FIRST CONTACT: Ending the Native American Dream and Experiment

     Like any writer coming to the end of a six year journey with a series of novels on a subject that has always been very close to my head and heart, I approach the beginning of the sixth and final novel in The People of the Stone saga with a certain amount of reluctance and a deal of regret.  However, in this case the subject matter of the final story in this 12,000 year plus journey, Children of the Circle, must also deal with the tragic consequences of the coming of the first Europeans into the central river valley systems of North America, which have been the setting for this book series.  Fortunately, there are countless books and records of how this "First Contact" time and again played out in various other, more studied areas of North, South, and Central America.  The well-known events of the fall of the Aztecs, Inca, and countless other tribes are extremely well-documented, and modern scholarship has managed to remove much of the cloud of obfuscation, religious zealotry, and official disinterest that kept so much of this record effectively buried for centuries in many cases. In preparing myself to deal with this delicate subject in the final installment of my book series detailing the spread of cultures and the major issues in prehistoric North America from both an archeological and literary perspective, this author has tried to prepare himself as thoroughly as possible to deal with the emotional as well as the historical conflicts that this amazing clash of cultures generated and which, in some cases, are still not yet resolved.

  We all know the results of that conflict, but only in recent years, I believe, has the full extent of the damage done five hundred years ago begun to become part of the general knowledge.  I can only hope that my coming novel will not only bring a satisfactory conclusion to my own important book series, but will also add a new voice illuminating a region that has, at least until now, received much less attention in this regard than have more publicized areas.  Of course, much of this is due to the fact that eastern North America was settled by Protestants, who had a different view of colonization and empire than did the Catholic monarchies who dominated to the west and south.  However, despite what other flaws the Spanish, Portuguese, French and others might have brought to their conquests, their record keeping was very good, even superb in many instances, allowing us a clear view of the tragedies that ensued.


It is generally accepted that the appearance of the conquistador Hernando de Soto in 1539 with a large force that landed in Florida and marched overland through the Carolinas and then on to the Mississippi Valley marks the official point of European/Native contact in this region. (Note:  This is where the amazing career of de Soto ended with his own death, probably from fever or possibly at the hands of his own disaffected band of treasure-seeking, starving followers.  De Soto had been one of Pizarro's most important followers in the conquest of Peru some years earlier, and he had left there a wealthy man by any standards.  However, like most of the conquistadors, he was not happy until he had received a royal governorship giving him carte blanche control over a large empire that he himself would carve out.  His failures to find gold in the American Heartland brought only the usual disasters to the natives there.  Survivors of earlier expeditions such as Vasco de Gama, however, had also spurred the similar conquests and journeys of Coronado, which opened up the Great Southwest only a year or two later.)  The four year trek of de Soto across the southern states did have a lasting and fatal impact on the further advancement of the native cultures that were still thriving there at the time.  These cultures were detailed somewhat in the fifth novel of the saga, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT, but archeologists tell us that their ultimate decline had already begun by the time of the first European contacts.  To what extent those contacts and the inevitable ravages of diseases and other  culture shattering impacts they brought helped to bring down the last of these major cultural experiments, primarily along the mid and lower MIssissippi River and its tributaries, can be debated.  Many would say that environmental degradations and over-population in some areas had already begun this decline.  These topics were dealt with in some fashion in the last novel just referred to and will also be presented as well in the final novel about to be started.

We do know, however, that in each case that has been closely studied the terrible effects of first contact preceded the actual appearance of armed, empire seeking conquistadors in virtually every instance.  The last Inca emperor, for example, died quite suddenly and very possibly from a white contacted disease from the south prior to Pizarro's actual arrival in Peru.  His death set off the struggle for power and the civil war between two of his sons that made the actual conquest of one that otherwise could not likely have occurred as amazingly fast as it subsequently did.  The Woodland peoples of the Mississippi Valley and southeastern tribes around the Gulf of Mexico had long been in contact with the more advanced peoples of Central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.  There can be little doubt that the effects of that conquest of Mexico by Cortez in 1519 and earlier failed expeditions in the area prior to de Soto's arrival had already begun to make their way north in the form of disease carrying refugees or messengers long before the physical arrival of de Soto and his army.  The accompanying large numbers of horses, pigs, and metal objects of all types would also have long standing consequences in the entire southeast region and beyond.

                                                 KILLING THE MESSENGER

Another striking aspect of many of the early conquest stories throughout the Americas is how many times the first arrival of the Europeans seemed to have been anticipated by the peoples and native empires they encountered.  In many cases such arrivals had been foretold by local legends or prophecies in which the actual physical appearance of the Europeans satisfied some such story.  Bearded, fair-skinned strangers, large sailing boats, strange beasts (horses) time and again seemed to be woven through local legends presaging some dire upheaval about to take place.  It was a dream prophecy of the last true Inca emperor, Huayna Capac, that foretold of the arrival of these Viracochas, or gods, and his death began the playing out of that prophecy soon thereafter.  Time and again Pizarro's tiny band of men faced extinction by overwhelming forces, but the natives mostly refused to fight because of these respected legends and their leaders forbidding any such resistance, at least until it was too late and they had seen the Spaniards for what they were.  Similar prophecies aided Cortez in Mexico and later conquistadors in the Maya areas. the American Southwest, and elsewhere.  It was the brutality of that earlier experience that Hernando de Soto brought to the even less-prepared and more diverse cultures of the American Southeast years later, resulting in a more complete obliteration of indigenous institutions--along with sheer numbers lost--than in the more polulated and advanced peoples to the south.

