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Warfare and the Cultural Divide Between Settlers and Natives in America Essay

The difference in values and traditions between Native American cultures and the Europeans who settled in America served to spark a cultural divide that ultimately lead to the demise of Native American civilizations. Whites and Indians in conflict began with the landing of the first settlers in what became the first colonization of America and continued through the late 1800’s; some would say it continues today.

The differences in the ways war was traditionally waged between the two cultures contributed to the European idea that Indians were Godless savages whose genocide was justified by their failure to assimilate to European culture on their own land and failure to embrace Christianity. Native Americans were at a disadvantage militarily. They were severely outnumbered and out armed, yet they managed to hold their ground for a surprisingly long time against an onslaught of incoming invaders.

Morally, their response to having their lands invaded and their people oppressed was equivalent to how Europeans might have responded militarily to an invasion, but the tactics and strategies were much different. While the lack of organization and age-old tactics used by the Indians served as an advantage, it also allowed the settlers to condemn them as savage murderers rather than warriors defending their land and people from an invasion. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Indians…conducted a protracted and often successful military resistance against what many historians now perceive to have been a series of European invasions of North America. ” (Starkey, 4) Christian European settlers did not consider themselves to be invading. The natives did not have a civilized society nor a government; no organization, no armies.

The settlers viewed the idea of spreading their culture and values in this New World as a responsibility to advance civilization and Christianity. They id not see these advances as an attack on the native culture and they did not see their settlement on the land as a seizure of another civilization’s property. The settlers viewed the Indians as Godless savages. They viewed the cultural differences in the natives through their own lens of culture, religion and morality. This ignorance of the differences in moral values and social structures allowed the Europeans to justify the genocide that took place over the next century. “Most successful in dealing with the Indians diplomatically and militarily were those who made an effort to understand them.

But Europeans often avoided such an effort when they relegated the Indians to the status of “savages”, a people without government, laws, social mores and cultural values. European conquest could thus be justified as a triumph of civilization over barbarism. ” (Starkey, 6) In contrast to European standards, Native American motivations for waging war centered around exacting revenge and capturing women and children who would then join their tribes. Tribes frequently conducted raids on each other and had been doing so for generations.

The raids were conducted with an element of surprise and usually consisted of several of the men being immediately slaughtered violently, the capture of some men, but mostly women and children who accompanied their attackers. The captured men were usually tortured to death and mutilated. The captured women and children were then treated as members of the capturing tribe. Territory and conquest were not motivation for warfare as with Europeans and by European war standards, these raids were small and were not considered to be sustained conflicts.

The differences in values among the two cultures became apparent when early settlers attempted to negotiate land ownership and treaties with various tribes. “The Indians practiced communal land ownership. That is, the entire community owned the land upon which it lived. ” (Williams, 64) Cultural differences made the very definition of land ownership murky. The idea that an individual could have exclusive rights to a piece of land, and the resources on it, was a foreign one to the Indians.

Settlers underestimated the Indians because their values were so different and this put the settlers in extreme peril in many instances. The Indians may have thought the concept of exclusive land ownership was strange, but they were not unwilling to lay claim to the resources in the domain of their people through violent means, nor were they averse to exacting revenge on their oppressors. Early settlers along the James River in Virginia who established their colony in 1607 learned this firsthand. When these European settlers migrated to the New World, they brought with them European ideas about warfare.

Traditional motivations for making war were to add to their kingdom through conquest; to seize a territory and assimilate its inhabitants into their empire. In order to add territory and people to their empire, they would generally surround a village and attack it. If the village resisted, European warriors would make an example of this village by killing mass numbers of men, women and children to set an example to other communities. They were morally justified in doing so because the conquest was for the good of their kingdom.

When English settlers arrived in the area we now refer to as Jamestown, they encountered the native inhabitants and brought their warfare traditions along with them. The English at Jamestown put tremendous pressure on local natives to provide them with food. Those native villages that resisted early on were annihilated by the settlers in a fashion consistent with traditional European warfare. Their villages were destroyed and their crops burned.

