Native American History -- A Comparison of Two Articles
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
2. Colonial America Without the Indians: Counterfactual Reflections, by James Axtell
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.
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.
E-mail Al Lewis
Back to Bytown or Bust - History and Genealogy in the Ottawa, Canada, area -- Native People's History