Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


The Western Continent, the New World

Click to enlarge

America, also called the Western Continent or the New World, consists of three main divisions: North America, Central America, and South America. The first of these extends from (about) 70° to 15° north latitude. Central America forms an isthmus running from northwest to southeast, and narrowing to a strip of thirty miles in width at Panama; this isthmus extends from 15° to 8° north latitude, where it connects with the western coast of South America. South America begins in latitude 12° north, terminating in latitude 55° south. Hence North America approximately extends over 3,800 English miles from north to south, South America 4,500, and Central America constitutes a diagonal running between the two larger masses, from northwest to southeast and is approximately a thousand miles in length.

As the object of this article is to compile the data which will help the reader to appreciate the Christian settlement and civilization of America, we omit here the geography, geology, and other topics usually treated in general encyclopedias and confine ourselves to the ethnography and colonization of the Americas. The so-called aborigines of America are, with exception of the Esquimaux, generally regarded as belonging to one and the same branch of the human family, physically as well as ethnically. From the physical standpoint they have been classified with the type called Mongolian, but since doubts have arisen as to the existence of such a type, it is safer to state that, anthropologically, the American, and especially the North American Indians, resemble some of the most easterly Asiatic tribes more closely than any other group of the human family. The South American Indian is more nearly allied to the northern than to any extra-American stock. As to the Esquimaux, his skull is decidedly of an Arctic type, corresponding in that respect to Asiatic and even European peoples living inside of the Arctic circle. But these generalizations may have to be modified, with the rapid strides anthropology is making in the field of detailed and local investigation, and it will hereafter be advisable to consider the characteristics of every linguistic stock (and even of its subdivisions) by themselves, allowing for changes wrought in the physical condition by diversity of environment after long residence.

DISTRIBUTION OF ABORIGINAL POPULATIONS.—The distribution of the American population at the time of Columbus is, of course, not known from personal observation, but it may be approximately reconstructed from information gathered after America began to be visited by Europeans. The Esquimaux held most of the Arctic belt, whereas the so-called Indian swayed the rest of the continent to its southernmost extremity. The population was not nearly as numerous as has long been thought, even where it was most dense, but there are no materials for even an approximate estimate. The great northern and western plains were not settled, although there are traces of pre-Columbian permanent abodes, or at least of some settlements made during a slow shifting along the streams; tribes preying upon the buffalo roamed with that quadruped over the steppes. The northwest, on the Pacific, was more densely inhabited by tribes who subsisted by fishing (salmon), limited agriculture, and hunting. This was also the case along the Mississippi (on both banks) and in the timbered basin of the Alleghanies, along the Atlantic from the St. Lawrence to Florida, whereas southern Texas was sparsely inhabited, and in parts but temporarily, as the buffalo led the Indian on its southward wanderings. The aboriginal population of California was not large and lived partly on seafood. The great northern plateau of Mexico, with the mountains along the Rio Grande, was too arid and consequently destitute of means of subsistence, to allow permanent occupation in numbers; but the New Mexican Pueblos formed a group of sedentary inhabitants clustering along the Rio Grande and scattered in the mountains as far as Arizona, surrounded on all sides by roving Indians, some of whom, however, like the Navajos, had turned to land-tilling also, on a modest scale. The same conditions may be said to have obtained in Arizona. Western Mexico presented a similar aspect, modified by a different climate. While there are within the area of the United States tribes that in the fifteenth century displayed a higher degree of culture than their surroundings (the Natchez, for instance, and, in development of ideas of government and extension of sway, the Iroquois) the culture of the Indian seems to have reached its highest degree in Central Mexico and Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras, and, we may add, Nicaragua. It is as if the tribal wanderings from north to south, which sometimes took other directions, had been arrested by the narrowing of the continent at the Isthmus of Panama. While the abundance of natural resources invited man to remain, geographic features compelled him, and thus arose Indian communities that excelled in culture the Indians in every other part of the continent. South of Panama, nature was too exuberant, and the territory too small, to favor similar progress; hence the Indians, while still quite proficient in certain arts, could not compare with their northern neighbors. In South America the exuberance of tropical life north of the Argentine plains, was as unfavorable to cultural growth as barrenness would have been. Hence the Amazonian basin, Brazil, the Guyanas, and Venezuela, as well as the eastern declivity of the Andes in general, were thinly inhabited by tribes, few of which had risen above the stage of roving savages. On the western slope of the Andes, in Colombia, the population was somewhat more dense and the houses, although still of wood and canes, were larger and more substantially reared. Sedentary tribes of a lesser degree of culture also dwelt in northern Argentine, limited in numbers and scattered in and between savage groups. The highest development attained by man in South America before its discovery was along the backbone of the Andes from latitude 15° north to near the Tropic of Capricorn, or 23° south. This was also the case on the Pacific shore to latitude 20° south, beginning at 2° south. In this zone the cultural growth of the Indian attained a level equal in many ways, superior in some, inferior in others (as for instance in plastic work in stone), to the culture of the most advanced tribes of Yucatan and Central America. The tribes of Chile were comparatively numerous and fairly advanced, mostly given to land-tillage and hunting; the Patagonians stood on a lower level, and the people of Tierra del Fuego were perhaps on the lowest round of the scale of humanity in America.