“One early settler’s account of his punitive raid on an Indian village: ‘I dispersed my soldiers to burn their houses and cut down their corn … e marched out with the queen and her children to our boats, [and] my soldiers began to complain because these Indians had been spared…. It was agreed to put the children to death. This was done by throwing them overboard and shooting out their brains in the water. ’” In the early days of the settlement, the English had value to the Powhatan for their technology, their copper and as allies against hostile tribes. The Powhatan did not initially retaliate against the English for this and other reasons.

“The population was sparse enough that you didn’t waste people. (Rountree, 2007) Men could not be spared. Although the Powhatan had no concept of just how densely populated England was and no inkling that they would eventually be flooded from their own land by large numbers of settlers, they valued each and every member of their own tribe as a precious resource and were not willing to go head to head with the English settlers and risk losing men to the superior weaponry of the English. Instead the Powhatan adopted a policy of accommodation. They helped the English colony survive near starvation and took advantage of their technology in the form of tools and weapons.

By 1622, the colony was thriving and they were peacefully interacting with the local Powhatan tribe. The Powhatan Indians frequently ate with and even slept in the homes of the settlers. The Indians shared their knowledge of raising tobacco crops which ultimately allowed the settlement to prosper. But the Indians did not share the European vision of an integrated society and did not wish to be assimilated. “The silence of the Indians in the face of daily insults of occupation and verbal abuse the English mistook for subservience.

By 1622 it was apparent to the Indians that the colonists intended to expand their holdings in Virginia. This physical expansion threatened the Indian way of life. Of even greater concern, perhaps, were the renewed colonial efforts to convert and educate the “savages. ” Opechancanough’s response to the threat of cultural deconstruction was to plan and stage a massive attack on the English settlement as a demonstration of Indian power and in an attempt to drive off the English for good. ” (The Powhatan Attack of March 22,1622, 1998) The Indian Massacre of 1622 resulted in the killing of 350 English settlers at Jamestown.

In this instance, the Powhatan did not stay true to their traditional warfare tactics. Although they used the element of surprise, they killed on a much larger scale and did not do so with the motivation of capturing women and children to join their tribe. Instead, they were defending their land and their culture. When the Indian tribes responded violently to this and other European attempts at invasion and forced cultural assimilation, they only served to solidify the settlers’ stereotypes of Indians and deepen the European resolve to advance their own culture and idea of civilization.

The traditional use of the element of surprise in this massacre (the Powhatan came into the village bearing gifts and then attacked) was pointed to by the English an example of the lack of honor and savagery among the natives. The mutilation of their victims, also traditional in Native American warfare, served as further evidence for the English of their Godlessness and justification for their annihilation. Opechancanough, the Powhatan chief who initiated the massacre, did not completely decimate the colony because he expected the English to react in a way that is culturally consistent with Native American tradition.

When a Native American tribe is defeated, they either pack up and leave or learn to live in peace with their victors while respecting their power. However, when word of the massacre reached England, the English responded with supplies of men and gunpowder to fortify the settlement at Jamestown. Within the year, 2,500 additional English settlers had joined the surviving 893 at Jamestown, thus fortifying the settlement and furthering the drain of Powhatan land and resources.

The Indian Massacre of 1622 is just one of many examples of how the cultural conflict between the European settlers and native people in the 17th through 19th centuries in America was fueled by a cultural divide centered on warfare. Europeans perpetuated the stereotyping of Indians as “bloodthirsty savages” who hindered progress and were an impediment to the advancement of civilization and Christianity in America. Many believed that if they could not be assimilated, they must be removed.

As more settlers arrived and advanced westward, countless conflicts and wars between tribes, among tribes and between European settlers and Native Americans took place. Both the settlers and their native counterparts engaged in numerous opportunistic alliances. The Revolutionary War, The Seven Years War and the Civil War were fought amongst them. Native Americans played key roles in all of these conflicts and taught their European counterparts a few things about the art of war along the way. They were seen as skilled warriors who were a military asset in many instances.

