HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Aborigines of America
by Bancroft, Hubert H.

[The preceding pages have been devoted to the history of the relations between the inhabitants of the Eastern and Western Continents, and to the various statements that indicate a possible knowledge of, and voyages to, America in the era before Columbus. To complete this preliminary survey a brief account of what is known of the American aborigines in this early era is necessary. In relation to this period of American history there exists an abundance of literary material, comprising researches into the languages, raceconditions, customs, antiquities, traditions, and manuscript annals of the tribes and nations of the aborigines. None of this material is historical in the full sense of the term, though much of it may be considered as indirectly so. The editor of this work, however, has been unable to meet with any general statement in a form sufficiently condensed to yield a brief yet comprehensive review of the whole subject. He has, therefore, himself prepared a paper which may serve imperfectly to fill this vacancy, and to complete the examination of the history of America prior to Columbus.]

On the discovery an exploration of America it was found to be everywhere inhabited, from the north polar region to the extreme south, by peoples differing in degree of culture from abject savagery to a low stage of civilization. Though at first all these peoples were looked upon as members of a single race, later research has rendered this questionable, marked diversities in ethnological character having been perceived. In language a greater unity appears, philologists generally holding that the American languages all belong to one family of human speech, though the dialects differ widely in character and in degree of development. The American languages approach in type those of northern Asia, though not very closely. The same may be said of the American features. Yet if the Americans and Mongolians were originally of the same race, as seems not improbable, their separation must have taken place at a remote period, to judge from the diversities which now exist between them.

The aboriginal inhabitants of the United States, when first discovered, differed very considerably in political and social condition. Those of the north were in a state of savagery or low barbarism. The southern Indians were much more advanced politically, while the Natchez people of the lower Mississippi possessed a well-organized despotic monarchy, widely different in character from the institutions of the free tribes of the north. In Mexico existed a powerful civilized empire, despotic in character, possessed of many historical traditions, and having an extensive literature, which was nearly all destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. In this region were two distinct linguistic races, the Nahuas of Mexico and the Mayas of the more southern region. To the latter are due the remarkable architectural remains of Yucatan and Guatemala. In South America was also discovered an extensive civilized empire, of a highly-marked despotic type,--the Inca empire of Peru. This rather low form of civilization extended far to the north and south in the district west of the Andes, while the remainder of South America was occupied by savage tribes, some of them exceedingly debased in condition.

Of late years it has been made evident, through diversified archaeological discoveries, that at some epoch, perhaps not very remote, the whole region of the Mississippi Valley was the seat of a semi-civilized population, probably some-what closely approaching in customs and condition the inhabitants of the Gulf States when first seen by the Spanish and French explorers. This people had utterly vanished from the region of the northern United States at the earliest date of the advent of the whites, and perhaps many centuries before that era; yet the whole region of their former residence is so abundantly covered with their weapons, utensils, ornaments, and architectural remains, that we are not only positively assured of their former existence, but are enabled also to form many conjectures as to their probable history.

What are here spoken of as architectural remains consist principally of earth mounds, of considerable diversity in character and appearance, and some of them of enormous dimensions. There is in this fact alone nothing of peculiar interest. Earth mounds, generally sepulchral in purpose, exist widely throughout the older continents. But the American mounds are remarkable for their excessive numbers, their peculiarities of construction, their occasional great size, and the diversity of their probable purpose. They are found abundantly over the whole region from the Rocky Mountains to the Alleghanies, and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf, and to some small extent beyond these limits. In the State of Ohio alone there are said to be more than ten thousand mounds, with perhaps fifteen hundred defensive works and enclosures. About five thousand of them are said to exist within a radius of fifty miles from the mouth of the Illinois River, in the State of Illinois.

In the South they are equally abundant. The Gulf States are full of them. From Florida to Texas they everywhere exist, of the greatest diversity in size and shape. Smaller examples occur beyond the limits of the region above outlined, though in much less abundance. These mounds are usually from six to thirty feet high and forty to one hundred in diameter, though some are much larger. To the vanished race to whose labors they are due has been given the name of the "Mound-Builders."