PRE-COLUMBIAN POLITICAL CONDITIONS.—Not even the most advanced among the American Indians had risen to the conception of a Nation or State; their organization was merely tribal, and their conquests or raids were made, not with the view of assimilating subjected enemies, but for booty (including females, and human victims for sacrifice), or, at best, for the purpose of exacting tribute and assistance in warfare. Hence America was an irregular checkerboard of tribes, independent and always autonomous, even when overawed or overpowered by others. Those tribes whose sway was most extensive when America was discovered were: in North America, the Iroquois league in what is now the State of New York; they had organized for the purpose of plunder and devastation and were just then extending their destructive forays; in central Mexico, the confederacy of the tribes of Mexico, Tezcuco, and Tlacopan; in Yucatan the Maya, although these do not seem to have agglomerated so as to form leagues, except temporarily; in South America the Muysca or Chibcha of central Colombia, and, in Peru, the Inca. It has not yet been established, however that the Inca had confederates, or if they belonged to the class of sedentary tribes that then overran large expanses of territory, either alone or with the aid of subjugated tribes. Traces of confederacies appeared on the Peruvian coasts among the sedentary clusters that were partly wiped out by the Inca not a century previous to the advent of the Spaniards. Of the sedentary Indians that held or overawed a considerable extent of territory by their own single efforts, the various independent groups of Guatemala and the Tarascans in western central Mexico were the most conspicuous. In North America the Muskogees, the Natchez, the Choctaws, and, further north, the Dahcotahs and Pawnees displayed considerable aggressive power.

ABORIGINAL SOCIAL CONDITIONS.—The system of social organization was the same in principle throughout the entire continent, differences being, as in general culture, in degree, but not in kind. The clan, or gens, was the unit, and descent was sometimes in the male, sometimes in the female, line. But the clan system had not everywhere fully developed; the prairie tribes of North America, for instance, were not all composed of clans. Various causes have been assigned for this exception, but no satisfactory explanation has as yet been suggested. The general characteristics of American Indian society were: communal tenure of lands, no hereditary estates, titles, or offices, and segregation and exclusion of the different clusters from each other. Definite boundaries nowhere divided one cluster from another; uninhabited zones, or neutral belts, intervened between the settlements of the tribes; where the population was denser, the belt was narrower, though still devoid of villages. Civil and military administrations were merged into each other, and behind and above both, though partly occult, the power of religious creed and ceremonial determined every action. The shamans or sorcerers, by means of oracular utterances and magic, were the real leaders. These so-called priests also had their organization, the principles of which were the same all over primitive America, as they are the same today. Esoteric societies, based upon empirical knowledge and its application to spiritual and material wants, constituted the divisions and classifications of the wizards. Whosoever practiced the rites and artifices held indispensable for religious ends, without belonging to one or the other of these clusters of official magicians, exposed himself to dire chastisement. Such were and are the chief features of religious organization among the more advanced tribes; the lesser the degree of culture, the more imperfect the system and the less complicated in detail.

RELIGION OF THE ABORIGINES., Animism is the principle underlying the creed of the Indian everywhere, and Fetishism is its tangible manifestation. Monotheism, the idea of a personal and all-creating and ruling God, nowhere existed among the Indians. The whole world was pervaded by a spiritual essence which could at will take individual shape in special localities. The Indian feels himself surrounded everywhere by numberless spiritual agencies, in presence of which he is helpless, and which he feels constrained incessantly to propitiate or appease. This fear underlies the system of his magic and gives the wizard a hold upon him which he cannot shake off. His every action is therefore preceded by prayer and offerings, the latter are sometimes quite complicated. Among his fetishes, there is little or no hierarchic gradation of idols. Phenomena that seem to exert a greater influence upon man than others are the objects of a more elaborate cult, but they are not supposed to act beyond their sphere. Thus there was and is no sun-worship as commonly believed. The sun, as well as the moon, is looked upon as a heavenly body which is the abode of powerful (but not all-powerful) spirits; in many tribes little attention is paid to them. Historic deities also arose among them as the result of belief in mighty wizards whose spirit dwelt in their fetishes. Sacrifices were made to the fetishes, and the most precious objects offered up, human victims being looked upon as the most desirable. Even the practice of scalping was based upon the belief that, by securing that part of the enemy’s body nearest to the brain, the captor came into possession of the mental faculties of the deceased, and thus added so much more to his own mental and physical power. Anthropophagy, or cannibalism, so widely distributed through the rades, rested on the same conception.

