within Connecticut were to end once they reached the age of twenty-six. But few saw their day of liberation. Either they died before reaching their twenty-sixth birthday, or they escaped. And those who escaped and were caught usually then were sold into foreign slavery, with the blessing of the Connecticut General Court that had passed specific postwar legislation with this end in mind.

One final bit of business that required clearing up concerned the fates of those scattered Indians who had been able to hide out on islands in Narragansett Bay that were under the colonial jurisdiction of Rhode Island. Rhode Island had remained neutral during the war, and both the Indians and the leaders of the other colonies knew there was less likelihood of homicidal or other barbarous treatment for native refugees found in Rhode Island’s domain. This infuriated the colonists in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Plymouth, not only because of their continuing blood lust, but because the Rhode Islanders were themselves reducing escaped Indians to servitude, even if they were not methodically executing them. The other colonies, “mindful of the cash value of prisoners,” writes Douglas Edward Leach, felt that the Rhode Islanders were thus unfairly “now reaping the benefits which others had sowed in blood and treasure.” Rhode Island’s response was that the number of Indians within their territory was greatly exaggerated. And it appears that they were right, so successful had been the extermination campaign against the native people.81

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the indigenous inhabitants of New England, and of most other northeastern Indian lands, had been reduced to a small fraction of their former number and were living in isolated, squalid enclaves. Cotton Mather called these defeated and scattered people “tawny pagans” whose “inaccessible” homes were now nothing more than “kennels.”82 And Mather’s views, on this at least, were widely shared among the colonists. The once-proud native peoples, who had shown the English how to plant and live in the difficult environs of New England, were now regarded as animals, or at most, to quote one Englishwoman who traveled from Boston to New York in 1704, as “the most salvage of all the salvages of that kind that I have ever Seen.”83

It had started with the English plagues and ended with the sword and musket. The culmination, throughout the larger region, has been called the Great Dispersal. Before the arrival of the English—to choose an example further north from the area we have been discussing—the population of the western Abenaki people in New Hampshire and Vermont had stood at about 12,000. Less than half a century later approximately 250 of these people remained alive, a destruction rate of 98 percent. Other examples from this area tell the same dreary tale: by the middle of the seventeenth century, the Mahican people—92 percent destroyed; the Mohawk people—75 percent destroyed; the eastern Abenaki people—78 percent destroyed; the Maliseet-Passamaquoddy people—67 percent destroyed. And on, and on. Prior to European contact the Pocumtuck people had numbered more than 18,000; fifty years later they were down to 920—95 percent destroyed. The Quiripi-Unquachog people had numbered about 30,000; fifty years later they were down to 1500—95 percent destroyed. The Massachusett people had numbered at least 44,000; fifty years later they were down to barely 6000—81 percent destroyed.84

This was by mid-century. King Philip’s War had not yet begun. Neither had the smallpox epidemics of 1677 and 1678 occurred yet. The devastation had only started. Other wars and other scourges followed. By 1690, according to one count, the population of Norridgewock men was down to about 100; by 1726 it was down to 25. The same count showed the number of Androscoggin men in 1690 reduced to 160; by 1726 they were down to 10. And finally, the Pigwacket people: by 1690 only 100 men were left; by 1726 there were 7. These were the last ones, those who had fled to Canada to escape the English terrors. Once hostilities died down they were allowed to return to the fragments of their homelands that they still could say were theirs. But they hesitated “and expressed concern,” reports a recent history of the region, “lest the English fall upon them while they were hunting near the Connecticut and Kennebec Rivers.”85 The English—who earlier had decorated the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony with an image of a naked Indian plaintively urging the colonists to “Come over and help us”—had taught the natives well.


The European habit of indiscriminately killing women and children when engaged in hostilities with the natives of the Americas was more than an atrocity. It was flatly and intentionally genocidal. For no population can survive if its women and children are destroyed.

Consider the impact of some of the worst instances of modern warfare. In July of 1916, at the start of the First World War, General Douglas Haig sent his British troops into combat with the Germans at the Battle of the Somme. He lost about 60,000 men the very first day—21,000 in just the first hour—including half his officers. By the time that battle finally ended, Haig had lost 420,000 men.86 And the war continued for two more years. This truly was, far and away, the worst war in Britain’s history. To make matters worse, since the start of the decade England had been experiencing significant out-migration, and at the end of the decade it was assaulted by a deadly influenza pandemic. Yet, between 1911 and 1921, Britain’s population increased by about two million people.87

Or take Japan. Between 1940 and 1950, despite the frenzy of war in the Pacific, capped by the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the population of Japan increased by almost 14 percent. Or take Southeast Asia. Between 1960 and 1970, while B-52s were raining destruction from the sky and a horrific ground war was spilling across every national boundary in the region, Southeast Asia’s population increased at an average rate of almost 2.5 percent each year.88

The reason these populations were able to increase, despite massive military damage, was that a greatly disproportionate ratio of men to women and children was being killed. This, however, is not what happened to the indigenous people in the Caribbean, in Mesoamerica, in South America, or in what are now the United States and Canada during the European assault against them. Neither was this slaughter of innocents anything but intentional in design, nor did it end with the close of the colonial era.

As Richard Drinnon has shown, in his book Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, America’s revered founding fathers were themselves activists in the anti-Indian genocide. George Washington, in 1779, instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack the Iroquois and “lay waste all the settlements around . . . that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed,” urging the general not to “listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.” Sullivan did as instructed, he reported back, “destroying] everything that contributes to their support” and turning “the whole of that beautiful region,” wrote one early account, “from the character of a garden to a scene of drear and sickening desolation.” The Indians, this writer said, “were hunted like wild beasts” in a “war of extermination,” something Washington approved of since, as he was to say in 1783, the Indians, after all, were little different from wolves, “both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”89

And since the Indians were mere beasts, it followed that there was no cause for moral outrage when it was learned that, among other atrocities, the victorious troops had amused themselves by skinning the bodies of some Indians “from the hips downward, to make boot tops or leggings.” For their part, the surviving Indians later referred to Washington by the nickname “Town Destroyer,” for it was under his direct orders that at least 28 out of 30 Seneca towns from Lake Erie to the Mohawk River had been totally obliterated in a period of less than five years, as had all the towns and villages of the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Cayuga. As one of the Iroquois told Washington to his face in 1792: “to this day, when that name is heard, our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers.”90

They might well have clung close to the necks of their mothers when other names were mentioned as well—such as Adams or Monroe or Jackson. Or Jefferson, for example, who in 1807 instructed his Secretary of War that any Indians who resisted American expansion into their lands must be met with “the hatchet.” “And . . . if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe,” he wrote, “we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi,” continuing: “in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” These were not offhand remarks, for five years later, in 1812, Jefferson again concluded that white Americans were “obliged” to drive the “backward” Indians “with the beasts of the forests into the Stony Mountains” and one year later still, he added that the American government had no other choice before it than “to pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.” Indeed, Jefferson’s writings on Indians are filled with the straightforward assertion that the natives are to be given a simple choice—to be “extirpate[d] from the earth” or to remove themselves out of the Americans’ way.91 Had these same words been enunciated by a German leader in 1939, and directed at European Jews, they would be engraved in modern memory. Since they were uttered by one of America’s founding fathers, however, the most widely admired of the South’s slaveholding philosophers of freedom, they conveniently have become lost to most historians in their insistent celebration of Jefferson’s wisdom and humanity.

In fact, however, to the majority of white Americans by this time the choice was one of expulsion or extermination, although these were by no means mutually exclusive options. Between the time of initial contact with the European invaders and the close of the seventeenth century, most eastern Indian peoples had suffered near-annihilation levels of destruction; typically, as in Virginia and New England, 95 percent or more of their populations had been eradicated. But even then the carnage did not stop. One recent study of population trends in the southeast, for instance, shows that east of the Appalachians in Virginia the native population declined by 93 percent between 1685 and 1790—that is, after it already had declined by about 95 percent during the preceding century, which itself had followed upon the previous century’s whirlwind of massive destruction. In eastern North and South Carolina the decline between 1685 and 1790 was 97 percent—again, following upon two earlier centuries of genocidal devastation. In Louisiana the 1685–1790 figure for population collapse was 91 percent, and in Florida 88 percent. As a result, when the eighteenth century was drawing to its close, less than 5000 native people remained alive in all of eastern Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana combined, while in Florida—which alone contained more than 700,000 Indians in 1520—only 2000 survivors could be found.92

Overwhelmingly, these disasters were the result of massively destructive epidemics and genocidal warfare, while a small portion of the loss in numbers derived from forced expulsion from the Indians’ traditional homelands. How these deadly phenomena interacted can be seen clearly by examining the case of the Cherokee. After suffering a calamitous measure of ruination during the time of their earliest encounters with Europeans, the Cherokee population continued to decline steadily and precipitously as the years unfolded. During the late seventeenth and major part of the eighteenth century alone, for example, the already devastated Cherokee nation endured the loss of another three-fourths of its population.93 Then, just as the colonies were going to war in their quest for liberation from the British, they turned their murderous attention one more time to the quest for Indian liquidation; the result for the Cherokee was that “their towns is all burned,” wrote one contemporary, “their Corn cut down and Themselves drove into the Woods to perish and a great many of them killed.”94 Before long, observed James Mooney, the Cherokee were on “the verge of extinction. Over and over again their towns had been laid in ashes and their fields wasted. Their best warriors had been killed and their women and children had sickened and starved in the mountains.”95 Thus, the attempt at straightforward extermination. Next came expulsion.