Many of these structures were evidently erected for defensive purposes, and they constitute an extensive system of earthworks on the hills and river-bluffs, indicating a considerable population in the valleys below. Other works are remarkably regular earthworks on the valley levels, forming enclosures in various geometrical patterns, which comprise circles, squares, and other figures. The purpose of these peculiar enclosures is unknown, though it was probably connected with religious observances. Of the smaller mounds, some are supposed to have been used as altars; but the most numerous class are the burial-mounds, in which skeletons have often been found. In Wisconsin, and to some extent elsewhere, are found mounds rudely imitating the shape of animals. But the most extraordinary of these erections, from their great size and the enormous degree of labor which they indicate, are the so-called "temple mounds," of which the one at Cahokia, Illinois, measures seven hundred by five hundred feet at base and ninety feet in perpendicular height. It was probably the seat of a temple. Many similar mounds, though none so large as this, exist in the Gulf States.

The mounds contain very numerous relies of the arts of their builders, these consisting of various articles of pottery, stone pipes of highly-skilful construction, in imitation of animal forms, stone implements in great variety, ornaments of beaten copper, pearls, plates of mica, fragments of woven fabrics, and other articles, indicative of much industry and a considerable advance in the simpler arts.

Whether the semi-civilization of this people developed in the region in which their remains are found, or is due to the northward movement of a civilized people from the south, cannot be decided. That they were a numerous agricultural people, under the control of a despotic government, and of strong religious superstitions, seems evident from the vast labors which they performed and the religious purpose of the greatest of these works. There is abundant reason to believe that they were in hostile relations with tribes of savages, perhaps the original inhabitants of the country, to the northward and eastward. Against the assaults of these the earthworks were built. These assaults were finally successful. The "Mound-Builders" were conquered, and either annihilated or, more probably, driven south. It is highly improbable that they constituted a single empire, or a series of extensive governments. We may more safely consider them as a congeries of strong tribal organizations, probably to some extent mutually hostile, who were weakened by intestine wars and conquered piecemeal by their numerous and persistent savage foes.

Before considering the political and other relations of the northern Indians, some reference may be made to the architectural remains of the other aborigines of America. Remarkable ruins exist in the mountain-region of the west, in parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and northern Mexico. Principal among these are the Pueblo buildings, huge communistic structures, of several stories in height, and some of them capable of sheltering a whole tribe within their very numerous apartments. Of these edifices some are of adobe, others of stone. They are probably of considerable antiquity, and most of them are in ruins, though several are still inhabited. Still more remarkable are the "cliff dwellings," recently discovered in the river-canons of this region. These exist at considerable heights, occasionally as much as six hundred to eight hundred feet, in almost inaccessible situations in perpendicular cliffs, in which they occupy clefts or natural terraces. They were doubtless intended as places of refuge from dangerous foes, though they occur in localities now so barren that it is not easy to perceive how their inhabitants obtained subsistence.

The architectural remains of Mexico, Central America, and Peru are far too numerous and important to be described in the brief space at our command. Some of the more imposing of those of Mexico are pyramidal mounds, not unlike the temple mounds of the north, though occasionally much larger. Of these the most extensive is the great pyramid of Cholula, which covers twice the area of the great Egyptian pyramid of Cheops. The height is variously estimated at one hundred and seventy-seven to two hundred and five feet. This huge structure is built of small sun-dried bricks, alternated with layers of clay. It may have been moulded on a natural eminence, though this is doubtful. The temple of the deity Quetzalcoatl, which once occupied its summit, was destroyed by the Spanish invaders.

In Yucatan, Chiapas, Honduras, and Guatemala have been found the ruins of enormous and profusely-sculptured stone edifices, built on truncated pyramids, of which that of Palenque measures two hundred and sixty by three hundred and ten feet, and is forty feet high. Its sides were originally faced with cut stone, while the building displays a considerable advance in the arts of architecture and sculpture. Numerous other such structures exist, which display great boldness and skill in architecture. As to who built these forest-buried edifices no positive knowledge exists, though there is some reason to believe that they were still in use, and surrounded by cities, at the epoch of the Spanish conquest.

