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Selection 2: First News of Native Americans in Europe

In early 1493, as he was sailing back from his first voyage to America, Christopher Columbus wrote an account of the indigenous peoples he had encountered in the Caribbean. He sent this report to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, by way of the king’s finance minister Luis de Santangel. The Santangel letter, as it became known, soon found its way into print and became the first widely circulated news about America in Europe. Columbus’s contradictory descriptions of Indians as guileless innocents and fearsome cannibals profoundly influenced European approaches to the New World for generations to come.

Credit: The Spanish Letter of Columbus to Luis de Sant’ Angel (London: G. Norman and Son, 1893), 10-14, 16-17.


As I know that you will have pleasure of the great victory which our Lord hath given me in my voyage, I write you this, by which you shall know that in twenty days 1 passed over to the Indies with the fleet which the most illustrious King and Queen, our Lords, gave me: where 1 found very many islands peopled with inhabitants beyond number. And, of them all, I have taken possession for their Highnesses, with proclamation and the royal standard displayed; and I was not gainsaid. On the first which 1 found, 1 put the name Sant Salvador, in commemoration of his high Majesty, who marvelously hath given all of this: the Indians call it Guanaham. The second I named the Island of Santa Maria de Concepcion, the third Ferrandina, the fourth, Fair Island, the fifth La Isla Juana; and so for each one a new name. When I reached Juana, 1 followed its coast westwardly, and found it so large that 1 thought it might be the mainland province of Cathay [China]. And as I did not thus find any towns and villages on the sea-coast, save small hamlets with the people whereof 1 could not get speech, because they all fled away forthwith, I went on further in the same direction, thinking I should not miss of great cities or towns. And at the end of many leagues, seeing that there was no change, and that the coast was bearing me northwards, whereunto my desire was contrary since the winter was already confronting us, I formed the purpose of making from thence to the South, and as the wind also blew against me, I determined to wait for other weather and turned back as far as a port agreed upon; from which I sent two men into the country to learn if there were a king, or any great cities. They travelled for three days, and found innumerable small villages and a numberless population, but naught of ruling authority; wherefore they returned. 1 understood sufficiently from other Indians whom 1 had already taken, that this land in its continuousness, was an island; and so I followed its coast eastwardly for a hundred and seven leagues as far as where it terminated; from which headland I saw another island to the east, ten or eight leagues distant from this, to which I at once gave the name La Spanola ... In this, there are many spiceries, and great mines of gold and other metals.

The people of this island, and of all the others that I have found and seen, or not seen, all go naked, men and women, just as their mothers bring them forth; although some women cover a single place with the leaf of a plant, or a cotton something which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel, nor any weapons; nor are they fit thereunto; not because they be not a well-formed people and of fair stature, but that they are most wondrously timorous. They have no other weapons than the stems of reeds in their seeding state, on the end of which they fix little sharpened stakes. Even these, they dare not use; for many times has it happened that I sent two or three men ashore to some village to parley, and countless numbers of them sallied forth, but as soon as they saw those approach, they fled away in such wise [ways] that even a father would not wait for his son. And this was not because any hurt had ever done to any of them: on the contrary, at every headland where I have gone and been able to hold speech with them, 1 gave them of everything which I had, as well cloth as many other things, without accepting aught therefor; but such they are, incurably timid. It is true that since they have become more assured, and are losing that terror, they are artless and generous with that they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts.

And whether it be a thing of value or one of little worth they are straightaways content with whatsoever trifle of whatsoever may be given them in return for it. 1 forbade that anything so worthless as fragments of broken platters, and pieces of broken glass, and strap-buckles, should be given to them; although when they were able to get such things, they seemed to think they had the best jewel in the world, for it was the hap [good fortune] of a sailor to get, in exchange for a strap, gold to the weight of two and a half castellanos [gold coins], and others much more for other things of far less value; while for new blancas [copper coins] they gave everything they had, even though it were [the worth of] two or three gold castellanos, or one or two arrobas [25 or 50 pounds] of spun cotton. They took even pieces of broken barrel hoops, and gave whatever they had, like senseless brutes; insomuch that it seemed to me ill. 1 forbade it, and I gave gratuitously a thousand useful things that 1 carried, in order that they may conceive affection, and furthermore may be made Christians; for they are inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of all the Castilian nation, and they strive to combine in giving us things which they have in abundance, and of which we are in need. And they know no sect or idolatry; save that they all believe that power and goodness are in the sky, and they believed very firmly that I, with these ships and crews, came from the sky; and in such opinion, they received me at every place where I landed, after they had lost their terror. And this comes not because they are ignorant: on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelously good account of everything, but because they never saw men wearing clothes nor the like of our ships.

