There is a long and varied history shared by the kingdoms of Europe and the American Indians. Any time a more advanced civilization comes in contact with a more primitive one there are bound to be problems, intentional or accidental. All too often Europeans tended to exaggerate the lack of knowledge of the Indians, generalizing them in some cases as savage beyond saving while others, even those taking a more benevolent if condescending attitude confused a lack of knowledge of things Europeans considered invaluable to a lack of knowing what was best for themselves. In reality, American Indians learned quickly how things worked with the European powers and acted in what was their own obvious self-interest in deciding when to negotiate, when to fight, who to ally with and who to oppose.
When Christopher Columbus was first sent across the Atlantic Queen Isabella was clear that the natives he encountered were, “to be treated as free men, for such they are”. The Spanish certainly did not always treat the Indians well but it is often forgotten how many became advocates for the Indians, particularly the missionaries who obviously were going to have a harder time converting the Indians to Christianity when they were being brutalized by other people claiming to be Christians. It is also noteworthy that when monarchy returned to Mexico in the person of Emperor Maximilian it was the Indian population that was often the most welcoming and it was an Indian who was regarded as his most loyal and upright general. Keep in mind that during this period the president who was opposing Maximilian was himself a full-blooded Zapotec Indian.
In the north of America there were numerous conflicts between the Indians and Europeans but a crucial conflict was the French and Indian War -the name the British colonists gave to the conflict because of the makeup of their enemies. In the end the British were successful and those Indians that sided with the French were generally vilified. However, the fact that most Indians sided with the French was a logical ‘foreign policy’ decision to make. One reason the French faced such long odds in that was is because they had such a smaller population than the British. While the British sent over settlers, establishing colonies, growing and expanding, the French sent mostly trappers, traders and Jesuits. It was natural common sense for most of the Indians to side with the French, who mostly preached to them and traded with them, in opposition to the British whose colonists were expanding, pushing them out and claiming more and more of their land.
In the same way, not many years later, most of the Indians sided with the British Crown against the rebel colonists of the soon-to-be United States. Again, this was a very rational thing for the Indians to do as King George III of Great Britain had already recognized the rights of ownership the Indians had to the lands they occupied while the colonies had already claimed the same land for themselves extending all the way to the Louisiana Territory. It was also during the American War for Independence that the U.S. forces gained their first unsavory reputation for destroying Indian settlements. This left such an impression that the first name the Indians gave to the President of the United States translated to “the burner of villages”. Also in the War of 1812 the Indians supported the British against the U.S. and in fact were instrumental in preventing the American conquest of Canada.
For many, many years later, when the United States was engaged in the conflicts known under the blanket term of the “Indian Wars” after 1865 it was still the monarchy of Canada that was seen as the preferred safe haven for those Indians under attack by the US. Some did flee to Mexico, but the (republican) government there was often as bad or worse to deal with than the US and so you would see huge numbers of refugee Indians enduring immense hardship to escape north to the relative safety and security of the Dominion of Canada. For anyone interested in reading more about this subject you can review past profiles of Tomas Mejia, Chief Joseph Brant and Simon Girty. More examples will be looked at in future posts.