In school we (US centric students) were taught that the european settlers won over the Native Americans due to our superior technology (aka guns) and the native american's susceptibility to our disease. Even as a kid this never seemed to make sense to me because:

  1. there were way more native Americans then Europeans
  2. A trained musketeer was not that superior to a trained archer, archers can fire volleys much faster
  3. shouldn't Europeans be just as susceptible to Native American diseases as the other way around?

I now realize that bullet point 2 and 3 aren't entirely accurate. I've been told that while a trained musketeer was not necessarily drastically superior to a trained archer, an untrained musketeer was vastly superior to an untrained archer. With muskets you could mass produce them, give a novice basic training, and have them be somewhat-deadly in short order, making a bunch of quickly trained up conscripts/militia a decent fighting force. You can't do that with archery, which takes years of practice just to build up the muscle strength to fire an arrow a decent distance.

I've also been told that European diseases were more deadly then Native American ones as a side effect of Europeans living so tightly packed in cities, allowing spread of both disease and immunities to these diseases. This ensured that Europeans were already carriers for some previously very deadly diseases, while the less compact Americans usually allowed diseases to die out entirely after they ran their course. This would also imply that it's possible Europeans of that time had stronger immune systems from the extra pressures of having to face disease on a regular basis (Not on a genetic race level, but on a "the more you use it the stronger it gets" individual person level).

Still, Is this the whole story? I don't know how accurate the above explanations are, and I feel that the US-centric view may have been biased on this front. What other advantages did the smaller number of European colonists have? I've heard the following explanations, but don't know how true any of them are:

  1. the American people were not nearly as densely populated as Europeans were at this time, thus making the number's difference between the colonists and the Americans closer to equal.
  2. The Americans were very tribal and thus did not present a united front against the Colonists, in fighting and cooperating with the colonists assisted the colonists in taking over the Americas
  3. The American's didn't fight back, they attempted to work with the colonists and be all buddy buddy until the evil Europeans betrayed them (yeah, I suspect this view is also biased, but I don't know)
  4. the Americans were recovering from their own epidemic about the time that the colonists arrived, thus thinning their numbers out (not sure where I heard this, but swear I heard it once?)
  5. The colonists technology included better understanding of tactics and fighting as a cohesive unit, which allowed great tactical victories despite otherwise equal forces.

I'm wondering how accurate any/all of these explanations are. Are there other factors I'm not aware of? What would others consider the most relevant tactical advantages?

  • 3
    This topic is too broad for a single question. Perhaps you can limit it to a time or place? Americas is a huge place, and the European colonisation thereof was carried out over centuries by several different nations. Regarding diseases though: Europeans were just as vulnerable to American diseases (e.g. syphilis); the issue was not immune system strength, but that Europeans brought more and more deadly diseases to the Americas, to which the native populace had never been exposed.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 22 '14 at 14:15
  • 1
    An interesting question, but a broad topic that you could write a book about. Also, this kind of question invites theories and opinions more so than a decision of fact. Oct 22 '14 at 15:12
  • 3
    This is one of those questions we've jokingly considered making an "Explained in Guns, Germs, and Steel" close reason for. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 22 '14 at 16:28
  • 1
    There were actually more Europeans than Native Americans. Most stayed in Europe, though.
    – Oldcat
    Oct 22 '14 at 16:51
  • 2
    Are you asking about North America or South America? These are two rather different cases. Oct 22 '14 at 19:52

This is a huge question, one that cannot possibly be covered entirely in a single answer on a website. However, the three points you listed in your question can be addressed, and I've tried to do so below. Please keep in mind that even these could each have whole books written about them, so I'm aiming for the broad strokes here, just to give you an idea of why those points you made didn't stem the tide of European conquest.

More Americans than Europeans

The Wikipedia entry about the spread of smallpox (and numerous other sources) report that somewhere between 90-95% of the native population of the Americas were killed by Old World diseases. That's the end of the world as far as the natives are concerned. It's utterly unimaginable today. Seriously, I've seen post-apocalyptic horror movies with more conservative death tolls than that. By comparison, the Black Death "only" killed 30-60% of Europe's population, and it's still considered one of the most horrific and destructive events in Western history, and required centuries before Europe truly recovered.