And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force, to the intent that they should learn [our speech] and give me information of what there was in those parts. And so it was, that very soon they understood [us] and we them, what by speech or what by signs; and those [Indians] have been of much service. To this day I carry them [with me] who are still of the opinion that I come from heaven [as appears] from much conversation which they have had with me. And they were the first to proclaim it wherever I arrived; and the others went running from house to house and the neighboring villages, with loud cries of “Come! come to see the people from heaven!” Then, as soon as their minds were reassured about us, every one came, men as well as women, so that there remained none behind, big or little; and they all brought something to eat and drink, which they gave with wondrous lovingness ...

It seems to me that in all those islands, the men are all content with a single wife; and to their chief or king they give as many as twenty. The women, it appears to me, do more work than the men. Nor have I been able to learn whether they held personal property, for it seemed to me that whatever one had, they all took share of, especially of eatable things. Down to the present, I have not found in those islands any monstrous men, as many expected, but on the contrary all the people are very comely; nor are they black like those in Guinea, but have flowing hair; and they are not begotten where there is an excessive violence of the rays of the sun. It is true that the sun is there very strong, notwithstanding that it is twenty-six degrees distant from the equinoctial line. In those islands, where there are lofty mountains, the cold was very keen there, this winter; but they endure it by being accustomed thereto, and by the help of the meats which they eat with many and inordinately hot spices. Thus I have not found, not had any information of monsters, except of an island which is here the second in the approach to the Indies, which is inhabited by a people whom, in all the islands, they regard as very ferocious, who eat human flesh. These have many canoes with which they run through all the islands of India, and plunder and take as much as they can. They are no more ill-shapen than the others, but have the custom of wearing their hair long, like women; and they use bows and arrows of the same reed-stems, with a point of wood at the top, for lack of iron which they have not. Amongst those other tribes who are excessively cowardly, these are ferocious; but 1 hold them as nothing more than the others.

This is enough; and [thanks to] eternal God our Lord who gives to all those who walk His way, victory over things which seem impossible; and this was signally one such, for although men have talked or written of those lands, it was all by conjecture, without confirmation from eyesight, importing just so much the hearers for the most part listened and judged that there was more fable in it than anything actual, however trifling. Since thus our Redeemer has given to our most illustrious King and Queen, and to their famous kingdoms, this victory in so high a matter, Christendom should take gladness therein and make great festivals and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity for the great exaltation they shall have by the conversion of so many peoples to our holy faith; and next for the temporal benefit which will bring hither refreshment and profit, not only to Spain, but to all Christians. This briefly, in accordance with the fact. Dated, on the caravel, off the Canary Islands, the 15 February of the year 1493.

At your command,

The Admiral.

Selection 3: An Indian Perspective on the Europeans’ Arrival in North America

The Iroquois (also known as the Six Nations) were a powerful confederacy of Indian peoples who inhabited the region south of Lake Ontario in modern-day New York. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they encountered Dutch, French, and English colonizers and became adept at using the commercial and imperial rivalries between these newcomers to extend their own power in northeastern America. At first with the Dutch and then with the English, the Iroquois established an alliance known as the Covenant Chain, which preserved peace and trade between Indians connected to their confederacy and their colonial neighbors. According to Iroquois custom, this “chain” was “brightened” by colonial officials and Indians who met at periodic conferences to exchange presents, settle differences, and renew their friendship.

One such conference convened in the frontier town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744. Delegations from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia met with the Iroquois to discuss trade and to acquire land. One of the Iroquois speakers at this conference was Canasatego, who in a speech addressed to the Maryland governor, recounted the arrival of the Europeans to his people’s homelands. Canasatego’s version of this story is an excellent example of how Indians incorporated their version of the European-Indian encounter into their own oral traditions.

The spelling has been modernized.

Credit: A Treaty, Held at the Town of Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, by the Honourable the Lieutenant-Governor of the Province, and the Honourable the Commissioners for the Provinces of Virginia and Maryland, with the Indians of the Six Nations, in June, 1744 (Philadelphia, PA: B. Franklin, 1744), 11-13.

“Brother, the Governor of Maryland,

“When you mentioned the Affair of the Land Yesterday, you went back to old Times, and told us, you had been in Possession of the Province of Maryland, above One Hundred Years; but what is a Hundred Years, in Comparison of the Length of Time since our Claim began?

