In mounting sustained efforts to establish colonial systems in North America during the early colonial era, the French and the English differed immensely in their economic and cultural responses to and interactions with Native American Indians. Although both groups affected natives adversely in some ways, the French were by far more benevolent in their interactions. The English, on the other hand, found their interests come in conflict with those of the Indians more often than not, and were generally less benevolent in their efforts to fulfill their colonial agenda.
The economic foundation and overall purpose of French colonization in North America provided the context of their mutually beneficial relations with Native Americans. France sought to establish a colonial economy centered on the fur trade, dependent on trapping and skinning beaver. However, the northern expanses through which these rodents roamed provided limited capacity for agriculture, thus restricting the development of large settlements. The French “colonies,” therefore, were little more than a series of outposts that ran along the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi, with a small occupancy of couriers de bois rather than the established colonial centers of the English in Massachusetts and Virginia. With an extremely small ratio of French trappers to Indians, early French explorers such as Champlain immediately began to see Native Americans such as the Huron as potential allies with aligned interests. Economically, the French began to incorporate large numbers of natives into the fur trade to account for the small number of actual French settlers.
A symbiotic relationship thus began to evolve where the Indians would trade furs to the French in exchange for knives, guns, and other commodities. However, this market was perpetuated so immensely that Native American groups began to compete amongst themselves for the benefits of French trade. While some groups prospered immensely from French contact, overall economic cohesiveness between Native American factions declined. Unlike the Spanish and English, this economic interdependence between the French and Native Americans yielded little to no cultural conflict, with the French making no efforts to forcefully impose themselves upon their Indian allies.
Relations were so amiable that intermarriage between French traders and Indian women was common, and a mixed racial group began to evolve. Minor attempts at conversion were enacted at the hands of the Jesuits, but these missions were largely peaceful, albeit unsuccessful. However, despite such cultural benevolence, the economic embellishment of Native Americans in the fur trade led to excessive beaver trapping, which violated Indian religious beliefs, and ultimately demonstrated the polluting effect of European contact on Native American culture. The introduction of alcohol further defiled the sanctity of the Indian way of life. Ultimately, the cohesion of French and Native American culture was generally a rather amiable phenomenon, but many Native American virtues deteriorated as a result.
Where the French saw themselves as economically interdependent with Native Americans, the English saw themselves as generally having competing interests with Indian groups. The economy of early the English colonies, particularly around the Chesapeake Bay area, was largely agrarian, and settlement was significantly more established. Thus, as more and more settlers came to the colonies, agricultural enterprises sought to expand, and the British grew hungry for more land. As a result, as the English pressed inward from their coastal settlements in an attempt to expand their colonial efforts, they came into contact with Native Americans, and the two factions became increasingly hostile towards one another. Nearly perpetual Anglo-Indian Wars persisted throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, resulting in the persecution, eradication, and assimilation of many native groups, all for the benefit of economic expansion.
Such was the case with the Pequot War in the early 1600’s, which saw the near demise of the Pequot tribe. When trading with Indians, the English were also substantially less fair in their dealings than the French, specifically in the purchase of land. Additionally, Indian subsidiaries to treaties were often forced into relinquishing land and liberty, and treaties were often disregarded or violated by the English. However, this seeming disregard for native groups by the English was not completely consistent. In particular, the Quakers of Pennsylvania consistently treated the Indians with high esteem, buying land at fair prices, respecting treaties, and generally exhibiting peaceful tendencies following William Penn’s signing of a peace treaty with the Delaware chief, Tammany. English cultural response to Native Americans played out in sharp contrast to the general benevolence displayed by the French.
Cumulatively, prevailing economic interests committed the English and Indians to cultural tension. Despite early efforts of cultural accommodation between English settlers and Indian groups such as the Wampanoag, expanding English interests brought about cultural conflict. Anglo-Indian Wars and English expansion constituted the cultural annihilation and general subjugation of many tribes throughout the eastern seaboard. Those who resisted English expansion were crushed, as in King Philip’s War. In supplement, many tribes such as the Cheyenne also fled the Eastern Coastal Plane to evade such expansion and migrated to the Great Plains region, ultimately to form an entirely new culture and way of life.
This process accelerated in earnest by around 1700 and further represents the displacement of Native American culture by the English. What culture did remain in place in areas under the English sphere was further spoiled by European influence and assimilation. Generally, Indian cultures were adversely affected by English contact, although the Quakers persist as an exception, viewing Indian culture with less contempt than their fellow Englishmen. For a time, Penn’s colonial experiment existed as a beacon of cultural understanding between whites and natives, but dilution of the Quaker ideology by an unfiltered influx of non-Quaker settlers proved to spell doom for this small cell of cultural tolerance.
In the wake of the age of exploration, the English and French made substantial efforts to expand into the North American continent. In doing so, their economic and cultural responses reshaped the very existence of the Native American peoples already living there, with effects that persist into modern day. In general, the French responded to Native Americans much more benevolently than did the English, who viciously pursued their own economic agenda. Although these motivational distinctions can be made, American Indian culture was ultimately diluted by European contact, yet even to this day, it has never ceased to retain an important place in the evolution of the continent.