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Why the Native Americans ultimately lost America

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What caused the downfall of the American Indian?


Centuries without exposure to war or epidemic diseases led to the developmental inequalities which caused the downfall and conquest of the Native American Indians at the hands of the European settlers.

From the time of Columbus’s first expeditions in the New World, the indigenous population which had been masters of the American continent for 14,000 years began fighting a losing battle which would ultimately end in the destruction of their culture. It was their inexperience at war, plus the fact that they’d never developed formidable weapons, combine with their lack of immunity to the diseases introduced by the Europeans, which led to the Indians—who were initially far superior in number— meeting with ignominious defeat.

One obvious reason for the Euro victory over the Indian tribes was their superior weaponry. They had war technology which the locals could not compete with. But why did the colonists have such superior arms? A sensible guess would be that the Europeans were an older culture. The earliest traces of European ancestry goes back over 100,000 years, compared to 14,000 for the Indians. That head start would logically allow for the superiority of development. Yet, history doesn’t support this theory. For example, sentient life existed in African over a million years earlier than in Europe, and yet the Europeans had guns long before the African people ever imagined such a thing. So, if time is not the key factor, what is?

A reason that the Europeans had weapons beyond the Indians was due to their long history of warfare and violence. Countries on the continent of Europe routinely fought over territory or religion. Even when they set out to colonize, they knew they would also have to deal with rival nations that would be claiming their own share of this vast new land. There had long been animosity between Spain, France, England, and the Dutch. These were opponents who would be difficult to overcome. The Europeans were armed and ready, tempered by years of bloodshed.

Native Americans, on the other hand, knew little of all-out war. Despite their mythical image as savages, they were actually much more civilized in the way they settled their tribal disputes. Battles at the time were ritualistic. Intermittent violence did occur, but the nature of pre-contact Indian war was far different from the wars known in Europe. Both in scale and in duration, their skirmishes were minuscule compared to Europe. The Indian natives could not conceive of the multi-year conflicts that dogged Euro history. Indians fought in small forays, with limited numbers of warriors. Their battles were often a game of ‘chicken’ where one side or the other backed down in the face of the fiercer opponent. They tried not to kill other Indians if it was not necessary and so had no need for guns or cannons. All this caused the American tribes to be very primitive in their weaponry, whereas the Europeans were veritable Gods of War.

For instance, when the Spanish conquered the Incas, they not only brought guns, but had the advantage of armor as well. The Inca’s fought with blunt clubs and had no armor at all. Further, the Incans did not have domesticated animals, and so the Spanish gained a tremendous advantage by charging in on horseback.The psychological effect of seeing men riding on horses had as powerful an effect on the Incans as the Spanish swords did. Soon, Incan leader Athhuallpa fell at Cajamarca and the Spanish claimed their land. Cortes would go on to do the same to Montezuma and the Aztecs, winning for similar reasons. Earlier, they had Slaughtered the tribes of the West Indies, gaining the Conquistadors a scathing indictment from a Spanish Friar in 1542.

Up in North America, the Native American people alternately became allies and enemies of the newly arrived settlers from Europe. Surely there was a sense of dread among the local tribes concerning these mysterious people who arrived by ship, bringing strange animals and stranger weapons? What did they think would happen in the long run?

The Native American tribes were not accustomed to visitors in their lands. These new arrivals confused and frightened them. Therefore, they made some mistakes which exacerbated hostilities with the colonists. A Chesapeake Indian tribe ambushed the first arrivals making landfall in Virginia. Things didn’t start off well and the settlers became very suspicious of the indigenous people. And the Indians surely felt the same, but some had their own motivations for contact.

Powhattan, leader of the powerful Algonquian tribe of Indians, was a clever man. He saw the newcomers as a potential source of power. They had things of value, like guns and gunpowder. Powhattan was in the process of consolidating his power in the region. Weapons would be invaluable to him. To this end, he became a friend and benefactor to the new settlement. Although their presence was a potentially destabilizing element, he felt they were worth the risk. He brought them food to help them survive their first long, cold winter.

