The New World: A Stage for Cultural Interaction

Interactions among Europeans and Native Americans varied from place to place, and members of each nation forged relationships with Indians in very different ways. Few Europeans considered Native Americans their equals, because of differences in religion, agricultural practice, housing, dress, and other characteristics that—to Europeans—indicated Native American inferiority. The French, Spanish, and Dutch sought profit through trade and exploitation of New World resources, and they knew that the native people would be important to their success. Europeans wanted to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Economic gain and religion most affected the dynamics of European and indigenous American relationships.

The Spanish:

Spain wished to enrich themselves with the New World’s natural resources. After enslaving indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and the southern parts of the Americas to grow crops and mine for gold, and silver. The Spanish moved into North America in what is now the southwestern/southeastern United States. In Florida, Spain established a military post at St. Augustine, but only a small number of Spaniards settled there. Catholic missionaries labored to convert the Indians to Christianity, and experienced some success. But most Indians continued to maintain their own religious and cultural traditions, and many priests concluded that the Indians were inferior and incapable of understanding Christianity. Indigenous populations declined over the 17th century due to epidemics brought by the Spanish.

The French:

Like the Spanish colonies in North America, New France did not attract many French settlers. Instead of enslaving Native Americans in farming and mining operations, the French exploited inter-tribal rivalries to establish trade; along the St. Lawrence River and inland toward the Great Lakes. Although Native Americans did most of the work, tracking, trapping, and skinning, they drove hard bargains for their furs. French traders exchanged textiles, weapons, and metal goods for the furs of animals. Catholic missionaries managed to convert large numbers of Native Americans because the priests learned the local languages and exhibited bravery.

The Dutch:

The Dutch did not emphasize religious conversion in their relationships with Native Americans. They focused on trade with American Indians in present-day New York and New Jersey. They established a fur trade alliance with the Iroquois confederacy. Although European diseases drastically reduced the Iroquois population, the confederation remained strong because they negotiated an advantageous alliance with the Dutch.

Native Americans:

Native Americans took advantage of rivalries among European powers to enhance their own political and economic positions. Wars between England and the Netherlands spilled into North America, and in 1664 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Iroquois signed an alliance and trade treaty with the English. They also maintained friendly relations with the French and welcomed Jesuit missionaries into their midst. The Iroquois were generally successful at playing the French and English off one another until the English drove the French out of North America.

Source: The New World: A Stage for Cultural Interaction
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