From the precipice of non-existence, the Cherokee slowly struggled back. But as they did, more and more white settlers were moving into and onto their lands. Then, in 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected President. The same Andrew Jackson who once had written that “the whole Cherokee Nation ought to be scurged.” The same Andrew Jackson who had led troops against peaceful Indian encampments, calling the Indians “savage dogs,” and boasting that “I have on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed.” The same Andrew Jackson who had supervised the mutilation of 800 or so Creek Indian corpses—the bodies of men, women, and children that he and his men had massacred—cutting off their noses to count and preserve a record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their bodies to tan and turn into bridle reins. The same Andrew Jackson who—after his Presidency was over—still was recommending that American troops specifically seek out and systematically kill Indian women and children who were in hiding, in order to complete their extermination: to do otherwise, he wrote, was equivalent to pursuing “a wolf in the hamocks without knowing first where her den and whelps were.”96

Almost immediately upon Jackson’s ascension to the Presidency, the state of Georgia claimed for itself enormous chunks of Cherokee property, employing a fraudulent legal technique that Jackson himself had once used to justify dispossession. The Cherokee and other Indian nations in the region—principally the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, and the Creek—stood fast, even taking their case to the United States Supreme Court. But all the while that they were trying to hold their ground, a flood tide of white immigrants (probably about 40,000 in Cherokee country alone) swarmed over the hills and meadows and woods, their numbers continuing to swell as gold was discovered in one section of the territory.97

The white settlers, in fact, were part of the government’s plan to drive the Indians off their land. As Michael Paul Rogin has demonstrated, the “intruders entered Indian country only with government encouragement, after the extension of state law.” And once on the Indians’ land, they overran it. Confiscating the farms of wealthy and poor Indians alike, says Rogin, “they took possession of Indian land, stock, and improvements, forced the Indians to sign leases, drove them into the woods, and acquired a bonanza in cleared land.” They then destroyed the game, which had supplemented the Indians’ agricultural production, with the result, as intended, that the Indians faced mass starvation.98

Still, the Cherokee resisted. And by peaceful means. They won their case before the U.S. Supreme Court, with a ruling written by Justice John Marshall, a ruling that led to Jackson’s famous remark: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” The Court, of course, had no direct means of enforcement, so the drive against the Cherokee and the other Indians of the region continued unabated.

Finally, a treaty was drawn up, ceding the Cherokee lands to the American government in exchange for money and some land in what had been designated Indian Territory far to the west. Knowing that neither the Cherokee elders, nor the majority of the Cherokee people, would approve the treaty, the U.S. government held the most influential Cherokee leader in jail and shut down the tribal printing press while negotiations took place between American officials and a handful of “cooperative” Indians. Even the American military official who was on hand to register the tribe’s members for removal protested to the Secretary of War that “that paper . . . called a treaty, is no treaty at all, because not sanctioned by the great body of the Cherokee and made without their participation or assent. I solemnly declare to you that upon its reference to the Cherokee people it would be instantly rejected by nine-tenths of them, and I believe by nineteen-twentieths of them.”99

But the President had what he wanted—someone’s signature on a piece of paper. This was what the great French observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, was speaking of when he remarked sarcastically that, in contrast with the sixteenth-century Spanish, in the nineteenth century—and, we might add here, the twentieth—“the conduct of the United States Americans toward the natives was inspired by the most chaste affection for legal formalities. . . . It is impossible to destroy men with more respect to the laws of humanity.”100

Soon the forced relocation, what was to become known as the Trail of Tears, began under the direction of General Winfield Scott. In fact, the “relocation” was nothing less than a death march—a Presidentially ordered death march that, in terms of the mortality rate directly attributable to it, was almost as destructive as the Bataan Death March of 1942, the most notorious Japanese atrocity in all of the Second World War.101 About 22,000 Cherokee then remained in existence, 4000 of whom had already broken under the pressures of white oppression and left for Indian Territory. Another thousand or so escaped and hid out in the Carolina hills. The remaining 17,000 were rounded up by the American military and herded into detention camps—holding pens, really—where they waited under wretched and ignominious conditions for months as preparations for their forced exile were completed. James Mooney, who interviewed people who had participated in the operation, described the scene:

Under Scott’s orders the troops were disposed at various points throughout the Cherokee country, where stockade forts were erected for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. From these, squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the coves or by the sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their wheels and children from their play. In many cases, on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames, fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage. So keen were these outlaws on the scent that in some instances they were driving off the cattle and other stock of the Indians almost before the soldiers had fairly started their owners in the other direction. Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead. A Georgia volunteer, afterward a colonel in the Confederate service, said: “I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the crudest work lever knew.”102

An initial plan to carry the Cherokee off by steamboat, in the hottest part of the summer, was called off when so many of them died from disease and the oppressive conditions. After waiting for the fall season to begin, they were then driven overland, in groups upwards of about a thousand, across Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. One white traveler from Maine happened upon several detachments from the death march, all of them “suffering extremely from the fatigue of the journey, and the ill health consequent upon it”:

The last detachment which we passed on the 7th embraced rising two thousand Indians. . . . [W]e found the road literally filled with the procession for about three miles in length. The sick and feeble were carried in waggons—about as comfortable for traveling as a New England ox cart with a covering over it—a great many ride on horseback and multitudes go on foot—even aged females, apparently nearly ready to drop into the grave, were traveling with heavy burdens attached to the back—on the sometimes frozen ground, and sometimes muddy streets, with no covering for the feet except what nature had given them. . . . We learned from the inhabitants on the road where the Indians passed, that they buried fourteen or fifteen at every stopping place, and they make a journey of ten miles per day only on an average.103

Like other government-sponsored Indian death marches, this one intentionally took native men, women, and children through areas where it was known that cholera and other epidemic diseases were raging; the government sponsors of this march, again as with the others, fed the Indians spoiled flour and rancid meat, and they drove the native people on through freezing rain and cold. Not a day passed without numerous deaths from the unbearable conditions under which they were forced to travel. And when they arrived in Indian Territory many more succumbed to fatal illness and starvation.

All told, by the time it was over, more than 8000 Cherokee men, women, and children died as a result of their expulsion from their homeland. That is, about half of what then remained of the Cherokee nation was liquidated under Presidential directive, a death rate similar to that of other southeastern peoples who had undergone the same process—the Creeks and the Seminoles in particular. Some others who also had been expelled from the lands of their ancestors, such as the Chickasaw and the Choctaw, fared better, losing only about 15 percent of their populations during their own forced death marches.104 For comparative purposes, however, that “only” 15 percent is the approximate equivalent of the death rate for German combat troops in the closing year of World War Two, when Germany’s entire southern front was collapsing and its forces in the field everywhere were being overwhelmed and more than decimated. The higher death rate of the Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokee was equal to that of Jews in Germany, Hungary, and Rumania between 1939 and 1945.105 And all these massacres of Indians took place, of course, only after many years of preliminary slaughter, from disease and military assault, that already had reduced these peoples’ populations down to a fragment of what they had been prior to the coming of the Europeans.

The story of the southeastern Indians, like that of the northeastern tribes, was repeated across the entire expanse of the North American continent, as far south as Mexico, as far north as Canada and the Arctic, as far west as the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. Just as we have had to overlook many native peoples in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and elsewhere, who regularly suffered depopulation rates of 90 to 95 percent and more—as well as numerous New England and southern tribes who passed into total extinction with less drama than did those we have surveyed here—our references to the holocaust that swept the rest of the continent can be little more than suggestive of the devastation that occurred.

