Every October and November in the United States, we find ourselves once again in a season of false and misleading stories about European settlers and Native Americans. First there is the story that Columbus discovered America in 1492. (Later there is the story about the Pilgrims and the Indians at the first Thanksgiving.) It is astonishing to me, after all the work done by Native activists and their allies in the last forty years, that these stories keep returning unchanged year after year. In 1991, the organization Rethinking Schools published Rethinking Columbus, an excellent resource that pointed out for educators the fallacies of the stories we are told and offered practical alternatives. Certainly in some places a lot has changed. But there has also been a backlash. Rethinking Columbus was one of the books banned from Arizona school systems in 2012.
Perhaps many people are willing to acknowledge, if pressed, that when Columbus supposedly “discovered” America, it was already full of people. But the use of the word “discover” has a more sinister history that is not so often talked about. Prior to 1492, European church leaders and monarchs had collaborated in a stunning series of proclamations, which became known as the Doctrine of Discovery.
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull declaring that the Catholic king of Portugal had the right to conquer any Muslim and pagan peoples and enslave them. A few years later he wrote a second letter, declaring all the Christian kings of Europe had the right to take the lands and possessions of any non-Christian people, and keep them in perpetuity. If the pagan inhabitants could be converted to the Christian faith they might be spared, but otherwise they could be enslaved or killed. The Doctrine of Discovery was also later claimed by the king of England in 1496, authorizing English explorers to seize any lands not already discovered by other Christian nations.
The Doctrine of Discovery became the legal basis for the “discoveries” of Columbus and others, and for the resulting attempts to conquer and colonize the western hemisphere, and unleash a genocide on its peoples. It was also the legal basis for the slave trade. And its influence did not remain in that distant past. It is still a source of oppression to this day. It became the basis of U.S. Indian Law, beginning in 1823, when Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that “Christian people” who had “discovered” the lands of “heathens” had assumed the right of “dominion,” and thus had “diminished” the Indians’ rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations. He claimed Indians had merely a right of occupancy in their lands. This decision has never been overturned, and is still cited on a regular basis, as recently as 2010 in the Federal courts.
Responding to the requests of Indigenous peoples, several religious denominations have passed resolutions to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Those of which I am aware are Episcopalians in 2009, Unitarian Universalists and the Society of Friends in 2012, and the United Church of Christ in 2013. These resolutions are a first step toward reckoning with this history of stolen lands and stolen children.
But let’s go back to Columbus. The stories of his “discovery” lead to another distortion of our European history in these lands. This is the idea that the Europeans conquered the Native nations by their superior weaponry and military might. This holds a partial truth. The Europeans did try to conquer every Indigenous nation they encountered. But it would not have been possible without another factor. Between 1492 and 1650, possibly ninety percent of the Indigenous people of the Americas were killed by plague and other European diseases to which they had no immunity. The Europeans, sometimes unwittingly but often purposefully, brought an unprecedented apocalypse to this land.
Estimates of the pre-contact population are hard to determine. One scholar, William Denevan, tried to reconcile all the data and came up with fifty-four million in the Western Hemisphere. But by 1650, the number had shrunk to six million. Millions upon millions of people died. In 1617, a few years before English settlers landed, an epidemic began to spread through the area that became southern New England. It likely came from British fishermen, who had been fishing the waters off the coast for decades. By 1620, ninety to ninety-six percent of the population had died. Villages were left with so many bodies, the survivors fled to the next town, and the disease continued to spread. It was a catastrophe never before seen anywhere in the world.