Middle Colonies: 1681–1730

European Relations with Native Americans in the Middle Colonies

Native Americans before Colonial Settlement

Prior to European settlement numerous Native American tribes lived in the area that would become known as the middle colonies.

Native Americans refers to the groups of people indigenous to the North American continent. Native American tribes are most often viewed through a colonial lens, which organizes the numerous tribes into categories based on their interaction with European colonists. Through this lens, many of the Native Americans living in North America's mid-Atlantic region were referred to as Algonquians and Iroquoians based on the languages they spoke.

Prior to contact with European settlers, Native Americans of the mid-Atlantic region lived in villages that included a few dozen to a few hundred residents. They successfully farmed crops such as maize, squash, and beans in addition to hunting game and foraging. Foraging is the practice of collecting fruit, nuts, and other edible plants in the wild. Many lived in settlements enclosed by large walls. In areas where fish and other wild food were plentiful, people were more likely to live in extended family groups instead of large villages that relied on agriculture.

There were hundreds of Native American tribes in North America prior to colonization. One of the largest Native American groups in the mid-Atlantic area at the time of colonization was the Iroquois Confederacy. They lived primarily in what is now the state of New York. The confederacy was a matrilineal society, meaning it was a cultural group in which ancestry was tracked through the generations of women in a family. Men and women in the Iroquoian tribes enjoyed a fairly egalitarian, or equal, relationship. They performed different duties in their societies, but women were not subordinate to men.

Colonists' Interactions with Native Americans

Interactions between colonists and Native Americans varied, depending largely on motivations of the parties involved, but the overall effect of European colonization on Native American populations was devastating.

As William Penn established the Pennsylvania Colony, he needed a way to bolster the geographic borders laid out in his charter. Connecticut and New York disputed Pennsylvania's northern border, while Maryland questioned its southern border. Penn wanted to acquire land from local Native Americans to further document his ownership of the territory.

In addition his Quaker beliefs led him to offer a fair settlement with the Lenni-Lenape (Delaware) Indians. In 1682 Penn signed a treaty with Tammany, the Lenni-Lenape leader. Penn traded a supply of cloth, guns, and other goods for land on the banks of the Delaware River. Besides the goods Penn provided, he also promised Tammany he would treat the Lenni-Lenape honestly and protect them from further encroachment by other colonists. Because of Penn's negotiations with the Lenni-Lenape, Pennsylvania became renowned as a peaceful colony with cordial relationships between its colonists and Native Americans.

William Penn-Treaty with the Indians, by John Hall, from a Painting by Benjamin West

William Penn is believed to have entered into a treaty with the Lenni-Lenape tribe. Although no concrete proof of this treaty exists, there is ample evidence he purchased Native American lands.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-2583
Despite Pennsylvania's relationship with the Lenni-Lenape, associations connecting European colonists and Native Americans differed greatly between the various settlements and Native American tribes. However, most interactions were not beneficial to the Native Americans. Native Americans were accustomed to negotiating boundaries with neighboring tribes. When entering into agreements with Europeans, the Native Americans believed each side would abide by the terms of those agreements and treaties. However, the settlers continually broke these agreements. Additionally, most Native Americans did not hold the same concept of land ownership as the European colonists. After a transaction that included a sale of land to colonists, Native Americans were often unaware they had given up all of their rights to use the land. Native Americans traded with the colonists, but the exchange of goods was frequently uneven and skewed in favor of the colonists. Ultimately, the European colonization of North America had a disastrous effect on the continent's indigenous peoples. Diseases that accompanied the Europeans were ones for which the Native Americans had no natural immunity. Smallpox, malaria, typhus, and other ailments ravaged the indigenous population, killing millions of people. It is estimated that illnesses Europeans brought to the Americas may have wiped out around 80 percent of the continent's original population.

Henry Hudson Descending the Hudson River

In September 1609, Native Americans greet Henry Hudson's ship as it enters New York Bay and trade with his crew. European ships would bring not only goods and settlers but also disease.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-3024