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A Little Native American History

The history of the Americas did not begin in 1492. By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in what he thought was a group of islands off the coast of India, the land from what is now Alaska, south to the tip of the South American continent, was already inhabited --- and had been for at least 10,000 years.

For some time, anthropologists have concluded that Native Americans are of Asiatic or Mongoloid descent, having arrived on the continents across a land bridge from Asia. There are also some anthropologists and archaeologists that believe mankind developed in the Americans and then used the land bridge to populate the rest of the world. For the purpose of this web page, we will focus on the fact that the Americas were populated before Lief Erikson or Columbus arrived and leave the "who came first" question to others. 

Note: Many maps listed on this page are linked to the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia Libraries who maintain full copyright to the images. The URL for each map has been incorporated into this document under the guidelines of the Hargrett Library, to whom we are grateful for providing these educational tools. 

When explorers realized a "New World" had been found, there were more than 600 tribes spread through the area now designated the continental United States. Communication between tribes was difficult or, in some cases, impossible because more than 300 distinctly different languages were in use. The population at the time of "discovery" is extremely underestimated at around one million, with most of the natives living along or near the eastern seaboard.

The "New World" - 1665 - The New World as drawn in 1665. The border images, which include cities, towns, and inhabitants provide a glimpse of the natives during that period.

 

North America - 1710 - This map was prepared in 1710 by the Royal Society of London. On all these maps, areas occupied by native tribes can be identified.

 

Woodland Tribes
The so-called Woodland Tribes populated the area from coastal Maine and northeastern Canada to Florida and the gulf coast of modern-day Texas. The eastern, or Woodland, tribes included what are called the Five Civilized Tribes: Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole; and the Iroquois confederacy which includes Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Seneca. The latter group was later joined by the Tuscarora.


Northern Colonies in 1710 - Prepared for King George to show British lands including Newfoundland, New Scotland, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Carolina. Also depicts a portion of the Louisiana area.

 

Southern Colonies in 1755 - Map of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maryland with part of New Jersey; from a London magazine published in July 1755.

Southeastern U.S. area - 1625 - A map of Spanish Florida in 1625, covering an area up to the Virginia colony area.

 

Plains and Prairies
The tribes living in the area of the plains and prairies of North America included the Comanche and Sioux of movie fame. But scores of other tribes also lived in the area encompassing the central or, Midwest, of the continent from above the Canadian border and south into Mexico.The most recognizable tribe names include: Assiniboin, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Cree; the Lakota, Dakota, Santee, and eastern division Sioux; Osage and Pawnee. Some tribes in this group are now only remembered by the place names given to geographical areas such as Omaha, Iowa, Kansa(s), and Missouri.

Unites States - 1783 - The "Unites States of North America" in 1783, including the territories of France and Spain. Designates areas occupied by the Sioux tribes and the Chippewa as well as other tribes.

The Southwest
The Navajo, Apache, and Yaqui tribes migrated over the years to the Southwest where they occupied territory among the Pima, Hopi, Papago and Pueblo Indians. Some of the oldest known remains of civilization on the continent can be found in this area.

Unites States - 1783 - The "Unites States of North America" in 1783, including the territories of France and Spain. Includes the southwestern area of the continent.

The Northwest
In the Northwest, mountains, lakes and passes bear the names of native tribes such as Chinook, Klamath, Shasta, Tillamook, and Tlingit, among others. A ceremony called Potlatch by Native Americans of the area evolved into the present-day "pot luck."

United States - 1854 - Prepared as part of planned transportation routes, this 1854 map points out areas occupied by the native tribes and nations.

 

The Westcoast
Despite Balboa's discovery of the Pacific Ocean, the coastal region of California, (extending into present-day Colorado, Utah and northern parts of Arizona) was home to the Bannock, Flathead, Mohave, Nez Perce, Ute, Shoshone, Yuma and at least 25 other tribes before the Spanish arrived on the scene. (See map of "United States - 1854" under "The Northwest")

The Metis and "Half-breeds"
When the explorers "found" the Americas there was a commingling of the races as native women were first exploited for use of their bodies. As the fur traders moved across the North American continent, they most often carried along their women and children. Gathering together in groups, the traders and their families were known by many names including "voyagers." Native women became native wives; children were baptized in Christian churches while they learned the heritage and spirituality of their indigenous ancestors. Small pockets of families and clans lived throughout the continent, living this mixture of east and west on an everyday basis.

When the Indian Territories were created by the U.S. Federal government and as tribes were annihilated, relocated and/or assimilated, individual families were faced with decisions that would affect not only themselves, but the progeny for many generations. In Kentucky and Georgia it became illegal for "Indians" to own land. If a family admitted to their heritage, they faced the loss of all their families had built, in some cases for hundreds of years. On the other hand, "Indians" on certain rolls were being offered new lands west of the Mississippi. The "breed" families were faced with a choice: Indian, white, or who they really were --- Mixed. At one time, the United States began negotiations to set aside areas in Minnesota, Illinois and the Kansas-Missouri areas called "Half-Breed" reservations, but demands for territory by the advancing immigrants stopped the final completion.

In Canada, and in formal diplomatic correspondence carried on in French, the term "Metis" was used. In the United States, these "mixed" people were referred to in English as half-breeds, or just "breeds." Many treaties and plans for reservations addressed what was then called "the half-breed problem." Luckily for the "breeds" in Canada, the term Metis continued to be used even after the majority of Canadians began to use English. The word Metis was incorporated into Canadian laws while their contemporaries in the United States were forced into the most insidious of categories to be defined by "blood quantums." Ergo, the breeds in the U.S. were Indian if they possessed a specific amount of Indian blood. Heritage, practice of spirituality, tradition did not make an Indian ... blood quantum made an Indian. As many of the breeds in the United States were forced into a limbo-land of neither Indian nor white, our brothers and sisters to the north became Metis with a capital "M."

In 1982, due to years of effort marred by bloodshed and tears by Metis in Canada, the Canadian government finally acknowledged the right of the Metis to exist as a separate people --- not white, not Indian, not on reserve, not off reserve, but METIS. In the United States, Metis Nations and organizations are beginning to band together and have formed the U.S. Metis Alliance. All members of the alliance have an equal voice following the traditions of their ancestors. If you are interested in the Metis, I recommend you check out the Alliance website and the many Metis Links in the NATIVE AMERICAN RESOURCES section of my website. I list historical as well as current "official" tribe and nation sites. Some are museum sites which offer tours into other worlds as well.