We can speak of small but illustrative incidents. For example, the total destruction in 1792 of a far northwest coast Nootka Indian village called Opitsatah, half a mile in diameter and containing more than 200 elaborately carved homes (and many times that number of people) under the command of a man who later said he “was in no ways tenacious of” carrying out such mass murder, and that he “was grieved to think” that his commander “should let his passions go so far.” But he did it anyway, because he was ordered to. Every door the American killers entered, he said, “was in resemblance to a human and beasts head, the passage being through the mouth, besides which there was much more rude carved work about the dwellings, some of which by no means inelegant. This fine village, the work of ages, was in a short time totally destroyed.”106 Or there is the case of the Moravian Delaware Indians who had converted to Christianity, as demanded by their white conquerors, in order to save their lives. It didn’t matter. After destroying their corn and reducing them to starving scavengers, American troops under Colonel David Williamson rounded up those tribal members who were still clinging to life and, as reported after the events,

assured them of sympathy in their great hunger and their intention to escort them to food and safety. Without suspicion . . . the Christians agreed to go with them and after consultations, hastened to the Salem fields to bring in their friends. The militia relieved the Indians of their guns and knives, promising to restore them later. The Christians felt safe with these friendly men whose interest in their welfare seemed genuine. Too late they discovered the Americans’ treachery. Once defenseless, they were bound and charged with being warriors, murderers, enemies and thieves. . . . After a short night of prayer and hymns . . . twenty-nine men, twenty-seven women, and thirty-four children were ruthlessly murdered. Pleas, in excellent English, from some of the kneeling Christians, failed to stop the massacre. Only two escaped by feigning death before the butchers had completed their work of scalping.107

Massacres of this sort were so numerous and routine that recounting them eventually becomes numbing—and, of course, far more carnage of this sort occurred than ever was recorded. So no matter how numbed—or even, shamefully, bored—we might become at hearing story after story after story of the mass murder, pillage, rape, and torture of America’s native peoples, we can be assured that, however much we hear, we have heard only a small fragment of what there was to tell.

The tale of the slaughter at Wounded Knee in South Dakota is another example too well known to require detailed repeating here, but what is less well known about that massacre is that, a week and a half before it happened, the editor of South Dakota’s Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer—a gentle soul named L. Frank Baum, who later became famous as the author of The Wizard of Oz—urged the wholesale extermination of all America’s native peoples:

The nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they should die than live the miserable wretches that they are.108

Baum reflected well the attitudes of his time and place, for ten days later, after hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee had been killed by the powerful Hotchkiss guns (breech-loading cannons that fired an explosive shell) of the Seventh Cavalry, the survivors were tracked down for miles around and summarily executed—because, and only because, the blood running in their veins was Indian. “Fully three miles from the scene of the massacre we found the body of a woman completely covered with a blanket of snow,” wrote one eyewitness to the butchery, “and from this point on we found them scattered along as they had been relentlessly hunted down and slaughtered while fleeing for their lives. . . . When we reached the spot where the Indian camp had stood, among the fragments of burned tents and other belongings we saw the frozen bodies lying close together or piled one upon another.”109 Other women were found alive, but left for dead in the snow. They died after being brought under cover, as did babies who “were found alive under the snow, wrapped in shawls and lying beside their dead mothers.”110 Women and children accounted for more than two-thirds of the Indian dead. As one of the Indian witnesses—a man named American Horse, who had been friendly to the American troops for years—recalled:

They turned their guns, Hotchkiss guns, etc., upon the women who were in the lodges standing there under a flag of truce, and of course as soon as they were fired upon they fled. . . . There was a woman with an infant in her arms who was killed as she almost touched the flag of truce, and the women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through, and the women who were very heavy with child were also killed. . . . After most all of them had been killed a cry was made that all those who were not killed or wounded should come forth and they would be safe. Little boys who were not wounded came out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of soldiers surrounded them and butchered them there. . . . Of course it would have been all right if only the men were killed; we would feel almost grateful for it. But the fact of the killing of the women, and more especially the killing of the young boys and girls who are to go to make up the future strength of the Indian people, is the saddest part of the whole affair and we feel it very sorely.111

Four days after this piece of work the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer’s editor Baum sounded his approval, asserting that “we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up. . . . and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”112

Some native people did survive at Wounded Knee, however, including “a baby of about a year old warmly wrapped and entirely unhurt,” recalled an Indian witness to the carnage. “I brought her in, and she was afterward adopted and educated by an army officer.”113 This was the child named Zintka Lanuni—or Lost Bird—who in fact was taken by General William Colby against the other survivors’ objections, not to educate her but to display her thereafter for profit as a genuine Indian “war curio.” When Colby first showed off “his newly acquired possession,” reported his home town newspaper, “not less than 500 persons called at his house to see it.” Finally put on display in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Lost Bird died at age twenty-nine in Los Angeles. In July 1991, the Lakota had her remains moved from Los Angeles back to Wounded Knee, where she was interred, a hundred years after the massacre, next to the mass grave that still marks the killing field where the rest of her family lies buried.114

Sometimes it was raw slaughter, sometimes it was the raging fire of exotic introduced disease. But, year in and year out, in countless places across the length and breadth of the continent, the “scene of desolation” described by one observer of events in western Canada was repeated over and over again:

In whatever direction you turn, nothing but sad wrecks of mortality meet the eye; lodges standing on every hill, but not a streak of smoke rising from them. Not a sound can be heard to break the awful stillness, save the ominous croak of ravens, and the mournful howl of wolves fattening on the human carcasses that lie strewed around. It seems as if the very genius of desolation had stalked through the prairies, and wreaked his vengeance on everything bearing the shape of humanity.115

Or we can speak of statistics. They are, on the surface, less emotional evidence, and are simple to enumerate. Take Illinois, for example. Between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth century the number of Illinois Indians fell by about 96 percent; that is, for every one hundred Illinois Indians alive in 1680, only four were alive a century later. That massive destruction was the result of war, disease, and despair—despair in the face of apparently imminent extinction from a siege the likes of which cannot be imagined by those who have not endured it. A fragmentary selection of examples from every corner of the continent—in addition to the instances already discussed—tells the same depressing tale over and over again. The Kansa people of northeast Kansas suffered about the same level of devastation as the Illinois, though stretched over a somewhat longer period of time: it took a bit more than a century and a half—from the early eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century for the Kansa population to fall to 4 percent of its former size. A higher rate of collapse has been calculated for the ten tribes of Kalapuya Indians of Oregon’s Willamette Valley: for every hundred Kalapuya alive prior to Western contact, about 25 or 30 remained alive in the late eighteenth century; only five were left by the late 1830s; and only one was left at the close of the nineteenth century. In Baja, California up to 60,000 Indians were alive at the end of the seventeenth century; by the middle of the nineteenth century there were none. Further north in California, the Tolowa peoples’ population had collapsed by 92 percent after fifty years of Western contact. In less than half a century, between 1591 and 1638, two out of three people in northwestern Mexico died. In western Arizona and eastern New Mexico, within fifty years following European contact at least half of the Zuni, two-thirds of the Acoma, and 80 percent of the Hopi people had been liquidated. In Delaware, half the Munsee tribe was wiped out in the thirty-five years between 1680 and 1715. Two-thirds of New York’s Huron nation were killed in a single decade. In Oklahoma, 50 percent of the Kiowa people died in a period of just two years. Ninety percent of the Upper Missouri River Mandan died in less than a year. From a population of up to 20,000 in 1682, the Quapaw people of the lower Mississippi and Arkansas River valleys were reduced in number to 265 by 1865—a 99 percent destruction rate. In Alaska, in part because of its vastness and the relative remoteness of its population centers, statistics are less clear. However, as a detailed recent study shows, from the earliest days of Western contact Aleut and other native peoples were “systematically exterminated”—first by Russians, later by Americans—when they weren’t being destroyed by introduced epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, measles, or influenza (which carried away as much as a third of the region’s population in individual assaults), and by the lethal gifts of syphilis and tuberculosis, which rotted away more slowly from within.116

Controlled studies of tribal populations across the Lower Mississippi Valley, Central New York, and the Middle Missouri region replicate these patterns: drastic and often catastrophic population crashes, occasionally plunging to extinction levels, occurred repeatedly.117 In all these cases—and in literally hundreds more of equal magnitude—the observed population collapses occurred after previous population declines that are known to have happened, but whose numbers went unrecorded. Thus, even figures of 95 and 98 and 99 percent destruction may time and again be too low. For this same reason, many entire tribes will never even be mentioned in lists of Indian population decline because they disappeared before any whites were around to record their existence for posterity. In 1828, for example, the French biologist Jean Louis Berlandier traveled through Texas and noted that of fifty-two Indian nations recorded by members of the La Salle expedition a century and a half earlier only three or four nations remained. But we will never know how many of Texas’s native peoples or tribes were wiped out by the swarms of violence and deadly infectious disease that arrived from Europe, by way of Spanish troops, before La Salle’s expedition appeared upon the scene. For when he was in Louisiana in 1682, LaSalle repeatedly questioned whether the maps and chronicles he had inherited from the earlier De Soto expedition were accurate, since they referred to the presence of large numbers of Indian peoples and populations that LaSalle could not find, because they already had long since been destroyed.118

Among all these instances of horror visited upon America’s native peoples, however, one episode perhaps stands out. It occurred in eastern Colorado in November of 1864, at a small and unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho village known as Sand Creek. It is not that so many Indians died there. Rather, it is how they died—and the political and cultural atmosphere in which they died—that is so historically revealing. It is, moreover, representative in its savagery of innumerable other events that differ from it only because they left behind less visible traces.

