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A Combination of Cultures

Trading goodsIn her book Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, Helen Rountree notes that post-contact Powhatan Indians were not initially threatened by the Europeans who ventured onto their shores. As she puts it, "It was difficult for the Indians, who knew their world thoroughly, to believe that these blustering foreigners who could not even feed themselves actually intended to make Virginia into an outpost of English culture."

Once the English at Jamestown survived that first, perilous winter during the years of 1607 and 1608, however, the Powhatans realized that this group of settlers had every intention of doing just that. English settlers brought with them tools and technology Native Americans appreciated and for which they were willing to trade. Among the items of interest were metal tools for hunting and cooking, fabrics, beads and other European-style decorative items. In Tsenacommacah, or Tidewater Virginia, the Powhatan Indians exchanged foodstuffs and instructed the newcomers in the ways of farming Virginia soil for these goods. Native American culture changed significantly between the early 1600s and early 1700s, as woven fabrics, clothing accessories, and many other trade goods were quickly adopted into their culture.

Tragically, metal goods and clothing were not the only things European settlers brought with them. By the late 1600s, many North American Indians had died as a result of exposure to European disease for which they had little or no resistance. Throughout North America the situation was much the same. In addition, in the southwest not only were the Pueblo people robbed of their ancestral homes, but a great many of them were forced to work as slaves under the Spanish Encomienda system, which granted parcels of land to Spanish Creoles along with Indian slaves to work the land.

In the Northeast area of North America, French religious missions and military forts were established were in prime locations to exploit natural resources. French hunters, trappers, and traders made use of the local peoples' knowledge of the land to gather bear and beaver fur. Many European goods, such as those mentioned above were offered in exchange for these services.

Help your students to consider the give and take between Native Americans and the English, French, and Spanish settlers with whom they come in contact. Were the Pueblo, Huron, or Powhatan Indians better off after trading for European goods and technology? In what ways did Native Americans make settlement easier for Europeans? How did their various cultures change after contact? For a discussion of these and many other questions about this fascinating topic, join us for our Electronic Field Trip "Missions to America" on November 6, 2003 (10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. EST). Meet the Huron Indians and French Jesuit Priests at Sainte Marie Among the Hurons, the Powhatan Indians and English businessmen at Jamestown Settlement, and the Pueblo Indians and Spanish farmers of El Rancho De Las Golondrinas. Explore how three different European nations colonized North America.

This article was written by Jami Sullivan Dionisio, Production Associate, Department of Education Outreach, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.