Native American Culture and the Columbian Exchange

The cultural exchanges that took place between Europeans and Native Americans.

John White
Terra Nullius
Pope Paul III's letter of 1537
The Columbian Exchange
King Philip's War

European Perceptions of Native Americans

Fantastical travel narratives of antiquity and the middle ages, like “The Travels of John Mandeville”, published in the 14th century, frequently contained legends of “monstrous races” in far away lands, for example the “Blemmyes”, a tribe of headless men. Following Columbus’ voyage, such tales provided a model for depicting the inhabitants of America.

Among the first naturalistic depictions of Native Americans to reach Europe were the illustrations of John White, a member of the Roanoke expedition led by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585, tasked with surveying the land and recording its natural history.


White composed a series of watercolor paintings of Algonquian Indians – the tribe, its chiefs, and ceremonial activities – according to the conventions of Elizabethan portraiture. At times, White seems to imitate figures of Greek and Roman art.

While these images were far from Madeville’s monsters, his account nevertheless suggested the natives’ primitive and heathen nature, wearing little clothes and communicating with devils. These associations were to dominate European perceptions for centuries.

The Myth of Terra Nullius

In order to justify dispossession of native land, Europeans widely treated the Americas as a Terra Nullius – a latin phrase meaning “nobody’s land”.

But this was far from the truth. Pre-Columbian population figures range from 8–112 million, and the diversity of these Native American was vast – including both agricultural and nomadic communities.

One example of a Native American community with a complex agricultural system was the American Mississippian culture, which flourished in the midwestern and southeastern region of North America between the 9th and 16th centuries CE.


The Mississippian people were skilled farmers of maize, who built large earthwork mounds and plazas that served as centers of political, religious, and social activity. They had a distinctive method of crafting ceramics, which utilized river shells for tempering.

The Devastating Impact of European Diseases on Native American Populations

The arrival of Europeans in the Americas brought with it a host of new diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. Smallpox, which took hold in Hispaniola as early as 1518, measles and influenza were devastating, killing millions of people within just a few years.

In some cases entire villages were wiped out by these epidemics, likely giving later colonists the mistaken impression of a “Terra Nullius” and leading to underestimates of native populations.

The impact of European contact was so severe that it is estimated the population of indigenous peoples in North America declined by at least 80% by the end of the 17th century.

This devastation was matched by disruption to traditional ways of life as communities struggled to cope with the sudden influx of sickness and death, and compounded by European encroachment upon their land.

Indigenous Religions and Christian Missionaries in the Americas


The pre-columbian continent was home to a wide variety of indigenous religions – from monotheism to shamanism, with traditions commonly passed down orally through stories and allegories.

French and Spanish settlers who arrived in the Americas in the 16th century sought to suppress these spiritual and cultural traditions, which they viewed as primitive and heathen, and completed to save natives’ souls through establishing Catholic “missions”: the Spanish in what is now Florida, the French around the Great Lakes and Eastern Canada.

On the other hand, Christian Missionaries were sometimes responsible for the promotion of indigenous rights. For example, Pope Paul III’s letter of 1537, which advocated for evangelism on the continent, sought to put an end to claims that native Americans were “beasts”, instead declaring them rational beings with souls, eligible for Christian Salvation.

The Encomienda System: Exploitation of Native Labor in Spanish Colonization

Spanish colonization of the Caribbean in the 16th century brought with it the exploitation of native labor through the legal system of “encomienda”.

Established by the Spanish Crown, “encomienda” resembled a feudal system: it allowed settlers to claim a certain number of Indigenous people for labor in exchange for their protection, food, clothing, and shelter.

Encomienda was later extended to Mexico and Peru, implemented in response to the need to mine gold and silver, as
well as to cultivate crops such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton. This system was also closely tied to Catholicism, as the settlers were also expected to evangelize the Indigenous people under their care.

Initially intended to be a mutually beneficial arrangement between the settlers and Indigenous people, encomienda quickly turned into a form of slavery, with Indigenous people being forced to work long hours in harsh conditions for little or no pay.