Colorado at this time was the quintessence of the frontier west. Various incidents had earlier raised tensions between the Indians there and the seemingly endless flow of white settlers who came as squatters on Cheyenne and Arapaho lands. As tempers flared, so did the settlers’ rhetoric, which became inflamed with genocidal threats and promises. During the year preceding the incident that has come to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre, a local newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, launched an incendiary campaign that urged the Indians’ extermination. “They are a dissolute, vagabondish, brutal, and ungrateful race, and ought to be wiped from the face of the earth,” wrote the News’s editor in March of 1863. In that year, of twenty-seven stories having anything at all to do with Indians, ten went out of their way to urge extermination.119

The following year was election time in Colorado. In addition to political offices that were up for grabs, a constitution was on the ballot that would have opened the door for statehood—something that was not especially popular with most settlers. The faction allied with the Rocky Mountain News (which included the incumbent governor) supported statehood and apparently perceived political gain to be had in whipping up hatred for the Indians. As a rival newspaper put it, the pro-statehood forces believed that if they “cooked up” enough settler fear of the Indians they would be able to “prove [to the voters] that only as a state could Colorado get sufficient troops to control her Indians.” While the election year wore on, stories in the News continued to stir those fears: wild rumors of Indian conspiracies were heralded as fact; any violence at all between whites and Indians was reported as an Indian “massacre.”120

The public and the military began taking up the chant. After a skirmish between Indians and soldiers in which two soldiers died, the military replied by killing twenty-five Indians. “Though I think we have punished them pretty severely in this affair,” stated the troops’ commander, “yet I believe now is but the commencement of war with this tribe, which must result in exterminating them.” More skirmishes followed. Groups of Indians, including women and children, were killed here and there by soldiers and bands of vigilantes. To many whites it had become abundantly clear, as the News proclaimed in August of 1864, that the time was at hand when the settlers and troops must “go for them, their lodges, squaws and all.”121

Then, at last, the excuse was at hand. A family of settlers was killed by a group of Indians—which Indians, no one knew, nor did anyone care. The governor issued an emergency proclamation: regiments of citizen soldiers were authorized to form and to kill any and all hostile Indians they could find. Their compensation would be “whatever horses and other property they may capture, and, in addition, [the Governor] promises to use his influence to procure their payment by the general government.” In effect, this was an official government license to kill any and all Indians on sight, to seize their horses and other property, and then—after the fact—to claim they had been “hostiles.” In the event that this point might be missed by some, the governor’s journalistic ally, the News, urged all out “extermination against the red devils,” making no distinction between those Indians who were friendly and those who were not. With identical intent the governor issued another proclamation—a clarification: the evidence was now “conclusive,” he declared, that “most” of the Indians on the Plains were indeed “hostile” it was, therefore, the citizens’ and the military’s right and obligation—for which they would be duly paid—to “pursue, kill, and destroy” them all.122

This, then, was the mood and the officially sanctioned setting when about 700 heavily armed soldiers, under the command of a former Methodist missionary (and still an elder in the church), Colonel John Chivington, rode into Sand Creek village. Several months earlier Chivington, who that year was also a candidate for Congress, had announced in a speech that his policy was to “kill and scalp all, little and big.” “Nits make lice,” he was fond of saying—indeed, the phrase became a rallying cry of his troops; since Indians were lice, their children were nits—and the only way to get rid of lice was to kill the nits as well. Clearly, Colonel Chivington was a man ahead of his time. It would be more than half a century, after all, before Heinrich Himmler would think to describe the extermination of another people as “the same thing as debusing.”123

The air was cold and crisp, the early morning darkness just beginning to lift, when they entered the snowy village on November 29. The creek was almost dry, the little water in it crusted over with ice, untouched yet by the dawn’s first rays of sun. The cavalrymen paused and counted well over a hundred lodges in the encampment. Within them, the native people were just stirring; as had been the case with the Pequots in Connecticut, more than 200 years earlier—and with countless other native peoples across the continent since then—the village was filled almost entirely with women and children who had no inkling of what was about to happen. Most of the men were away on a buffalo hunt. One of the colonel’s guides, Robert Bent, later reported that there were about 600 Indians in camp that morning, including no more than “thirty-five braves and some old men, about sixty in all.” The rest were women and children.124

A few days before riding into the Indian camp Colonel Chivington had been informed that the village at Sand Creek could be taken with a small fraction of the troops at his command, not only because most of the Cheyenne men were away on the hunt, but because the people had voluntarily disarmed themselves to demonstrate that they were not hostile. They had turned in all but their essential hunting weapons to the commander at nearby Fort Lyon. Technically, the colonel was informed, the government considered the Indians at Sand Creek to be harmless and disarmed prisoners of war. Witnesses later reported that Chivington—who just then had been going on at length about his desire for taking Indian scalps—dismissed this news, drew himself up in his chair, and replied: “Well, I long to be wading in gore.”125

His wish was soon fulfilled. As Chivington and his five battalions moved into the village that morning, two whites who were visiting the camp tied a tanned buffalo hide to a pole and waved it to signal the troops that this was a friendly town. They were met with a fusillade of gunfire. Then old chief Black Kettle, the principal leader of the Cheyenne, tied a white flag to a lodge pole, and above that he tied an American flag that had been given him by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He gathered his family around him and he held the pole high—again, in an effort to show the American soldiers that his was not a hostile camp. He “kept calling out” to his people “not to be frightened,” Robert Bent’s brother George recalled, “that the camp was under protection and there was no danger. Then suddenly the troops opened fire on this mass of men, women, and children, and all began to scatter and run.”126

The massacre was on. Chivington ordered that cannons be fired into the panicked groups of Indians first; then the troops charged on horseback and on foot. There was nowhere for the native people to hide. The few Cheyenne and Arapaho men in camp tried to fight back, and Robert Bent says they “all fought well,” but by his own count they were outnumbered twenty to one and had virtually no weapons at their disposal. Some women ran to the riverbank and clawed at the dirt and sand, frantically and hopelessly digging holes in which to conceal themselves or their children.

From this point on it is best simply to let the soldiers and other witnesses tell what they did and what they saw, beginning with the testimony of Robert Bent:127

After the firing the warriors put the squaws and children together, and surrounded them to protect them. I saw five squaws under a bank for shelter. When the troops came up to them they ran out and showed their persons, to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all. . . . There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were afterwards killed, and four or five bucks outside. The squaws offered no resistance. Every one I saw dead was scalped. I saw one squaw cut open with an unborn child, as I thought, lying by her side. Captain Soule afterwards told me that such was the fact. . . . I saw quite a number of infants in arms killed with their mothers.

I went over the ground soon after the battle [reported Asbury Bird, a soldier with Company D of the First Colorado Cavalry]. I should judge there were between 400 and 500 Indians killed. . . . Nearly all, men, women, and children were scalped. I saw one woman whose privates had been mutilated.

The bodies were horribly cut up [testified Lucien Palmer, a Sergeant with the First Cavalry’s Company C] skulls broken in a good many; I judge they were broken in after they were killed, as they were shot besides. I do not think I saw any but what was scalped; saw fingers cut off [to get the rings off them], saw several bodies with privates cut off, women as well as men.

Next morning after the battle [said Corporal Amos C. Miksch, also of Company C], I saw a little boy covered up among the Indians in a trench, still alive. I saw a major in the 3rd regiment take out his pistol and blow off the top of his head. I saw some men unjointing fingers to get rings off, and cutting off ears to get silver ornaments. I saw a party with the same major take up bodies that had been buried in the night to scalp them and take off ornaments. I saw a squaw with her head smashed in before she was killed. Next morning, after they were dead and stiff, these men pulled out the bodies of the squaws and pulled them open in an indecent manner. I heard men say they had cut out the privates, but did not see it myself.

I saw some Indians that had been scalped, and the ears were cut off of the body of White Antelope [said Captain L. Wilson of the First Colorado Cavalry]. One Indian who had been scalped had also his skull all smashed in, and I heard that the privates of White Antelope had been cut off to make a tobacco bag out of. I heard some of the men say that the privates of one of the squaws had been cut out and put on a stick.

The dead bodies of women and children were afterwards mutilated in the most horrible manner [testified David Louderback, a First Cavalry Private]. I saw only eight. I could not stand it; they were cut up too much . . . they were scalped and cut up in an awful manner. . . . White Antelope’s nose, ears, and privates were cut off.

