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Early American Encounters
The earliest human settlements in America are shrouded in archaeological mystery. For almost a century, scientists thought the first people arrived in North America some 13,000 years ago. These were the "Clovis" people, named for the New Mexico town where their carved spear points were unearthed in 1929. But archaeologists working at Buttermilk Creek, a central Texas dig site, recently found evidence of human settlement, including tools and weapons, that date to as early as 15,500 years ago.
For some Christian readers, this will raise a question. Had God even created humankind 15,500 years ago? This is not the place to debate about the topic of human origins. But the chronology of America's original human settlements will look quite different depending on how you view the age of the earth and how long ago you believe humanity originated. This is an instance where one's faith makes a direct difference in how one assesses history.
Using a method known as "optically stimulated luminescence," scientists at Buttermilk Creek tested the soil in which the artifacts were found to determine when the minerals in the dirt were last exposed to sunlight. That test dated the site to 15,500 years or older. Discovery of a similarly dated settlement in Chile uncovered the footprint of a child next to a hearth. Scientists date charcoal from the hearth at about 14,500 years old. Archaeologists say these sites raise new questions about how the original Americans moved into the Americas from Northeast Asia. Did they all go across an Ice Age land bridge called "Beringia," located at the Bering Strait, and move southeast across the continent? Or did some travel on boats hugging the Pacific Coast, entering the Americas from points farther south? We don't know for sure, but there is little disagreement that most of the first Americans came from Northeast Asia. They established societies here long before Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.
Eventually Beringia disappeared due to rising ocean levels. The new people of the Americas became cut off from Asia as well as from the European and African continents that would so heavily shape America's future. By the time of Columbus's arrival in the late 1400s, the Americas had hundreds of indigenous societies with different religions, languages, and governments. These societies did not see themselves as "Indians" — that term would have made no sense to these disparate tribes. It was Europeans who lumped all Native American people together as one common ethnicity.
Native Americans and the "Three Sisters" of Farming
The earliest Americans were nomadic and hunted massive mammals with stone-tipped spears. Over time the great mammals died out due to overhunting and climate change. The first kinds of prey included mammoths, camels, and giant armadillos that could weigh up to a ton. Now the hunters went after smaller animals, more reminiscent of today's typical game. Others fished and gathered seeds, nuts, and berries. But the critical change came with the switch to agriculture around 5000 BC. Caves in Mexico have yielded corn cobs scientists have dated as 6,000 years old, or even older.
Corn, squash, and beans — the "three sisters" — were the cornerstone of ancient Native American agriculture. This was especially the case in Central America, where great societies, including the Mayas and the Mexicas ("me-SHEE-kas," called "Aztecs" by Europeans) thrived on farm crops.
Farming and its accompanying stability allowed the Mayas and Mexicas to leave a deeper cultural imprint than hunter-gatherers had. Their populations grew, they developed written languages, and they left impressive works of art and architecture. Much of that cultural heritage was significant in Mayan and Mexican tribal religion. Around AD 800 a Maya artisan fashioned and decorated a cup for drinking hot chocolate, known today as the Vase of the Seven Gods. Divine figures on the vessel depict multiple levels of the cosmos, and an inscription explains that the god who "gave the open space its place, who gave Jaguar Night his place, Was the Black-Faced Lord, the Star-Faced Lord."
Agriculture, particularly the cultivation of corn, spread northward into the American Southwest shortly after the time of Christ. By about AD 1000, major Native American farming settlements had sprung up in the Southwest (in modern-day New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado). Illustrating their prodigious architectural skills, the Anasazi and other Southwest Indians built impressive cliff dwellings and apartment-like pueblos, including the massive, multistory Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. That pueblo required 30,000 tons of sandstone blocks to build. The Anasazi also constructed vast networks of irrigation channels to sustain their farms in the arid environment. But extended drought conditions as well as aggression by other native groups led to the demise of the Anasazi by about AD 1300.
The Mound Builders
Native settlements also spread up the length of the Mississippi River Valley. Many early Indians erected remarkable earthen mounds that continue to mark the landscape today. Among the most impressive, and oldest, were at Poverty Point, in Louisiana. Construction began there around 1400 BC. Poverty Point's "Bird Mound," named for its shape, stands seventy-two feet high, jutting above the flat surroundings of the Mississippi Delta. Recent discoveries suggest that this enormous, pyramid-like mound probably went up in a few months with thousands of workers hauling some 27 million basketfuls of dirt. It was one of the great architectural feats of ancient history, but how ancient Indians built and used the Bird Mound remains a mystery.