ABORIGINAL LAWS AND LANGUAGES.—The Indian had no written laws. Custom ruled; the decisions of the tribal councils and oracular utterances determined the questions at issue. The council was the chief authority in temporal matters; the chiefs executed its decrees, which were first sanctioned, or modified, by the oracles of the shamans. There was no writing, no letters, but some of the more advanced tribes used pictographs, by means of which they could, to a limited extent, record historic events, preserve the records of tribute, and represent the calendars, both astronomical (in a rude way) and ritual. The knotted strings, or quippus, of Peru were a more imperfect method, and their use, in a simpler form, was much more extended than is generally thought. The aboriginal languages of America are divided into stocks, and again subdivided into dialects. The number of these stocks is becoming gradually reduced as a result of philological study. There is an affinity between some of the idioms of western North America and some of eastern Asia, but further than that resemblances do not go. It is safer to follow the example set by Brinton and to subdivide the American idioms into geographical groups, each of which embraces a certain number of stocks. There is, however, an objection to this plan in that in some cases one stock is scattered and dispersed over more than one geographic section. There are, for instance, indications that the Shoshones of Oregon, the Pimas, Opatas, Yaqui of Arizona and Sonora, and the Mexicans (Aztecs, Tezcucans, etc.) and a part of the Indians of Nicaragua belong to one linguistic family, which is thus represented both among the North Pacific and Central groups.

Leaving aside the Eskimo, whose language may be classed as specifically Arctic, the most important groups are: in British America the Athapascans, or Tinne; the Navajos, or Dinne, in Arizona and New Mexico, with their relatives the Apaches or N’de; the Algonquins, ranging from Nova Scotia in the northeast, on the Atlantic, to New York Bay in the south, and from the headwaters of the Missouri River in the west, across the basin of the Great Lakes; of these Indians the Arapahoes, Blackfeet, Cheyennes, Chippeways, Delawares, Sacs and Foxes, and Shawnees are the most generally known. Many tribes of this group (like those of New England for instance) are practically extinct; the Iroquois in northern New York, embracing the Hurons, Eries, Cherokees, etc.; the Muskogees, comprising the tribes along the southern Atlantic coast to part of Florida; the Catawbas, Natchez, and some of the Indians of Florida and Coahuila in Mexico; the Pawnees, Dakotas, and Kiowas, mostly Indians from the plains and of the watershed west of the Mississippi; in the West, on the Pacific coast, the north Pacific group extends from Alaska to southern California. The Yumas are scattered from the mouth of the Colorado through portions of Arizona, and a branch of them is said to live in the Mexican State of Oaxaca. The Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona are looked upon as a separate linguistic cluster also. Of the great Shoshone group mention has already been made. Mexico further contains a number of clusters linguistically distinct, like the Tasascans, the Otomis, the Totonacos, Zapotecos, Mijes, Mixtecos, Mayas, Zendales, some of which have been grouped into one family. The Maya, for instance, embrace some of the more highly developed tribes of Guatemala, and the Huaxtecos of the State of Vera Cruz, far to the north of Yucatan. The farther south we go, the more indefinite become linguistic classifications for the reason that the material at hand has not been sufficiently investigated, and also that there is, especially in regard to South America, much material still to be collected. It follows, therefore, that the idioms of the Isthmus can hardly be regarded as classified. A number are recognized as apparently related, but that relationship is but imperfectly understood. In South America, we here merely mention the Chibchas, or Muyscas, of Colombia, the extensive Arawak stock, and the Caribs, the former widely scattered, the latter limited to Venezuela, the Orinoco, and Guyana. Of the idioms of Ecuador little is known except that the Quichua language of Peru (mountains) may have supplanted a number of other languages before the Spanish conquest. South of the Quichua the great Aymara stock occupies the central plateau, but in primitive times it extended much farther north. In Brazil, the Tupi (Guarani) and Tapuya were, on the coast, the most widely diffused languages. We may further mention the idioms of Chile which may form one family, the tribes of the Gran Chaco (of which the Calchaquis were the most advanced), and the unclassified idioms of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. This sketch of the distribution of American languages cannot here be carried into greater detail. American linguistics are constantly progressing, and much of what now appears well established is liable to be overthrown in the future.

ORIGIN OF THE ABORIGINAL RACES.—The question of the origin of the Indians is as yet a matter of conjecture. Affinities with Asiatic groups have been observed on the northwestern and western coast of North America, and certain similarities between the Peruvian-coast Indians and Polynesian tribes seem striking, but decisive evidence is still wanting. The numberless hypotheses on the origin of the primitive Americans that have flooded literature since the days of Columbus have no proper place here. The existence of man in America during the glacial period is still a matter of research. Neither is there any proof of the coming of Christian missionaries in pre-Columbian times. There may be indications, but these lack, so far, the support of documentary evidence. If, however, we consider Greenland as an island belonging to the North American Continent, Christianity was introduced into America in the tenth century of our era. The tale of the voyage to “Vinland” attributed to a Bishop Jon, or John, in the fourteenth century, rests on slender foundations. In regard to the visits of Asiatics to the west coast of America, nothing is known, the Fu-Sang tale having long ago been shown to apply to the Japanese archipelago. Martin Behaim placed on his map of 1492 a note according to which seven Portuguese bishops in the ninth century fled from the Moors to a western island called Antilia and there founded seven towns. Other than this, there is no authority for the story. Finally, there is the tale of Atlantis, told by Plato in his “Timaeus” and his “Critias”, which is equally unsupported. Though the subject of much speculation, no trace of a submerged continent, or part of the American Continent, of which the Antilles would be the remnant, has so far been discovered. The attempts to establish traces of the Atlantis catastrophe in the folklore of Central American tribes have met with indifferent success.

