3. The European Invasion

European western expansion into North and South America in the last 500 years perpetrated the single worst holocaust in human history. In North America, the region from northern Mexico to the Arctic Circle, it is estimated to have been populated by 60 million Indigenous Americans. Some estimates are as high as 100 million. The tribes were so culturally diverse it is thought that they spoke more than 550 languages. The 2010 US Census puts the current population at 2.9 million, 5.2 million when multiple race individuals are included. Note that the census figure does not include Mexico or Canada. And believe it or not the 2.9 million figure is an improvement from the estimates given for the previous five centuries. Many tribes are now extinct, while others have been reduced to less than 100 or 10 or even only 1 remaining member.

European strategy encompassed war, violence, massacres, exploitation, displacement, disruption, and starvation. But without question, European diseases began devastating tribes from the very beginning. Smallpox was by far the most virulent but was by no means exclusive. Millions of Indigenous Americans also died from typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, mumps, yellow fever, whooping cough, to name a few, originating in Eurasia and to which Europeans were reasonably adapted. Indigenous Americans had absolutely no immunity to these diseases. It should be mentioned as well that although proof is limited, there exists a long history of deliberate exposure to Indigenous Americans by Europeans well into the 20th century.  Wealthy capitalists were still being suspected of having dropped influenza infected blankets into the Amazon in the 1960’s and later to eliminate tribes from the land coveted by big business.

The big players in North America were France, England, and Spain; and to a lesser extent Portugal and The Netherlands. Portugal was instrumental in the devastation of Central and South America, along with Spain, and as mentioned earlier, were the first to troll the African coast for slaves. In the region of Southern Appalachia and southeastern US, England and Spain committed the greatest crimes against humanity even though pressure from France was certainly felt from both the north and the west (Louisiana). In the Mid-Atlantic we find the strongholds of England.

The most significant European feature of Appalachian mountain culture was the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. A handful of English aristocrats were determined to build a feudal system in the New World. Desperate for labor they conscripted boatloads of indentured servants from Ireland, Scotland, England, and throughout the UK. Indentured servants had to work five to seven years to pay for their passage to Jamestown. Once their freedom was earned they became the distant human buffer of humanity that stood between Indigenous Americans and the English aristocrats of Jamestown.  They and their descendants made their way into the south-central and southern Appalachians and became one part of the tri-culture that emerged there. In 1619 the English brought the first 20 slaves to Jamestown.

Population estimates suggest that in a few short years 10% or less of the population was composed of English aristocrats while 90% was made up of indentured servants and slaves. Blacks and whites worked and fraternized together. In the words of Howard Zinn, “…blacks and whites found themselves with common problems; common work, a common enemy in their masters, and behaved toward one another as equals.” And I would add much to the horror of English aristocrats, who began legislating prejudice with separate laws for blacks and whites that also prohibited any fraternization whatsoever between the two groups. Along with both freed and renegade indentured servants, runaway and freed slaves disappeared into the wilderness of Appalachia and were adopted by many tribes of indigenous people.

Aside from the banjo, I don’t know what features Africans brought to the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian cultures. But having studied UK history I am familiar with the paganism, music, and clan systems that came to be an enormous part of it. All of the families that faded into the mountains became isolated and severely land locked four centuries ago; time passed them by. A terrific example of this can be found in music. Early in the 20th century it was discovered that Celtic songs were being sung by the mountain people that hadn’t been sung in the UK for three or four hundred years.

I highly recommend printing out the chart of dates provided by the link that follows. It will become a valuable reference to the essays included here.

http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1013.html  “European Exploration and Settlement of the New World”

And you simply must read Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” published by Harper in 1980.

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Responses to “3. The European Invasion”

  1. The information in paragraphs 4 & 5 is particulary interesting to me. Of all the times I’ve heard the story told – they failed to mention much of this.

    I aslo appreciate the mention about the absence of information about the African influences.

    • This country, like all of Europe was built on the backs of indentured servants, serfs, and slaves.And Europeans perpetrated the worst holocaust in human history in the Americas. Revisionist writers tend to leave the truth of it out as well as any reference to the tri-cultural tribes that lived or still live in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere. Many tribes have enormous difficulty getting even state recognition because they are tri-racial. And forget the feds; they make recognition almost impossible. Government recognition isn’t about status, as in “look at me, aren’t I cool”. Its about getting the help they need. I feel bad that I was not able to find out more about the early cultural contributions made by African people. I suspect that it is because they were so decimated by the time they got here that their history was just lost. Its an unimaginable, withering tragedy for both cultures.

  2. It hurts my heart to think about the pain and the suffering of the People – then and now.
    I appreciate your further explanations, Verda