The Impact of the Colombian Exchange on Native American Culture

The “Colombian Exchange” is a term coined by historian Alfred W. Crosby that refers to the widespread exchange of plants, animals, and ideas that occurred between the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia following Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

Crosby argued that this exchange had a profound impact on the world, shaping everything from agriculture to culture.

Before the Columbian Exchange, the Americas were largely isolated from the rest of the world, and had their own unique set of plants, animals, and cultural practices.

With the arrival of European explorers and colonists, however, this began to change. Europeans brought with them crops such as wheat, rice, and sugarcane, as well as domesticated animals like horses, cattle, and pigs. These new crops and animals quickly spread throughout the Americas, transforming the landscape and diet of indigenous peoples.


The Spread of Indigenous American Crops to the World

At the same time, indigenous American crops were introduced to Europe, Africa, and Asia, where they quickly became important staples.


The potato’s hardiness and ability to grow in poor soil conditions made it an ideal crop for many parts of Europe, and it played a key role in helping to alleviate famine and hunger in the region.

Corn, or maize, likewise became an important crop in many parts of Europe. In addition to being used for food, corn was also used for animal feed and in the production of alcohol.

Tomatoes, meanwhile, were initially viewed with suspicion by Europeans, since they belong to a family of plants called “nightshades”, which can sometimes be poisonous. It was not until the 18th century that they began to be widely cultivated and consumed in Europe, particularly in Italy where they became a key ingredient in Italian cuisine.

The First Thanksgiving and King Philip's War

In 1621, the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts formed an alliance with English colonizers and celebrated the first Thanksgiving together. The alliance was built on mutual benefit; the Wampanoag provided the colonizers with agricultural knowledge and resources, while the colonizers provided the Wampanoag with protection from rival tribes.

However, tensions between the colonizers and indigenous peoples grew over time, particularly as the colonizers continued to expand and encroach on indigenous lands. In 1675, a war broke out between the Wampanoag and the colonizers, led by Wampanoag leader Metacom, also known as King Philip. The conflict, known as King Philip’s War, lasted for over a year and was marked by brutal violence on both sides.

The war resulted in the deaths of thousands of indigenous peoples and colonizers, as well as the displacement of many more. It also marked a turning point in relations between indigenous peoples and colonizers in the region, as it shattered the fragile alliance that had been formed decades earlier.

The celebration of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and the subsequent conflict of King Philip’s War illustrate the complex and often fraught history of relations between indigenous peoples and colonizers in the Americas.

Tobacco Diplomacy: Indigenous Knowledge and European Trade


In the early years of English colonization in the Americas, relations with indigenous peoples were often influenced by the demands of trade. In particular, the indigenous knowledge of how to prepare tobacco for smoking and trade was highly valued by Europeans colonizers.

Indigenous peoples had been using tobacco for spiritual and medicinal purposes for centuries. For Europeans, learning the art of its cultivation and preparation relied upon establishing diplomatic relations with these communities.

One notable example of the diplomatic influence of tobacco is the story of John Rolfe, a colonizer in Virginia, whose close relations with the Powhatan peoples enabled him to develop the cultivation of a sweeter, milder tobacco known as “Orinoco”. Rolfe married the daughter of the Powhatan chief, Pocahontas in 1614.

Exported to Europe, where demand for tobacco quickly grew, this was a highly profitable crop for the Virginia colony and became central to its economy.

The Pueblo Revolt: Indigenous Resistance to European Colonization

In other cases, European encroachment of indigenous societies was met with fierce resistance, such as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

The Pueblo people of present-day New Mexico and Arizona had been subjected to forced labor, religious conversion, and other forms of oppression by Spanish colonizers for decades.

During a drought in the 1670s, seeking to levy blame, the Spanish governors hanged four Pueblo medicine men for “sorcery”, and harshly punished dozens more, leading some of these men to stage a revolt against their oppressors.

In 1680, a coalition of Pueblo leaders led by a native known as ‘Popé’ successfully drove 2,000 Spanish settlers out of the region, killing 400.

Though the Spanish would conquer New Mexico 12 years later, Pueblo Revolt was a powerful example of indigenous resistance to European colonization, and a reminder that indigenous peoples were not passive victims of colonialism.

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