  Record keeping of stories among the natives of North America was much less available, however, and we will never know to what extent the arrival of the Europeans might have been anticipated.  The time-depth of such legends, however, appears to be rather shallow; and in some cases, such as that of the last Inca emperor's prophecy, may have been a reflection of fast-moving knowledge or awareness by the ruling classes of recent contacts with their more distant neighbors.  Of course, we continue to debate the earlier voyages of contact prior to the Columbus era being ushered in and what effects these contacts might have instigated in various parts of both North and Central America.  That much we can never know, although in some places (Mayan region for example) the clues are tantalizing.  In North America there is now little doubt that Norsemen, arrived and settled briefly along the northeast coast hundreds of years before the main contacts began.  To what extent these visits might have worked their way into local lore we can only guess at.  We also know that frequently sailing ships showed up along the coasts of areas of both North and South America some years in advance of the actual arrival of armed men intent on empire building and treasure gathering.  These visits undoubtedly created a sensation that had to be explained in some form by the powers-that-be in those native cultures at the time.  Nevertheless, we have always been fascinated by the ease with which so few Europeans time and again overcame large and powerful native kingdoms and with the same seemingly unanswerable question:  Why did these all-powerful rulers not just kill the invaders, since it was usually quite apparent that their intentions were questionable at best and downright hostile most of the time?

The answer is most commonly that these kingdoms were "at that moment in history" not as all powerful as they were made to appear by the records of their conquistador and accompanying priest invaders.  Most had been greatly weakened in one fashion or another by some pre-contact effect of the actual First Contact itself--most notably diseases or civil disturbances in their outlying provinces.  Just as we have begun to learn in recent years that the populations of native peoples in places like Central America, Peru, the Amazon and other areas far exceeded earlier estimates, often by numbers in the MILLIONS perhaps, we have learned that the estimates of the effects of their own impacts by the conquering nations were greatly under reported or not otherwise comprehended or appreciated at the time.  Based on what we know of later contacts along the coast of New England by English colonists, for example, who encountered little resistance in areas once teeming with thriving tribes only years before, we can assume that the effects in the more populated central MIssissippi valley in the early decades of the 1500's must have been enormous.  Many scholars now estimate that the death to disease of native peoples within the first decade prior to and just after first contact may have averaged as much as ninety percent.  If this is even close to the actual figure, then lack of resistance at "the point of the sword" so-to-speak to those such as Pizarro in Peru and de Soto in the Southeastern United States must have been only the final blow to the great native cultures these men came to destroy, enslave, or otherwise dominate--whether it was in the name of the church, the king, or their own lust for gold and just plain military adventurism. 

In short, it was often too late "to kill the messenger" by the time the actual arrival of the bearded strangers occurred.  Their superior weaponry, military organization, and (one must say) sometimes sheer guts and determination, allowed these small contingents of desperate adventurers to succeed where, had they arrived only a few years earlier perhaps, they would more likely have met the fate so many of them richly deserved--and ultimately received, even if it usually was at the hands of their own competitors.

In preparing to launch the last novel in The People of the Stone saga the author has explored many recent sources dealing with the subject of First Contact and how it might best be utilized in telling the story of the peoples of America's heartland, who have been the subject of the first five novels in the series.  I would like here to recommend a few of those resources to any interested reader of this fascinating and important historical subject and have chosen ones that are more current and readily available in most libraries and book sources.

ELUSIVE TREASURE by Brian Fagin.  Fagin is one of popular archeology's most prolific and readable authors.  This book deals with the earliest attempts to rediscover North American native culture both from a popular and archeological perspective.

LAST DAYS OF THE INCA by Kim MacQuarrie.  An up-to-date look at the Spanish conquests and more recent efforts to rediscover and reconstruct that important period.  Excellent review of historical and modern sources and very readable as well.

TREE OF RIVERS: THE STORY OF THE AMAZON by John Hemming.  Hemming also has a well-known book on the conquest of Peru.  This recent book gives an excellent view of the first contact state of Amazon cultures and their destruction at the hands of the Portuguese and Spanish in its early chapters.  These groups bear a closer analogy to the lifestyles of Woodland hunter/gather peoples of North America, even if effects of contact were less dramatic and direct than in that important area of S. America.

1491 by Charles Mann.  A very popular, recent bestseller, but very important book in providing a complete overview of the state of various tribal cultures throughout the Americas at the moment of First Contact.  A major reminder of the staggering loss of native populations and the actual mechanisms and various historical viewpoints and explanations for how this process played out.

A VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE by Tony Horwitz.  Reads like a personal travelogue in too many instances, but does provide a fairly comprehensive look at the actual evidence of the first contacts with various European deliberate and accidental explorers in different regions of North America.  Three chapters detail the journey of Hernando de Soto through the southeast regions, including excellent maps.

KNIGHTS OF SPAIN, WARRIORS OF THE SUN by Charles Hudson.  This is the definitive work on the journey of de Soto in the southeast, and Hudson spent many years retracing the steps of the expedition almost on a daily basis. Interwoven with the story of the Spaniards is detailed information on the archeological and cultural evidence of exhaustive research on the individual peoples and tribal groups impacted by the Spanish incursion. An absolute must resource for anyone interested in this often neglected period of American history.

Look for CHlLDREN OF THE CIRCLE and the end of prehistoric native North America in the summer of 2011.  In the meantime get ready by enjoying THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT, now available through this website, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other book sources.

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