REGIONAL – Some map makers and anthropologists are trying to construct a map of North America that represents the Native American tribal boundaries that existed at the start of European colonization.
There was no interest or effort to do this at the time because to many immigrants the lands of North American looked unoccupied.
When the colonists landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 they found the countryside devoid of human life and habitation. Later they learned that the area had been settled but was devastated by a plague and the survivors had moved away.
The Plymouth colonists were not deterred by the plague but they did almost die because of starvation. The surviving Indians helped them with their stores of corn and the first planting of corn.
The harvest of that first planting of corn gave rise to the celebration that we call Thanksgiving.
Reconstructed population estimates of the Native American population of North America placed the number at around 10 million when Europeans arrived. There were 17 language families.
Essentially all of the land in North America was claimed by a tribe. The tribes all had their own names for themselves and for their neighbors.
The tribes’ names for themselves were generic, such as “the people,” but they were not the names later used by the Europeans. The Europeans gave the Indians names so that they could distinguish them. It was a matter of who had the power. A later map of California showed 30 names, some unfamiliar names, such as Modoc, Klamath, Maidu and Miwok.
The Comanches got their name from the Ute tribe which called them by a Ute word that meant “Those who always fight with us.” The Comanche called themselves “the real people.”
Any map of the United States in 1492 would have shown all the land claimed but the map would have been fluid because it always was changing because of migrations , wars, disease and alliances.
This was especially true after 1492 when the devastating effects of European epidemic diseases began to be felt. It is estimated that the mortality rate among Indians was 70 to 80 percent in the 200 years after 1492.
The Indians could catch infectious diseases from European animals such as pigs as well as people and their garbage.
Missionary effort that placed Indians in close proximity to other neighbors, European, and their animals also promoted the spread of European infectious diseases. This was well before the germ theory of disease. The Indians had no immunity to these diseases.
Europeans had acquired immunity over several hundred years by the deaths of their susceptible populations. So the Europeans who immigrated to America were among “the survival of the fittest.” Those who survived in Europe had some immunity.
It is true that Native Americans did not have the same concept of land ownership that Europeans had, specifically that land could be bought and sold for individual private use.
However, at least some Indians had an idea off exclusive use of their hunting lands. For example, the Comanche had a proprietary view of their hunting lands.
The Comanche took great exception to Texas settlers squatting on land in their Comancheria and took deadly actions to expel them.
As President of the Republic, Sam Houston, tried to help this situation but negotiating the boundaries of the Comancheria, with no success.
The Comanche were just as antagonistic toward any encroaching Indian tribe. The Comanche attempted to enforce their right with violent action.
The Karankaw did the same thing when Stephen F. Austin’ s colonists tried to just pass through the Karankawa’s territory.
So it is not quite true that Native Americans had no concept of ownership. It was just not as exclusive as the European concept and their ownership was for exclusive use, but could not be bought and sold.
So, while a map for 1492 would be interesting it would not provide a clear claim to ownership because of later changes. “We have always lived here” was generally not true.
Herndon Williams is affiliated with the Bayside Historical Society and the Refugio County Historical Commission. He is the author of the book, “Texas Gulf Coast Stories,” published in December 2010 by The History Press. His second book, “Eight Centuries on the Texas Frontier,” was published in May 2013. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.