Who’s on First? (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Who’s on First? (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812)(1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) * (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860)(1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906)(1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968)(1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Where the “first Americans” came from.

The Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs.

The Anasazi, Mound Builders, and Pueblos.

Leif Eriksson, first European in America.

 Look at a map that shows the north Pacific Ocean. You’ll find the Bering Sea, an arm of the Pacific bounded on the east by Alaska, on the south by the Aleutian Islands, and on the west by Siberia and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Near the north end of the Bering Sea is the Bering Strait, which, lying between Alaska and Siberia, connects the Bering Sea with the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean. At its narrowest, the strait is only 55 miles across, the shortest distance between the continents of North America and Asia. Fifty-five miles in icy cold water is a long swim, but not much of an ocean voyage. Historians believe that once upon a time, there wasn’t even that 55 miles of water between the continents.

A Stroll Across the Bering Sea. Several times during what paleontologists call the Quaternary Period—that’s their name for the last two million years—a “land bridge” emerged in the Bering and Chukchi Seas as the sea level dropped due to the expansion of the ice cap surrounding the North Pole. The theory is that anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 years ago, human beings used the Bering land bridge to enter the New World, migrating from what is now northeast Asia to northwestern North America. Beringia, as the land bridge is sometimes called, disappeared when the major continental ice sheets and other glaciers melted, causing the sea level to rise again.

45,000 Years of American History (Abridged Version). The trek across Beringia was not really an evening’s stroll. It must have consumed thousands of years. By 9000 B.C., it’s likely that the former Asians reached Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America. In between, in the area that is the present-day United States, the population of what we now call Native Americans may have reached 11 million.

These Native Americans, thinly distributed over a vast area in bands of a hundred or even fewer individuals, lived for thousands of years on the ragged edge of subsistence. They didn’t develop great cities, but, as nomads, wandered, hunted, and foraged together. Then, perhaps 9,000 years ago, some bands began to domesticate plants in order to supplement foraged and hunted food. By the beginning of the 16th century, when Europeans first made contact with Native Americans, they were cultivating maize, beans, and squash, as well as manioc, potatoes, and grains.

Agriculture fostered a more stable lifestyle than hunting and gathering, and the horticultural groups lived in tribes. Along with relatively stable sources of sustenance and substantial populations came more or less permanent houses organized into villages, usually led by a recognized chief.

The Anasazi. Living at a subsistence level, it’s not surprising that, within the area of the United States, the Native Americans left little material evidence of their ancient cultures. In the Southwest, archaeologists have identified a people they call the Anasazi (from a Navajo word meaning “the ancient ones”). The Anasazi appeared as early as 5500 B.C. and are also called the Basket Makers, because of the many skillfully woven baskets that have been discovered in sites associated with their culture. The Anasazi built communal dwellings consisting of wood and thatch, and even occupied shallow caves closed off with rocks. By A.D. 400-700, Anasazi communities evolved into collections of somewhat more sophisticated pit houses, built over shallow excavations. During the period of A.D. 700-1100, the Anasazi began building what Spanish invaders would later call pueblos (Spanish for “town” or “village” and also “people”). These were fantastic groupings of stone and adobe “apartment buildings,” cliff dwellings seemingly hewn out of lofty ledges, the most spectacular of which survive at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado.

The Mound Builders. In the meantime, to the east, in a vast area stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the eastern, edge of the prairies, and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, other Native Americans were building cultural monuments of a different kind. From about 1000 B.C. to after A.D. 1500, many different Indian societies constructed earthworks that modern archaeologists classify as burial mounds, platform or temple mounds (which served as the foundations for important public and private buildings), and circular and geometric ceremonial earthworks. Archaeologists further recognize two traditions among the mound-building cultures: the Woodland and the Mississippian.

The Woodland mounds were built in eastern North America from about 1000 B.C. to the beginning of the 18th century. The earliest were simple, enclosing only a few burials, but later mounds often reached 80 feet in height, took many years to construct, contained numerous burials, and even included log tombs. The largest and most elaborate of the mounds was built in southern Ohio by people of the Hopewell culture (named after mounds found near the Ohio hamlet of Hopewell).

The mounds of the Mississippian tradition reflect the development of larger-scale farming among the Native Americans. Beginning around A.D. 700, in the flood plains of the central and lower Mississippi River, various tribes built villages consisting of palisades and flat-topped, rectangular mounds that served as bases for temples and other important structures. The Cahokia Mounds, which are found in Illinois, just across the Mississippi from Saint Louis, must have once contained as many as 50 platform mounds and probably supported a population numbering in the thousands.

South of the Border. Pueblos, mounds, some baskets, a few pots—these are the chief material remains of Native American culture before Europeans set foot in what is today the United States. But, to the south, in present-day Mexico and Central and South America, Native American civilization took a very different turn.