ORIGIN OF THE NAME GIVEN TO THE NEW WORLD.—The name “America” is the outcome not so much of an accident as of an incident. For nearly a century after Columbus, the Spaniards who had the first right to baptize the continent, having been its first European occupants, persisted in calling their vast American possessions the “Western Indies”. That name was justifiable in so far as the discovery occurred while they were in search of Asia. The belief that America was a part of that continent was dispelled only by Balboa’s journey across the Isthmus in 1513. Six years previous to that feat, however, the name America had been applied by some German scholars to the New World. It was not done with the object of diminishing the glory of Columbus, nor of enforcing the claims of other explorers, but simply in ignorance of the facts. Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine pilot, first in the service of Spain, then of Portugal, and again in Spanish employ, had made at least two voyages to the Western seas. It is not the purpose here to discuss the voyages Vespucci claimed to have made to the American coast, or that have been attributed to him. For these still somewhat enigmatic tales, and the documents relating thereto, see Amerigo Vespucci. It suffices to state that at least some of his letters were published as early as 1504. As in one of them his first voyage is placed in 1497-98, and he there claims to have touched the American Continent, it would give him the priority over Columbus (a claim, however, Vespucci never advanced). It is easily seen how the perusal of these reports might induce scholars living remote from the Peninsula and America, to attribute to him the real discovery of the New World and to suggest that it should be named after him. Out of a chapel founded by St. Deodatus, in the seventh century, in what is now French Lorraine, a college had sprung up at Saint Die, Vosges, in the eleventh century. Among its professors was Martin Waldseemuller (Hylacomylus,) who occupied the chair of cosmography. Struck by the alleged date of 1497 for Vespucci’s first trip to the new continent, he concluded that to the Florentine belonged the honor of the first discovery, and that the New World should hence be named after him. So when, in 1507, a printing-press was established at Saint Die, through the efforts, chiefly, of the secretary of the Duke of Lorraine, he published, together with Mathias Ringmann, professor of Latin, a geographical work of small compass, entitled “Cosmographic Introductio”, in which he inserted the following passage: “I do not see why it may not be permitted to call this fourth part after Americus, the discoverer, a man of sagacious mind, by the name of Amerige—that is to say, the land of Americus—or America, since both Europe and Asia have a feminine form of name, from the names of women”. This suggestion might have had no further consequence, had not the name of America been placed on a map published by Hylacomylus in the same year, whether to designate only that part the discovery of which was credited to Vespucci, or the whole continent as far as known, is not certain. As the “Cosmographiae Introductio” was a geographical treatise it was gradually accepted by cosmographers outside of Spain, although Las Casas protested against the name America, as a misnomer and a slur on the fame of Columbus. Foreign nations successively adopted the name proposed by Waldseemuller. Even Spain finally yielded, substituting “America” for “Occidental Indies” and “New World” as late as the middle of the eighteenth century. As far as known, Vespucci himself took no interest in the use of the name America. He never laid any claim to being the first discoverer of the new continent, except as far as the (doubtful) date of his first voyage seems to do so. He was a personal friend of Columbus as long as the latter lived, and died (1512) with the fame of having been a useful and honorable man. Neither can Waldseemuller be charged with rashly giving Vespucci’s name to America. More blame for not investigating the matter with care, and for blindly following a suggestion thrown out by Waldseemuller, attaches to subsequent students of cosmography like Mercator and Ortelius, especially to the latter, for he had at his command the original Spanish documents, having been for a time royal cosmographer. An attempt to trace the origin of the name to some obscure Indian tribe, said to have been called Amerrique, has met with no favor.

COLONIZATION OF AMERICA. I. SPANISH.—The European nations which settled the American Continent after its discovery by Columbus, and exerted the greatest influence on the civilization of the New World, were principally five. They rank, in point of date, as follows: Spain, Portugal, France, England, Holland. Sweden made an attempt at colonization, but, as the Swedish colony was limited to a very small fraction of the area of eastern North America and endured not more than seventeen years, it need only be mentioned here. Russian colonization of Alaska and the Danish occupation of one of the Lesser Antilles may also be passed over as unimportant. Spain began to colonize the larger Antilles in 1493. The rapidity with which she explored and conquered the territories discovered was amazing. Not sixty years after the landing of Columbus Spanish colonies dotted the continent, from northern Mexico as far south as central and southern Chile. Not only were they along the coast, but in Mexico and Central America they were scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and in South America from the Pacific shore eastward to the crest of the Andes and to the La Plata River. Vast unsettled stretches of land intervened between the colonies in many sections, but these sections could be, and were, traversed from time to time, so that intercourse could be kept up. The entire northern coast of South America was under Spanish sway, and explorations had been carried on, approximately, as far as lat. 42° north along the Pacific; in the interior as far as lat. 40°; the southern United States had been traversed beyond the Mississippi, and Florida, Alabama, and Georgia taken possession of along the Atlantic shore. The whole Pacific coast, from lat. 44° to the southern extremity of Tierra del Fuego, was already known, settled in places, and frequently visited, and while the Orinoco River had been explored both from its mouth and from the west, expeditions from Venezuela penetrated to the Amazon and explored the whole length of its course from the side of Ecuador. These extraordinary achievements were accomplished by a nation that, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, counted, so far as we can estimate, not ten millions of people.