No civilization in history, none, could withstand centuries of constant warfare and encroachment against multiple empires simultaneously after 90-95% of their population was destroyed. With those kinds of numbers, it's stunning that the Native Americans (or anyone in their place) could last as long as they did.

Even if there were still more Native Americans than European settlers/soldiers, (which there certainly would have been for a while), the societal and economic effects of that kind of ongoing die-off (because it didn't happen all at once) would devastate your ability to organize and defend yourself.

Relative Individual Military Prowess

I actually asked a similar question on here a while back, and the answer was very illuminating: it's not just about bullets vs arrows, it's about armor. Steel chestplates, like the Spaniards and others would have used, could deflect stone arrowheads easily. Weapons of stone, wood, and bone were no match for metal swords and shields. And while a Native American warrior might be able to penetrate European armor with an arrow or a melee weapon, they had basically nothing which could protect them from bullets or steel pikes. What use is putting a lot of arrows in the air if most of them are just going to bounce off? If you have a 50% chance of killing me and I have a 100% chance of killing you, I'm probably going to win.

However, it is worth mentioning that the Native Americans were fierce and passionate warriors, (of course, with variability from tribe to tribe). My favorite example of this is the Comanches: even today eastern Texas is much more densely populated than the west, and that is due in part to the Comanches, who basically stopped all westward expansion until the six-shooter and other rapid-firing weapons finally overpowered them.

The Native Americans had a rich and vibrant culture, but when it came to weapons production, they were barely out of the Stone Age. The Europeans had been making better weapons than the Native Americans of the 15th and 16th centuries for literally thousands of years.

American Diseases

As mentioned in the comments, American diseases did affect the Europeans (such as syphilis, which is still with us today). And the points you mentioned in your question, about relative urbanization and such, are definitely important. However, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind:

First of all, a LOT of deadly diseases come from China and Africa. Even today, the average person could easily name a number of diseases coming from Asia (such as SARS) or Africa (such as Ebola or HIV/AIDS), while I bet not many could name equivalent plagues from the Americas. I'm not an expert in disease origin or spread, so I can't tell you why, but it does seem that many more of the great plagues of history have come from Afro-Eurasia than from the Americas. So when the Europeans met the Americans, they were both susceptible to each other's illnesses, but the Europeans simply had more scary things to bring along.

And second, it wasn't an equal trade: there were WAY, WAY more Europeans coming to America than Americans going back. If a Spaniard in Mexico got sick, maybe they'd die. Maybe they'd infect the rest of the town, and more would die. But either way, Spain would be utterly unharmed. Odds are the sick people had no plans to return home anyway, and even if they tried, they might die before arriving. Meanwhile, if a Native American got sick, this was their home. It could quickly spread to their tribe, then the neighboring tribe, and so on. It was like Muhammed Ali's "rope-a-dope" strategy: America was taking all of the "hits," as far as infected arrivals, so Europe never really got tagged by any reciprocal infections. Maybe some colonists would die, but they'd quickly be replaced and the process of colonization would continue unabated.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the conquest of the Americas comes down to a single issue: it just wasn't a fair fight. The Native Americans had had their tyrants and their wars over the years, but nothing even approaching what Europe had gotten used to millennia ago. Europeans at that time were simply used to many things that were unheard of in the Americas. America had never known anything like the Roman Empire or Alexander the Great, ideals which inspired every European conqueror who crossed the Atlantic. America had never experienced (to my knowledge) any kind of religious war, a concept which had been refined into a brutal artform in Europe for centuries. America was unprepared for a devastating plague like smallpox, while Europe had had plenty of time to recover from the Black Death.

