“…fifty-three ritually executed young women.”

“…fifty-three ritually executed young women.”

The Evolution of Violence in Colonial America


First, the obvious must be stated: Violence was present in pre-contact America, eventually was married to and changed by European-style barbarity after contact, and endured for the entire history of this continent up until the present day. Murder, cannibalism, torture, and rape were staples of human interaction in the period that our class covered (progenitors to revolution). It is important to explain that this violence was not pointless, nor was it consistent in its application. So to cover the entire time period, while still keeping a consistent and comprehensible narrative, it is best to explore the types of violence and their evolutions by the time period in which they were committed and their purpose, while also dividing the brutal acts by those whom they were perpetrated. Though gang or group related violence can be analyzed in a deeper way, it is more important to maintain focus on the acts themselves and their meaning. Therefore, the relevance of group versus individual violence is only touched upon here. Not everything overlaps perfectly, but this approach should give a generally comprehensive representation of America’s brutal pasts. The theme that seems to explain all of these changes, though there are individual peculiarities (especially concerning race), is the transition from violence for the metaphysical to violence for the political world.

Though it falls in the pre-Columbian era, it is important to set the backdrop for Native (as well as European) practices associated to this theme by quickly exploring the “progenitors” of violence. As a result of the structure of our class, Richter is the only source extensively dealing with pre-Columbian violence in either Native or European societies. Ritual, though present in later times, was paramount to ancient natives, specifically in the long-ago era where Pueblo Bonito was relevant. In Chaco Canyon, in modern day New Mexico, Puebloan peoples practiced ritual sacrifice as a way of “[enforcing] the common people’s support of the elite” (Richter 20). These sorts of mass acts of violence could have included cannibalism, but were most likely public and also engrained in their spiritual practice, perhaps related to agriculture and ensuring a successful harvest. A few hundred miles away, in Cahokia, the Mississippians also practiced similar rituals of violence. These, in a parallel fashion, seemed to be about a veneration of the elite classes, and in that same vein, for the spiritual world. Like the ancient Egyptians of the Old World, the people of Cahokia buried their dead with valuable relics—in this case, shells. In addition to a member of the elite being buried with physical representations of wealth, “one elite Cahokia man…was [also] buried next to fifty-three ritually executed young women” (Richter 22). Richter makes clear that, as historians, we rely primarily on archeological evidence to determine and assess the scale of violence in the pre-Columbian past. Nevertheless, we know that there was a change in this use of violence that occurred within these American societies. Presumably because of environmental shifts, with the medieval warm period being the driving factor, Chaco Canyon was abandoned. Likewise, the people of Cahokia and other Mississippians also moved into other areas, leaving their homes behind, when the Little Ice Age began. These major changes also affected the use of ritual violence, though not on all the Native societies, and not to the same degree overall. Richter does not touch upon the violence in these particular societies after the diaspora.

In Europe, this kind of violence was seen, and is better documented, on a much larger scale. Medieval Europe was a spiritual place where Christendom was still a relevant word. Political power, as it worked in that time, “moved through cathedrals” just like it “moved through temple mounds” (Richter 38) in North America. This, in the same fashion, was accompanied by violence. More succinctly than I could relate it, Richter states that “Both sides of the Atlantic saw the glorification of war, the elevation of violence as social spectacle,” and that it was “highly ritualized” (Richter 41). However, the difference between the Americans and the Europeans is a matter of purpose. Americans used violence for agricultural means, in that they killed for harvest, whereas Europeans used violence for arguments over the possession of land. . In a far more organized manner, perhaps because the Europeans had horses and other labor animals, violence was also carried out en masse against those of a different religious bent. While the Americans were killing for spiritual power in ritual sacrifice, Europeans killed in the name of their spirituality for the gaining of land, as seen with the Crusades. This reveals a nearly industrial system of violence which the Americans did not possess. The types of violence in Europe differed, too. Cannibalism, though seen metaphorically in Christianity, was abhorred in practicality.