All manner of depredations were inflicted on their persons [said John S. Smith, an interpreter], they were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word . . . worse mutilated than any I ever saw before, the women all cut to pieces. . . . [C]hildren two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors.

In going over the battle-ground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner—men, women, and children’s privates cut out, &c. [reported First Lieutenant James D. Cannon of the New Mexico Volunteers]. I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick; I heard another man say that he had cut the fingers off an Indian to get the rings on the hand. . . . I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows, and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks. . . . I heard one man say that he had cut a squaw’s heart out, and he had it stuck up on a stick.

Once the carnage was over, and the silence of death had descended on the killing-field, Colonel Chivington sent messages to the press that he and his men had just successfully concluded “one of the most bloody Indian battles ever fought” in which “one of the most powerful villages in the Cheyenne nation” was destroyed. There was exultation in the land. “Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt,” joked the Rocky Mountain News. “Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send east.”128

Outside of Colorado, however, not everyone was pleased. Congressional investigations were ordered, and some among the investigators were shocked at what they found. One of them, a senator who visited the site of the massacre and “picked up skulls of infants whose milk-teeth had not yet been shed,” later reported that the concerned men of Congress had decided to confront Colorado’s governor and Colonel Chivington openly on the matter, and so assembled their committee and the invited general public in the Denver Opera House. During the course of discussion and debate, someone raised a question: Would it be best, henceforward, to try to “civilize” the Indians or simply to exterminate them? Whereupon, the senator wrote in a letter to a friend, “there suddenly arose such a shout as is never heard unless upon some battlefield—a shout almost loud enough to raise the roof of the opera house—EXTERMINATE THEM! EXTERMINATE THEM!’ “129

The committee, apparently, was impressed. Nothing ever was done to Chivington, who took his fame and exploits on the road as an after-dinner speaker. After all, as President Theodore Roosevelt said later, the Sand Creek Massacre was “as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.”130


Meanwhile, there was California to the west, the last stop before the holocaust that had begun on Hispaniola in 1492 would move out across the Pacific, in the wake of eighteenth-century voyages to Australia, Polynesia, and beyond by Captains Cook, Wallis, Bougainville, and others. Spanish troops had entered California overland early in the sixteenth century, while Cortés and Pizarro were still alive and basking in the glory of their conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas. Indeed, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who heard stories of Spanish troops and violence in California while he was sailing off the coast in 1542, probably had been with Cortés at the fall of Tenochtitlán and with the infamous Alvarado further south.131 In any case, wherever there was Spanish violence there was bound to be disease. In raping native women and merely breathing on native men, the marching Spanish soldiers spread syphilis and gonorrhea, smallpox and influenza, everywhere they went. And Cabrillo was not likely innocent himself: his crews were mostly conscripts, the dregs of the Spanish settlements in Mexico; there can be little doubt that diseases festered in those men that became explosive epidemics when spread among the natives.

It once was thought that syphilis did not arrive in California until Don Juan Bautista de Anza’s introduction of the “putrid and contagious” plague in 1777, but there is no longer any doubt that the disease was present throughout the region well before de Anza’s visit.132 As for smallpox, influenza, and other lethal infections, they spread early and they spread far. Martin de Aguilar explored the northern California and Oregon coasts for Spain in 1603, following by twenty-four years Sir Francis Drake who had sailed up the Pacific coast and landed with his crews on the Oregon shore in 1579. And Drake may not have been the first European to venture that far north. But whoever was the first among the sixteenth-century adventurers, eighteenth-century explorers found old smallpox scars on the bodies of the native people there.133

In 1602 and 1603 Sebástian Vizcaino led an expedition of three ships up and down the California coast, with frequent stops on shore where his men spent time with various Indian peoples. There was sickness on Vizcaino’s ships from the moment they set sail, and before the voyage was complete it combined with scurvy to literally shut the voyage down. Scores of men were incapacitated. At one point Vizcaino wrote: “All the men had fallen sick, so that there were only two sailors who could climb to the maintopsail.” The ship that he was on, Vizcaino later added, “seemed more like a hospital than a ship of an armada.” Fray Antonio de la Ascension, one of three clergymen who made the voyage with Vizcaino, feared the whole crew was close to death. But fortunately for the Spanish—and unfortunately for the natives—the Indians helped the crippled sailors, offering them “fish, game, hazel nuts, chestnuts, acorns, and other things. . . . for though but six of our men remained in the said frigate, the rest having died of cold and sickness, the Indians were so friendly and so desirous of our friendship . . . that they not only did them no harm, but showed them all the kindness possible.”134 There can be no doubt that for their kindness the Indians were repaid by plagues the likes of which nothing in their history had prepared them.

The earliest European mariners and explorers in California, as noted in a previous chapter’s discussion of Cabrillo, repeatedly referred to the great numbers of Indians living there. In places where Vizcaino’s ships could approach the coast or his men could go ashore, the Captain recorded, again and again, that the land was thickly filled with people. And where he couldn’t approach or go ashore “because the coast was wild,” the Indians signaled greetings by building fires—fires that “made so many columns of smoke on the mainland that at night it looked like a procession and in the daytime the sky was overcast.” In sum, as Father Ascension put it, “this realm of California is very large and embraces much territory, nearly all inhabited by numberless people.”135

But not for very long. Throughout the late sixteenth and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spanish disease and Spanish cruelty took a large but mostly uncalculated toll. Few detailed records of what happened during that time exist, but a wealth of research in other locales has shown the early decades following Western contact to be almost invariably the worst for native people, because that is when the fires of epidemic disease burn most freely. Whatever the population of California was before the Spanish came, however, and whatever happened during the first few centuries following Spanish entry into the region, by 1845 the Indian population of California had been slashed to 150,000 (down from many times that number prior to European contact) by swarming epidemics of influenza, diphtheria, measles, pneumonia, whooping cough, smallpox, malaria, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, dysentery, syphilis, and gonorrhea—along with everyday settler and explorer violence.136 As late as 1833 a malaria epidemic brought in by some Hudson’s Bay Company trappers killed 20,000 Indians by itself, wiping out entire parts of the great central valleys. “A decade later,” writes one historian, “there still remained macabre reminders of the malaria epidemic: collapsed houses filled with skulls and bones, the ground littered with skeletal remains.”137

Terrible as such deaths must have been, if the lives that preceded them were lived outside the Spanish missions that were founded in the eighteenth century, the victims might have counted themselves lucky. Two centuries earlier the Puritan minister John Robinson had complained to Plymouth’s William Bradford that although a group of massacred Indians no doubt “deserved” to be killed, “Oh, how happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any!”138 That was probably the only thing the New England Puritans and California’s Spanish Catholics would have agreed upon. So, using armed Spanish troops to capture Indians and herd them into the mission stockades, the Spanish padres did their best to convert the natives before they killed them.

And kill they did. First there were the Jesuit missions, founded early in the eighteenth century, and from which few vital statistics are available. Then the Franciscans took the Jesuits’ place. At the mission of Nuestra Señora de Loreto, reported the Franciscan chronicler Father Francisco Palóu, during the first three years of Franciscan rule 76 children and adults were baptized, while 131 were buried. At the mission of San José Cumundu during the same time period 94 were baptized, while 241 died. At the mission of Purisima de Cadegomó, meanwhile, 39 were baptized—120 died. At the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe the figures were similar: 53 baptisms, 130 deaths. The same held true at others, from the mission of Santa Rosaliá de Mulegé, with 48 baptisms and 113 deaths, to the mission of San Ignacio, with 115 baptisms and 293 deaths—all within the same initial three-year period.139

For some missions, such as those of San José del Cabo and Santiago de las Coras, no baptism or death statistics were reported, because there were so few survivors (“nearly all are ill with syphilis,” Father Palóu wrote) that there was no reason to do any counting. Overall, however, during those three years alone, between a quarter and a third of the California Indians died who were under Franciscan control. We will never know how many died during the earlier decades when the Jesuits were in charge. However, “if it goes on at this rate,” lamented Father Palóu, “in a short time Old California will come to an end.”140

Old California, perhaps, but not the missions. Not if anything within the padres’ power could be done. And what was done was that they simply brought more natives in, under military force of arms. Although the number of Indians within the Franciscan missions increased steadily from the close of those first three disastrous years until the opening decade or so of the nineteenth century, this increase was entirely attributable to the masses of native people who were being captured and force-marched into the mission compounds. Once thus confined, the Indians’ annual death rate regularly exceeded the birth rate by more than two to one. This is an overall death-to-birth ratio that, in less than half a century, would completely exterminate a population of any size that was not being replenished by new conscripts. The death rate for children in the missions was even worse. Commonly, the child death rate in these institutions of mandatory conversion ranged from 140 to 170 per thousand—that is, three to four times the birth rate—and in some years it climbed to 220 and 265 and even 335 per thousand. Year in and year out, then, from one of every six to one of every three Indian children who were locked up in the missions perished.141

