6. Contact and the Columbian Exchange

What happens next? Mostly what had been happening for centuries, if not millennia. Indigenous people kept on making good use of their environments, finding new niches, competing amongst one another for resources, cycling through one economic and social system to another, and so on. It is important to remember that very few Indigenous peoples directly encountered Europeans prior to the late 1700s. Since the largest clusters of Indigenous populations were on the West Coast, and since they met Europeans for the first time only in the eighteenth century, it’s safe to say that their principal concerns were not greatly changed from 1492 to 1792. It is true that some Indigenous peoples in the northern half of the continent met Europeans early in the contact era. The Dorset had already encountered Europeans as much as five hundred years before the arrival of French navigator (and kidnapper) Jacques Cartier in 1534; the Beothuk and the Mi’kmaq were familiar from about 1530 with fishers and whalers from the Basque homelands straddling France and Spain. But even there, on the Atlantic seaboard, what is striking is how doomed populations like the Beothuk carried on doing what they liked doing, sometimes greeting Europeans and at other times either ignoring or avoiding them. But a couple of key things changed, beginning in what we call the “proto-contact” period.

The proto-contact period is a moving target. It’s that era in which European influences were being felt by Indigenous peoples even though actual Europeans may have been nowhere in sight. Exotic new trade goods were passed along long ancient networks of commerce. Refugees from hostile encounters with outsiders showed up on another Indigenous nation’s boundaries, thereby impacting territorial and resource domains and perhaps creating further knock-on effects. When, in 1806, a British-Canadian merchant led a party of traders and mapmakers for the first time into Nlaka’pamux territory, he and his party were greeted at Camchin (a.k.a. Lytton) with news that they had been expected. How could it have been otherwise? After 400 years of contact in various quarters of North America, there could not have been many corners into which European materials and/or ideas had not penetrated. Long before Simon Fraser showed up at Camchin, the Nlaka’pamux were living in the proto-contact phase. Indeed, they had probably already encountered elements of the Columbian Exchange.

The Columbian Exchange

Europeans—beginning with the Vikings but in earnest with the fifteenth-century Spanish—were pleased to introduce Western Hemisphere products into European markets. Furs and feathers were among the earliest goods taken to European courts by Norse traders. Starting in the late 1400s and the early 1500s, the Iberians transferred foodstuffs like maize, potatoes, and tomatoes from the Americas. These and other foods contributed to significant population booms in Europe and Africa in particular. Gold and silver were less “gifts” than booty, and they both had the effect of turbocharging Eastern Hemisphere economies.

In return, Indigenous peoples got very little, but what they did get, they received in excess. New foods were not well received, cattle fared badly, and pigs were more nuisances than advantages. Horses were eventually welcomed, and herds worked their way out of Mexico (a.k.a. New Spain) and reached the Northern Plains in the eighteenth century (a topic to which we will return), revolutionizing the lives and societies of the Nêhiyawak (a.k.a. Plains Cree), the Nakoda Oyadebi, and their neighbours. Draught horses showed up in Haudenosaunee villages in the early 1600s, having been purchased from the Dutch colonists. These were useful, but not revolutionary in the same way prairie mustangs would be a century or so later. In short, there wasn’t much in the plus column to show for this Columbian Exchange. But then, there was disease.

New and lethal diseases showed up in the early sixteenth century, possibly earlier. The passage from Europe was not sufficiently long to flush out and kill off all contagious illnesses. These were viruses and germs to which Indigenous peoples had never been exposed. Consequently, they had little natural immunities and no knowledge of suitable containment strategies, such as quarantine. What Europeans had come to regard as serious, inconvenient, and sometimes fatal childhood diseases like measles and mumps were major killers in the Western Hemisphere.

