HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Indigenous North American Cultures

NOTE: This page was updated on 20 Nov. 2021.

This week's big question

Generally, how would you characterize the colonizers' accounts of Indigenous peoples? How would you characterize the relationship?

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

For this week you are required to read one of two secondary sources (see the instructions in the Secondary Sources section). However, if you would like to read BOTH sources, you are welcome to do so. In your forum group, do your best to have a conversation with others about the similarities and differences between the two texts.

Try to build on each other's comments: reply, debate, and ask questions of each other (in a constructive way!!) so that you push each other to learn more together. The two secondary sources this week offer different perspectives on Indigenous history. Read the posts of your classmates who are reading the same text as you, and those reading another text. Compare. Discuss. As always, for full credit in the Forum you should have at least two posts: one ideally early in the week, and another by the end of the Forum (sooner if possible), and before you write both posts you should read and review all previous posts so that you are building upon and not repeating each other's ideas.

We're also asking you read only TWO primary documents, and to do so slowly with lots of thought. We know you're really busy these last weeks of term, but do your best to stay on schedule. Take your time; read a doc, post, wait a few days, read another doc and some posts, make a response, and so on. But stay engaged throughout the week. Do your best to develop a great conversation in your Forum this week and next.

Questions to think about, more particularly, are:


​Much of the larger pattern of Atlantic history can be seen in the interconnectedness of the different stories.  As we saw two weeks ago, the slave trade initiated one of the great demographic shifts in global history. At least 10 million Africans were forcibly relocated to the Americas, as slaves, where their labour enabled the development of large-scale production of sugar, cotton, rice, tobacco, indigo, and other staple products. Early colonization plans had imagined Indigenous peoples would supply that labour, but, as we saw in the week on the Columbian exchange, huge swaths of that population had been cut down by European diseases that spread through the Americas. Colonization’s inadvertent depopulation of one region led to colonialists’ deliberate depopulation of another.

This relatively new understanding of the biological consequences of overseas expansion has changed the way we understand that larger story. It’s also very much changed how we think about Indigenous peoples and their history. The traumatic effects of the exchange, particularly of disease’s near extirpation of huge swaths of Indigenous populations, have compelled historians to re-examine the nature of Native societies on the eve of, and in the early years of, contact between Indigenous Americans and European colonizers.

Many people once accepted that God had opened America for Europeans to colonize. Historians and ordinary people alike described America as an empty wilderness, ready for the taking. Contemporaries like Amos Adams believed that a “wonderful providence” had prepared the way for English settlers. For example, as some of you noted in your Forum discussions, Adams wrote that a “few years before the arrival of the people at Plymouth [Massachusetts], there is no doubt that God was pleased to send a dreadful sickness among the natives … and the land was, in a manner, depopulated”. Later, for nineteenth-century historians, the beliefs of Manifest Destiny guided much American thinking, and the place of Indigenous peoples was reduced to that of obstacles to a necessary, divinely ordained, progress. And even into the 20th century, while historians increasingly dismissed the role of providence, they still accepted that America was largely empty – “a howling wilderness” – and that while Indigenous people’s fates were unfortunate they were primitive peoples, lost in a tide of western advancement. What’s most interesting about all these stories is that they’re not about Indigenous peoples; they’re about the advance of Western colonization, and they occasionally explain the consequences of that march for Indigenous peoples.  This week, we try to counter that pattern by examining the histories of some Indigenous peoples in the early years of contact with European peoples.

But again we face difficulties with sources for examining these past cultures. As was the case for Africa, our sources this week are almost entirely of European origin, and thus their accuracy is very much open to question. Sometimes, the poor quality of that knowledge is evident. Much of what passed for knowledge about Indigenous peoples was very much the product of people’s imaginations. The painting to the right, by the 16th-century Dutch painter Jan Mostaert, depicts an imagined episode from a real event: the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Painted only forty years after Columbus’s voyages, it’s striking that even in this painting by a Dutch painter, where he was clearly depicting the Spaniards as violent invaders, the predominant impression relates more to the primitive manner of the peoples. But it’s not a painting from experience. Mostaert had never been to America; he had only read some accounts coming out of Spain. The landscape, like the actual event, was entirely made up: it’s an agrarian paradise with naked people (like Adam and Eve before the Fall) under a heavenly sky. But Indigenous peoples weren’t naked (indeed, in these regions, just like in Europe, the elites wore finely made clothing); they lived in large complex cities, not caves; and while agriculture in the region was substantial, there were no cows or sheep anywhere in the New World until after colonization. This is how a European man, who had never seen the New World, using the Old World and Biblical imagery as a template, imagined it must look. Many viewers at the time, and today, assumed it bore some resemblance to reality. There’s very little reason to assume it does.

Travellers' accounts offer us greater confidence, though even here there are problems. Early colonists such as Samuel de Champlain, who sailed for France into what is now modern-day Nova Scotia and Quebec, left detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the region. He also offered us a remarkably accurate map drawn after only a few years travelling through territory wholly unknown to European cartographers. While Champlain would spend thirty years in Canada, and eventually learn to speak Algonquian dialects, in these early illustrations and writings his intimate knowledge of Indigenous cultures was very limited. His 1612 map​, which beautifully illustrates indigenous plants and the coastal geography, also offers us a detailed illustration of the "Almouchquois" (a now unknown group based in what is now southern New England) and Montagnais (people based in south-central Quebec), but even here we need to realize that Champlain was not the artist and that these images were drawn by an European illustrator based loosely on Champlain's descriptions. Were they purely fanciful, like Mostaert's, or are they true depictions? Probably neither, but where accuracy ended and fanciful began is a tricky question.

By far our best accounts come from some of the missionaries who wrote about their activities in the New World. These are the men whose works you read in the last lesson of Module 2, and historiographical works about them are the focus of the last assignment option for this term. Though clearly influenced by their European perceptions, the missionaries -– especially the Jesuits writing the Jesuit Relations –- were keen observers, genuinely interested in understanding their subjects' cultures and societies because they believed the best way to convert them was to understand them. And so while we must read their accounts critically (i.e., with questions about their reliability), we see that they often appreciated the intelligence of their Indigenous hosts. At the same time, we have some accounts by commercial and military men, such as Marc Lescarbot and Baron Lahontan, who offer richly detailed accounts of their experiences. Each presents their accounts through a lens, but as we've seen in our examination of Africa we can nonetheless see otherwise obscure details of Indigenous life in the 17th century.

Stepping back from all of this, we can see that much of what we know about early modern Indigenous peoples came through those lenses: the visual, if largely imagined, views of primitive peoples, the fragmented reports of different peoples in different places from different sources, and the careful, if still prejudiced, views of our missionary-ethnographers. As you’ll see, careful readings by modern historians such as Neal Salisbury have opened new windows on how to think about those societies. But even Daniel Paul, a Mi’kmaq man, trying to tell his people’s history – the “we” in the title – is handicapped before even he starts. And yet, with imaginative use of sources and a keen critical eye, new perspectives are still possible. In short, your task this week is to read the sources carefully and closely using all your skills of historical thinking.


Review past Toolbox entries before you read the sources, and practice applying the skills you've learned.

Primary sources (read at least two)

Secondary sources

Read ONE (1) of the following secondary sources, then in the Forum explain which text you have read, and consider the significance of the secondary source to the analysis of the primary sources. Bonus points for reading BOTH sources.

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