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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY
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Native Americans in Colonial America

Native Americans in Colonial America

Native Americans resisted the efforts of the Europeans to gain more land and control during the colonial period, but they struggled to do so against a sea of problems, including new diseases, the slave trade, and an ever-growing European population.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History

Image

Diplomacy between Cheyenne and Settlers

Whether through diplomacy, war, or even alliances, Native American efforts to resist European encroachment further into their lands were often unsuccessful in the colonial era.

Photograph of woodcut by North Wind Picture Archives

During the colonial period, Native Americans had a complicated relationship with European settlers. They resisted the efforts of the Europeans to gain more of their land and control through both warfare and diplomacy. But problems arose for the Native Americans, which held them back from their goal, including new diseases, the slave trade, and the ever-growing European population in North America.

In the 17th century, as European nations scrambled to claim the already occupied land in the “New World,” some leaders formed alliances with Native American nations to fight foreign powers. Some famous alliances were formed during the French and Indian War of 1754–1763. The English allied with the Iroquois Confederacy, while the Algonquian-speaking tribes joined forces with the French and the Spanish. The English won the war, and claimed all of the land east of the Mississippi River. The English-allied Native Americans were given part of that land, which they hoped would end European expansion—but unfortunately only delayed it. Europeans continued to enter the country following the French and Indian War, and they continued their aggression against Native Americans. Another consequence of allying with Europeans was that Native Americans were often fighting neighboring tribes. This caused rifts that kept some Native American tribes from working together to stop European takeover.

Native Americans were also vulnerable during the colonial era because they had never been exposed to European diseases, like smallpox, so they didn’t have any immunity to the disease, as some Europeans did. European settlers brought these new diseases with them when they settled, and the illnesses decimated the Native Americans—by some estimates killing as much as 90 percent of their population. Though many epidemics happened prior to the colonial era in the 1500s, several large epidemics occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries among various Native American populations. With the population sick and decreasing, it became more and more difficult to mount an opposition to European expansion.

Another aspect of the colonial era that made the Native Americans vulnerable was the slave trade. As a result of the wars between the European nations, Native Americans allied with the losing side were often indentured or enslaved. There were even Native Americans shipped out of colonies like South Carolina into slavery in other places, like Canada.

These problems that arose for the Native Americans would only get worse in the 19th century, leading to greater confinement and the extermination of native people. Unfortunately, the colonial era was neither the start nor the end of the long, dark history of treatment of Native Americans by Europeans and their decedent’s throughout in the United States.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Producer
Clint Parks
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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