Such extraordinary activity, energy and, it cannot be denied, in many cases sagacity also, was the outcome of the character of the Spanish people and of their formation. In the first place, the Spaniards are a much mixed race. Since the times of Roman domination, nearly every people of any consequence that overran Europe (Huns and Northern Germans excepted) occupied, for a while at least, parts of Spanish soil, and left traces of their presence in language, customs, and, in some cases (the Visigoths) in laws and organization. Southern invaders from Africa, the Moors, had still further contributed to the mixture. Defense of the Spanish soil and, particularly, salvation of the Christian faith, the people’s dearest patrimony, against these Mohammedan conquerors, had made of the Spaniards above all a warrior people. But seven centuries of incessant warfare neither fashioned a very tenderhearted race nor contributed to enrich the country. Spain had once been rich in precious metals, but the Romans impoverished the land by draining the mines. Still the tradition remained, and with the tradition the longing for a return of the golden age. Until the discovery of America Europe looked to the far East for the wealth that was denied to it by nature. When the discovery of the Antilles revealed the existence of gold, Spain neglected the East, and turned her eyes to the West. The fever for gold seized all who could emigrate, and the desire for gold and silver became a powerful incentive to seek and grasp the wealth of the New World. The thirst for gold was neither more nor less intense in the sixteenth century than it is now, but it was directed to much vaster regions. Furthermore, the precious metals were found among peoples to whom they were of no commercial value, much less standards of wealth. To deprive the Indian of gold and silver was, to him, a much less serious matter than to deprive him of his gathered maize or any other staple food. The earliest periods of Spanish colonization were spent in attempts to establish a modus vivendi with the aborigines and, like all epochs of that kind, proved disastrous to the weaker—namely, to the Indian. Doubts as to whether the natives were human beings or not were soon disposed of by a royal decree asserting their essential human nature and certain rights necessarily flowing therefrom. They were, however, (and justly, too) declared to be minors who required a stage of tutelage, before they might be made to assume the duties and rights of the white population. Before practically reaching this conclusion, one which once for all determined the condition of the Indian in most South American Republics, and partly in the United States and Canada, much experimenting had to be done.

The primitive condition of man in the New World was a problem which European culture four centuries ago was not yet capable of solving. While in Spain the old communal rights of the original components of the realm were for a long time maintained, and a sort of provincial autonomy prevailed, which acted as a check upon growing absolutism, Spanish America was from the outset a domain of the crown. Discovery, by land and sea, and colonization were under the exclusive control of the monarch; only with his permission explorations could be made, and settlements established. Personal initiative was thus placed ostensibly under a wholesome control, but it was also unfavorably hampered in many instances. Not so much, however, in the first century after Columbus as in the two following centuries. The royal patronage, at first indispensable, resulted in securing for Spanish interests an unjust ascendancy over those of the colonists. It was often, and not improperly, contended that the Creoles were in a worse position than the Indians, the latter, as special wards of the Government of Spain, enjoying more protection and privileges than the Spanish Americans. The latter complained particularly of the injustice of assigning all lucrative offices to native Spaniards, to the exclusion of Creoles. It insured the home Government a strong position in the colonies, but only too often its administration was entrusted to men unfit for the positions through want of practical acquaintance with country and people. It is true that the system of residencia, or final account at the expiration of the terms of office, and the visita, or investigation with, sometimes, discretionary faculties, were a check upon abuses, but by no means sufficient. A code of laws for the Indies, as Spain called its American possessions for a long time, had been in contemplation since the middle of the sixteenth century, but it only became a fact at the end of the seventeenth. Much of the delay was occasioned by the enormous number of royal Decrees on which legislation had to be based. These Decrees continued to be promulgated as occasion demanded, along with the Code, and they bear testimony to the solicitous attention given by the Spanish monarchs to the most minute details in their transoceanic possessions. It was a so-called paternal autocracy, well intended, but most unfavorable, in the end, to the free development of the individual and of the colonies in general.

