The Native Indians of Northeast and Their First Contact with Europeans

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The search for a common ground between the Europeans and the Natives began at first contact, and continues even today. But, this search has never been a one-way street. We can find evidence that tell stories of mutual incorporation and transformation that left no one unchanged.

Panoramic view of Eardley Escarpment and Ottawa River Valley at Tawadina Lookout Gatineau Park.
The St. Lawrence Lowlands extend from southern Ontario and upper New York State, down along the St. Lawrence River, and into the Susquehanna River Valley. (Image: Reimar/Shutterstock)

Material Evidence of a Common Ground

It’s pretty amazing what everyday objects can tell us about early encounters between Natives and newcomers. Consider, for instance, brass arrowheads, earrings, armbands, pendants, and tubular beads; linen shirts, woolen blankets, and heavy coats dyed in rich blues and reds; and mirrors, spoons, ladles, bowls, and glass bottles.

What at first glance might appear to be a random mix of trade goods is, in fact, material evidence of a search for common ground.

Some trade goods were also made by Europeans, but to Indian specifications. Linens and wool, for example, may have been imports, but Native people typically determined the colors. If the colors of blankets and fabrics weren’t suitable to the Indian taste, Indians simply refused to trade.

Natives Indigenize Objects

Also, consider how Indians repurposed, or indigenized, European products by giving them new function or form. A Native person might decide to wear a spoon or fork as part of a necklace. And many an arrowhead, earring, armband, and bead started out as a brass pot.

Trade items left unmodified, such as brass kettles, iron axes, and metal knives, were not new things so much as they were more durable, sharper, and perhaps lighter versions of household items and tools already in use by the Native people.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Native Northeast

The Northeast is a diverse region in its own right, containing the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the Great Lakes-Riverine area, and the coastal zone.

The St. Lawrence Lowlands extend from southern Ontario and upper New York State, down along the St. Lawrence River, and into the Susquehanna River Valley.

At the time of contact, the major groups in the St. Lawrence Lowlands were the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Wendat.

The second major zone—the Great Lakes-Riverine—provided home for the Anishinaabeg people, including the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Patawomeke; the Myaamia or Miami, Illinois, Shawnee, and Ho-Chunk.

Coastal Area of the Native North

The coastal area, runs along the Eastern Seaboard, from Canada to North Carolina. The Appalachian Mountains generally serve as its western border.

The coastal peoples to the north practiced no or limited agriculture, but took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the woods and the coastal and riverine resources. They also took advantage of extensive trade networks that extended deep into the subarctic, Great Lakes, and the Southeast.

The Natives and newcomers attempted to establish a common ground through mutual acts of incorporation. Let’s take the example of two such Native communities in the north: the Werowocomoco and the Montaup.

Learn more about the role of violence in and around Native American traditions.

Werowocomoco: Establishing a Common Ground

A portrait of John Smith.
In 1607, John Smith and a small group of English settlers ventured into the Chesapeake Bay to establish Jamestown. (Image: Houghton Library/Public domain)

Located on the York River in the Chesapeake, Werowocomoco served as the home of Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. In 1607, John Smith and a small group of English settlers ventured into the Chesapeake Bay to establish Jamestown, a mere 12 miles from Werowocomoco.

Of course, Powhatan’s initial goal was to bring the colonists into his world on his terms. So, Powhatan had Smith and his exploratory party captured; he then orchestrated a ritual of incorporation, acting out a situation whereby Smith could have been killed right then and there—but he wasn’t. By having his daughter Pocahontas throw her body across Smith’s, Powhatan symbolically took pity on him.

Powhatan surely believed that he had incorporated the English as subordinates, just like the other Native communities throughout the region. Powhatan cemented the relationship by establishing a system of gift exchange in which he provided the English with corn in return for trade goods such as copper and metal tools.

But these gifts actually served as emblems of a deeper relationship predicated on expectations of reciprocity and mutuality.

Learn more about the commonly held views of Native Americans

The Attempts at Montaup

Montaup was a Pokanoket village located in the heart of the Wampanoag Confederacy in present-day Rhode Island. The Wampanoags were led by a man named Massasoit. Late in 1620, a small group of radical Puritan dissidents, known as Pilgrims, established a presence at Plymouth.

A statue of Wampanoag leader Massasoit.
The Wampanoags were led by a man named Massasoit. (Image: Gkullberg/CC BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

In 1621, Massasoit entered into a treaty of friendship, mutual defense, and economic interdependency with the Pilgrims. It was beneficial to everyone involved, and Massasoit and the Wampanoag Confederacy prospered in the years that followed. Driving its wealth was an influx of European trade items; the most important of all was wampum—disc-shaped white and purple beads from whelk and quahog shells.

However, by 1661, the wampum revolution had run its course, as English coins supplanted the shell beads as currency, and the Wampanoag also lost their advantage in the fur trade.

To pacify the colonists, the Natives began selling land. At the same time, the English extended their legal authority over the Wampanoag, charging them with increasing frequency of such things as trespass. And the situation kept worsening in the years to come.

As with the everyday objects, the lives of the Natives tell stories of a search for common ground, mutual incorporation and transformation. By extending kinship ties, engaging in trade, and establishing relationships of mutuality and reciprocity, Native people across the Northeast attempted to pull Europeans into their worlds on terms of their own making. The Europeans simultaneously attempted to do the same, however, the world they envisioned was a less tolerant one.

Common Questions about the Native Indians of Northeast

Q: How did the Native people indigenize objects?

The Natives repurposed, or indigenized, European products by giving them new function or form, such as wearing a spoon or fork as part of a necklace. And many an arrowhead, earring, armband, and bead started out as a brass pot.

Q: What comprised the coastal area of the Native North?

The coastal area of the Native North ran along the Eastern Seaboard, from Canada to North Carolina; the Appalachian Mountains served as the western border.

Q: Where was Montaup?

Montaup was a Pokanoket village located in the heart of the Wampanoag Confederacy in present-day Rhode Island.

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