He continued to trade with them afterwards, supplying food in exchange for weapons.It was, quite likely, this dependency on the Indians that increased the settler’s distrust of the locals. They needed Powhattan to get through the winter and were very much afraid that he would exploit their weakness. They expected the local Indians to take advantage of their weakness and double cross them. The settlers kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and their increasing paranoia evolved into hostility against the native tribes.

When a misunderstanding between the two sides caused Powhattan to break ties, the settlers immediately assumed this was the double cross they had waited for and started to take food from the Indians by force. Powhattan struck back but he was overwhelmed, and the Indian wars began in earnest in North America. As the Colonial population increased, they began to take what they wanted and enforce their ways upon these people they thought of as merely “primitive barbarians”. They felt they had a God given right to depose those whom they saw as little more than animals. The pattern of “Indian removal” continued until the 19th century, when the last Indian resistance was gone.Thus, the Europeans practiced their time honed art of war, something they had much more experience in than the Indians. They had the better armaments, as well as one other unexpected secret weapon.

A surprise advantage that the Europeans had was that the Native tribes had lived isolated from epidemic diseases. Nor did they have herd animals, which often acted as conduits of infectious diseases. Bacterial infections such as smallpox, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and others were introduced to the Indians who had no natural immunities to them. Cortes’ 1521 victory over the Aztecs was aided by a terrible smallpox epidemic that cut the Aztec population in half. The devastating release of these germs was so catastrophic to the native people, it eventually killed 90% percent of the indigenous population. With their best warriors dead, and the rest demoralized, thinking their Gods had deserted them, the surviving Indians were no match for the growing number of Europeans.

Indian power faded steadily and by the 19th century, they were no longer a military threat to the established government of the United States of America. Steps were taken to “civilize” and indoctrinate the conquered Indians tribes into the culture of the victors. The curse of developmental inequality left them with nothing.

Societies evolve to exactly where they need to be to survive in the time and place. The Indians were well suited for life on the American continent, but that didn’t prepare them for the intervention of an unexpected predator or disease. European settlers and their guns, along with smallpox and other diseases, were outside the scope of what they were prepared to deal with.

The Indians also had no domesticated herd animals. Ironically, they were culpable in the killing and making extinct of large mammals rather than domesticating them, as when the Paleo-Indians killed off the Mastodons. If they hadn’t, could they have used them as the Indians of India do? As transportation and as beasts of burden? Would it have made a difference? And would these herd animals have produced germs that allowed the native population to develop immunities to European diseases? If large mammals still existed during the Euro invasion, would the result have been any different? I believe that this mistake made during their early hunter/gatherer days may have ultimately added a nail to the coffin of Indian culture.

I maintain that centuries of life without war curtailed the Indian ability to develop the technology to defend themselves. And further, that their isolation, the lack of pack animals and the extinction of the Mastodons caused the Indians to have insufficient natural defenses against epidemic diseases. These combined reasons destroyed any chance that the Indians, despite their vastly superior numbers, may have had to drive off the settlers and retain the land of their birth.


Chiaku on February 19, 2016:

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The biggest reason people overlook Native Americans in history is that they segregated their own kind into different clans rather than operate under a single banner. Separating into different factions, they ended up sealing their own fates long before immigrants started showing up on their shores. Like most civilizations they were unable to adapt to these changes and unite under the same cause. Unable to put away their differences and beliefs they held on to their pride and loyalties to their clan until there were just a few major ones left. And yet a couple generations later it was too late to unite the clans, because all them were already wiped out our assimilated into American culture. I pity the Native Americans because they were ignorant and unswayed to change their ways when a new threat had arrived. Refusing to evolve and adapt they were decimated over a small period of time. Their leadership was completely incompetent otherwise they wouldn't have fallen so easily. But remember, it is the winners that write history, not the losers.

Melissa on December 17, 2015:

The English were subjected to a similar fate in 1066 by invading Normans. The Indian tribes also pushed each other out of land and took slaves etc. Human nature is a complex thing! A great potential for good as well as evil!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 19, 2015:

It must have been a big puzzle for the native Americans to be told that someone else far away owned the land they have enjoyed for years. Their concept of ownership is totally different. This must have been very unsettling.

adam on December 15, 2014:

How does one prevent development inequality?

