The question of the number of the native population of America, and
particularly of the United States and British America, at the coming of
the white man, has been the subject of much speculation. Extremists on
the one hand have imagined a population of millions, while on the other
hand the untenable claim has been made, and persistently repeated, that
there has been no decrease, but that on the contrary, in spite of
removals, wars, epidemics, and dissipation, and the patent fact that the
aboriginal population of whole regions has completely disappeared, the
Indian has thriven under misfortune and is more numerous to-day than at
any former period.
The first error is due in part to the tendency to
magnify the glory of a vanished past, and in part to the mistaken idea
that the numerous ancient remains scattered over the country were built
or occupied at practically the same period. The contrary error, that the
Indian has increased, is due to several causes, chief of which is the
mistake of starting the calculation at too recent a period, usually at
the establishment of treaty relations. The fact is that between the
discovery of America and the beginning of the federal government the
aboriginal population had been subjected to nearly three centuries of
destructive influences, which had already wiped out many tribes entirely
and reduced many others to mere remnants.
Another factor of apparent increase is found in the
mixed-blood element, which is officially counted as Indian, although
frequently representing only 1/16, 1/32 or even1/64 of Indian blood,
while in the late Indian Territory (Oklahoma) it is well known that the
tribal rolls contain thousands of names repudiated by the former tribal
courts. The Indian of the discovery period was a full-blood ; the Indian
of today is very often a mongrel, with not enough of aboriginal blood to
be distinguishable in the features, yet, excepting in a few tribes, no
official distinction is made.
The chief causes of decrease, in order of importance,
may be classed as smallpox and other epidemics; tuberculosis; sexual
diseases; whisky and attendant dissipation; removals, starvation and
subjection to unaccustomed conditions; low vitality due to mental
depression under misfortune; wars. In the category of destroyers all but
wars and tuberculosis may be considered to have come from the white man,
and the increasing destructiveness of tuberculosis itself is due largely
to conditions consequent upon his advent. Smallpox has repeatedly swept
over wide areas, sometimes destroying perhaps one half the native
population within its path.
One historic smallpox epidemic originating on the upper
Missouri in 1781-82 swept northward to Great Slave Lake, eastward to
Lake Superior, and westward to the Pacific. Another, in 1801-02, ravaged
from the Rio Grande to Dakota, and another, in 1837-38, reduced the
strength of the northern Plains tribes by nearly one-half. A fever
visitation about the year 1830 was officially estimated to have killed
70,000 Indians in California, while at about the same time a malarial
fever epidemic in Oregon and on the Columbia, said to have been due to
the plowing up of the ground at the trading posts-ravaged the tribes of
the region and practically exterminated those of Chinookan stock.
destruction by disease and dissipation has been greatest along the
Pacific coast, where also the original population was most numerous. In
California the enormous decrease from about a quarter of a million to
less than 20,000 is due chiefly to the cruelties and wholesale massacres
perpetrated by the miners and early settlers. The almost complete
extermination of the Aleut is attributable to the same causes during the
early Russian period.
Confinement in mission establishments has also been
fatal to the Indian, in spite of increased comfort in living conditions.
Wars in most cases have not greatly diminished the number of Indians.
The tribes were in chronic warfare among themselves, so that the balance
was nearly even until, as in the notable case of the Iroquois, the
acquisition of firearms gave one body an imminence superiority over its
neighbors. Among the wars most destructive to the Indians may be noted
those in Virginia and southern New England, the raids upon the Florida
missions by the Carolina settlers and their savage allies, the wars of
the Natchez and Foxes with the French, the Creek war, and the war waged
by the Iroquois for a period of thirty years upon all the surrounding
A careful study of population conditions for the whole
territory north of Mexico, taking each geographic section separately,
indicates a total population, at the time of the coming of the white
man, of nearly 1,150,000 Indians, which is believed to be within 10 per
cent of the actual number. Of this total 840,000 were within the limits
of the United States proper, 220,000 in British America, 72,000 in
Alaska, and 10,000 in Greenland. The original total is now reduced to
about 403,000, a decrease of about 65 per cent.
The complete study is expected to form the subject of a
future bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology.
Handbook of American Indians, Frederick W. Hodge,1906
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