The next period of history in which to analyze the significance and changing use of violence is the post-Columbian early years of relationships between these two Atlantic civilizations. To call this relationship tense is an understatement. The colonists in the new world decimated the natives in some of the most brutal, and numerous, ways: From Nathaniel Bacon, in 1676, “[attacking] and [massacring] nearly fifty Pamunkey Indians, who had been at peace with the government of Virginia for thirty years” (Schmidt 2); to other Virginia Company men raiding peaceful villages, taking hostages, and using Indian babies as target practice (Cave 3); to “colonists [poisoning] over a hundred Powhatan tribesmen they had summoned to a banquet purportedly to discuss peace” (Cave 4); to the Vikings smashing axes into the torsos of Natives they had tricked into coming out in the open (Vinland Sagas). The list is nearly as inexhaustible as it is vicious. The violence used against the Natives in many of these instances is interesting in that it was violence of a different sort than Europeans would use against one another. Though there was a genuine desire for guns, god, and glory, the violence against the Natives was not comparable to Christendom’s conflicts with the Saracens during the Crusades—where the motives of both sides were more interchangeable. Cave explains the origins of this violence and says that it ultimately results in many attempts, both successful and not, at genocide. It would be hard to argue that the Vikings were on a path towards a systematic erasure of Native peoples, but that seems to be one of the few exceptions in the history of early contacts and ongoing conflicts. The general trend seems to have been: Once the Europeans had been somewhat accustomed to life in the new world, issues over land ownership against the natives quickly devolved into the genocide we understand it to be today. There was no concerted effort on the Natives side to fight for land in the way that Europeans desired it—and desired it to be free of the Native peoples. This change, at least for the Europeans, then can accurately be called a transition from violence to achieve metaphysical goals to the first instances of racial objectives.

This drastic series of actions taken by the Europeans does not absolve the Natives of their violent actions as well, though. Captives were taken by Natives, European settlements were burned, people were scalped, battles were waged, and lies were made by the Natives just as they were made to them. In relation to the differences between violence, it is important to note that not all violence was identical. As I wrote in my second article summary, Abler discusses the difference in violence between cultures. Both the Natives and the Europeans had restrictions on the types of violence they would be permitted to commit. Abler explained that this was, very simply, the European capacity for rape and the Native tendency towards cannibalism. Most of the rest of the violence, in terms of by which medium the violence manifested, was essentially equal. One exception worthwhile of mentioning is the European adoption of scalping, which the Natives had long employed (Abler 5). As for cannibalism in this age, it was sometimes applied to Natives as a rationalization for violence, rather than being a method of violence actually used. Though there is documentation of different Native practices of cannibalism in this period—such as “drinking the blood of slain enemies and, if time avails, making soup of them” (Abler 8) which occurred in the Northeast—the Spanish, during the 16th century, had assumed many of the Caribbean Natives to be cannibals as well, and therefore were justified in converting them from their pagan beliefs “at the point of the sword if necessary” (Richter 85). That provides an interesting parallel to other areas of our class because it links the violence between the cultures with a dehumanization and an othering which allowed future discriminations to be carried out. So, while there is an inherent racial factor in the violence in this period from the Europeans, it is still hiding behind the banner of religion, and has yet to fully transfer to political violence as it eventually will.

This final metamorphosis in the purpose of violence occurs during the era in our class that extensively covered empire, wherein we saw that the once-Europeans are being born in the Americas—they are established on the East coast and are rapidly conquering all the lands that had once belonged to hundreds of different tribes. John Easton, in 1675, does place some responsibility for a war with the Natives on the priest class, for their being “blinded by the spirit of persecution and anxious to have their hire” (Easton 9). However, the king (Charles II) is anxious to have Indians living within his colonies in America, and the issues concerning the war seem to revolve around entirely political motives. Though race and “religion” are bound to be on the sidelines in any of these European discussions, the primary reason for concern is not relatable to a Crusades-religion or metaphysical-religion motivation. It is interesting to note the increase of treaties with Native powers the further away from metaphysical (and occasionally racial) motivations for violence we get. Therefore, despite the hiccups (an understatement) between the relations of Natives and Europeans later in the chronology, there is an increasing trend for the Natives and their respective governments to be treated as genuine powers—enough anyway for them to form alliances against other Europeans—and respected, however little, in that way. Thus the Natives reasons for violence was usurped by their adoption of European-style warfare and more European behaviors. To explain this drastic change more simply: Natives went from spiritual-power-centered ritual violence to joining world wars alongside and against Europeans to fulfil their own political ambitions.

This analysis of the changing violence and the reason for it is by no means a full description of the brutality covered in this class, even by the parameters that I set at the start. Notably left out is the Native notion of balancing population between tribes through murder (Abler 7), nor have I discussed slavery, which arguably is one of the most significant forms of violence. I have, however, also only mentioned race in how it relates to my thesis—and never in relation to Blackness (as the Natives and the Europeans were where my attention was drawn). These are themes that certainly resonate throughout the violent rhetoric and actual aggressive acts that we have studied, but I felt that they are more deserving of a different essay entirely.