What is development inequality? Are there examples of this in history?

Rolling Thunder Nez Perce on November 04, 2014:

@chad Melkus Physical extermination of all Native Nations was settled government policy,up until 1913. Then it was cultural genocide.

I repeat,we were never conquered we were lied to,cheated,stolen from,

and victims of physical and cultural genocide.

But despite all best efforts,we are still here.

One final thing. All this talk by anti immigration people that we were immigrants too,is bull.

If the Bering Strait theory(and it IS just a theory,not fact) were true,wouldn't there be some archeological evidence of our passing over,somewhere on the remaining islands in the strait?

Some in the Euro centric archeological community are even trying to claim that we came from Europe!

Natives have always known that we did ot come here from anywhere. We have always been here,which indicated that there was more than one "Garden of Eden" if you buy into that myth. Some whites can't stand the possibility that we may be the oldest 'race' of humans on the planet,and actually migrated in the other direction.(paintings of American Bison in caves in the mountains of Northern Spain)

For More,read 'American Genesis" by Dr. Jeffrey Goodman

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on November 04, 2014:

I am grateful I did not live during the time of so much killing of the Indian tribes when it was just for their land.

Real Estate and Religion has been the seeds of evil that ended many lives, white men and Indians. It proved their existence became a cruel and raw way of life.

Thanks for writing this and I enjoyed the history, but never the bloodshed of innocent men, women and children.

History and the present world we live in today is a sad place because as I write many lives are taken in other countries for land and religion. Greed still lives in the hearts of men.

Thanks for an informative article.

Bobbi Purvis

Rolling Thunder Nez Perce on November 04, 2014:

No disrespect intended,but you are wrong. There were many Native Nations that were sedentary. Not all of them were nomads. In the east especially there were hundreds of settled communities.

Yes,the tribes were fighting among themselves,long before the Europeans invaded,But Native warfare was nothing like European warfare.Many raiding parties consisted of only twenty or thirty warriors,usually after horses etc. There was actually very little killing done,as they were seldom out just for blood.

The concept of all out war was a behavior learned from the Europeans,and after a time some nations,like the Iroquois,and Apache got very good at it. Napolean called the plains tribes,'the greatest light cavalry in the world." Actually,white man should have been pleased. After all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

We not only learned all out war from you,but scalping(from the Dutch) and torture(from the Spanish) lying and cheating(from the English).

As far as assimilation goes,I find it ironic. Black man desperately wanted to be part of the 'American Dream" and it was denied him for more than a century after slavery was gone.

Red man only wanted to be left alone. He wanted no part of your so called civilization,and it was shoved down his throat.This country was NOT taken by conquest,it was RIPPED OFF!!

Hal Lamphere on July 19, 2014:

As far as I can tell, from reading history, tribes and nations have always drifted it migrated often because of famine, more often because they were pushed off their own land by stronger tribes, but it has been the way the world has always been, and that is what happened to the native Americans, and don't let anyone kid you, they were doing it to each other before we got here.

plume on April 26, 2014:

Being from the old continent I consider that it is amazing how Americans remain racists and unable to apologize and stop oppressing native americans and afro americans! Even in 2014 your prisons are filled with afro americans, some get shot in the street just for being there in a non black area, and well yes black people live in getthos, and native americans in reservations!!! That's what you call melting pot !!! A descendant of Geronimo still tries to get the authorisation to bury the remains of his ancestor where he had asked to at the time, and the government won't grant it!!! Even the Turkish people so renown for being stubborn start considering after a century or so that they actually did something wrong to the Armenians!!!! You are the most stubborn and blind nation in the world! White americans have not even started to wake up, too busy making money... you signed no treaty for the environment ... I was offered once to live in the US I could not, even the thought of it makes me sick!!! I know why you have so many horror movies with topics such as haunted houses... the past is past and people nowadays should not feel guilty for it but they should take action now to make life easier for those who were victims from their ancestors. Stop considering other cultures or skin colours as inferior beings, grant them what they need to thrive and regain dignity, and hapiness, stop discrimination! That's all you can do!

