Colonial America without the
Reprinted by permission from
of American History,
When Christopher Columbus "discovered"
the Americas for Europe in 1492, numerous
natives already populated the continent.
Columbus dubbed these natives "Indians," a
name that has endured. Estimates of their
number at the time range as high as 100
million, though 10 million is a more likely total;
James Axtell suggests perhaps 4 million north
of Mexico. The ensuing "European invasion"
measles, and influenza), brought into the new
continent unknowingly by somewhat immune
subjugation, deliberately imposed on the
Indians. Within a couple of generations, much
of the native population had been wiped out.
American history textbooks have tended to
development of the United States. Indians
"either do nothing or they resist," according to
one observer. In this article, Axtell attempts
what he calls a "controlled" counterfactual
approach to the effects of the Indians. In
layman's terms, "counterfactual" means "what
if?" That is, Axtell seeks to determine what
differences would have emerged in the
development of the Americas up until 1776 had
the Indians not existed.
Some historians have explored "adaptive"
colonial responses to the Indians, dealing only
with "borrowing and adapting native cultural
traits, words, and objects." Axtell seeks to track
more elusive "reactive" changes that affected
the identity of the European Americans. This
book deals with the forging of the American
character; understanding the role of the Indian
in that process makes a good beginning.
James Axtell is Kenan Professor of
Humanities at the College of William and Mary.
He has reflected and written at length on the
interaction between Indians and Europeans. He
chaired the American Historical Association's
shared some of his insights in his 1992 book
: Encounters in Colonial
prestigious Journal of American History in 1987.
IT IS TAKING US PAINFULLY long to realize that
throughout most of American history the Indians
were "one of the principal
events." A growing number of scholars understand
that fact, but the great majority of is still regard the
native Americans―if we regard them at all―as
exotic or pathetic footnotes to the main course of
This is patently clear from American history
textbooks. As Virgil Vogel, Alvin Josephy, and most
embarrassing detail, "Indians in textbooks either do
nothing or they resist." In their colonial and
nineteenth-century manifestations, they are either
"obstacles to white settlement" or "victims of
oppression." "As victims or obstacles, Indians have
no textbook existence apart from their resistance." In