Native American Discoveries of Europe

by Daniel K. Richter

Native Americans discovered Europe at the same time Europeans discovered America. As far as we know, no birch bark canoes caught the gulf stream to Glasgow, and no Native American conquistadores planted flags at Florence, but just as Europeans struggled to fit evidence of “new worlds” into their frames of understanding, so too did Native North Americans in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

A story recorded by French Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune in 1633 suggests how the process worked. According to Le Jeune, an Innu (Montagnais) man whose people lived near the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence


. . . has told us that his grandmother used to take pleasure in relating to him the astonishment of the Natives, when they saw for the first time a French ship arrived upon their shores. They thought it was a moving Island; they did not know what to say of the great sails which made it go; their astonishment was redoubled in seeing a number of men on deck. The women at once began to prepare houses for them, as is their custom when new guests arrive, and four canoes of Natives ventured to board these vessels. They invited the Frenchmen to come into the houses which had been made ready for them, but neither side understood the other. They were given a barrel of bread or biscuit. Having brought it on shore they examined it; and finding no taste in it, threw it into the water. . . . [The Innu] said the Frenchmen drank blood and ate wood, thus naming the wine and the biscuits.

Now as they were unable to understand to what nation our people belonged, they gave them the name which has since always clung to the French, ouemichtigouchiou; that is to say, a man who works in wood, or who is in a canoe or vessel of wood.[1]

The story probably conflates several historical events and casts them metaphorically rather than literally. Yet it nicely summarizes the process of discovery as at least some seventeenth-century Native people understood it: initial puzzlement led to a guarded welcome, an exchange of goods, and the bestowal of a name.

There is nothing puzzling about the puzzlement, but why should the mysterious arrival of beings from a floating island require the women of the story “to prepare houses for them, as is their custom when new guests arrive”? For the Innu, as for most eastern Native Americans, a vast range of “persons” comprised the universe, and only a small minority were humans like us; most were what anthropologists call “other-than-human persons.” These included such elemental forces as the sun, the rain, the four winds, and the earth itself, along with animals, plants, streams, mountains, and any number of other actors. Such persons could affect humans’ lives in a variety of visible and invisible ways. The results could be good or ill, or, better put, either advantageous or disadvantageous—not so much because other-than-human persons were inherently good or evil but simply because they were persons who had their own purposes and who might or might not find themselves obligated to work with others. Thus the sun might either encourage other-than-human food plants to grow, or burn them out. Those plants in turn might bear fruit that human persons could eat, or refuse to do so. Similarly, deer and other animals might voluntarily give themselves up to be eaten, or make themselves scarce.

Blurring the line between such clearly other-than-human persons and human persons were, in endless cultural variety, gods with complicated personalities, ancestral progenitors who descended from the sky or emerged from the earth, and culture heroes or trickster figures who might intervene in history at any time. Another kind of blurring involved persons whose languages, customs, or behavior differed markedly from one’s own. The distinction is implied by the word Innu, which—like Anishinaabeg (used in the upper Great Lakes region), Lenape (in the Delaware Valley), and similar terms in countless Native languages—roughly translates as “human beings” or “real people,” and applied only to those within the circle of kin and other relationships that defined the boundaries of a tribal community. Whatever the case, human persons had to ally themselves with both human and, especially, other-than-human persons to channel their power in productive ways.

Europeans assumed a role similar to that of those other-than-human persons in this complex world, hence the welcome prepared by the women in Le Jeune’s story. Whoever the persons who arrived on the floating island were, it was far preferable to ally with them than to risk their hostility or, perhaps worse, their making common cause with one’s enemies. Alliances were supposed to be marked by reciprocity, by exchanges of goods, labor, or other mutually advantageous benefits. Such transactions were seldom perfectly symmetrical; instead they left subordinates obligated to chiefs, elders, and powerful other-than-human persons who provided more than could be immediately returned. Often these relationships of unbalanced reciprocity were symbolized by particular material artifacts, gifts that physically demonstrated connections and obligations. Chiefs, for instance, distributed rare shell beads or other items of adornment to their followers, items that they in turn had received from other chiefs and that thus demonstrated far-flung powerful alliances. Rare items whose barely understood origins lay hundreds of miles away—shells, minerals, and especially copper—seem to have been considered gifts from, and thus signs of alliance with, powerful other-than-human persons who lived underground or underwater. Whatever the case, exchanges of goods were signs of alliance among persons; lack of such exchange was a sign of enmity.