Chad Melkus on March 21, 2014:

Ya, really rare but I do agree with you, read your post early couple years ago or something, actually one of my points I was trying to bring up, you were hitting it good.

Ya because of the gold rush, and land steal by private citzens and companies, and yes im sure the government colluded with them to in probably a lot of the break of a lot of deals or treaties, but I do think other europeans or whites later helped reverse and try to give the land and opportunities.

I do think the europeans in america back then were racist, proabably thinking the Indians were sub par to them , well we cant say all though this way, but enough of them did.

Sometimes I feel that some people tend to focus on only the negative stuff in history and current times, avoiding talking about all the good things that have happened and are happening.

Beaulen on March 21, 2014:

The treaties signed between the US government established property rights after wars were completed, any lands taken by the US government AFTER the treaties were signed were taken without legal basis. Or, put another way, stolen.

I understand that the concept of Nazi ideals still exist, but Nazi Germany is long gone, true? Your original point was to say that the US could have killed off Indians like Nazi Germany did to the Jews. My point is that Nazi Germany did not kill all the Jews, they may have had that goal, yet they failed. I think the US government had this goal as well, to completely exterminate Indians by taking land, language, culture, and failed as Nazi Germany failed. Not because they didn't want to, but because they couldn't, the US didn't have the capacity, ability or will to complete the extermination of Indians.

Chad Melkus on March 21, 2014:

Here's some linkes to show you the nazi idea is still around.

Chad Melkus on March 21, 2014:

Beaulen-I don't think they are stolen lands, I think they fought wars for them, and just came out winning. What Russia is doing with crimea? Did Ukraine ever fight a war with Russia for that land? Not sure how you see that as comparable? My point about the germans was that they were bent on totally getting rid of them altogether, no reservations were given to them like the Americans finally did. Americans kept pushing the indians west, but they were only bent on destroying the ones that resisted them for the most part, some exeptions of course. The germans wanted to get all the jews in europe out, that was their plan, of course it didn't get completely carried out. You said the german jews are still around, and that's only because the allies defeated germany, and russia turning on germany was a big factor. On the other hand I think the alllies during world war 2 would have still eventually taken germany and russia even if they had stayed united the whole time, just would have taken longer. Nazi germany has spread throughout europe and even out of it too now, well the Nazi aspect of it I mean, theres a bunch in greece , russia claims theres some in the Ukraine, hell theres even non white nazis down in south America, and of course in the usa too.

Beaulen on March 20, 2014:

Chad - I think many times when people talk about stolen lands they're referring to lands taken from Treaty agreements, sort of like what Russia is doing to Crimea without the referendum. I'm not sure how to take your point about Nazis and Jews, because German Jews are still around while Nazi Germany has largely disappeared.

Chad Melkus on March 19, 2014:

site who? if me my username is my name lol, but your probably asking original author I assume lol.

Charlie Ann37 on March 18, 2014:

Hi. I would love to cite you as one of my sources for a history paper. Would you mind telling me your full name?

Chad Melkus on March 10, 2014:

Hi Rob, love the article and the comments, there were some annoying comments made past the 80 percent down the page marker like , LostofDTaino, reminds me of many posts on liberal pages on facebook , for example using the history of the Natives in immigration memes. Europeans never wanted to come here to assimilate into the Natives government or culture, so the comparison is a mindfuck. I am mostly liberal but have many problems with feeling sorry for history for several reasons.

Number one thing I wanted to bring up is, currently about half of this country is non european desended, how can any of those people be shamed for history, I am not saying you are, but people like person I mentioned above like to clump people together, they had nothing to do with it, blacks, most brought as slaves. Another thing a large percentage of europeans came in the late 1800s and early 1900s too, bypassing that part of history. My problem is I am one of those that have NO descendents to any of that in the body I am in this lifetime, yet get clumped into the people, who some say they STOLD their land etc.