Around the middle of the eleventh century AD, long after the massive mounds appeared at Poverty Point, a great Mississippian Indian town arose at Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from what is now St. Louis, Missouri. By the 1100s, 15,000 to 20,000 people lived at Cahokia, making it at least as large as Rome or London during the same era. It was the largest town in North America at that time. Cahokians also built mounds in the form of more than 100 earthen pyramids, capped by temples. Excavations have suggested that some mounds were used for burials and ritual human sacrifice. Weather changes and the heavy concentration of people at Cahokia may have contributed to its downfall. By the mid-1300s, few people were left in the once-thriving town.
The native peoples of the Eastern Woodlands were among the first to encounter Europeans and Africans in the early 1600s. The Eastern Woodland societies were seminomadic and less focused on agriculture. The Algonquians, for example, were a widely dispersed people sharing a common form of language. They included regional tribes such as the Mohegans of New England and the Powhatans of Virginia. They lived in areas covering much of what is now the eastern United States, from Maine to the Carolinas. Leaving few permanent marks on the landscape, Algonquians often lived in wigwams or longhouses, and they moved with the seasons. The three sisters of beans, squash, and corn did play important roles in the Algonquians' diet, but these American Indians typically hunted animals such as deer and bear and gathered berries and nuts. The Algonquians often managed forests by controlled burning to improve land for gardening and to enhance deer habitats.
The Iroquoian-speaking Indians were another major group in the Eastern Woodlands. Living to the west of the Algonquian groups, the tribes that would eventually comprise the Iroquois League included the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and, by the 1700s, the Tuscarora Indians. Similar to the Algonquians, they were hunter-gatherers as well as small farmers, but the Iroquois often lived in larger towns of several thousand people.
Before, and even after, the coming of Europeans, these Indians did not intuitively see themselves as sharing ethnic unity. Iroquoian- and Algonquian-speaking peoples frequently fought each other, just as they would after the arrival of the European powers. The precontact Indian wars could be vicious, even if the scale of death was miniscule compared to the effects wrought by European diseases and weapons. Sometimes Indians took captives and "adopted" them into their tribes; other times captives were tortured or summarily executed. As illustrated by the rise and fall of great Indian societies, Native Americans' worlds were constantly changing before the arrival of unfamiliar peoples from across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Coming of Europeans
As much as Native Americans inhabited a world in flux, the beginning of European exploration and conquest in the Americas, and the advent of the transatlantic trade in African slaves, marked fundamental turning points in American history. Until then, Native Americans had largely been cut off from the populations of Europe and Africa (as well as Asia). The "Columbian Exchange" of animals, crops, and diseases that followed Columbus's voyages to the Caribbean in 1492 would have transformative effects on four Atlantic continents, and devastating consequences for many Native Americans and Africans in particular.
What drove Europeans to start exploring and colonizing the west coast of Africa and the east coast of the Americas? Factors including improved seafaring technology, dire living conditions in Europe, and the simple desire for land and treasure all played a role. Europeans had traded with far-flung peoples in the Mediterranean world and into Asia for centuries before 1492, bringing sugar, spices, jewels, and fabrics back from the East. The Italian Marco Polo's account of his journey to China in the late 1200s had stoked many Europeans' imaginations about the sources of wealth outside of Europe.
Trade with the East introduced gunpowder, cannons, and aids to seafaring such as the compass. (Europeans probably learned about navigational compasses from the Chinese and Arabs.) Overland travel, like Marco Polo's from Europe to Asia, was inefficient and dangerous, but ship travel in the medieval era was not much more reliable. Portuguese shipbuilders crafted new ships called caravels, which were faster than previous models. The caravels facilitated ambitious journeys for exploration, colonizing, and trade. Vikings had explored much of the North Atlantic rim in earlier centuries, with settlements reaching as far as Newfoundland in far eastern Canada by about AD 1000. But the Portuguese helped Europeans to envision oceanic and global seafaring for the first time.
The Emergence of theSlave Trade
The Portuguese pioneered the Europeans' ventures on the West African coast. Muslim traders from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, seeking gold and slaves, had developed caravan routes into sub-Saharan West Africa earlier in the medieval period. The initial European explorers were also looking for precious metals. That is why they named the area around the coast of present-day Ghana the "Gold Coast." But Europeans determined that the primary treasure to extract from West Africa was human, in the slave trade. The Portuguese founded the port of Elmina on the Gold Coast in 1482, a decade before Columbus's voyage to the New World. It would go on to become the largest colonial town in West Africa and a common point of embarkation for countless African captives caught up in the Atlantic slave system.
