What would happen if a people group of around 10 million ceased to exist? In Colonial America Without the Indians: Counterfactual Reflections, James Axtell presents this exact scenario. I read this article with skepticism, but I found the research but thrilling and enlightening. The Native Americans during the formation of America are Axtell’s victims of choice. In order to prove his point, Axtell took an unusual approach: he created several scenarios in which the Indian influence ceased to exist. Some of these scenarios were early American colonization, economics, and American exceptionalism. He essentially wrote about what would happen if there were no Native Americans. As you read, think about each of these scenarios and how different they are from what we experienced with the Indians. James Axtell concludes that the Indians were not only essential to forming the United States into what it is today, but were the glue that held the early United States together. Unfamiliar with his opinion, I read the article with skepticism, but after finishing I arrived at an enlightened view of how the United States was formed.
First of all, how did the Indians affect the early American colonization? Axtell emphasizes the possible limited colonization of the Spanish and French Empires. After sailing west and arriving at America without humans in sight, Columbus likely would have regarded the new land as an obstacle and not a new world to explore. Within the land, which Columbus actually discovered, Indians slaved away under the harsh subjugation of the Spanish. Without the natives, the Spaniards would have struggled to cultivate the land, because not enough Spanish would have immigrated and they wouldn’t know how to work the land. Beyond the labor problem, they would not have known about the vast treasure of precious metals hidden in the hills. As for the English, they decided to colonize. The Indians didn’t exist. They did not check the growth of the English. The colonies spread much faster. Because their reasons for immigrating did not involve the Indians, English colonies exploded. The English were immigrating because of the fertile land and religious freedom. The natives actually acted as a detriment to English colonization and subjugation of the land. The natives held the English in strategic military locations, because of the need for defense. Without the need to defend themselves from the natives or the Spanish or French for that matter, the English would have spread rapidly west and there would be no need for forts such as Jamestown or Plymouth. On the same note, Axtell asserts the absence of a frontier for the English to roam. According to Axtell, the word frontier indicates a clash of at least two different cultures. Without the Native Americans there would be no clash, leading to no frontier. Early America would be significantly changed without the Indians. The most significant changes to note would be the minuscule numbers of Spanish and French and the increased colonization of America.
The changes in colonization also impacted the colonists’ economic status. There are two main areas. First of all the imports and exports of fur and other goods, mostly by and through the French and English. The fur trade supported many colonies well into the 1700s. The colonists bartered for the furs caught and cleaned by the Indians and then sold them at a higher price overseas. This trade would have been virtually nonexistent without the Indians. The colonists would have had to trap or shoot their own furs, which would have decreased the outcome. Also, what the British imported to the colonies increased their wealth, because the Indians had a taste for British cloth and rum. The second economic change would have been slavery. Because there were natives, the demand for slavery wasn’t huge in the beginning of America. There were many indentured servants available as well, because otherwise they wouldn’t have a way to immigrate. Without the Indians, there wouldn’t be as many indentured servants, because there would be much more free land to take, without having to fight the natives for it. Slavery would have begun sooner and become more severe, because there weren’t as many indentured servants and there were no natives to subjugate. The presence of Native Americans significantly affected the early American economy.
Axtell often incorporated American exceptionalism into his dissertation on Indians. There were three main areas in which he did this: the frontier, politics, and religiosity. First of all, the frontier. Axtell defined frontier as, “two peoples and cultures intersect[ing].” (Axtell, 987) He made the point that with the Indians there would be no frontier. This would poke a hole in Charles Murray’s American exceptionalism theory. Murray states, “Americans who needed a fresh start or who just wanted to try something new had a ready option: pull up stakes and move west.” (Murray, 10) While Axtell attempted to make a point about how Americans would lose the frontier, he is misguided. The Oxford dictionary defines the frontier as, “The extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness, especially referring to the western US before Pacific settlement.” (John Simpson http://www.oxforddictionaries.com) This is what the true frontier was, unsettled land that gave a promise of new life away from the crowded east coast immigration cities. Indians weren’t a major factor in Englishman’s decision to move west. The second point Axtell attempts to make is about Politics, specifically wars. With all the wars involving Indians such as the French and Indian war, Queen Anne’s war, the Pequot War, and King Philip’s war, he makes a valid point. Many early American wars involved Indian allies or enemies. Without the Indians on their side, the small Canadian colonies would have been crushed and would have become a part of America. Thirdly, Religiosity would have been weakened, at least in the case of the Spanish and French, and English Catholics. These groups’ religions were mostly concerned with converting the “heathens.” Without any “heathens” to convert, they would become more concerned with the money and land they could procure. Protestants and puritans and Quakers, however, were concerned about their own spirituality, so that idea wouldn’t have changed. In short, Axtell hints that the Native Americans are a main reason for American Exceptionalism. While he attempts to make a convincing case, he either doesn’t define his terms correctly or only partially makes his point. The Indians did influence American Exceptionalism, but they weren’t the main driving factor.
In conclusion, Indians were essential to American society, but weren’t the main factor in the growth of the american colonies. Early American colonization, economics, and exceptionalism were all affected by the Native Americans. Without the Indians, America would be a very different country then it is today. Although James Axtell makes a convincing case, there is really no way to know what really would have happened if an entire people group suddenly removed itself from history. History is a delicate balance of many social interactions, traditions, and cultures. All cultures around the world affect and help shape each other for better or for worse. Without the 10 million Native Americans in the new world in 1492, the great American melting pot would not be so great or so melted.
Axtell, James. “Colonial America Without the Indians: Counterfactual Reflections.” The Journal of American History 73.4 (1987): 981. Web.
“Definition Of Frontier in English:” frontier: definition of frontier in Oxford dictionary (American English) (US). Web. 14 Sep. 2015. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/frontier>
Murray, Charles A. American Exceptionalism: an Experiment in History. Print.