USA would have proabably existed no matter what european country invaded, hell the french tried to take over in the french and indian wars, in some different shape and name if another power came here, I wonder if the vikings would have stayed earlier and conquered the west what would have happened, or even earlier the Chinese that according to some alternative history buffs came here first. Im sure it happened in some alternative dimension.

I hear similar arguments from mexican immigrants that come here in CA, thinking the southwest was stolen, when it was actually a result of war, from a military that had guns too. A more fair fight in that instance, but fairness is a current thing that happened after world war 2, before that there were no rules on how to treat prisoners, hell in world 2 they didn't care about non military casualties, they would fucking carpet bomb places and cities to rubble.

I think dwelling in the past and cutural pride is not good because of the history of the world conquereing each other, and some people desceneded from the conquers and others from the conquered. But I am not religious, but spirtual and think our souls have lived in many different bodies, thousands of lifetimes, here on earth, and feel like I could have been living in the body of the native americans at the time or not, so maybe i was part of that conflict, and why im drawn to it like some that have no ties in this lifetime, then im white now, so I think if people understood it like that they wouldn't get all crazy about history and genetics, were just borrowing with our current meat suit/body, cuz more than likely we all lived at least once lifetime as the agressor or conquerer. In that line of reasoning, there are no innocents. And it wouldn't matter if people got conquered, your soul would evnetually just carnate back into the conqueres dna lines.

Another thing that doesn't hardly get raised is how the europeans ended up trying to force them onto reservations. They could have just killed them off completely like the nazis were trying to do with the jews.

I think if the natives were more united like the europeans then maybe even with the dwindled numbers they could have forced them back into the sea. That is a whole interesting topic all by itself how the europeans with different cultures and ethnicities came together, at least in spurts, and then after the civil war, with the army and the railroad, the Indians were done at that point, once they could send massive armies out there faster and telegrams, theres no way for the natives to win at that time.

I also know from anthropology we are the least diverse species on the planet, our dna is 99.999 the same, so races, not much different genetically, there mostly made up anyways, genetic mutations probably resulted in the small difference by geography. I can be more related to another black man that has similar body type to me than another white person. So history is pretty much kind of like a non stop civil war in a way, who because of the lack of science thought they were completely different from eachother, and still many still think that way today, maybe europeans thinking they were so different back then might have helped them unite against the natives who looked different than them.

Another topic to bring up is how scientist use to think that natives came over the siberian pass when it froze over, so what the fuck they are not native here either, we all started out in africa, they did get here first but that's it, and current dna studies back that idea that the natives are most closely related to the asians genome.

fkalsf;as on December 16, 2013:

awsome work rob you should get rewarded 100 dolars

kate on November 19, 2013:

good job! i like it

Rob (author) from Oviedo, FL on March 02, 2013:

Thank you, Andy. It's appreciated.


Andrew Stewart from England on February 28, 2013:

Excellent Hub Rob, really enjoyed reading it from start to finish. Great work as always!


Rob (author) from Oviedo, FL on January 20, 2013:

Hi Bobbi;

Thanks for the kind words. I've always been interested in reading and writing about the Native Americans, too. It is a great tragedy and a blemish on the history of America.

Thanks for reading,


Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on January 20, 2013:

I love reading and writing about the American Indians and I wished they and the new settlers could have enjoyed and shared their ways of life instead of fighting.

So much is lost besides life when war happens.

Great research makes interesting articles and this one kept my attention--- I loved it.

Bobbi Purvis

ZLeslie on December 18, 2012:

This really helped in the essay i'm writing for school but don't you think the europeans also made them collapse by trying to convert them to Christians?

Rob (author) from Oviedo, FL on October 18, 2012:

Hi myawn; I'm glad it's survived, too. I hope it always will.


myawn from Florida on October 18, 2012:

wonderfully written hub. Interesting as I am part Cherokee Indian. I wish things could have been more peaceful between the Indians and white people. The Indians had a lot of knowledge that they taught freely. I'm glad the Indian culture is still alive.

Beaulen on October 04, 2012: