The history of the expansion of the American frontier has been one mired in controversy. Historians, such as Frederick Turner, have always referred to American expansion and the Western frontier as the settlement of an untamed wilderness. This view, however, is false. Long before Columbus even reached the New World a vast civilization, comparable to that of Europe, had established a stable and successful world. Even though they were considered to be the children of nature Native Americans had established themselves as shapers and exploiters of the Earth.
They, like their European counterparts, had established a civilization based on agriculture and the manipulation of ecosystems. They performed these tasks for the same reason as their counterparts; to bolster crop yields and the game animal population. Early reports by explorers and settlers indicated that Native Americans altered the landscape with fire. They did this to reduce underbrush and undesirable grasses. This act allowed them to plant crops and bolster animal populations. It also aided them in their mobility. It is, therefor, easy to understand why explorers such as John Audubon reported vast numbers of game animals.
Although Native Americans seem to have lived in a World of Plenty in reality they lived in a harsh natural world. In this world their lives were dictated by the elements, such as water and temperature. A bad year could spell disaster as a famine or natural plague. Plague, however, was not a major concern until Europeans arrived in the New World. They carried with them such epidemic viruses as small pox, chicken pox, malaria, and yellow fever. These diseases were unchecked and devastated the Native American population. The estimated mortality rate climbed to 80-90% within only a few generations.
The actual number of effected Native Americans is questionable. Europeans did not even know how many natives were alive, much less dying. One anthropologist, named James Mooney, gave a conservative estimate of roughly 1. 1 million. Others at the time believed he too, was exaggerating. During the 1970s, however, new studies produced estimates among 57 to 112 million. The New World was as populous as Europe! Regardless of the actual numbers one fact remains the same; European diseases destroyed the Native American civilizations. Native Americans were forced to endure another major crisis.
It was a crisis based on the implementation of different methods of survival. Europeans had different methods of farming than that of the natives. Although Europeans had introduced the horse that was beneficial to the natives they also introduced other animals and plants that were highly destructive to their environment. European cattle, sheep, and pig became as much an enemy to Native Americans as Europeans. By introducing these domesticated animals’ settlers drastically altered the natural ecosystems. To add to this problem they deliberately hunted game animals’ en masse for trade.
They also slaughtered millions of animals such as bison and prong horn to provide grazing land for their domesticated animals. Native Americans were forced to deal with these difficulties by either limiting settler activity or adopting their ways. The first usually resulted in a violent settler backlash or governmental war. The latter only prolonged the settlers inevitable reaction. One simple analysis, used by many proponents of expansion and progress, is that Native Americans stood in the way of progress. Although this is a reasonable and at times, justifiable explanation of the European mind set it is not entirely true.
Native Americans had a vast civilization, equal to that of Europe. They too, had a highly advanced agricultural system and methods of exploiting nature. The reality of the struggle may not lie in just in the superficial differences of two civilizations. Europeans, throughout history, have been known for their egomaniacal racism. This may have been the overriding principle in the whole affair. It may have involved European greed. It may have involved many critical factors including both of these. Native Americans also had a tendency to be traditionalistic and even stubborn. In the end, one of the two civilizations was destined to fail.