How to Make an American

After the settlers and dust had settled, the Englishman of Colonial America virtually ceased to exist. The reason was that over the course of the first two centuries of contact with Native Americans, the English culture began to mesh with the Indian culture—taking the homogeneous traits of the two and creating a new culture. It was so evident to European observers that they would complain that the colonists were "uncivilized" in relation to their homeland counterparts, and even compare them to the Indians. James Axtell, in The European and the Indian, points out that when two cultures come together they will become part of each others’ histories. He also reminds us that "…the way people of one culture use or adopt another culture’s artifacts…is more diagnostic of cultural change or acculturation than what they adopt." They way was to use the Indian techniques to meet English needs. Through this way, the English colonists adopted the Indian language, housing, dress, agricultural techniques, medicine, warfare, and religious ideas and they became American colonists.

When the colonists first arrived in the new land, they were faced with some unfamiliar persons, places, and things. They relied on the natives to help them describe the things they encountered. They soon learned and used the Indian names for things like raccoon, oppossum, skunk, pecan, hominy, and succotash because there was no European equivalent of these objects or words. Though earlier explorers had managed to communicate through sign language, it was important for the English colonists to be able to understand the Indians in order to predict their behaviors. For instance, there was no English (or any other known European) term for the verb to scalp, and for obvious reasons, it was important to be able to identify that behavior!

As necessary as it was to acquire identification for things, it was probably a more immediate necessity to obtain shelter. Some of the newcomers were able to find hospitable natives that offered to share their homes, and others copied the wigwam design to afford themselves a simple and inexpensive house of their own. The idea did not catch on to become standard in the American colonies for various reasons. One problem was that the colonists could not make the structure as watertight as the Indians did. Another problem was that the English were used to having a fireplace and chimney in their homes and having a fire inside in this manner created fire-hazard problems when the roof was made of thatch. So, the American dream is not to own a wigwam of one’s own, but a more European-styled ideal of a home.

While shelter is important for the survival of man, so is clothing. The colonists borrowed Indian developments in fronteir fashion for practical reasons. Life in the wilderness land of the new America was literal "wear and tear" on clothes made of English cloth. Another problem with the English clothing was that it was made of brighter colors than what were conducive to stalking and hunting game—without food, the shelter and clothing for survival wouldn’t matter much. Also important in terms of apparel adoption was footwear. The moccasin and snowshoe helped in the stealth of hunting as well.

In the quest for food, as the hunting methods were improved through the clothing chosen, so the farming methods were improved by using Indian ideas. The crops of corn that Indians helped the colonists cultivate were beneficial when harvests of English plants failed to prosper. If it were not for the Indians showing them how to grow those crops they may not have survived. Their agricultural lessons were begun by Squanto himself, and included how to sow corn sparingly, how to use dried cornstalks as support for bean plants, and how to space pumpkins and squashes. Other crops that were later discovered to be of economic importance were sassafras, ginseng, and tobacco.

Among some of the other things the Indians taught the settlers were survival tactics and medicinal techniques. Indian wisdom like lying with one’s feet toward the fire to stave off colds was one example. Another example is that roughly 170 drugs discovered by researchers to be of use in the Americas by Indians included birth control medicines. More important to the English, however, were the native botanical concoctions that could heal snakebite and arrow wounds.

It was important to be able to heal wounds from battle with Indians because, although the arrow was not always fatal, through the interaction of the two cultures, the warfare of the Indians became increasingly deadly. Then, the introduction of guns to the Indian on the American fronteir helped to develop their "guerilla" military tactics. Combining the ambush technique with the knowledge of stealth that was used in hunting methods brought a new type of warfare to the world. Many colonists lived in fear for their lives, and an "us vs. them" mentality evolved. It is ironic that this method became important later to the colonists when they adopted it in their fight against the British armies in their struggle for their beliefs.

Not only did the fear cause the colonists to learn the savage method, but it also caused them to cling more to their religion for solace. Clergy worried that the effects of exposure to the Indians would cause the colonists to succumb to the "heathenism" of the wilderness. Citizens held on to the hope that the sins and evils of the Indian would eventually be punished. When it did not appear that the Indians were receiving what was due to them, the pride of the colonists took over and allowed a self-righteousness to shade their dealings with the Indians. This prideful sin on the part of the colonists turned to prejudice and hatred, then revenge. With a common foe, the English colonists grew closer and became "Americanized" through their contact with the natives.

When the English homeland refused to finance the fight against Indian uprisings, the taxes imposed upon the colonies to pay for troops became one of the reasons cited for the uprising against the Crown of England. The colonists used the methods and strategies they had learned in their new homeland, and the rest, is history. American history.

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