Native American History -- A Comparison of Two Articles

New March 10, 2010:

An examination of two articles regarding early Native American History 1. The Indian's New World: The Catawba Experience, by James H. Merrell and 2. Colonial America Without the Indians: Counterfactual Reflections, by James Axtell
Allan Lewis 2003 1. Theses of the articles: James Axtell takes a "macro" level look at a hypothetical Western Hemisphere which was uninhabited at the time of the arrival of Europeans. There was no "first contact". His goal is to "register the sheer indispensability of the Indians for understanding America's past". James Merrell zooms in on the southern piedmont area of the Carolinas and Virginia -- he studies a more restricted geographical area and documents in-depth relations between the Colonial settlers and the local aboriginal population after 1600, the peoples who combined to form the Catawba Nation in the early eighteenth century. He aims to study a particular group of Native Americans in their evolving relationship with European settlers. 2. Supporting arguments of Axtell and Merrell: Axtell describes how four aspects of colonial life, economics, religion, politics and acculturation, all influenced both American history and Native history. The cleared lands and the cultivation of maize enabled early Europeans to survive. Trade with the Indians for furs became a staple export in seventeenth century America and led to inland exploration and development. The existence of a native population slowed the growth of a slave-based economy in the south and affected colonial land policies. Competing Christian missionaries arrived on the frontier and beyond to convert the Indians. These missionaries developed the early Protestant evangelical tenor of American religion and counterbalanced the Catholic Jesuit influence to the north. Without the Indian presence, colonial politics would have lacked a garrison mentality, requiring local militia units and accumulated military debts which strained colonial relations with England. Finally, natives affected the evolution of American culture: settlers adapted some Indian methods and technology to their vision of English civilization and provided a barometer with which they judged progress in the New World. Merrell describes how three major factors - disease, technology and European settlers - impacted the history of the early southern American settlements. The native population had no resistance to smallpox and typhus and upwards of 90% of some tribes died, leading to displacement, re-grouping and consolidation of tribes. Geographic-based traditions were lost and native leadership suffered. The gradual formation of the Catawba nation resulted in a somewhat more stable native life. Technology, especially household articles, implements and weapons made from iron, were in great demand among the Catawba leading to trading relations - a major source of cultural interaction. Unfortunately, other European advancements such as liquor, proved to be a destructive social influence and, combined with muskets, facilitated deadly confrontation between colonists and Indians. By 1730, the frontier was the scene of continual conflict. From the settlers' viewpoint, the Catawba Nation was a major obstacle to expansion. Rapidly increasing white population led to reluctant daily adjustments on the part of the Indians which resulted in a constantly declining equilibrium in terms of social position and loss of status and some elements of their heritage for the Catawbas. 3. Comparison of the articles by Axtell and Merrell Merrell provides documentation of the realities of white and native interaction in the American south-east between roughly 1610 and 1750. Axtell uses a counterfactual hypothesis to analyze white and native relations over a broader temporal and spatial horizon. Both describe the cultural integration which evolved between the two societies and both find that native peoples were able to retain much of their unique culture within the American melting pot. Both Merrell and Axtell emphasize the importance of the frontier in American history. It was where Indians and Europeans interacted on a daily basis until the continent was completely settled. Here, adaptations were made by both sides regarding political and legal systems, property rights, the role of men and women, urban versus rural lifestyles (both agricultural and nomadic) and Christianity as opposed to the Indian religions. Bibliography Axtell, James, "Colonial America Without the Indians: Counterfactual Reflections", Journal of American History 73 (1986-87): 981-96. Merrell, James H., "The Indian's New World: The Catawba Experience", William and Mary Quarterly, 41 (1984): 537-565.

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