In fact, it may have been even worse than that. The figures above were generated from available resources in the late 1930s. Recently, an analysis has been conducted on data from more than 11,000 Chumash Indians who passed through the missions of Santa Barbara, La Purisima, and Santa Inés in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Perhaps the most complete data set and detailed study ever done on a single mission Indian group’s vital statistics, this analysis shows that 36 percent of those Chumash children who were not yet two years old when they entered the mission died in less than twelve months. Two-thirds died before reaching the age of five. Three of four died before attaining puberty. At the same time, adolescent and young adult female deaths exceeded those of males by almost two to one, while female fertility rates steadily spiraled downward. Similar patterns—slightly better in some categories, slightly worse in others—have been uncovered in another study of 14,000 mission Indians in eight different Franciscan missions.142

In short, the missions were furnaces of death that sustained their Indian population levels for as long as they did only by driving more and more natives into their confines to compensate for the huge numbers who were being killed once they got there. This was a pattern that held throughout California and on out across the southwest. Thus, for example, one survey of life and death in an early Arizona mission has turned up statistics showing that at one time an astonishing 93 percent of the children born within its walls died before reaching the age of ten—and yet the mission’s total population did not drastically decline.143

There were various ways in which the mission Indians died. The most common causes were the European-introduced diseases—which spread like wildfire in such cramped quarters—and malnutrition. The personal living space for Indians in the missions averaged about seven feet by two feet per person for unmarried captives, who were locked at night into sex-segregated common rooms that contained a single open pit for a toilet. It was perhaps a bit more space than was allotted a captive African in the hold of a slave ship sailing the Middle Passage. Married Indians and their children, on the other hand, were permitted to sleep together—in what Russian visitor V.M. Golovnin described in 1818 as “specially constructed ‘cattle-pens.’” He explained:

I cannot think of a better term for these dwellings that consist of a long row of structures not more than one sagene [seven feet] high and 1½—2 sagenes wide, without floor or ceiling, each divided into sections by partitions, also not longer than two sagenes, with a correspondingly small door and a tiny window in each—can one possibly call it anything but a barnyard for domestic cattle and fowl? Each of these small sections is occupied by an entire family; cleanliness and tidiness are out of the question: a thrifty peasant usually has a better-kept cattle-pen.144

Under such conditions Spanish-introduced diseases ran wild: measles, smallpox, typhoid, and influenza epidemics occurred and re-occurred, while syphilis and tuberculosis became, as Sherburne F. Cook once said, “totalitarian” diseases: virtually all the Indians were afflicted by them.145

As for malnutrition, despite agricultural crop yields on the Indian-tended mission plantations that Golovnin termed “extraordinary” and “unheard of in Europe,” along with large herds of cattle and the easily accessible bounty of sea food, the food given the Indians, according to him, was “a kind of gruel made from barley meal, boiled in water with maize, beans, and peas; occasionally they are given some beef, while some of the more diligent [Indians] catch fish for themselves.”146 On average, according to Cook’s analyses of the data, the caloric intake of a field-laboring mission Indian was about 1400 calories per day, falling as low as 715 or 865 calories per day in such missions as San Antonio and San Miguel. To put this in context, the best estimate of the caloric intake of nineteenth-century African American slaves is in excess of 4000 calories per day, and almost 5400 calories per day for adult male field hands. This seems high by modern Western standards, but is not excessive in terms of the caloric expenditure required of agricultural laborers. As the author of the estimate puts it: “a diet with 4206 calories per slave per day, while an upper limit [is] neither excessive nor generous, but merely adequate to provide sufficient energy to enable one to work like a slave.” Of course, the mission Indians also worked like slaves in the padres’ agricultural fields, but they did so with far less than half the caloric intake, on average, commonly provided a black slave in Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia.147

Even the military commanders at the missions acknowledged that the food provided the Indians was grossly insufficient, especially, said one, given “the arduous strain of the labors in which they are employed” labors, said another, which last “from morning to night” and labors, noted a third, which are added to the other “hardships to which they are subjected.”148 Caloric intake, of course, is but one part of the requirement for a sufficient diet. The other part is nutritional value. And the most thorough study of the composition of the mission Indians’ diets reveals them to have been seriously deficient in high-quality protein, and in Vitamins A and C, and riboflavin.149 The resulting severe malnutrition, of course, made the natives all the more susceptible to the bacterial and viral infections that festered in the filthy and cramped living conditions they were forced to endure—just as it made them more likely to behave lethargically, something that would bring more corporal punishment down upon them. Not surprisingly, osteological analyses of California mission Indian skeletal remains, compared with those of Indians who lived in the same regions prior to European contact, show the long bones of the mission Indians to be “significantly smaller than those of their prehistoric and protohistoric predecessors,” leading to the conclusion that such differences “reflect retarded growth, possibly attributable to the nutritional deficiency of the mission diet or the combined effects of poor nutrition and infectious disease.”150

When not working directly under the mission fathers’ charge, the captive natives were subject to forced labor through hiring-out arrangements the missions had with Spanish military encampments. The only compensation the natives received for this, as for all their heavy daily labors, was the usual inadequate allotment of food. As one French visitor commented in the early nineteenth century, after inspecting life in the missions, the relationship between the priest and his flock “would . . . be different only in name if a slaveholder kept them for labor and rented them out at will; he too would feed them.” But, we now know, he would have fed them better.151

In short, the Franciscans simultaneously starved and worked their would-be converts to death, while the diseases they and others had imported killed off thousands more. The similarity of this outcome to what had obtained in the slave labor camps of Central and South America should not be surprising, since California’s Spanish missions, established by Father Junípero Serra (aptly dubbed “the last conquistador” by one admiring biographer and currently a candidate for Catholic sainthood), were directly modeled on the genocidal encomienda system that had driven many millions of native peoples in Central and South America to early and agonizing deaths.152

Others died even more quickly, not only from disease, but from grotesque forms of punishment. To be certain that the Indians were spiritually prepared to die when their appointed and rapidly approaching time came, they were required to attend mass in chapels where, according to one mission visitor, they were guarded by men “with whips and goads to enforce order and silence” and were surrounded by “soldiers with fixed bayonets” who were on hand in case any unruliness broke out. These were the same soldiers, complained the officially celibate priests, who routinely raped young Indian women. If any neophytes (as the Spanish called Indians who had been baptized) were late for mass, they would have “a large leathern thong, at the end of a heavy whip-staff, applied to their naked backs.”153 More serious infractions brought more serious torture.

And if ever some natives dared attempt an escape from the padres’ efforts to lead them to salvation—as, according to the Franciscans’ own accounts, the Indians constantly did—there would be little mercy shown. From the time of the missions’ founding days, Junipero Serra traveled from pulpit to pulpit preaching fire and brimstone, scourging himself before his incarcerated flock, pounding his chest with heavy rocks until it was feared he would fall down dead, burning his breast with candles and live coals in imitation of San Juan Capistrano.154 After this sort of self-flagellating exertion, Father Serra had no patience for Indians who still preferred not to accept his holy demands of them. Thus, on at least one occasion when some of his Indian captives not only escaped, but stole some mission supplies to support them on their journey home, “his Lordship was so angered,” recalled Father Palóu, “that it was necessary for the fathers who were there to restrain him in order to prevent him from hanging some of them. . . . He shouted that such a race of people deserved to be put to the knife.”155

It was not necessary for starving and desperate Indians to steal food or supplies, however, to suffer the perverse punishments of the mission fathers. The padres also were concerned about the continuing catastrophic decline in the number of babies born to their neophyte charges. At some missions the priests decided the Indians intentionally were refraining from sex, as the natives of the Caribbean supposedly had done, in an effort to spare their would-be offspring the tortures of life as a slave. Some of the Indians may indeed have been purposely avoiding sex, although by themselves the starvation-level diets, along with the disease and enormous stress of the Indians’ mission existence, were more than sufficient to cause a collapse in the birth rate.156 In either case, here is a first-hand account of what happened at mission Santa Cruz when a holy and ascetic padre named Ramon Olbés came to the conclusion that one particular married couple was behaving with excessive sexual inhibition, thereby depriving him of another child to enslave and another soul to offer up to Christ:

He [Father Olbés] sent for the husband and he asked him why his wife hadn’t borne children. The Indian pointed to the sky (he didn’t know how to speak Spanish) to signify that only God knew the cause. They brought an interpreter. This [one] repeated the question of the father to the Indian, who answered that he should ask God. The Fr. asked through the interpreter if he slept with his wife, to which the Indian said yes. Then the father had them placed in a room together so that they would perform coitus in his presence. The Indian refused, but they forced him to show them his penis in order to affirm that he had it in good order. The father next brought the wife and placed her in the room. The husband he sent to the guardhouse with a pair of shackles. . . . Fr. Olbés asked her if her husband slept with her, and she answered that, yes. The Fr. repeated his question “why don’t you bear children?” “Who knows!” answered the Indian woman. He had her enter another room in order to examine her reproductive parts.