With the ruins of Peruvian art we are less directly concerned. It will suffice to remark that they are not surpassed in boldness of execution, in the great labor indicated, and in practicality of purpose, by any similar erections on the Eastern continent. Many of these works are very ancient, having been built by a people who occupied that region anterior to the origin of the Inca empire. In this respect they agree with the architectural monuments of Mexico, which were attributed by the Aztecs to the Toltecs, a mythical race who preceded them. All this indicates not only a very considerable antiquity in the civilization of this continent, but a general overthrow of the primary civilizations, the Mound- Builders being replaced by the modern Indian tribes in the north, the builders of the Mexican monuments by the more barbarous Aztecs, and the architects of the early works of Peru by the conquering Inca race.

The Indian tribes of the northern United States, at the advent of the whites, were found in a state of savagery in some particulars, though their political and social institutions may be classed as barbarian. Though usually considered as hunting tribes, they were in reality largely agricultural, and not unlike the ancient Germans in organization. They were communistic in habit, holding their lands, and to some extent their houses, as common property. The tribes were divided into smaller sections on the basis of family, affinity, and governed by two sets of elected officers, -- the war-chiefs, selected for their valor, and the Sachems, or peace-officers, whose office was to a considerable extent hereditary. In the election of these officers the whole tribe took part, women as well as men having a vote. The religion of these tribes was of a low type, being a Shamanism of the same character as that of the Mongolian tribes of northern Asia. Demon-exorcising "medicine-men" were the priests of the tribes, and the conception of a supreme "Great Spirit," which has been attributed to them, was possibly derived from early intercourse with the whites, though it may have been an inheritance from the Mound-Builders.

The Indians of the southern United States, comprising the Creek confederacy and other tribes, were considerably move advanced in institutions and ideas. With them agriculture had attained an important development, and the lands were divided into fields on a communistic basis, they remaining the property of the tribe, though cultivated by separate families. The government was in the hands of a council of the principal chiefs, presided over by an officer called the Mico, corresponding to the Sachem of the north. His dignity was hereditary, and his power to some extent despotic. Warlike matters were controlled by a head chief, under whom were inferior chiefs. These chiefs were elected to their positions, and composed the council presided over by the Mico, whose authority was subject to their control. One peculiar feature of the Creek organization was the possession of a public storehouse, in which a portion of all products of the field and the chase had to be stored, for general distribution in case of need. This was under the sole control of the Mico.

The religious ideas were much superior to those of the northern tribes. Shamanistic worship and the medicine-man existed, but in addition to this there was a well developed system of sun-worship, with its temples, priests, and ceremonies. The sacred fire was preserved with the greatest assiduity, and when extinguished at the close of each year, to be rekindled with "new fire," serious calamities were feared. The Mico was looked upon as a high dignitary in this worship, and as, in some sort, a representative of the sun. The degree of despotism which he exercised was very probably in great measure due to this religious dignity and the superstition of the people.

But the most remarkable of the Indians of the United States was the small tribe of the Natchez, occupying a few villages east of the Mississippi at the period of Spanish and French discovery, and long since extinct. The language of this tribe is believed to have been quite unlike those of the neighboring tribes. Its political organization was a well-developed despotism, the ruler being a religious autocrat whose authority was beyond question. This dignitary was known as the Sun, and was looked upon as a direct and sacred descendant of the solar deity. All members of the royal caste were called Suns, and had special privileges. Beneath them was a nobility, while the common people were very submissive. The chiefs' dwellings were on mounds, and the mounds were also the seat of temples, in which the sacred fire was guarded with superstitious care by the priesthood. La Salle, who visited the Natchez in 1681-82, describes them as living in large adobe dwellings. The temple of the sun was adorned with the figures of three eagles, with their heads turned to the east. The Natchez possessed a completely-organized system of worship, with temples, idols, priests, keepers of sacred things, religious festivals, and the like, while the people were thoroughly under the control of their superstitions. The ruler had the power of life and death over the people, as also had his nearest female relative, who was known as the Woman Chief, and whose son succeeded to the throne. The extinguishment of the sacred fire in the temples was deemed the greatest calamity that could befall them. The death of the Sun cost the life of his guards and many of his subjects, while few of the principal persons died without human sacrifices. Captives taken in war were sacrificed to the sun, and their skulls displayed on the temples.