The worst of the lot was smallpox. Dangerous enough in Africa, Asia, and Europe, smallpox discovered ideal circumstances in the Americas. On its arrival, variola major found medium-to-large sedentary communities that were linked to others by extensive and busy trade networks. Smallpox played a leading role in the fall of Tenochtitlan, and it also devastated those Indigenous communities nominally allied against the Mexica. These—and subsequent smallpox outbreaks in North America—are called “virgin soil epidemics” because the populations had never before experienced these diseases, and because mortality rates ran as high as 95 per cent. Able to lay unnoticed in a human carrier for nearly two weeks, smallpox could leapfrog great distances in the Western Hemisphere, finding new opportunities to run riot. It was, therefore, able to move quickly and far ahead of the Europeans. The effects were catastrophic. In very short order, whole civilizations collapsed. Many villages on the East Coast of North America were eradicated, and quite a few inland towns fell to smallpox as well, long before actual Europeans were even encountered.

The proto-contact period was much longer for people farther north and farther west. If it took centuries for Europeans to reach them, the same cannot be said—with absolute certainty—for ‘Old World’ diseases. It has been speculated that smallpox or something very much like it reached the Columbia Valley and possibly the Northwest Coast as early as the 1530s. Even if it did not arrive until the 1780s, it would have had the same results—including anything from minimal or worst-case scenarios—as it did elsewhere. From the 1730s, changes on the Northern Plains meant that disease could move at the speed of a horse, rather than a woman or man walking—and all without seeing a single European face.

As we’ve already indicated, pre-contact population numbers are the source of considerable disagreement and debate. There are few scholars now, however, who would back the lowest estimates proffered in the early to mid-twentieth century. At that time, it was widely assumed that Indigenous populations had fluctuated, but not by much. Ten million was proposed as the total for the whole hemisphere. Since the 1960s, historians and anthropologists have worked backward from colonial censuses and missionary burial records to estimate the impact of epidemics in small communities.

If there were in 1491, as is currently widely accepted, half a million people in what is now Canada, that number probably began falling in the 1500s. It fell to about 103,000—a total reckoned in the 1871 Dominion Census—and only bottomed out (or reached a nadir) in the 1920s. As the spheres of contact closed in on and overlapped with more remote peoples, the cycles of proto-contact and contact-era death began anew. This was recorded on the West Coast and in the Arctic, two regions of relatively late contact and exchange. Old viruses were joined by heretofore-unseen illnesses, perhaps the most persistent and pernicious of which was tuberculosis. While we may be uncertain about the impact of foreign diseases in the proto-contact period, what we learn from the outbreaks in the later contact period is this: a mortality rate of one-third was not exceptional, and 80 per cent was not unheard of.

This must serve to remind us that, while most of North America remained an Indigenous world in the three centuries or so after contact, the communities were in many cases reeling from disease and depopulation. This was something genuinely new and comprehensive. Occasionally, a mudslide or some other natural disaster might eradicate one village—as at Ozette in the Makah homeland on the Northwest Coast—or a war might turn especially bloody, but these are localized phenomenon. The Columbian Exchange, by contrast, was a species-wide event as regards humans in the Western Hemisphere. It set the tone in many respects for the events that followed.

There is one other thing that changed with contact and needs to be mentioned. It was in the course of contact that Europeans began producing written and drawn records of encounters. Every one of those documents is filtered through several lenses, whether it is the Jesuit Relations (regular reports filed from the missionary field in the seventeenth century), navigators’ charts, the diaries of ships’ captains, or fur trade ledgers. Indigenous people’s voices reach out from the past through some of these records, transcribed with—inevitably—varying levels of competence, integrity, and understanding by the European scribe. In short, the kinds of records available change, and our ability to explore Indigenous societies in the past changes, too. What we are seeing in these documents, keep in mind, are often post-apocalyptic scenes involving the survivors of epidemics. They knew the past they had come from; their actions arise from a longer and deeper history in North America. European observers in what they called “the New World” dated history from 1492, but Indigenous people were not so shortsighted.


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Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada by John Belshaw, Sarah Nickel, and Chelsea Horton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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