Thus, the curious things the European newcomers brought were central to the story that Le Jeune heard. The people in the story rejected the gift of inedible sea biscuits; hard as rocks after a long voyage, they must indeed have seemed to be blocks of wood. Meanwhile, the story deems the wine intended to wash the biscuit down not just tasteless but vile. “Frenchmen drank blood and ate wood,” observed the storyteller (who, by the way, was familiar enough with Le Jeune’s religion to know about the Roman Catholic Eucharist and its associations with bread, wine, and blood).

Such gifts were not exactly designed to seal a firm alliance. Nonetheless, the Frenchmen received a name, which placed them in the universe of persons and made them comprehensible as a sort of human persons: “ouemichtigouchiou; that is to say, a man who works in wood, or who is in a canoe or vessel of wood.” Throughout eastern North America, Native people assigned Europeans similar identities, derived from technology and exotic material goods. In southern New England, according to Roger Williams, Native people called the English “Cháuquaquock, that is, Knive-men.” In the Mohawk country of today’s upstate New York, Europeans in general were known as asseroni or “axe-makers,” and Dutch people in particular as kristoni, which means “I am a metal maker.” In what the English called “Virginia” and what its Native inhabitants called Tsenacommacah (the densely peopled land), Tassantasses, or “strangers,” was the preferred label, yet a song sung by warriors referred to the Jamestown colonists’ first leader, Christopher Newport, as “Captain Newport [who] brought them Copper.”[2]

Copper, axes, knives, cloth, and the technologies that produced them were the most important aspect of Native peoples’ discovery of Europe, and the most important reason that Native leaders persistently sought alliances with Europeans, untrustworthy as those who ate wood and blood might be. Copper kettles, iron cutting implements, woolen textiles, and other articles from a world new to Americans soon proved their superiority to earthenware pottery, stone tools, and fur robes. Perhaps more importantly, arrowheads fashioned from scrap copper and, later, firearms purchased from traders spawned Native American arms races that required people to ally with Europeans or succumb to those with access to superior weapons. It is little wonder then, that rumors of the marvels to be had in exchange for beaver pelts and other furs apparently preceded the axe-makers wherever they went; a constant theme in European accounts of first explorations of bays and rivers is the appearance of canoe-loads of people waving beaver pelts they desired to trade. “The Beaver does everything perfectly well,” a Native man explained to Le Jeune. “It makes kettles, hatchets, swords, knives, bread; and, in short, it makes everything.”[3]

The beaver, the deerskin, the corn, or whatever else could be traded for European goods could also increase the political power of Native leaders and their communities in a system where exotic material goods embodied the strength that came from alliance with their source. Two stories, one from what the French called Canada and the other from Tsenacommacah (present-day Virginia), provide some insight into the dynamics at work. In 1636, an Algonquin chief announced to a group of Wendats (Hurons) who were reluctant to join him in a military campaign “that his body was hatchets; he meant that the preservation of his person and of his Nation was the preservation of the hatchets, the kettles, and all the trade of the French, for the Hurons.” Indeed, he claimed that he was so much “master of the French” that he could make them “all recross the sea.” Europeans made the hatchets, but the power flowed through him.

A quarter-century earlier, Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsennacommacah, had repeatedly expressed a similar idea. One example among many comes from 1614, shortly after Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas had married Englishman John Rolfe. Virginia Governor Thomas Dale dispatched colonist Ralph Hamor to try to convince Powhatan to give another daughter to the English. The Native leader refused. Among his many complaints was that gifts Hamor had brought him—“two large pieces of copper, five strings of white and blue beads, five wooden combs, ten fish-hooks, and a pair of knives”—were “not so ample . . . as formerly Captaine Newport”[4] had given him. To clarify what he expected, Powhatan “caused to be fetched a great glass of sack, some three quarts or better, which Captain Newport had given him six or seven years since, carefully preserved by him, not much above a pint in all this time spent.” To each of the Englishmen in Hamor’s party he dispensed “in a great oyster shell some three spoonfuls” of the fortifed wine and then instructed Hamor to tell Dale

. . . to send him these particular, Ten pieces of copper, a shaving knife, an iron frow to cleave boards, a grinding stone, not so big but four or five men may carry it, which would be big enough for his use, two bone combs . . . , an hundred fish-hooks or if he could spare it, rather a fishing seine, and a cat, and a dog.