At this point the woman resisted the padre’s attempted forced inspection; for that impertinence she received fifty lashes, was “shackled, and locked in the nunnery.” He then gave her a wooden doll and ordered her to carry it with her, “like a recently born child,” wherever she went. Meanwhile, her husband remained in jail, only leaving once each day to attend mass—and during all the time he was outside the guardhouse he was required to undergo the public humiliation of wearing on his head “cattle horns affixed with leather.”157

From time to time some missions permitted certain of their captives to return home for brief visits, under armed guard. “This short time is the happiest period of their existence,” wrote one foreign observer, “and I myself have seen them going home in crowds, with loud rejoicings.” He continues:

The sick, who can not undertake the journey, at least accompany their happy countrymen to the shore where they embark and sit there for days together mournfully gazing on the distant summits of the mountains which surround their homes; they often sit in this situation for several days, without taking any food, so much does the sight of their lost home affect these new Christians. Every time some of those who have the permission run away, and they would probably all do it, were they not deterred by their fears of the soldiers.158

There was, of course, good reason for the Indians to fear the consequences of running away and being caught. Since even the most minor offenses in the missions carried a punishment of fifteen lashes, while middling infractions, including fighting, “brought one hundred lashes and a set of shackles at the guard house,” those who were captured while trying to break free of mission captivity might count themselves lucky to be whipped 100 times and clapped in irons affixed to a heavy log. For as one traveler described the condition of some attempted escapees he had seen: “They were all bound with rawhide ropes and some were bleeding from wounds and some children were tied to their mothers.” He went on:

Some of the run-away men were tied on sticks and beaten with straps. One chief was taken out to the open field and a young calf which had just died was skinned and the chief was sewed into the skin while it was yet warm. He was kept tied to a stake all day, but he died soon and they kept his corpse tied up.159

If this was early California’s version of what Spanish defenders later would disingenuously dismiss as merely another Black Legend, it did not last as long as did its counterpart on the continent to the south. In 1846 the United States militarily occupied California, and two years later, at Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded the land over to American control. In addition to the two centuries of previous evidence adducing the genocidal practices of Britain and the United States toward America’s native peoples across the length and breadth of the continent, we therefore have in California a unique opportunity to test informally one part of the Spaniards’ Black Legend defense, the part alleging that other whites treated Indians just as badly as did the Spanish. And what we find is that, on this point at least—difficult though it may be to believe—the Spanish are correct.

By 1845 the Indian population of California was down to no more than a quarter of what it had been when the Franciscan missions were established in 1769. That is, it had declined by at least 75 percent during seventy-five years of Spanish rule. In the course of just the next twenty-five years, under American rule, it would fall by another 80 percent. The gold rush brought to California a flood of American miners and ranchers who seemed to delight in killing Indians, miners and ranchers who rose to political power and prominence—and from those platforms not only legalized the enslavement of California Indians, but, as in Colorado and elsewhere, launched public campaigns of genocide with the explicitly stated goal of all-out Indian extermination.

Governmentally unsanctioned enslavement of the Indians began as soon as California became an American possession and continued for many years. It seemed an excellent idea in a land where free labor was in short supply and white wages were high. Moreover, as whites who had lived in the southern United States repeatedly asserted, California’s Indians—who already had suffered a savage population loss at the hands of the Spanish—“make as obedient and humble slaves as the negroes in the south,” wrote one former New Orleans cotton broker. In fact, they were even better than blacks, claimed a ranch owner in 1846, because they accepted “flagellation with more humility than negroes.”160

Indian docility was believed to be particularly assured “when caught young.” So a thriving business in hunting and capturing Indian children developed. Newspapers frequently reported sightings of men driving Indian children before them on back-country roads to the slave markets in Sacramento and San Francisco. As with black slaves in the South, prices varied “according to quality,” said the Ukiah Herald, but they sometimes climbed as high as two-hundred dollars each. Bargains could be had in some areas, however, as “in Colusa County in 1861 [where] Indian boys and girls aged three and four years were sold at fifty dollars apiece.” Especially “good little” Indians—or, as the Sacramento Daily Union described them, “bright little specimens”—might even fetch a straight trade for a horse. Given the shortage of women in California during these early years of white settlement, “a likely young girl” might cost almost double that of a boy, because, as the Marysville Appeal phrased it, girls served the double duty “of labor and of lust.”161

Not surprisingly, the parents of these valuable children could be a problem. The prospect of losing their beloved offspring to slave traders, said the Humboldt Times, “has the effect of making Indians very shy of coming into the Reservations, as they think it is a trick to deprive them of their children.”162 And, indeed, it often was. Thus inconvenienced, the slave traders had to pursue their prey into the hills. There, when they cornered the objects of their desire, reported the California Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1854, they frequently murdered the troublesome parents as they were gathering up the children, a tactic that allowed the slavers to sell their little charges as “orphans” without possibility of contradiction.163

Should Indian adults attempt to use the California courts to bring such killers to justice, they invariably were frustrated because the law of the land prohibited Indians from testifying against whites. Even some otherwise unsympathetic settler newspapers observed and protested this situation (to no avail), since in consequence it encouraged and legalized the open-season hunting of Indians. As one San Francisco newspaper put it in 1858, following the unprovoked public murder of an Indian, and the release of the known killer because the only eyewitnesses to the event were native people: the Indians “are left entirely at the mercy of every ruffian in the country, and if something is not done for their protection, the race will shortly become extinct.”164

Nothing was done, however, and so enslavement and murder, carried out by entrepreneurial and genocide-minded whites, continued on for many years. One of the more well-known incidents, described in Theodora Kroeber’s popular Ishi in Two Worlds, occurred in 1868. Part of a series of massacres of Yahi Indians, in which ultimately all but one member of this tiny fragment of a tribe were scalped and murdered, this particular assault is distinguished by the perverse concern shown by one of the attackers for the bodies of his victims: “as he explained afterwards, [he] changed guns during the slaughter, exchanging his .56–caliber Spencer rifle for a .38–caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, because the rifle ‘tore them up so bad,’ particularly the babies.”165

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the destruction of California’s Indians—or most of the Indians of the Americas—as the work of renegades. As early as 1850 the first session of the California legislature passed a law entitled “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians” that in fact did little more than give the imprimatur of legality to the kidnapping and enslavement of native people. Among other provisions, the law provided for the forced indenture of any Indian child to any white person who could convince a justice of the peace that the child in his possession had not been obtained by force. Justices of the peace were easily convinced, especially if the abducted child’s parents had been murdered or terrorized into silence and were therefore not on hand to provide contradictory testimony. In 1860 the legislature expanded the law, extending the duration of terms of forced service and permitting the law’s use to cover adult Indians as well as children.

The problem the whites were facing by this time, and that the new legislation was intended to address, was a shortage of Indian labor. About ten thousand of the rapidly dwindling numbers of Indians had been put to forced labor legally, under the provisions of the 1850 and 1860 laws (many more, of course, were enslaved without going through the niceties of a justice of the peace’s approval), but this was nothing compared with the thousands who had been killed.166 The shortage of menial workers, despite large numbers of Mexican, Hawaiian, and Asian contract laborers in California, led the Humboldt Times to champion the 1860 enslavement law while exclaiming in an editorial: “What a pity the provisions of the law are not extended to greasers, Kanakas, and Asiatics. It would be so convenient to carry on a farm or mine, when all the hard and dirty work is performed by apprentices!”167

Considering the California legislature’s concern for cheap—indeed, slave—labor in the 1850s, it would in retrospect seem mindless for the lawmakers simultaneously to encourage the destruction of that same Indian labor force. But that is precisely what happened. Because some Indians, who in the late 1840s had been driven into the mountains by marauding slave catchers, were thereby forced to poach on white-owned livestock for their existence, the governor of California in his 1851 message to the legislature announced the necessity for a total eradication of the natives: “the white man, to whom time is money, and who labors hard all day to create the comforts of life, cannot sit up all night to watch his property,” Governor Peter Burnett said; “after being robbed a few times he becomes desperate, and resolves upon a war of extermination.” Such a war to annihilate the Indians had already begun by then, Burnett recognized, but, he added, it must “continue to be waged between the races until the Indian becomes extinct.” A year later the governor’s successor to that office, John McDougal, renewed the charge: if the Indians did not submit to white demands to relinquish their land, he said, the state would “make war upon the [Indians] which must of necessity be one of extermination to many of the tribes.”168

This straightforward advocacy of genocide by the highest American officials in the land emerged in a cultural milieu that habitually described the California Indians as ugly, filthy, and inhuman “beasts,” “swine,” “dogs,” “wolves,” “snakes,” “pigs,” “baboons,” “gorillas,” and “orangutans,” to cite only a few of the press’s more commonly published characterizations. Some whites gave the Indians the benefit of the doubt and declared them to be not quite animals, but merely “the nearest link, of the sort, to the quadrupeds” in North America, while others not inclined to such lofty speculations said that simply touching an Indian created “a feeling of repulsion just as if I had put my hand on a toad, tortoise, or huge lizard.”169 The eradication of such abominable creatures could cause little trouble to most consciences.