In the middle of the seventeenth century Spain definitively closed its colonies to the outer world, the mother-country excepted, and even the intercourse with that was severely controlled. It was a suicidal measure, and thereafter the American colonies began to decline, to the great detriment of Spain itself. Still, it should not be overlooked that the measure had, to a great extent, been forced upon Spain by the unrelenting attacks of other nations upon her colonies and her commerce with them, in times of peace as well as in war. Instruction and education were almost completely under the control of the Catholic Church. Secular institutions of learning sprang up late, although the Jesuits had taken the initiative in that direction. Considering the means at hand, much was done to study the geography of the new continent, its natural history, and other branches of science. In the eighteenth century scientific explorations were made on a large scale. Previous to that time, such investigations were mostly due to individual efforts, especially by ecclesiastics. In the sixteenth century, however, Philip the Second sent to Mexico his own physician Hernandez to study specially the medicinal and alimentary plants of that country. Nutritive plants were imported from Europe and Asia, as well as domestic animals, and it is to the Spaniards that the planting and cultivation of fruit and shade trees in South America is due. But all these improvements did not satisfy the legitimate aspirations of Spanish-Americans, for they were made for the benefit of the native Spaniards. Add to this a vacillating and heavy system of taxation that weighed almost exclusively on the Creoles, heavy customhouse duties, stringently exacted, and the arbitrary conduct of officials, high and low, and we are not surprised that the colonies took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the weakening of Spain during the Napoleonic period to secure their independence. The exploitation of the abundant mines of precious metals, discovered everywhere in consequence of Spanish exploration, was carried on in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries according to methods that were certainly progressive, though the mines began to give out. At the same time, in the great mining centers, the Creoles became so rich that luxury and corruption rapidly spread amongst them. The great bulk of the treasure went to Europe without any profit for Spanish America. The statement that forced labor in the mines diminished the numbers of the Indians is greatly exaggerated. Individual and local abuses are undeniable, but the system established after the sad experiences of the first colonists proved wise and salutary when properly carried out. In general, the Indian policy of the Spanish Government was based upon the idea that the Indian should in time supply the labor needed in the colonies; it was a policy of solicitous preservation and slow patient education through the agency of the Catholic Church.

II. PORTUGUESE.—As Spain was securing its foothold in the New World, Portugal was rapidly pushing forward in the path of exploration. The outcome was rivalry between the two nations and disputes about the rights and limits of discovery. Both crowns, Portuguese and Spanish, appealed to the Pope, who accepted the task of arbitrator. His verdict resulted in establishing a line of demarcation, the right of discovery on one side being allotted to Spain, on the other side to Portugal. The papal Bulls from 1493, while issued, according to the time, in the form of grants by Divine rights, are in fact, acts of arbitration. The Pope (Alexander VI) had not sought, but merely accepted by request of the parties, the office of umpire, and his decisions were modified several times before both claimants declared themselves satisfied. The methods of colonization pursued by the Portuguese were in the main similar to those of Spain, with the difference that the Portuguese inclined more to utilitarianism and to commercial pursuits. Again, the territory discovered and occupied (Brazil) was difficult uniformly of access, being mostly covered by vast forests and furrowed by gigantic watercourses, not always favorable to the penetration of the interior. Therefore the Portuguese reached the interior much less rapidly than the Spaniards, and confined their settlements mostly to the coast. The Indian population, thinly scattered and on a much lower level of culture than the sedentary natives in parts of Spanish America, was of little service for the exploitation of the vast and almost impenetrable land. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, Brazil became Spanish, only to be conquered by the Dutch. The domination of the latter left no permanent stamp on the country, as it was brought to a close thirty years after its beginning. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Portuguese were the most dangerous neighbors of the Jesuit missions, in the Amazonian Basin as well as in Paraguay. Their policy of enslaving the Indians caused the ruin of more than one mission, and it was only with great effort that the little Jesuit state of Paraguay, so beneficial to the aborigines, for a time held its own. The separation of Brazil from Portugal was due more to political disturbances in the latter country than to other causes. An empire was created, with a scion of the royal house of Portugal at its head. It is chiefly to the last Emperor, Pedro II, that Brazil owes its interior development, and to him was due the emancipation of the slaves. The Federal Republic since created has had to contend against many difficulties.

