Europeans tended to view Indians in extreme terms. They were regarded either as “noble savages,” gentle, friendly, and superior in some ways to Europeans, or as uncivilized and brutal savages. Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine navigator who sailed up and down the eastern coast of North America in 1524, described Indians he encountered as “beautiful of stature and build.” (For their part, many Indians, whose diet was probably more nutritious than that of most Europeans, initially found the newcomers weak and ugly.)
Over time, however, negative images of Indians came to overshadow positive ones. Early European descriptions of North American Indians as barbaric centered on three areas—religion, land use, and gender relations. Whatever their country of origin, European newcomers concluded that Indians lacked genuine religion, or in fact worshiped the devil. Their shamans and herb healers were called “witch doctors,” their numerous ceremonies and rituals at best a form of superstition, their belief in a world alive with spiritual power a worship of “false gods.” Christianity presented no obstacle to the commercial use of the land, and indeed in some ways encouraged it, since true religion was thought to promote the progress of civilization. Whereas the Indians saw nature as a world of spirits and souls, the Europeans viewed it as a collection of potential commodities, a source of economic opportunity.
Indian women planting crops while men break the sod. An engraving by Theodor de Bry, based on a painting by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Morgues was part of an expedition of French Huguenots to Florida in 1564; he escaped when the Spanish destroyed the outpost in the following year.
Europeans invoked the Indians’ distinctive pattern of land use and ideas about property to answer the awkward question raised by a British minister at an early stage of England’s colonization: “By what right or warrant can we enter into the land of these Savages, take away their rightful inheritance from them, and plant ourselves in their places?” While the Spanish claimed title to land in America by right of conquest and papal authority, the English, French, and Dutch came to rely on the idea that Indians had not actually “used” the land and thus had no claim to it. Despite the Indians’ highly developed agriculture and well-established towns, Europeans frequently described them as nomads without settled communities. The land was thus deemed to be a vacant wilderness ready to be claimed by newcomers who would cultivate and improve it. European settlers believed that mixing one’s labor with the earth, which Indians supposedly had failed to do, gave one title to the soil.
In the Indians’ gender division of labor and matrilineal family structures, Europeans saw weak men and mistreated women. Hunting and fishing, the primary occupations of Indian men, were considered leisure activities in much of Europe, not “real” work. Because Indian women worked in the fields, Europeans often described them as lacking freedom. They were “not much better than slaves,” in the words of one English commentator. Europeans considered Indian men “unmanly”— too weak to exercise authority within their families and restrain their wives’ open sexuality, and so lazy that they forced their wives to do most of the productive labor. Throughout North America, Europeans promoted the ideas that women should confine themselves to household work and that men ought to exercise greater authority within their families. Europeans insisted that by subduing the Indians, they were actually bringing them freedom—the freedom of true religion, private property, and the liberation of both men and women from uncivilized and unchristian gender roles.