Between 1852 and 1860, under American supervision, the indigenous population of California plunged from 85,000 to 35,000, a collapse of about 60 percent within eight years of the first gubernatorial demands for the Indians’ destruction. By 1890 that number was halved again: now 80 percent of the natives who had been alive when California became a state had been wiped out by an official policy of genocide. Fewer than 18,000 California Indians were still living, and the number was continuing to drop. In the late 1840s and 1850s one observer of the California scene had watched his fellow American whites begin their furious assault “upon [the Indians], shooting them down like wolves, men, women, and children, wherever they could find them,” and had warned that this “war of extermination against the aborigines, commenced in effect at the landing of Columbus, and continued to this day, [is] gradually and surely tending to the final and utter extinction of the race.” While to most white Californians such a conclusion was hardly lamentable, to this commentator it was a major concern—but only because the extermination “policy [has] proved so injurious to the interests of the whites.” That was because the Indians’ “labor, once very useful, and, in fact, indispensable in a country where no other species of laborers were to be obtained at any price, and which might now be rendered of immense value by pursuing a judicious policy, has been utterly sacrificed by this extensive system of indiscriminate revenge.”170

Three hundred years earlier, writing from Peru, the Dominican priest Santo Tomas had expressed exactly the same concern. The ongoing slaughter of the Incas and other Andean peoples was so intense, he warned his sovereign, that unless orders were given to reduce the genocide “the natives will come to an end; and once they are finished, your Majesty’s rule over [this land] will cease.” Explained Diego de Robles Cornejo, from the same region a few years later: “If the natives cease, the land is finished. I mean its wealth: for all the gold and silver that comes to Spain is extracted by means of these Indians.”171

Like the sixteenth-century Spanish in Peru, then, to some critics the genocidal Californians were simply bad businessmen, liquidating their own best draft animals in an unceasing pique of racist passion. In time, however, these critics turned out to be wrong. Other labor was found. And by the end of the nineteenth century California’s population was surging past one and a half million persons, of whom only 15,000—or one percent—were Indians, most of them stored safely away on remote and impoverished reservations, suffering from disease, malnutrition, and despair.

As had happened in Virginia two hundred years earlier—and as happened across the entire continent during the intervening years—between 95 and 98 percent of California’s Indians had been exterminated in little more than a century. And even this ghastly numerical calculation is inadequate, not only because it reveals nothing of the hideous suffering endured by those hundreds of thousands of California native peoples, but because it is based on decline only from the estimated population for the year 1769—a population that already had been reduced savagely by earlier invasions of European plague and violence. Nationwide by this time only about one-third of one percent of America’s population—250,000 out of 76,000,000 people—were natives. The worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed, roaring across two continents non-stop for four centuries and consuming the lives of countless tens of millions of people, finally had leveled off. There was, at last, almost no one left to kill.


During the course of four centuries—from the 1490s to the 1890s—Europeans and white Americans engaged in an unbroken string of genocide campaigns against the native peoples of the Americas. Pictured on the following pages are the results of the first of these slaughters—the Spanish depredations in the West Indies and Mesoamerica under the initial command of Christopher Columbus—and what conventionally, though incorrectly, is regarded as the last of them—the United States Army’s massacre of Sioux Indians near a creek called Wounded Knee in South Dakota. These scenes are representative of thousands of other such incidents that occurred (and in some places continue to occur) in the Indies and in South, Central, and North America, most of them bloodbaths that have gone unnamed and are long forgotten.

The illustrations of the Spanish cruelties are by Jean Theodore and Jean Israel de Bry, from a 1598 edition of Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The accompanying captions are drawn from Las Casas’s descriptions of the events he witnessed. With two exceptions, the photographs from the Wounded Knee massacre are printed here with the permission of the Nebraska State Historical Society. The exceptions are the photograph of Big Foot, from the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution, and the photograph of General Colby and Zintka Lanuni, which is printed by courtesy of the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection. Quotations in the captions for the Wounded Knee photographs are from Richard E. Jensen, R. Eli Paul, and John E. Carter, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).


“[The Spaniards] took babies from their mothers’ breasts, grabbing them by the feet and smashing their heads against rocks. . . . They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [natives] at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the twelve Apostles. . . . Then, straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.”


“As the Spaniards went with their war dogs hunting down Indian men and women, it happened that a sick Indian woman who could not escape from the dogs, sought to avoid being torn apart by them, in this fashion: she took a cord and tied her year-old child to her leg, and then she hanged herself from a beam. But the dogs came and tore the child apart; before the creature expired, however, a friar baptized it.”


“They would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin . . . [and] they would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. . . . [One] cruel captain traveled over many leagues, capturing all the Indians he could find. Since the Indians would not tell him who their new lord was, he cut off the hands of some and threw others to the dogs, and thus they were torn to pieces.”


“The Spanish treated the Indians with such rigor and inhumanity that they seemed the very ministers of Hell, driving them day and night with beatings, kicks, lashes and blows, and calling them no sweeter names than dogs. . . . Women who had just given birth were forced to carry burdens for the Christians and thus could not carry their infants because of the hard work and weakness of hunger. Infinite numbers of these were cast aside on the road and thus perished.”


“They threw into those holes all the Indians they could capture of every age and kind. . . . Pregnant and confined women, children, old men [were] left stuck on the stakes, until the pits were filled. . . . The rest they killed with lances and daggers and threw them to their war dogs who tore them up and devoured them.”


“Because he did not give the great quantity of gold asked for, they burned him and a number of other nobles and caciques . . . with the intention of leaving no prince or chieftain alive in the entire country.”


“When the Spaniards had collected a great deal of gold from the Indians, they shut them up in three big houses, crowding in as many as they could, then set fire to the houses, burning alive all that were in them, yet those Indians had given no cause nor made any resistance.”


“With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose, hands and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it. . . . Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned.”


“Big Foot lay in a sort of solitary dignity,” wrote Carl Smith, a reporter for the Chicago Inter-Ocean. “He was shot through and through. A wandering photographer propped the old man up, and as he lay there defenseless his portrait was taken.”


“In one square of less than half an acre there were forty-eight bodies stiffened by the frost,” observed reporter Carl Smith. “One had a face which was hideous to view. . . . He had originally fallen on his face, and he must have lain in that position for some time, as it was flattened on one side. His hands were clenched, his teeth were clenched. . . . One hand was raised in the air . . . frozen in that position.” A rifle was placed as a prop at the dead medicine man’s side, to suggest that a battle, rather than a massacre, had occurred. The photograph later was retouched to conceal the dead man’s genitals, exposed when his trousers were shot away.


“I was badly wounded and pretty weak too,” recalled Dewey Beard, a Miniconjou Indian. “While I was lying on my back, I looked down the ravine and saw a lot of women coming up and crying. When I saw these women, girls and little girls and boys coming up, I saw soldiers on both sides of the ravine shoot at them until they had killed every one of them.” The photograph shows a burial party collecting corpses from that ravine.


Mass burials followed the carnage. One hundred forty-six bodies were thrown into this pit, dug on the same hillside from which the Army’s Hotchkiss guns, with their exploding shells, had been fired.


Survivors were placed in a makeshift hospital, “a pitiful array of young girls and women and babes in arms, little children, and a few men, all pierced with bullets,” recalled Elaine Goodale Eastman in her Memoirs. Observed the wife of a correspondent who was on the scene: “There was a little boy with his throat apparently shot to pieces . . . and when they feed him now the food and water come out the side of his neck.” Still, wrote Dr. Charles Eastman, “they objected very strenuously to being treated by army surgeons . . . and [said] they never wanted to see a uniform again.”


In the wake of the carnage, whites descended on Wounded Knee in search of souvenirs. In this photograph, the seated man in the middle is wearing what appears to be a sacred Ghost Dance shirt, while the standing man is modeling a woman’s beaded dress. It is not known whether the seated man on the left kept the trophy he is holding in his lap.


General Leonard W. Colby showing off his Lakdta Sioux war curio, Zintka Lanuni or Lost Bird. After privately putting her on display for personal profit, Colby eventually released her to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She died in Los Angeles at age 29. In 1991 the Lakota people had Zintka Lanuni’s remains moved back to Wounded Knee for interment with the rest of her family.

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