III. FRENCH.—The French occupied three regions of the New World: (I) Eastern Canada, (2) Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley, (3) some of the Lesser Antilles and Guiana in eastern South America. The Antilles (Hayti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, etc.), became French in the course of the incessant piratical warfare carried on against Spain from the sixteenth century. Guiana as a French possession was the fruit of European wars and treaties. Neither of the last two French colonies have exerted any marked influence on American civilization. The French occupation of a part of Hayti had more serious consequences. The uprising of the negroes on that island resulted in the establishment of a negro republic, an isolated phenomenon in the annals of American history. The French occupation of Canada lasted two centuries, that of the Valley of the Mississippi a little more than one, and was of the highest importance in the exploration of the North American Continent. It is to the French we owe the earliest acquaintance with these regions. French colonization was different from Spanish, inasmuch as it was attempted on a smaller scale and with less dependence on the home Government. Like Spanish and Portuguese colonization, however, it was essentially Catholic. The attempts to found French Huguenot settlements in Brazil, Florida, and Georgia in the sixteenth century all failed; in Brazil because of mismanagement; in the latter countries because of the Spanish conquest. French colonization began on the banks and near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. The first colonizers were venturesome mariners who afterwards applied to the crown for authority as well as for aid and military assistance. But it was personal initiative that laid the foundation. Strange as it may seem, Catherine de Medicis gave more support to Protestant than to Catholic undertakings. Political reasons on her part, chiefly the desire to supplant Spain in its American possessions, dictated this anomalous policy. The French settlements remained comparatively few, and hugged the shores of the Saint Lawrence, occupying points of the Lake basin and isolated posts among the Indians and on the seaboard. The necessity of military protection and the limited immigration led to a governmental organization of the colony controlled by the crown, but for the most part indifferently supported. The French people had little confidence in the future of a domain that promised only furs and wood, showed no traces of precious metals, and where the climate was as forbidding as its Indian inhabitants. It is likely that, owing to the antipathy against the Canadian enterprise prevailing at court, Canada would have been abandoned had not two pertinent reasons prevailed: one, the secret hope of checking the growing influence of England on the new continent, and of eventually annexing the English colonies in North America; the other, the missionary labor of the Jesuits. Both went hand in hand, for while the Jesuits were true to their religious mission, they were none the less Frenchmen and patriotic. They soon discovered that the key to the political and military situation was in the hands of the Iroquois Indians, or Six Nations, and that the European power that gained their permanent friendship would eventually secure the balance of power. To induce the Iroquois to become Christians and thereby allies of France, the Jesuits spared no sacrifice, no martyrdom, no efforts. Had the rulers of France been as sagacious as those of Spain in their appreciation of the Jesuit missions, and had they adequately supported them, the outcome might have been favorable. But, while both countries were equally autocratic, the French government was as unsystematic and careless in Canada as the Spanish was careful and methodical in administering its American possessions. The few governors, like Frontenac, capable of controlling the situation were poorly assisted by the mother-country, and inefficiency too often alternated with good administration. Even military aid was sparingly granted at the most critical periods. It is true, however, that the moral and material decay of France, and her exhausting wars, may be urged in excuse of this neglect. The result was the establishment in the French possessions of a sparse population, scattered over so vast a territory that communication was frequently interrupted. That population, with the exception of the inhabitants of the official centers at Quebec and Montreal, where social conditions were partly modeled on those of the motherland, was rude and uneducated by reason of its isolation, though individually hardy and energetic, and their dispersion throughout such a vast territory prevented joint effort. The missionaries had their hands too full, in attending to the Indian missions, to serve adequately the wants of the colonists, who, moreover, from the nature of their occupations, were often compelled to lead an almost migratory life. Thanks to the efforts of a trader and of a Jesuit, the connection between the Lakes and the Mississippi was established in the latter part of the seventeenth century. After the establishment of French settlements in Louisiana and Illinois, the English colonies were encompassed by a semicircle of French possessions. La Salle did for the mouth of the Mississippi River and part of Texas what Champlain had done for the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. Individual enterprise began to make significant approaches to the Spanish outposts in northern Mexico. The conduct of France in its North American dominions towards other European nations was of course guided largely by European political conditions, and the Canadians more than once anticipated the outbreak of international warfare. To a certain extent the French imitated the Indian policy of Spain by utilizing the resources afforded by friendly Indian tribes, but these were always fickle and unstable. In the north, on the borders of the Arctic zone, the main element of stability—agriculture—played but a secondary role.

While the occupation of the Mississippi basin by French colonists should have proved an element of strength to the French in Canada, it turned to their disadvantage in the end. The incomparably more abundant resources of southern latitudes in a moist climate formed such a contrast with the cold, northern dominion that the tendency to neglect the latter grew stronger. When Voltaire pronounced himself in favor of the Louisiana colony, a marked leaning to abandon Canada made itself manifest in France. The concentrated power of the English colonies, assisted by England‘s naval supremacy, rendered voluntary abandonment unnecessary.