Europeans tended to buy slaves from African slave merchants in ports such as Elmina. In the interior, powerful African states, including Benin, Kongo, and Mali, controlled access to gold and slaves. The African interior was daunting for Europeans because of the power of these nations and the dire threat of diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. African slave traders acquired male and female slaves mostly as war captives, originally selling them to caravans bound for North Africa or the Middle East, and later to Europeans. Before the advent of the transatlantic slave trade, Europeans sometimes sent African slaves to work in households in Mediterranean lands or to work on the sugar farms of the Canary Islands or Madeira, both off the northwest coast of Africa.
The development of these African sugar colonies helped spark the European concept of chattel slavery and the plantation system. In that system masters and traders treated slaves as movable pieces of property who would work large farms of cash crops meant for export to European and global markets. These cash crops, including sugar, rice, and tobacco, would become the keys to colonial wealth in the Americas. The plantations would, in time, precipitate the largest forced migration of people in human history. Although European immigrants still receive the lion's share of attention in histories of early America, forced African immigration across the Atlantic far outpaced that of Europeans from the time of Columbus to the 1820s. During that period probably 80 percent of all transatlantic immigrants were from Africa, not Europe.
European vessels were going even farther afield than West Africa. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa for the first time in 1488, while his countryman Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal to India in 1497–98. The point of these expeditions was to open waterborne trade routes to China, Japan, India, and the East Indies. Some wondered if, instead of sailing around Africa, they could find a western route to China and the Indies. This notion fueled Christopher Columbus's quest in 1492.
Columbus, an Italian and a Roman Catholic, was a man of intense religious convictions. He believed his voyage into the West might represent a fulfillment of biblical prophecies about the spread of the gospel around the world. The year 1492 itself may have helped stoke those beliefs as it opened with the Spanish conquest of Granada, the Muslim-controlled region of southern Spain. In addition to this defeat of Muslim power, Spanish authorities expelled all of its Jews who would not become Christians. Columbus hailed the Spanish king and queen who commissioned his journey as "enemies to the doctrine of [the Muslim prophet] Muhammad, and of all idolatry and heresy."
What would Columbus find in the West? Contrary to common myths, few Europeans at the time believed the world was flat. Columbus did not worry that his ships might fall over the edge of the world. But he was wrong about one important detail: the earth's circumference, and how far one would have to travel west to get to the Indies. He simply did not realize the Americas were in the way. When he came to the Caribbean islands, Columbus figured he must be getting close to Japan or China. He and many Europeans called Native Americans "Indios," or "Indians," meaning natives of the East Indies. The misnomer stuck. Columbus would visit the New World four times, and he never could shake the conviction that he had reached Asia. It fell to Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian explorer, to popularize the notion that the Americas were not part of Asia. In 1507, a German mapmaker began calling this in-between land "America."
Columbus first arrived at an island in the Bahamas, then moved on to Cuba and Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). On Hispaniola his men founded a small settlement called La Navidad (because they had landed there on Christmas). Columbus soon returned to Spain with fantastic reports of the abundant wealth of the islands and the gentle people who lived there. He predicted that the "Indios" — or Tainos — would readily accept Christianity and Spanish rule.
The Tainos were among the first native societies of the Americas to face the onslaught of epidemic disease that the coming of Europeans unleashed. Not that the Spanish on Hispaniola thrived. Like many early European settlers in Africa and the Americas, the Spanish who went to Hispaniola died in droves from disease and poor supplies. But for the Tainos, the Spaniards' arrival wrought unspeakable destruction. About 300,000 people lived on Hispaniola in 1492. Fifty years later only about 500 native survivors were left. Most died of disease, but Columbus also ordered the Spanish to take hundreds of Tainos as slaves and ship them back to Spain. Spain's Queen Isabel rejected the mass enslavement of Indians, however, on the condition that the Indians accept Christianity and peacefully live under Spanish rule. In practice, Spanish rulers and landowners ran an encomienda labor system, which forced natives to work as serfs even if they were not technically slaves.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "American History, Volume 1"
Copyright © 2019 Thomas S. Kidd.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Early American Encounters,
Chapter 2 England and Its Colonies,
Chapter 3 A Maturing Colonial Society,
Chapter 4 The Coming of Independence,
Chapter 5 The American Revolution and the Constitution,
Chapter 6 The Early National Period,
Chapter 7 A Growing Republic,
Chapter 8 The Age of Andrew Jackson,
Chapter 9 The American West,
Chapter 10 Learning and Belief in Antebellum America,
Chapter 11 The Crisis of the 1850s,
Chapter 12 Secession and the Coming of the Civil War,
Chapter 13 The Civil War Begins,
Chapter 14 To Appomattox Courthouse,
Chapter 15 Reconstruction,