The story of the European invasion of America beginning in the late 15th century involves two main groups of conquerors – the Spanish and the English.
Clearly, the takeover of land is unprecedented in world history in terms of scope and level of brutality. In human suffering terms, it’s a classic example of man’s inhumanity to man, European-style.
To be sure, the roots of today’s anti-Native American policies originate from that initial European assault. Thus, it’s a fitting tribute to begin this article by reflecting on Native Americans, who continue to experience modern-day indignities. Consider the following:
Victim of the controversial Keystone oil pipeline, the Great Sioux Nation was forced to give up land in the middle of their territory. In the west, the Berlin Wall-type border fence has split the greatly shrunken Navajo and Apache desert homelands in half. Too, the U.S. keeps approving oil and gas permits in thousands of acres within Indian Reservations.
In addition, the death in January 2015 of Reies López Tijerina is a solemn reminder that the U.S. government never returned Spanish Land Grant acreage to their rightful owners – Native and Mestizo American people of the Southwest, primarily in New Mexico and Arizona.
Albeit, how did Europeans carry out their conquest? The short answer is that their seizure of America is long and complicated. Thus, the following summary is brief and covers only Spain and England.
The Spanish Invasion
First, the Spanish invasion. Oddly enough, the arrival of the Spanish in America is kindly celebrated in U.S. classrooms. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” starts the gentle first grade poem most of us learned in elementary school.
However, in terms of visible impact, the year 1519 represents Spain’s entry into mainland America. It was also the year that New Spain was born.
Hugh Thomas writes in his book, “Conquest (The Fall of Old Mexico)”, that to the Spanish, their invasion of the Mexica Empire in America was a continuation of their 800-year-long victory over the Moslem Moors in Spain.
Upon war’s end, the Spanish Crown wisely transformed its warrior classes into explorers and evangelicals. Most early voyagers had seen battle action. War was part of life. To a Spaniard facing a crisis then, the only option was to fight and win.
After the Spanish landing in Hispaniola, rumors arose of great wealth to the west. Thus, the Spanish sailed toward the “island” of Yucatán as it was perceived to be. At the time, no one knew that America was a continent. Experts thought that India and China were near, prompting the Spanish to call Native Americans “Indios” (Indians). That name remains to this day.
Hugh Thomas observes that in February 1519, Hernan Cortés landed in Yucatán with 500 soldiers, weapons, equipment, and horses. He soon made contact with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a shipwreck survivor who had lived with the Maya for years and knew the Chontal language. Thus, Cortés quickly learned of the shaky co-existence among the various Native American groups in the area. They complained to Cortés that they hated paying tribute of goods and slaves for sacrifice to the Mexica, masters of the Valley of Mexico.
Shortly, Cortés organized alliances with several kings (Totonac, Otomi, and Tlaxcala). Initiating his march to Tenochtitlan in October, he was joined by additional Spanish soldiers and over 1,000 Tlaxcala warriors eager to help defeat the Mexica. By November, Cortés and his army of Spanish and Native American soldiers had entered the Mexica capital.
After much bloodshed, in Hugh Thomas’ words, Cortés had single-handedly led the defeat of one of the greatest kingdoms in the world. In August 1521, about two and one half years after landing in Yucatán, Tenochtitlan ceased to exist when Cortés renamed it Mexico City.
Author Thomas adds that the Spanish would not have achieved their victory without the help of the various individual Native American groups long held in servitude by the Mexica. As expected, these tribes shared equally with the Spaniards in the plunder after the downfall of the mighty Mexica Empire.
Incidentally, that close interaction served as the main crucible that first began blending white Spanish European bloodlines with those of brown indigenous people of America, creating today’s Mestizo race of people throughout America.
The English Invasion
Now, to the English invasion. Mainstream U.S. historian Admiral Samuel Eliot Morrison doesn’t mince words. He says that 1620 (the year New England was born) marks the beginning of the end for Native American civilization on the east coast. The author emphasizes that the English “only wanted land” and were thus horribly intolerant of the land’s residents.
Quite logically, the Native American people began to feel pushed out of their villages. Unable to stem the flow of new arrivals, they tried to appease the English invaders by ceding more room, but it was useless.
“Indians never understood land ownership in the English sense,” says Admiral Morrison. When the English gave the Indians gifts, they presumed a business transaction had been concluded. The English assumed their hosts were accepting the few trinkets as payment for thousands of acres of their land.
In the natives’ frame of mind, however, receiving gifts of glass beads, axes, kettles, and blankets meant that the “palefaces” (Morrison’s word) were merely thanking them for sharing the land with the indigenous people.
Equally important, Native Americans couldn’t conceive the thought that land could be private property. Moreover, First Americans couldn’t read or write English, yet they were coaxed to sign deeds. As such, the English fueled their greedy addiction to Indian land by such exploitation, causing much of the early bloodshed. The following real case-in-point offers some clues.
As the white Europeans demanded more living space, they ignored individual tribe identities and territories. For example, the Nipmuck tribe, squeezed between two growing white settlements, crossed into terrain of the Mohawk Nation, their ancient enemies. Reasonably, the Mohawks took it as aggression and responded with violence. Tribal clashes elsewhere soon arose, as with the Narragansett and Wampanoag people. Soon, open warfare erupted that tore the delicate fibers of Indian society, aggravating Indian-English contact. Sadly, the English never accepted the fact that they had initiated the chaos.
Regardless, craving more land, the European interlopers were soon conducting wholesale force-marching of Native American families into Indian Reservations across the Mississippi River. The Trail of Tears is one such massive relocation leading to the death of over ten thousand of the land’s population of Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Choctaw.
In summary, what’s the impact of the European invasion on the Native Americans? Both countries share equally in destructive subjugation. Truly, both Spain and England etched permanent scars on the face of America. Yet, mainstream historians refer to the English as non-threatening pioneers, while negatively casting the Spanish as cruel conquistadors. Thus, they singularly give England a passing grade, while condemning only the Spanish. Sadly, it’s this version of history that’s taught in the classroom.
Overall as European surrogates, New Spain united white European and Native American bloodlines. On the other hand, New England divided them, most forcibly by initiating their trademark Indian “reservation” system.
There’s one last question. Would the English have been more merciful than the Spanish in the conquest of the Mexica Empire? The answer is “No” for two reasons. One, the horrible way Anglos treated Native Americans in New England and east coast (1830 Indian Removal Act).
The second is the follow-on Manifest Destiny war of extermination that the U.S. cruelly conducted west of the Mississippi River as it established its empire from “sea to shining sea.” Symbolizing the finishing touch on its occupation of Native American land, the U.S. capped itself with the crown of Mount Rushmore.
The bottom line? In the words of Walt Whitman in 1883, “It is time to realize that there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, and superstition in the résumé in past Spanish history than in the corresponding résumé of Anglo-Norman history.”