Contact with Europeans was less dramatic for the aboriginal peoples of North America than it was for the Aztec and Inca empires following the entrance of the Spanish conquistadors. Nonetheless, Spanish explorers aiming to reach what would become the United States left the tribes with three primary legacies: sickness, horses and other tamed animals, and metal tools and weaponry.
Disease. Not the better weapons of the Europeans, but the illnesses they carried with them to the New World, posed the most significant threat to the local peoples. Prior to European contact, the Western Hemisphere was virtually devoid of infectious illness, with the probable exception of syphilis. With no reservoir of natural immunity or built up resistance, the indigenous people fell fast to diphtheria, mumps, measles, and smallpox. Smallpox, the primary killer, quickly expanded beyond the first European carriers. Tribes that met and traded across long distances became afflicted and spread the illness to their settlements. There is evidence that smallpox was present in Peru prior to the arrival of Francisco Pizarro in 1532.
Estimates of disease-related depopulation of North American aboriginal peoples range as high as 90% in some areas, and in some cases, even awareness of the existence of particular tribes was wiped out. Infection transmitted by Spanish explorers going down the Gulf Coast wiped off the tribes of the Lower Mississippi River, leaving only their cultural presence, apparent in the form of burial mounds, until the twentieth century. The destructive impact of illness was not restricted to the early years of interaction. The Mandans hosted Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, chiefs of the Corps of Discovery, during their winter sojourn at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River in 1804. The tribe, which numbered around 2000 people, was reduced to 150 during a smallpox outbreak brought by fur traders in 1837.
Domesticated horses and other animals Despite the fact that sickness was a burden for the indigenous peoples, the introduction of European cattle enhanced the quality of life for many tribes. The horse was the most well-known and dramatic alteration, but other domesticated animals played an essential role as well. Cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs were bred for sustenance, and their skins were used to make clothes, blankets, and shelter covers.
The entrance of the horse in North America, which most likely happened with Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s 1540 voyage into the Southwest, changed Plains Indian civilization. Horses were being traded, stolen, or abandoned by the end of the sixteenth century, and their numbers had grown. The horse quickly became vital to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Kiowa, and its usage spread to other tribes. Horses could draw heavy loads using a simple linked arrangement of poles constructed from young trees. The poles also served as a tipi framework, allowing these nomadic peoples’ houses to be bigger and more comfortable. Mounted on horseback, the Indians became far more adept bison hunters. Within a decade, the Plains Indians had incorporated the horse into their civilization. Frontiersmen crossing the Mississippi and seeing Indians on horseback in the eighteenth century had no clue that horse culture had only been around for around two hundred years.
The introduction of many domesticated animals came at a cost that neither the original peoples nor the Europeans were aware of for some time. European grains were fed to cattle by European settlers. These grains, which included wheat, oats, rye, and a variety of other grasses, adapted to North American soil in much the same way as crabgrass and weeds attack a well-kept lawn. As native grasses gave way to exotic kinds, the landscape of North America gradually transformed. The environmental changes would not be properly recognized or quantified until the late twentieth century.
Weapons and metal tools Native peoples were in the Stone Age technologically. Native Americans lacked the skills to produce metal tools, despite their exquisitely crafted basketry, pottery, and obsidian blades. The Europeans’ knives, needles, fishhooks, hatchets, and pots were instantly recognized as more efficient than their stone, bone, or clay instruments.
Early weaponry, such as muskets and pistols, did not provide an obvious advantage for Europeans over Indians. The guns were not particularly precise over long distances, required time to reload, and were difficult to maintain; Native Americans first found their own bows and arrows to be rather effective against them. When the Puritans issued a statute in 1645 requiring militia training in pikes, bows and arrows, and muskets, they realized the limits of their armaments.
However, by the late eighteenth century, the balance of firepower had shifted as muskets evolved into rifles with far higher precision. By the end of the Civil War, repeating rifles and six-shot revolvers had rendered the bow and arrow obsolete. Native Americans did not oppose the rifle, and many learned how to pour lead into bullet molds. However, advances in weapon technology made them reliant on whites for rifles and ammunition, as well as the majority of metal items. Native Americans were unable to imitate the intricate mechanics of a Winchester or Colt, and cartridges needing a molded bullet, shell case, and gunpowder were beyond of their reach. Euroamerican technology had surpassed Native Americans by the end of the nineteenth century.
The massive biological exchange. The local peoples were not the only ones affected by European contact; there was a genuine, though sometimes uneven, trade. Many new crops and food species were introduced to Europe from the Western Hemisphere, including maize, beans, potatoes, peanuts, pumpkins, and avocados. The most significant of them was probably maize, sometimes known as Indian corn. It quickly became a global staple due to its ability to thrive in practically any environment or soil.
The ancient belief that Columbus “found” America has given way to the notion that he “encountered” America. The rephrasing acknowledges that in 1492, there were already millions of people in the Western Hemisphere with unique and established civilizations who deserved to be recognized as the first Americans. There is little question that interaction with Europeans proved disastrous for the indigenous population, both then and subsequently. While conquering was unavoidable, oversimplification should be avoided. It did not occur simultaneously in all locations. In some areas, the confrontation was quick and the subjugation was immediate, whilst in others, the native peoples were oblivious of the Europeans’ existence for generations. Until 1769, California Indians knew essentially nothing about Europeans, and the Shawnee relied on a British alliance to keep American immigrants south of the Ohio River as late as 1812.