Earliest Native American – European contacts were:

  • accidental contacts along the Atlantic coast with explores, traders, pirates, fishermen, ship crews,
  • European explorers and potential colonists wintered among natives and inland,
  • de Soto and Coronado’s expeditions,
  • missionaries,
  • fur-trading business,
  • colonists from Spain, France, Portugal, England

About 1500 Native American society was undergoing change. Agriculture was a significant lifeway and populations, especially among the Iroquoian groups, were increasing with its corn-based economy. Population expansion led to greater land usage, led to contacts with nearby tribes, led to alliances, later becoming the Iroquoian Confederacy. This was the Five Nations of the Longhouse (Haudenosaunee).

Tribes were disintegrating alliances and reforming new alliances in the Mississippi area, along Atlantic coasts, in the southeast (Florida) as Europeans arrived.

Franciscan and Dominican friars accompanied Spanish expeditions and the missionaries’ approach to the native peoples was met with resentment. The Spanish motives were not just to “Christianize Native American souls”, but also to find lost cities filled with gold and jewels.

Fishermen and traders aligned with tribes along the St. Lawrence. The French fur traders’ impact was not intended as an ‘invasion force’, but rather as an alliance to counter the influence of Spain.

A business relationship developed between the Native tribes and French (and later the English) in the exchange of furs trapped by natives throughout the interior for European goods that the Natives could not produce themselves and became dependant upon (axes, knives, guns, decorative ‘jewellery’, etc.). Eventually, interior ‘trading posts’ and some European settlements occurred at trade route junctions.

By the early 1600s, Native tribes’ populations had been severely affected by diseases, hunger, Spanish violence and greed. At this time there was very little increase in the European population in North America.

In the early years of settlement (Jamestown – 1607, Quebec – 1608, Santa Fe – 1610)  the relationship appeared to be symbiotic with each providing something the other wanted – food and skins for metal tools and trade goods. The Europeans learned native agriculture methods and foods. Among native tribes, corn, beans, squash remained more important than European cereal grains, but European vegetables such as cabbage, lettuces, peas, carrots, turnips, onions, garlic, cucumbers were introduced by the Spanish

The native tribes wanted the trade goods to make work easier and some ‘exotic’ items were used as “grave goods”. These items led to a revitalization of burial rituals with items added to the ceremony, and tribes exchanged these ‘luxury’ items among themselves.

Because trading centres were small and isolated, Europeans learned they would have to increase their power and influence to maintain access to the goods and land areas they needed and wanted. The native tribes learned that they wanted the supply of trade goods to continue and that they need to gain any advantage possible over tribal neighbours. This caused an increase in already existing inter-tribal conflict. Tribes learned that they would need to form alliances with a European group that could supply their needs for goods, and to added power over tribal competitors.