The white man’s victories and defeats only allowed them to lay further claim to the Indians’ cultural homeland in the process and their oppression continued throughout. Many massacres are recorded in American history. They are complete with dates, locations, numbers of casualties and witness accounts. Interestingly, the massacres which are so carefully documented and preserved in our history are overwhelmingly those that were perpetrated by native people. Aggression by European settlers on Native Americans are not so carefully recorded or preserved.

Those that are recorded lack such rich detail. For example, the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne in 1864 and Custer’s subsequent savage massacre of the Cheyenne at Lodge Pole in 1868 are recorded but estimates of the dead in both incidents are recorded as a range as wide as seventy five. As the white man set out to conquer America’s western frontier, the natives they encountered presented them with a more dynamic set of challenges. The natives encountered in early eastern settlements had more highly organized and hierarchical societies and were more easily assimilated.

These Plains and western tribes were seen by the Europeans as much more savage. They were more nomadic and their societies less civilized. These tribes were elusive by their very nature and at the onset of the European conquest into their lands; it was extremely difficult to estimate their numbers. They were organized in bands and they had no supreme chief or leader. The whites could not understand this organization as it did not resemble any form of government they had ever encountered. Europeans embarked on endless attempts to negotiate and trade with single band leaders.

These efforts were futile. By the 1840s European civilization had advanced to the Plains. There, the settlers encountered arguably the most powerful, militarily successful and elusive tribe in history, the Comanche Nation. A family of settlers by the name of Parker’s encounter with the Comanche has gone down in history as the beginning of the demise of their nation. “The kidnapping of a blue-eyed, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann in 1836 marked the start of the white man’s forty-year war with the Comanche. ” (Gwynne, 12) The story of the Parker family and Cynthia Parker is one that is weaved in irony.

The quest of the Parker family to become landowners, a concept so foreign to native sensibilities, took them from Virginia to Illinois and finally Texas in 1833, where they settled on a promise of free land in exchange for a promise of allegiance to Mexico. Upon their arrival, the Parker clan built a one-acre fort on the promised land, on what is described as the “razor edge of American Civilization” in Texas. Yet, the day of the raid, the family had left the gate of the fortification open, inviting the raid.

Cynthia Ann Parker was taken during the subsequent raid conducted by the Comanche, which could be described as quintessential in terms of traditional Native America warfare. The events that took place during the raid and the captivity of Cynthia Ann and her family members was detailed in an account written by Rachel Plummer who was captured along with Cynthia during the raid. Rachel’s account of the raid and her subsequent captivity was published in 1838 under the title: Rachael Plummer’s Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians and was sensationalized nationally as well as overseas in Europe.

Rachel’s writings give us a glimpse into the culture of the Comanche Nation which can be viewed through a modern lens of anthropology and sociology, but at the time was simply an insurmountable and undeniable body of evidence of the urgent need to eradicate this savage, Godless society from the face of our nation. In keeping with the Native American tradition of warfare, during this raid, the men were killed in the most brutal fashion and mutilated; clubbed, shot with arrows and scalped, probably still alive during their attack. The elderly were chased down, stripped and attacked with tomahawks, scalped and had their genitals cut off.

Some women and children were caught fleeing and dragged to death. Infants were generally killed while small children and women were adopted into the tribe and/or held captive, like Cynthia Parker and Rachel Plummer. While it is impossible to read Rachel’s account without forming moral judgments, we must keep in mind the atrocities committed by all cultures in war. “Some chroniclers ignore the brutal side of Indian life altogether …but certain facts are inescapable: American Indians are warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them. (Gwynne, 44)

One can certainly and easily locate morally equivalent examples of atrocities committed by Christian European cultures both in pre-colonial times and in our own nation’s history; committed against the natives of this land. During her captivity, Cynthia Ann Parker became a member of the Comanche Nation, in keeping with tradition. She married and bore children. Ironically she is the mother of Quanah, who became the greatest and last chief of the Comanche Nation.


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