The customs and religious ceremonies of this tribe are of particular interest, as there is reason to believe that in the Natchez we have the most direct descendants of the Mound-Builders, and that in the despotism of their chief and the superstition of the people there survived until historical times the conditions under which the great works of the Mississippi Valley were erected. The destruction of the tribe by the early French colonists has been a serious loss to archaeological science.

It is believed by some writers that the Mexican civilization was a direct development of that of the Mound-Builders. Among the peoples of Mexico and Central America traditions of an original migration from the north were common, while the affinity between the customs and religious ideas of the Aztecs and the Indians of the southern United States was so great that the civilization of the former may with some assurance be considered an outgrowth from the semi- civilization of the latter.

Land-communism was the general practice in Mexico, and the Creek public storehouse, under the control of the Mico, was imitated by the Aztec public stores, under the control of the emperor, in which a fixed portion of all produce had to be placed. The Creek council of chiefs and elders was represented by a similar council in Mexico, by whose decisions the emperor was controlled. Worship of the sun was an early form of the Mexican religious ideas, though it was afterwards replaced by worship of the god of war. Human sacrifice had grown to enormous proportions, and the sacrifice of war-captives by the Natchez had its Aztec counterpart in vast warlike raids for the purpose of obtaining victims for sacrifice to the terrible wargod. The sacred fire was guarded with the utmost care, and dire calamities were predicted if it should be extinguished. It was voluntarily extinguished once every fifty-two years, and rekindled after a week of lamentation and mortal dread. The passage of the "new fire" through the country was the occasion of universal joy and festivity.

We have already indicated the resemblance between the temple mounds of the two regions, and other points of affinity might be named, but the above will suffice to show the great probability that the civilization of the Mississippi Valley and that of Mexico and Central America were directly connected and formed parts of one general growth of American culture. As for the actual history of the aborigines prior to the advent of the whites, very little is known. Numerous legends and traditions exist, though few of these can be considered of historical authenticity. The Indians of the United States, indeed, possess no records that can be accepted as historical. What seem most so are stories of migrations; yet none of these can be taken as representative of actual events, but are rather to be viewed as vague remembrances of some of the many movements which must have taken place.

The only traditions that are to any extent historical are those of the Nahuas and Mayas of Mexico and Central America. These describe the movements, during a number of centuries preceding the Spanish conquest, of several successive peoples, as the Toltecs, the Chichimecs, and the Aztecs of Mexico, and a parallel series in the Maya region. Extensive details of the history of these and other tribes are given, much of which is undoubtedly authentic, yet the actual is so mingled with the mythical in these records that no trust can be placed in any but their latest portions, and even these are not to be accepted without question.

The traditions of migrations from the north and east are so generally reiterated that they seem to indicate actual events, and the same may be said of the very common tradition of the coming of a great hero or deity from the east, the Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs, the Votan of the Mayas, and similar deities of other tribes. These are fabled to have brought civilization and taught habits of industry and lessons of political subordination to the previously uncultured tribes. They may represent the actual advent of civilized navigators from Europe or elsewhere, though this is a problem that can never be solved.

Much might here be said concerning the historical records of the Nahuas and Mayas, had we space to review them, yet a consideration of the whole leads to the conclusion above avowed, that the American aborigines had no records that can be considered absolutely of historical value previous to the discovery of America by Columbus. We may, therefore, look upon their trustworthy history as beginning with that event, since in their earlier records it is impossible to distinguish between the mythical and the actual.

Charles Morris


Terms Defined

Referenced Works