First things first. What you were taught in preschool isn’t necessarily the full story. Yes, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Yes, they made contact with Native Americans. But it wasn’t all corn planting and turkey shoots from that point on.
As you know, the Native American population in America is significantly lower now than it was in 1620. But how many Native Americans died when the Pilgrims came to America? Forget everything you learned in kindergarten; let’s look at the facts like adults.
How Many Native Americans Were There?
Unfortunately, it’s unclear as to how many Native Americans inhabited the continent prior to the arrival of Columbus, and subsequently of the Pilgrims. Many attempts have been made to estimate the number of Native Americans, but as no census existed, it’s impossible to know for sure. The most likely estimate of the Native American population north of the Rio Grande is 54 million.
How Many Native Americans Died Because of the Pilgrims?
The Pilgrims were undoubtedly the biggest threat to Native Americans. Native Americans had been living on the land that we now call the United States for an estimated 12,000 years before British settlers arrived. But archaeologists have found evidence of inhabitants from as long as 60,000 years ago. While it’s unclear as to the lineage of these people, their existence is mere proof that there were thriving civilizations on the continent long before the Pilgrims’ arrival.
It’s important to note that while the Pilgrims’ treatment of Native Americans had the most devastating impact in terms of population depletion, they were not the first threat. When Columbus arrived in America in 1942, the spread of disease was begun. Columbus, however, had little desire to settle on the continent. Instead, he sought a trade route to the West Indies. So while damage was certainly inflicted by the arrival of Columbus, it wasn’t the genocide which we know was initiated by the Pilgrims. That said, and as an example of the damage wrought by Christopher Columbus and his crew, take a look at this statistic:
In 1492, there were an estimated 250,000 native people in Hispaniola. By 1517, just 25 years after the arrival of Columbus, only 14,000 people remained. Smallpox, measles, the flu and other infectious diseases wiped out all but 6% of the population.
Why Were the Native Americans Killed?
Intentional or not, the arrival of European disease to North America was devastating. But the Pilgrims’ actions against the Native American population was far worse.
Massacres. Scalping. Torture. Rape. The terror inflicted on the indigenous North American people was in no way accidental. There’s only one word which could accurately describe how Native Americans were killed: genocide.
But why? There’s never a true “why” to genocide. From Hitler’s attempts to eradicate the non-Aryan population to the mass slaughter of the Tutsi by the Hutu, there’s no reason for genocide. There is no why.
Reasons could be fabricated. Perhaps the Pilgrims feared the Native Americans. It could have been because the Native Americans looked different. Maybe the Native Americans refused to defer to the Pilgrims’ demands that they become slaves. Perhaps it was simply a battle for land, as the history books suggest. Maybe the Native Americans even started that battle.
It could be so simple as that a Native American child looked cross-eyed at a Pilgrim’s wife. The truth is that it doesn’t matter. Historians have written in the history books that measles and the plague wiped out the Native population, but the fact remains that no war and no cross-eyed child can justify the atrocities committed by English settlers in the 15th century and beyond.
How Many Native Americans Died on the Trial of Tears?
The disease introduced by Columbus and the genocide committed by Pilgrims were only the beginnings of the heinous crimes against Native Americans. By the time the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, a great number of Native Americans had already died due to Eurasian disease. But despite this, it was Colonial Law to “shoot savage Indians on sight,” and Native Americans were viewed as just that – savages.
This perception didn’t end, either. In the centuries which followed, Native Americans were continually treated as imposters on their own land, and as the settlers continued to expand “their” territories, the Native Americans were forcibly removed.
As settlers moved into the Southeastern region of what is now the United States, they encountered members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Well, for these settlers, that wouldn’t do. They wanted to grow cotton and other crops, and as a result of the Native Americans impeding progress, the “Indian Removal Act” was signed by Andrew Jackson.
Again, it’s nearly impossible to determine an exact number of indigenous people who were affected. But it’s estimated that 100,000 Native Americans were moved from their homes and relocated farther west. Of these people, an estimated one third died on the journey. Native Americans hadn’t been prepared; they were forced to (or tricked into) marching with the military to their relocation point. They were killed on this death march by infectious disease, by exposure to the elements, by starvation, and by harassment by the soldiers who marched with them.
How Many Native Americans Are There Now?
Today, we have a census. And while the census isn’t always entirely accurate, it provides a good idea of how many Native Americans are in the United States now. According to the last census in 2010, only 5.2 people identified as Native American. These people, of course, self-identified, and most of these Native Americans reported being of mixed lineage.
Only 2.9 million people in the 2010 census identified as being of Native American heritage alone. This is an astounding decrease from the estimated number of indigenous people prior to the arrival of Europeans.
So whatever you learned as a child, don’t be fooled. European settlers decimated the Native American population, and it wasn’t all accidental. The deaths of millions of Native Americans at the hands of these settlers is one of the most devastating and tragic accounts of genocide in world history.