British and European colonists were not the only inhabitants of North America, nor were they the first. Native Americans – dubbed ‘Indians’ by early explorers who mistakenly believed they had landed in India – lived near and beyond the fringes of white settlement. Nobody is certain about population figures of native tribespeople living in North America; the best guesses range between 800,000 and more than 10 million. There were more than 100 different tribal groups in the region of the 13 colonies, each with its own organisation, spiritual beliefs and social practices. Some tribes were nomadic and some confined themselves to a small area; most relied on hunting and gathering for subsistence although some tribes were active in farming. Much like the indigenous Australians, native Americans looked upon the arrival of Europeans with a mixture of curiosity and indifference, peaceful co-existence and open hostility. The settlers at Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s provoked a war with the Powhatan tribe – however further north the Plymouth Pilgrims could not have survived without the assistance of the Wampanoag people.
There were promising signs throughout the 17th century that natives and settlers might be able to coexist. Many Europeans, bushmen and frontier folk mainly, were able to forge agreements with native tribes about fur-trading and access to waterways for fishing. Europeans sold natives modern commodities such as mass-produced clothing, jewellery and small machinery – although they also sold them rum and whiskey which was abused, and weapons which fuelled wars between hostile tribes. As more Europeans arrived and the demand for land increased, so too did tensions caused by settlers moving into tribal lands. Newcomers to these areas generally saw the ‘Indians’ as pests or vermin, refusing to negotiate with them for access to land or waterways, instead attempting to drive them away. Most native tribes had no concept of land ownership but were spiritually connected to the land or landmarks in their region. Violence between settlers and natives continued to escalate through the 1700s. Meanwhile the French, who occupied the fertile strip along the Mississippi and Ohio valleys as well as modern-day Canada, enjoyed somewhat better relationships with native tribes – perhaps because more French settlers were fur-trappers and fishermen, so had less need to own tracts of land for farming.