The Maya. The Maya lived in southern Mexico and in Belize, Guatemala, and adjacent Honduras. In contrast to the Native Americans, the Maya kept written historical records, extending back to 50 B.C. and ending with the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

By 5000 B.C., the Maya were installed along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Within the next 3,000 years, they began to move inland, turning from fishing to agriculture. By about 1,200 B.C., another Native people, the Olmec of the Gulf Coast, dominated trade in Central America and began greatly influencing Mayan culture. By 1000 B.C., the Maya adopted Olmec styles of pottery and jades and also took on Olmec religious symbols. Maya culture and power reached its height by A.D. 900, when it seems to have collapsed, probably due to famine, disease, and chronic warfare among Maya city-states. A landscape adorned with spectacular stepped-pyramid temples and other structures endured, and various Mayan groups continued to prosper in varying degrees until the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors invaded.

Most of what is today called Mexico fell under the domination of another great Native American civilization, the Aztecs. Their own myths place their origin at Aztlan, somewhere in north or northwest Mexico, where they lived as a small, nomadic collection of tribes.

During the 12th century A.D., the Aztec tribes migrated southward, settling in the central basin of Mexico by the 13th century. Their existence was a precarious one, as they were repeatedly attacked and routed by other groups. Finally, the Aztecs took refuge on small islands in Lake Texcoco where, in 1325, they founded Tenochtitlan on the site of present-day Mexico City.

From their new base, the Aztecs evolved into ruthless and well-organized warriors. By the 15th century, they subdued and subjugated the peoples of Mexico, thereby creating an empire second in size only to the Incas in Peru. Extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific and from the Valley of Mexico south into Guatemala, the Aztec empire was peopled mostly by slaves, whose work was supremely manifest in the capital.

As the conquistadors later noted, Tenochtitlan was a city as large as Cordoba or Seville; however, most remarkably, it was situated entirely within Lake Texcoco, two miles from the mainland, Four great causeways led to the city, which was watered by a system of magnificently engineered aqueducts. The streets, lined with splendid temples, issued onto great public squares, which served as marketplaces. And there were priests. Legions of black-robed holy men continually marched through Tenochtitlan’s boulevards, for the Aztec capital was the home of God himself as incarnated in the emperor, Montezuma II.

Splendid though it was, the empire was founded in blood for the purpose of shedding blood. In Tenochtitlan, the temple of human sacrifice was more spectacular than the other temples, sprouting forty towers. There were three main halls, from which various windowless chapels branched. The idols that lined its halls were molded of a paste of seeds and plants kneaded together with the blood of prisoners and slaves taken in battle. Blood was the fuel that drove the Aztec government, economy, and culture. It was said that the very ground of Tenochtitlan was black with it.

The Incas. Maya civilization was magnificent, and the Aztecs ruled with terrible splendor, but the Incas of Peru controlled the largest native empire in the Americas. Toward the end of the 14th century, the Incas fanned out from their base in the Cuzco region of the southern Andes. For the next century and a half, their holdings increased until the Inca world was invaded by Conquistadors under the command of Francisco Pizarro in 1532. At the time of that clash, the Incas held sway over some 12 million people in what is now Peru and Ecuador, as well as parts of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.

The origin of the Incas is shrouded in mystery, but what is known is that they expanded into a New World empire under the ruler Pachacuti. Pachacuti’s sons continued the conquests. One of them, Topa Inca (who reigned from 1471 to 1493), took much of present-day Ecuador, the south coast of Peru, northern Chile, and most of northwestern Argentina, as well as a portion of the Bolivian plateau.

War was a constant Inca activity, but when the Incas weren’t fighting, they were building. The greatest surviving monument of Inca architecture is the citadel of Machu Picchu. Situated on a lofty precipice between steep mountain peaks 7,875 feet above sea level on the eastern slopes of the Andes, the fortified town boasts fine stone buildings with extensive agricultural terraces that make the settlement look as if it had been physically carved. out of the mountainsides.

Beyond the Aztec Frontier. Look at the Americas in the days before the European invasion. What you see are great empires in South and Central America, but, for the most part, a collection of thinly distributed and, in a political and material sense, less highly developed civilizations in North America. In what is now the southwestern region of the United States, the Anasazi (“Basket Makers”) evolved into the people of the Pueblo culture. For many years, these were the people who lived just beyond the Aztec frontier.

Pueblo Culture: The First American Frontier. Archaeologists say that Pueblo culture developed out of the Basket Makers, beginning around A.D. 700. From then until about 1100, these frontier people began using cotton cloth and started building their houses above ground, using stone and adobe masonry. Next, during 1100 to 1300, the modest above-ground dwellings evolved (in some places) into the spectacular multiroom. “apartment” complexes, terraced into the sides of cliffs, which continue to awe visitors to such places as Mesa Verde National Park.

Impressive though the Pueblo culture was, it never became as varied or as advanced as the Native cultures to the south. Even before the Spanish entered the American Southwest in the sixteenth century, Pueblo culture began to decline. Between 1276 and 1299, the Pueblos were devastated by drought and famine. Many migrated to more adequately watered regions in New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. Descendants of the Pueblos—the Zunis, the Hopis, and the Rio Grande Pueblos—still live in these areas.

