Algonquians: A Barrier To America

Many assume colonizing America was an effortless campaign. Where the strong European countries with their superior technology, dominate the American regions and take what they want. This is far from the truth. Amerindian tribes all over America would stand up to the Europeans after peace attempts fail, forcing some colonies to be abandoned and hindering colonization progress all together.

For England this hindrance was the Algonquians. The new world. After nearly One-hundred-fifty years of war, England was in no condition to vie for land in the newly discovered world abroad. They would have to wait and recover, but after seeing the success of other nations, the English people were becoming eager. A successful campaign to subjugate Ireland and convert it to English culture, along with propaganda written by people like Richard Haklyut, helped to persuade Queen Elizabeth I to send a colonization venture to America. The first to receive a grant to colonize would be Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who at the time was the English Governor of Ulster in occupied Ireland. Sir Gilbert would land at St. Johns in Newfoundland, a small unorganized town settled by Spanish, Portuguese and a few English fishermen. On August 5th, 1583 Sir Gilbert officially claims Newfoundland as England’s first colony but is lost at sea on his return voyage. Gilberts half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, a veteran of the Desmond rebellions, sends another expedition to America, who land at Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks of modern North Carolina on July 4, 1584 and name the land Virginia after Queen Elizabeth I the “Virgin Queen. ” The colony soon runs short on supplies and fails after relations with the native tribes go awry.

In 1585 Sir Walter Raleigh set out for a second attempt to colonize Roanoke, this time accompanied by a personal tutor named Tomas Harriot, author of propaganda written to entice England to increase efforts colonizing America. A year earlier in 1584, Harriot learned the Algonquian language from two natives, Manteo and Wanchese, brought back to England with earlier explores. This would make him one of the most important people to take part in the colonization effort, able to communicate and study the native tribes. Harriot learns much of native Algonquins during his time spent in early Virginia. He spends his days exploring the land, recording the flora and fauna, as well as the structure and practices of native society.

If the towns had any walls at all they were built with wood. Each town had a working economy, spoke different languages -- which increased with distance between towns -- and belonged to a Wiroans or Chief. Some chiefdoms held only 1 town, others 2 or 3 and some up to 8. Thomas Harriot describes the largest chiefdom they encountered as holding 18 towns and capable of raising 700-800 fighting men. The Algonquians were only clothed around their shoulders and waist, leaving all else bare. The weapons they used were wooden such as bow and arrow or spears, with their armor being crafted by sticks tied together. If opposing tribes went to war with each other it was rarely a set battle unless in highly wooded areas where both sides could use trees as a form of defense. In most cases wars were fought through ambush tactics, surprising their enemies around sunrise or sunset.

Algonquian farms were mostly made of all crops being planted together but some were separated. The farming process was a bit different than Thomas Harriot and the other English were accustomed to. The natives did not dig or plow the ground like the English but instead flattened the area being prepared. The men that worked in the fields would use wooden tools that, to Harriot, resembled mattocks or hoes with long handles, and the women used short handled tools about a foot long, mostly while sitting. The Algonquians would break the upper part of the crust to remove weeds, grass, old stubs of corn and roots, then scrape the discarded materials into small piles to burn. Once the ground was prepared and clean they would dig small holes and plant seeds, being very careful not to let the seeds touch when placed in the same hole. Tobacco was a very precious crop to the native population. They would cast it into hallowed fires during ceremonies as a sacrifice to their gods, usually done with gestures like stomping, dancing and clapping. During a bad storm or even after escaping danger the Algonquians would throw tobacco into the air to pacify an angry god.

The Algonquian gods they called Mantoac and took the forms of Human men. The people believed that one great god formed other lesser gods. These lesser gods formed the sun, moon and stars before moving to earth and creating the water in which a diversity of creatures was born from.

Next, woman was made and through divine intervention conceived and had children. They believed the soul to be immortal and depending on your behavior in life you would either ascend to heaven or be cast into a great pit to burn for eternity. There was also formal punishment, like death, forfeitures or beatings for behaviors deemed immoral. The English saw the Algonquian society as primitive and their religion as wicked. The use of wooden tools, weapons, and armors made the tribes appear weak and inferior to the English. Through arrogance the English assumed the native peoples would be easy to convert because they more than likely wanted to be part of the superior English culture and if they did not they would be easily defeated in war. While some Indians did take part in English customs and religion, thinking the advanced English technology were gifts from the heavens, poor diplomacy and ignorance would deteriorate the relationship between the two cultures and bring about many wars and struggles. The native tribes would begin to understand what the English thought of them and how unfair they were being treated. This would create a struggle at Roanoke that would last for many years.

Propaganda and persuasion

The second attempt at Roanoke would end in disaster when a war nearly destroys the colony after a cultural misunderstanding that leads to the English murdering the Roanoke native’s leader Wingina. The colony is abandoned and return to England. A third attempt will be sent but ultimately fail and became the famous “Lost Colony” lead by John White. Thomas Harriot’s “A brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia” becomes very popular throughout England. John Whites illustrations in Harriot’s report suggest to the English that the Algonquians needed reforming and compared the images with earlier works of the Pictish people. It became a popular opinion that if the Picts could be subdued, so could the Amerindians.

The English had warred with Ireland throughout the 1560s and planted a population there which would eventually convert Ireland into English culture. The English saw this led to an expansion of English goods and a growth in imports. The Ireland campaign taught the English that given enough time, a settlement could become profitable even if they needed military force to subdue the natives and with patience even a primitive people could be integrated into the commercial system of the Crown.

This model would be go-to approach for taming the wild lands of America. With the newly received reports from Harriot combined with the suggestions of Richard Haklyut in 1582, claiming colonizing America would not only solve the current vagrant problem but also boost the economy, spread Protestantism to American Indians, find a water route to Asia and provide strategic support for the English colonization of Ireland, England was ready to fully commit to its colonization effort. England may have even presumed colonizing to be a quick and easy endeavor, passing off the native tribes as nothing more than savages and animals while considering themselves superior in every aspect. Although the English would go on to conquer land in America and succeed at subduing many tribes, it did not come without a price. The campaign was plagued with death and failure and took many mistakes to find a passable effort.

15 July 2020
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