Europe was a really, really rough neighborhood (and has been for most of its history), and they'd refined the tools and tactics of war and cultural domination over centuries of bitter competition between the hundreds of factions that fill up European History books. Brutal sieges, religious persecution, forced labor, forced conversion, large-scale theft, destruction of local culture. These things were utterly unconscionable, crimes against humanity even, but they weren't terribly different from what the Europeans were doing to each other at the time, except for the scale on which it happened in the New World.

Imagine if, today, aliens arrived in orbit and pelted the entire surface of the Earth with radiation bombs, killing 95% of humanity. Then, imagine they landed in multiple locations simultaneously, and started enforcing their will with weapons we had no way of defending ourselves against. And finally, imagine that while the remnants of humanity struggled to organize and recover, more and more ships were arriving in orbit every day, bringing more and more soldiers and more and more settlers to Earth.

I could only pray that we'd last as long as the Native Americans did.

  • 1
    Despite some hyperbole here and there, a good summary. You would be interested in why so many flu and agues develop in south-east Asia - the close proximity of humans and both pigs and ducks/chickens when both share a common house/barn. The humans, for example, often sleep over a half-buried pig pen in order to benefit from the warmth of the animals through the night. (I was invited to do the same in AppleDoorn, Netherlands, in 1969 but as it was August I took an extra blanket instead.) Oct 23 '14 at 3:41
  • 4
    Note that the colonization of America was not a D-Day landing with the Europeans jumping out from the ships and starting to gun down Natives on the shore. It was a much more gradual process, and it's hard to define sides, as sometimes there was peace and trade, sometimes war, sometimes Natives fought among themselves and sometimes European powers, having Native allies, fought between each other, so it was never a full-blown "all Europeans" vs "all Natives" armed conflict. The alien example is not well suited unless it takes a few hundred years and the aliens are peaceful 90% of the time.
    – vsz
    May 6 '15 at 20:05
  • AppleDoorn? Where the hell is that? And I have never ever heard of anyone benefiting of warmth by using pig pens at least not since the Germanic tribes.
    – paul23
    Feb 1 '19 at 8:19

The "disease" explanation is, as you surmise, considerably exaggerated. The major factor in such warfare is military prowess, determination, organization, and logistics.

If you are interested in understanding why the conquest was possible I would recommend starting with the Mexican conquest, rather than the North American one, because the comparisons and events were more stark. One of the best books to read is the biography of Hernando Cortes written by Bernal Diaz de Castillo, one of his lieutenants. Diaz lived through the entire campaign of Cortés and was eye witness to all the events which he describes in detail. Reading this book carefully will give a sharp picture of the ways the European conquistadores were able to overcome the native Americans.

For me the central episode in this book and the critical one is in the first battle against the Tlaxcalans which occurred in 1519. The account of the battle in which 120 Spaniards fought against thousands of Tlaxcalans is incredible. The men were fighting literally knee deep in blood. I am not exaggerating. The blood was pooled up to their knees. I have read the account of this battle many times to try to understand it fully. If you do the same, you will start to understand not only how the conquest was possible, but how any man defeats another in war and why.

  • 4
    But perhaps some allowance must be made for Diaz exaggerating the odds; blood up to knees is too much of a topos to accept uncrticially. Unfortunately, wedo not have records from the other side to compare to, as is usual. Oct 22 '14 at 19:55
  • @FelixGoldberg My answer is designed to help the OP at a level he can understand and use in a practical way. Oct 22 '14 at 20:24
  • 4
    Oh, and we forgot to mention again that thousand and thousand of natives were actually aligning with Cortes in his campaigns and fought together... By the way, blood clots and you die standing if you get knee high in it.
    – Greg
    Oct 23 '14 at 7:21
  • @Greg Obviously you have never worked in a slaughterhouse. Oct 23 '14 at 15:11
  • 2
    @TylerDurden True. But I would argue that a slaughter house with highly efficient and automated execution system, solid concrete floor, killing and purposefully blooding animals several times bigger of the human body gives an accurate or even useful comparison. By the way, you have horrible hygienic conditions in your slaughterhouses if that is the situation.
    – Greg
    Oct 23 '14 at 16:00

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.