The American Revolution was a global event and well documented. West of the Revolution by Claudio Saunt focuses its lens on the other stories of this period–namely the interactions between the old world and the new during this period of history. Even though the stories are less familiar to us, the patterns are predictable. Europeans show up on Native American soil and things go south from there.
While it is tempting to go down the well trodden path of Native American suffering and blame, it does give me pause to consider the reasons behind the catastrophe that fell on nearly every group of native peoples.
Analogies may work here, and what we see could be described as the introduction of an invasive species. But what made the Europeans so powerful and so intentionally and unintentionally destructive? Lets look at a few of the many reasons:
European military technology has often been overstated as an significant factor. Native Americans had comparable technology and numerical superiority. But naval technology is an often overlooked yet essential factor. Naval technology made the trip possible, and impressed the natives upon arrival.
This being said, Saunt also points out some impressive Native American naval technology such as Eskimo boats. These sturdy, waterproof boats took months to build and were superior to anything the Europeans had for fishing. Sadly, these boats were often sabotage targets for Europeans looking to cripple their Native American adversaries.
Horses were another piece of technology Europeans brought to the shores of America. Men riding these beasts would be a terrifying site to any Native American who never laid eyes on this uniquely European coupling. Like firearms, horses would be eventually integrated into the Native American lifestyle.
Some estimates say that after initial contact with Western ships, European diseases wiped out up to 90% of the Native American population in North America. While that number is high, consider that even a smaller number would essentially ‘clean the plate’ for Europeans who looked to colonize many years later.
Europeans had spent generations in filth that essentially culled those with lesser constitutions and created a somewhat more resistant human figure. Native Americans had no such exposure and less genetic diversity to protect themselves.
The tragedy of European diseases like smallpox, the plague, tuberculosis and even measles could not be overstated. It is one of the saddest chapters in human history and shrouded in mystery. The spirits of those who passed on took their stories to the next world, leaving us with little but vague clues and speculations.
What motivates Europeans to make a deadly trip thousands of miles away from home with a great possibility that they will never see their homeland again? One can point to two separate yet powerful motivations: greed and religion. While greed is a simple yet powerful motivator, religion is a much more complex topic.
Native Americans had very practical religion and nothing to parry the aggressive institutional Christianity that Europeans brought to their shores. Theological motivations were core to the European mind. Generations of wars over religion (religion in this case being essentially a cloak for power and cultural control) were fresh on European minds and they took this war to the natives.
Now there were certainly some who genuinely wished to bring the Good News to the natives, yet it is nearly impossible to separate the good intentions from the power and control grab. Religion at this point in history was too intwined with international politics, and the aggressive theology that sprung from it was unlike anything the Native Americans knew.
Technology, disease and determination are admittedly shallow and oversimplified reasons for European domination of the new world (that’s why they write books and not blogs on this topic). For more information, I suggest checking out West of the Revolution. Check out a more detailed (and professional) review here.