Since we came out of this Ground? For we must tell you, that long before a Hundred Years, our Ancestors came out of this very Ground, and their Children have remained here ever since.

“You came out of the Ground in a Country that lies beyond the Seas; there you may have a just Claim, but here you must allow us to be your elder Brethren, and the Lands to belong to us long before you knew any Thing of them.

“It is true, that above One Hundred Years ago the Dutch came here in a Ship, and brought with them several Goods, such as Awls, Knives, Hatchets, Guns, and many other Particulars, which they gave us: And when they had taught us how to use their Things, and we saw what Sort of People they were, we were so pleased with them, that we tied their Ship to the Bushes on the Shore; and afterwards, liking them still better the longer they stayed with us, and thinking the Bushes too slender, we removed the Rope and tied it to the Trees; and as the Trees were liable to be blown down by high Winds, or to decay of themselves, from the Affection we bore them, again removed the Rope, and tied it to a strong and big Rock: [Here, the Interpreter said, they mean the Oncido (Oneida) Country] And not content with this, for its further Security, we removed the Rope to the big Mountain, [Here, the Interpreter says, they mean the Onondago Country] and there we tied it very fast, and rolled Wampum [shell beads] about it; and to make it still more secure, we stood upon the Wampum, and sat down upon it, to defend it, and to prevent any Hurt coming to it, and did our best Endeavors, that it might remain uninjured for ever.

“During all this Time, the New-comers the Dutch, acknowledged our Right to the Lands and solicited us from time to time, to grant them part of our Country, to enter into League and Covenant with us, and to become one People with us.

“After this, the English came into the Country, and as we were told, became one People with the Dutch: About two Years after the Arrival of the English, an English Governor came to Albany; and finding what great Friendship subsisted between us and the Dutch, he approved it mightily, and desired to make as strong a League, and to be upon as good Terms with us, as the Dutch were, with whom he was united, and to become one People with us; and by his further Care in looking into what had passed between us, he found, That the Rope which tied the Ship to the great Mountain, was only fastened with Wampum, which was liable to break and rot, and to perish in a Course of Years: He therefore told us, that he would give us a Silver Chain, which would be much stronger, and would last for ever: This we accepted, and fastened the Ship with it, and it has lasted ever since.

“Indeed, we have had some small Differences with the English, and during these Misunderstandings, some of their young Men would, by way of Reproach, be every now and then telling us, that we should have perished, if they had not come into the Country, and furnished us with Strouds [a type of woolen cloth], Hatchets, Guns, and other Things necessary for the Support of Life: But we always gave them to understand, that they were mistaken; that we lived before they came amongst us, and as well or better, if we may believe what our Forefathers have told us: We had then Room enough, and Plenty of Deer, which was easily caught; and though we had not Knives and Hatchets, and Guns, such as we have now, yet we had Knives of Stone, and Hatchets of Stone, and Bows and Arrows, and these served our Uses as well then, as the English ones do now: We are now straightened, and sometimes in want of Deer, and liable to many more Inconveniences, since the English came among us....”

Discussion Questions

1. Compare Ca da Mosto’s description of Africans with Columbus’s description of Indians: can you find similarities between them that suggest a common approach Europeans took toward strangers they encountered in the Atlantic World? What differences between these accounts suggest potentially different paths for the European-African and European-Indian encounters that would follow?

  • 2. Compare the Africans’ reactions to Ca da Mosto with the Indians’ reactions to Columbus. According to these two narratives, what did native peoples find impressive about Europeans? What did they find suspect?
  • 3. According to Canasatego, what first attracted the Iroquois to the Dutch ship that arrived in their homelands? How has that relationship changed since the arrival of the English? On what grounds does Canasatego challenge the colonists’ claim to the land?
  • 4. In all three of these selections, trade provides a common context for encounter between natives and newcomers. What commercial objectives are evident in Ca da Mosto’s and Columbus’s accounts? What prejudices are revealed in their descriptions of trade with these strangers? How does Canasatego’s description of the European-Indian encounter reflect a different perspective on this exchange?

Suggested Readings

For overviews of European society on the eve of Columbus’s voyage, see William D. Phillips, Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250—1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). For European reactions to the New World, see J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); and Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991). For early encounters between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans, see John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997). For Native Americans on the eve of European contact, see Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Knopf, 2005). For the Iroquois-European encounter described by Canasatego in his speech, see Daniel K. Richter, Ordeal of the Long-house: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

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