Throughout history and even up through the 19th century, most civilizations around the world engaged in warfare to gain territory and resources, including throughout the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans.
Waves of South Americans swept through the Caribbean Islands a thousand years before Christopher Columbus, wiping out the foraging native population there. Also in the centuries predating Columbus, Aztecs conquered and enslaved across Central America.
After mastering the horse in the 17th century, the Comanche tribe conquered the Great Plains regions, eliminating or driving out several other tribes to gain control of prime hunting grounds. The Iroquois Nation of the northeast vanquished several other tribes during the Beaver Wars of the 17th century. And yes, the European settlers conquered the “New World,” achieving a military victory over the remaining native populations that had survived waves of disease.
The narrative being pushed by some in the West that European conquest of the Americas was uniquely evil and constitutes “stolen land” is false. Violent conquest is a dominant theme throughout human history, including among the native peoples of the Americas, who had conquered, enslaved, and “stole” land from each other for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans.
What do we actually know about the clash between European settlers and Native Americans? A few key facts help flesh out this picture:
- Well over 90% of native peoples in the Americas died from diseases the Europeans carried with them—especially smallpox. The diseases tore through the continent almost a century before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock, which means a majority of the native people died without ever laying eyes on a European. Indeed, in North America, the native peoples and settlements encountered by Europeans were a mere shadow of what they were a century before.
- A vast majority of conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans were battles, with armed combatants on both sides, including the two most lop-sided conflicts: Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn.
- What Europeans would consider terrible atrocities, including gang rape and torture, were common practices in native tribe raids, especially among Great Plains tribes. The warrior-centric culture of many of these tribes did not view raiding and pillaging as savage. For this reason, warriors from those tribes typically fought to the death because they knew the victors would kill anyone left alive, often through torture. Such atrocities later also featured in conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans, but they were not limited to just one side.
- After most tribes were defeated militarily, the U.S. government moved them onto reservations, repeatedly broke treaties, and engaged in human rights abuses, including President Andrew Jackson’s order to march the Cherokee Nation along the Trail of Tears, resulting in 4,000 deaths from cold, starvation, and disease. The reservation system remains largely in place today, and is often criticized as creating a welfare state that has paralyzed Native American populations and led to a host of socioeconomic problems.
There was never a policy of genocide toward Native Americans, nor was the nature of the conquest of the Americas a unique endeavor. This was a conflict of civilizations, which is a sad part of the rise and fall of civilizations throughout human history—a history that we, the human race, continue to try and rise above as we strive to find more civil ways to co-exist.