Brief Overview of History

Very Brief Historical Information on Native Americans – Beginning with the Arrival of Columbus

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From the arrival of Columbus to the present, the truth about Native Americans has been obscured by myth and misconception. Columbus was not the first to explore the new world; Aztec, Mayan, Mississippian culture (also known as Mound Builders), Pueblos, and other existing Indian civilizations were comparable, and in some respects superior, to those of Europe.

Most Native American view the arrival of Columbus as the beginning of a 500 year cycle of diseases, exploitation, enslavement, and genocide. What began 500 years ago has ramifications that exist today, such as shortened life expectancy due to emotional and health problems.

Most Natives were curious and even friendly toward the invading strangers, but the lifestyles of the Natives were in direct conflict with the homesteads, farms, and industrial activity of the European newcomers.  Native Americans believed the elements of the environment were inseparable and could not be owned by individuals.  The settlers felt that the Natives did not make good use of the land and that; therefore they should yield it to people who thought they could use the land more productively.

As colonies were established, settlers began an aggressive policy of expansion based on weakening and wearing down Native Americans.  By the time the settlers were entrenched along the eastern seaboard, resentment and antagonism toward Indians had escalated.  They were considered a subhuman race that must be religiously converted, removed, or exterminated.

The 1744 Treaty of Lancaster established the Appalachian Mountains as the physical boundary between settlers and Natives.  As the number of settlers multiplied, Natives were forced westward as they fought a losing battle for land and their survival.  Most Native fatalities were caused by diseases rather than warfare, and survivors of disease and genocide were subject to the widespread practice of slavery.

The 1830 Indian Removal Act extinguished Indian land rights east of the Mississippi.  The 1854 Indian Appropriation Act gave Congress authority to establish Indian reservations and provided the legal basis for removal of specific Natives to specific locations. The discovery of gold in the West terminated Indian land rights and resulted in their extermination.

By 1890 the last of the so-called Indian wars was over.  The 1887 Indian Allotment Act had eliminated the rights of Indians to hold tribal land in common, exchanging communal property for individualized allotments of 160 acres per head of household, with lesser acreage to individuals. In less than 100 years, Indian lands had been reduced from all land west of the Appalachian Mountains to desolate reservations totaling less than 4% of the continental United States.

Treaties became the basis used by settlers to legally steal Native lands. Typical treaty negotiations involved giving up huge tracts of land in exchange for reservation areas, food, hardware goods, and annuity payments.  However, the government’s “perpetual guaranty” of Native lands did not endure; and the delivery of promised food, goods, and moneys failed to take place.

In recent years the persistent, continuing failure of the federal government to pay destitute Native Americans the millions (some say billions) of dollars due them for the surrender of their water and mineral rights has given rise to lawsuits against government agencies accused of mismanagement. Native tribes formed as part of a natural process that evolved over thousands of years.

Environmental limitations determined population and influenced lifestyles in a given area.  Social and political differences were important factors in the development of splinter clans, bands, and tribes. When Columbus reached the New World, there were approximately 10 million native inhabitants within the continental United States.  There were over 500 tribes speaking more than 300 languages they varied in size from a few dozen to several thousand individuals.

By 1900 the Native population had declined to 237,000.  By the 1950’s the population had slowly increased to 357,000.  The 2000 Census lists the Indian population at  1,056,457.  The dramatic increase in population is partly due to more proficient census methods and to the growing willingness of individuals to acknowledge Indian ancestry.

See our page on Reservation Census information in Natives Today.  You can also visit the Census website at for more information.