IV. ENGLISH.—The methods of English colonization in America are so widely known, and its literature is so extensive, that the matter may here be treated with comparative brevity. While in the southern Atlantic States discoveries and settlements were made with the assent of the Crown, under its patronage, and mostly by enterprising members of the nobility, the northern sections, New England especially, were colonized through personal initiative. There was no desire for independence, though political, and especially religious, autonomy were the ideals of the Puritan colonists. That religious autonomy has usually been regarded as synonymous with religious liberty. But it took long years of struggle and experimenting before the latter became established in New England. The English system of colonial expansion depended much more on individual enterprise than the Spanish; but there was much less regard for authority unless the latter was represented by law. English colonization was more akin to the Portuguese in its commercial tendency, and superior to the French in the faculty of combining and organizing for a given purpose. Independence of character was an heirloom of northern origin in general, respect for law a specifically English tradition. There is no doubt that the influence of New England has greatly contributed to the remarkable growth of the United States. The unparalleled rise and expansion of the United States was due chiefly to personal initiative in the beginning, that afterwards voluntarily submitted to the requirements of organization, and to a political and (subsequently) religious tolerance which opened the country to all outside elements thought to be beneficial. These features, however, were not so much due to the English as to the American character that developed after the North American colonies had achieved their independence, and the Northern and Southern types of the people came into closer contact. There was a marked contrast between the position assumed by the Catholic Church towards the Indians and the attitude of Protestantism. The former, as soon as the administration of the Spanish dominions in America began to assume a character of stability, instituted concerted efforts for the education and civilization of the Indians. The introduction of the printing-press in Mexico (about 1536) was brought about specially to promote Indian education. The clergy, particularly the regular orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, and others, and later on, on a still larger scale, the Jesuits), became not only teachers, but the protectors of the natives. It was the aim of the Church (in harmony with the crown) to preserve the Indian and defend him from the inevitable abuses of lesser officials and of settlers. Hence, in Spanish America the Indian has held his own more than anywhere else, and has come to be a moderately useful element. Attempts at creating Indian communities under the exclusive control of ecclesiastics proved very successful until the expulsion of the Jesuits, when all the beneficial results were irretrievably lost. The efforts of Protestants were mostly individual, and received little or no support from the State. From the English standpoint, the Indian was and is looked upon as an obstruction to civilization, and the expediency of his removal, forcible or otherwise, has dictated a policy sometimes completely at variance with the principles of forbearance and toleration so loudly proclaimed. But it must also be acknowledged that the Indian himself is largely at fault. His extreme conservatism in refusing to adopt a. mode of life consistent with progress exasperates, and provokes aggressive measures on the part of, the whites. The cause of this conservatism lies largely in the religious ideas of the Indian, as yet imperfectly understood.

V. THE NEGRO.—The negro has assimilated himself much better than the American aborigine to post-Columbian conditions. Though his condition of life was for centuries deplorable, and though we absolutely condemn slavery in every form, it cannot be denied that it was for the negro a useful school, in which he was slowly introduced to civilized life and became acquainted with ideas to which the Indian has remained a stranger. Of the negro republic, Hayti, we have already spoken. The complete emancipation of the colored race in the United States has presented to the people of that country a problem which still awaits its solution.

THE ERA OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE.—The emancipation of the American colonies from European control changed the political configuration of the continent, both north and south. Of the British possessions in North America as they existed in 1776 only the Dominion of Canada still belongs to the British crown. The other colonies have become the United States of America. Spanish America severed its connection with the mother-country and has been divided into the republic of Mexico, the Central American republics of Guatemala, Honduras, San Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Leon, and Panama; the Antillean republics of Hayti, Santo Domingo, and Cuba, and the South American republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, the Argentine, and Chile. Jamaica remains a British possession; Porto Rico is a possession of the United States. The Lesser Antilles still belong to the powers which owned them prior to 1776, namely: England, France, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden. On the continent, England possesses British Honduras and British Guiana; Holland, Dutch Guiana, or Surinam; and France, French Guiana or Cayenne. Changes like these in the political aspect of a continent might be expected to have had considerable influence on the status of the Catholic Church, which is so intimately related with the history of civilization in the New World. Nevertheless, the independence of the European colonies has not greatly affected the position of the Church in America. In the United States the Church has flourished under the republican form of government. In Spanish America the new conditions have affected the Church more markedly, and not always beneficially. The lack of stability in the political conditions of Spanish American States has so often influenced the deportment of their governments towards the Church that sometimes persecution has resulted, as in Mexico. Attempts to give to the Indian a share in the government, for which he was not prepared, have in some instances not only loosened the ties that bound him to his former protector and Teacher, the Church, but have also fostered a racial desire to return to primitive uncivilized conditions. Happily, the material development of many of these countries has counteracted these tendencies, and to a considerable extent holds them in check today. The break with Spain brought the Spanish American clergy into direct relations with the Holy See, and has proved greatly advantageous to religion. The regular orders, especially the Jesuits, have suffered in some Spanish American countries. In Mexico they have been officially suppressed, but such extreme measures last only as long as their authors remain in power.

We have not sufficient data to determine the Catholic population of America. Even in the United States the number usually given, “about 14,000,000”, is a conjecture more or less accurate. Spanish-American peoples may be classed as at least officially Catholics. The same applies to the Indians, but the numbers of the aborigines are but very imperfectly ascertained. Still we shall probably not go far astray if we assume that nearly one-half of the population of America are Catholics at least in name. The United States of America alone contain fourteen archbishoprics, eighty-nine bishoprics, and two vicariates-Apostolic. The remainder of America divides into 150 dioceses, 54 of which are seats of metropolitans. There are today two American cardinals: James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore (created in 1886), and Joaquim Arcoverde de Albuquerque Cavalcanti, Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (created in 1905).

(For the achievements of the famous Catholic missionaries and explorers in the New World, see articles under their respective names. The alleged pre-Columbian discovery is also treated in a separate article.)


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!