Atlantic Presence. Far to the northeast of the Pueblos, agriculture was well established in the Mississippi valley by the 1st century A.D. We have already glanced at the burial and ceremonial mounds some of these people left. These cultures eventually reached from the Gulf of Mexico to Wisconsin, and from New York to Kansas. It is believed that the thatched houses built by “Temple Mound” people resembled dwellings found in Mexico, and that their pyramidal mounds harked back to the pyramids of Mesoamerica. For these and other reasons (including similarities in religious ritual and in pottery design), many historians believe that the first Indians of the Mississippi valley and Atlantic coastal regions may have descended from Mayan and other Central and South American immigrants to the northern hinterlands.

However they came to populate North America, the Indians of this vast region developed in diverse ways, creating more than 2,000 distinct cultures. Some of these cultures barely subsisted as hunter-gatherers; others became stable and relatively prosperous agricultural societies.

Unlike the Maya, Aztec, and Inca, these North American groups had no written language and left no historical records, so it is impossible to present a “history” of the North American Indians before their contact with Europeans. In fact, some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that most North American Indians lived apart from linear time, harmonizing their lives with the cycles of the seasons and the biological processes of propagation, birth, and death. Europeans, forever doing and getting, were obsessed with recording events and measuring time. The Native Americans were focused instead on being. Time itself was therefore different for them.

Leif the Lucky. Momentously—and tragically—the time of the Old World would collide with the time of the New. For 400 years, from a clash between “Indians” and Christopher Columbus’s men in 1493 to the massacre of Native Americans by the U.S. 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890, the history of America would be in large part the history of racial warfare between white and red.

The first European contact, some 500 years before Columbus sailed, ignited no great tragedy, however. It seems likely that Vikings reached the Faeroe Islands by A.D. 800, and that they landed in Greenland in 870. The very first Old World dweller to set eyes on the continent of North America was most likely a Norseman named Bjarni Herjulfsson in A.D. 986. But that sighting came as a result of a mistake in navigation. Herjulfsson had been blown off course, and he had no interest in actually exploring the land he sighted.

It was not until the next decade, about the year 1000, that the Norse captain Leif Eriksson led an expedition that touched a place called Helluland (probably Baffin Island) and Markland (most likely Labrador). Most historians believe that Leif—celebrated as Leif the Lucky in the great Icelandic sagas of the 13th century—and his men spent a winter in rude Viking huts hastily erected in a spot abundant with berries and grapes and, for that reason, called Vinland.

Nobody knows for certain just where Vinland was. Some have suggested a location as far south as the Virginia Capes, although most historians believe that it was in Newfoundland, perhaps at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of the Canadian province.

After Leif the Lucky left Vinland, his brother Thorvald paid a visit to the tenuous settlement about 1004. Next, in 1010, Thorfinn Karlsefni, another Icelandic explorer, attempted to establish a more permanent settlement at Vinland. According to two Icelandic sagas, Thorfinn, a trader as bold as he was wealthy, brought women as well as men with him. They carried on a lively trade, but they also fought fiercely with the Native Americans, whom the sagas call Skraelings—an Old Norse word signifying “dwarfs” or “wretches” or, perhaps, “savages.” The Skraelings attacked tenaciously and repeatedly.

After three lethal winters, Thorfinn and his would-be settlers abandoned Vinland forever. The Viking expeditions to North America led, then, to nothing—at least not right away. Christopher Columbus, half a millennium removed from the Vikings, heard of the Vinland tradition and was excited by stories about a New World across the “Ocean Sea.”

The Least You Heed to Know

Native Americans almost certainly immigrated to the Americas from Asia across an Ice Age “land bridge” where the Bering Strait now is.

 Pre-Columbian Native American cultures varied widely, with the most elaborately developed living in South and Central America.

 The European discoverer of America was (most likely) Leif Eriksson about 1000.

Stats. Eleven million is the current consensus. However, estimates of the prehistoric population of the area encompassed by the United States range wildly—from 8.4 million to 112 million. For comparison, in 1990, 1,959,234 Indians, including Eskimos and Aleuts, lived in the United States.

Word for the Day. Native American is the term used by most historians and anthropologists to describe the aboriginal peoples of the Western Hemisphere. In this book I also use the more familiar term “Indian.” That designation was coined by Christopher Columbus, who, on October 12, 1492, thought that he had landed in Asia—”the Indies”—and therefore called the people he encountered Indians. The name stuck.

Stats. Tikal, in northeastern Guatemala, was the largest Maya city of the Classic era. Its population probably numbered 75,000, and it covered about 40 square miles.


Real Life. The adventures of Leif Eriksson (ca. 970-1020) are known exclusively through semilegendary, sometimes contradictory sagas. Leif the Lucky (as he was called) was the son of Eric Thorvaldsson, better known as Eric the Red, who established in Greenland the first enduring European settlement in the New World about 985. Through his fearsome father (Eric was banished from Iceland after having murdered a man), Leif Eriksson was descended from a line of Viking chieftains. Leif explored the lands that had been first sighted by Bjarne Herjulfsson.


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