Powhatan insisted that Hamor repeat each item and, the Englishman said, “yet still doubtful that I might forget any of them, he bade me write them down in such a Table book as he showed me, which was a very fair one.” Like the bottle of sack and like the axes the later Algonquin chief compared himself to, possession of the blank notebook (which might or might not have come from Newport and which Hamor was not allowed to mark) ratified Powhatan’s power over the English in the eyes of his Native allies and rivals. “He told me,” said Hamor, “it did him much good to show it to strangers which came unto him.”[5]

For at least two reasons, these displays of power lasted little longer than the first generation of discovery. Europeans quickly saturated the market with their goods. Once substantial numbers of Europeans arrived in any given region, it quickly became impossible for a single chief to control access to goods now sold by the barrel to all comers. As early as January 1608—only a few months after the establishment of Jamestown—John Smith complained that ordinary colonists and visiting sailors were trading so much copper to ordinary Indians that corn and furs “could not be had for a pound of copper, which before was sold for an ounce.” The threat that such wide-scale democratic trade presented to Native political structures helps explain the long list of exotica Powhatan sought to extract from Hamor to demonstrate his power; mere copper and axes no longer served the purpose.

Yet a far greater threat to Native political structures—indeed, to the entire fabric of Native communities—came from an aspect of the discovery of Europe that no chief, and no colonist, could control. Before communities could fully assimilate their discovery of Europeans and their goods, viral diseases that the newcomers inadvertently brought with them swept through Native America. Smallpox was the greatest of these killers, but measles, mumps, chicken pox, and influenzas in their ever-evolving forms were nearly as deadly. Bubonic plague and hemorrhagic fevers similar to Ebola might also have been part of the gruesome mix.

As early as 1585, at Roanoke on the Outer Banks of today’s North Carolina, English colonists reported that Native “people began to die very fast, and many in short space” after the English colonists visited their villages. “In some towns about twenty, in some forty, in some sixty, and in one six score” perished.[6] Similarly, in 1616 a French missionary said that the Native people of Acadia “often complain that, since the French mingle with and carry on trade with them, they are dying fast, and the population is thinning out.”[7] A year later, what one English colonist described as “a great mortality” struck both Jamestown and Powhatan’s people; its impact was “far greater among the Indians,”[8] who endured repeated bouts over a three-year stretch. There is no direct evidence, but Powhatan himself, who died in 1618, may have been one of the victims. During the same period, an unidentified ailment struck much of the coast of New England. Perhaps the worst episode of all occurred between 1633 and 1641, when a pandemic of smallpox struck New England, the St. Lawrence Valley, the Great Lakes region, and the continental interior at least as far south as Chesapeake Bay and as far west as the Appalachians. A Dutch chronicler was likely not exaggerating when he wrote in 1650 that “the Indians . . . affirm, that before the arrival of the Christians, and before the small pox broke out amongst them, they were ten times as numerous as they now are.”[9]

Le Jeune heard the Innu story about the first arrival of the French in 1633 on the eve of the great smallpox epidemic. The image of persons who “drank blood and ate wood” thus takes on a prophetic tone. For Native people, the discovery of Europe was a discovery of death on an unimaginable scale and of a struggle for cultural survival that continues to this day.

[1] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610–1791 (Cleveland, 1896–1901), 5:119–121. In all quotations, spelling and punctuation has been modernized.
William Strachey, Lewis Wright and Virginia Freund, eds., The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1612) (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1953), 85–86.
Thwaites, Jesuit Relations, 6: 295–97.
Thwaites, 10:75.
Raphe Hamor, A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia, and the Success of the Affaires There till the 18 of June, 1614 (London, 1615), 41–45.
Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (Frankfort-am-Main, 1590), 24–30.
Thwaites, Jesuit Relations, 3:103.
Quoted in Helen C. Roundtree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 64.
Adrian van der Donck, Description of the Conflict and Commerce: The Founding of New Netherland, trans. Jeremiah Johnson (New York: New-York Historical Society Collections, 2d ser.), 1 (1841): 183.

Daniel K. Richter is the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History and the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. His most recent publication is Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (2011).

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