Why did European people continue to call Native Americans as Indians even after they found out they were not Indians?

Question was inspired by Louis Ck's stand up bit.

Based on what I know: Europeans were interested in Spice trade, they wanted to explore sea route instead of land route because they had to cross many empire/kingdoms to reach India and vice versa.

They started exploring sea routes, Magellan challenged the earth is round theory, Columbus went the wrong route and discovered land.

Based on skin color, they called Native American folks Indians. fast forward to late 17th century, they found out that Britain were actually in India and they were on the wrong continent.

They still call them Indians, 300 years later.

The only thing common between Native Americans and OG-Indians is Hair color. But, they didn't have technology to verify the other features.

I m assuming Europeans thought "Brown Skin + Black Hair + ride horses + archers and swordsmen" = Indians

But, Indians from India had gold, ate spicy food, had architecture while the folks on the north american continent had none of that.

  • 5
    Why would they change? They valued ethnic precision much less than we do now.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 21:42
  • 5
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    – MCW
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 21:42
  • 7
    "Magellan accidentally found out that the earth is round" is a statement I recommend you investigate because it is possible that you are wrong. I suggest wikipedia.
    – Ginasius
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 23:03
  • 5
    I think the Wikipedia page that @Ginasius meant might have been Spherical Earth. Although a "practical demonstration of Earth's sphericity was achieved by Ferdinand Magellan", the fact that the Earth is spherical has been known since antiquity. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 23:33
  • 2
    Riding horses is absolutely not a reason why Americans were called Indians. And being swordmen ? wow.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 16:07

2 Answers 2


Remember that the word "India" would mean 'get-rich-quick-dream-land' for the sailors. At first Columbus believed he was in Asia, and they had been looking for a way to India for generations. For Columbus, they'd better be Indians. It did not take long for the Iberians to be sure that America was not in Asia, but why drop a very inspiring name, that already had stuck, just because it was not true? They had to recruit sailors and convince investors.

Also, the sea currents implied that the fastest way to India-Asia was through Brazil coast. For the ships in the Portugal-India annual convoy, Brazil would be just one supply stop while their minds would be in India-Asia. It would be easy to them to use the same word for the new unnamed peoples they found.

And, the english and dutch used the term "West Indias".

Iberians and South Americans just use 'indios' today, why would anyone care to change? There were never many Asian/Hindu Indians in Iberian America, so there were no confusion. And there were no confusion in Iberia about their colonies because the american lands had other names (America, Brazil, La Plata, Mexico, etc).

Native American is just a cumbersome modern PC term which I have never seen in portuguese except in recent academic texts where they force themselves to be very very PC.

I have a female relative who dates an actual indian in Brazil (*) and when he is in the city he calls himself "Índio" and this is how he tells us to call him. Every time in TV the indians just call themselves indians and that is it.

I see that it may be confusing when there are also Asian/Hindu Indians in the same place, but it is not the case.

(*) his indian village looks like a poor suburban neighboorhood today, slight better than a favela, and they lost their language, but they still do small farming and sell traditional artifacts to tourists. Some of them also mix their religion with african religions and gipsy palm-reading to dupe more tourists.

  • 3
    Even in the US, a great many Indians think "native American" is vaguely insulting, and prefer to use Indian as the generic term.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 0:38


Up until about 1800 the majority of the area of North and South America was claimed to be part of a kingdom with the title of "The East and West Indias". And thus the aboriginal inhabitants of that kingdom were called "Indians" since they lived in one or another of "The Indias". According to Spanish colonial law, the aboriginal inhabitants of that vast kingdom were legally described as "Indians".

The American Indians were called Indians because that was their legal racial name, meaning aboriginal inhabitants of the Indias, and had been for centuries. Changing their racial name would probably have required officially changing the title of the gigantic kingdom that claimed most of the Americas to something else.

And calling the aboriginal peoples "Indians" was picked up by Europeans in Europe and in the neighboring Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English colonies.


In etymology, the study of words, it makes almost as much sense to call North and South America "India", and their natives "Indians", as it does to call The Republic of India "India" and its natives "Indians". The United States of America is almost as much "India" as the Republic of India is.

In the old days India did not mean the area of the Republic of India, nor the area of the Indian Empire or British Raj, nor the area of the Mughal Empire. It was a very vague geographical term. So vague that probably about half the land area of the world, and almost half of the oceans, has been part of one "India" or another at various times.

Medieval Europe had a geographical term of the Three Indias which had very vague geographical limits since very few medieval Europeans had ever been to any part of them.

The concept of the Three Indias was in common circulation in pre-industrial Europe. Greater India was the southern part of South Asia, Lesser India was the northern part of South Asia, and Middle India was the region near the Middle East.[10] The Portuguese form (Portuguese: India Maior[10][11][12][13]) was used at least since the mid-15th century.[11] The term, which seems to have been used with variable precision,[14] sometimes meant only the Indian subcontinent;[15] Europeans used a variety of terms related to South Asia to designate the South Asian peninsula, including High India, Greater India, Exterior India and India aquosa.[16]

However, in some accounts of European nautical voyages, Greater India (or India Major) extended from the Malabar Coast (present-day Kerala) to India extra Gangem[17] (lit. "India, beyond the Ganges," but usually the East Indies, i.e. present-day Malay Archipelago) and India Minor, from Malabar to Sind.[18] Farther India was sometimes used to cover all of modern Southeast Asia.[16] Until the fourteenth century, India could also mean areas along the Red Sea, including Somalia, South Arabia, and Ethiopia (e.g., Diodorus of Sicily of the first century BCE says that "the Nile rises in India" and Marco Polo of the fourteenth century says that "Lesser India ... contains ... Abash [Abyssinia]")[19]

So the largest definition of the Three Indias or Greater India or India would include all of South Asia and everything from Ethiopia to the Philippines, or possibly to China and Japan.

So when Columbus arrived at the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola in 1492 he believed that he had arrived in the Indias, in islands somewhere south of Japan, and only a few hundred or a few thousand miles from wealthy civilized lands like India or China.

Thus the members of various tribes and ethnic groups in the new lands began to be called Indians, because they were believed to be natives of a part of "East India".

In 1504 King Ferdinand II of Aragon, etc. added Lord of the Indias of the Ocean Sea to his titles.

Nos Ferdinandus Dei gratia Rex Aragonum, Siciliæ, citra et ultra Farum, Jerusalem, Valentiæ, Majoricarum, Sardiniæ, Corsicæ, Comes Barchinonæ, Dominus Indiorum maris Oceani, Dux Athenarum et Neopatriæ, Comes Roxilionis et Ceritaniæ, Marchio Oristani et Goccani, administrator et gobernator regnorum Castellæ, Legionis, Granatæ etc. pro Serenissima Regina Johanna, filia nostra carissima

Ferdinand II renounced his rights in America to his daughter Queen Joan I of Castile, etc. by the Treaty of Vilafafila in 1506 and dropped the Indias from his title.


In 1506 Queen Joan I of Castile, etc. and her husband King Philip I added the title of King and Queen of the Indias, the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea, to their titles.

Don Felipe e dona Joana, por la gracia de Dios, rey e reyna de Castilla, de Leon, de Granada, de Toledo, de Galizia, de Sevilla, de Cordoba, de Murçia, de Jahen, de los Algarbes, de Algezira, de Gibraltar e de las Yslas de Canaria y de las Yndias, Yslas y Tierra Firme del Mar Oçeano, principes de Aragon e de las Dos Seçilias, de Jerusalem, archiduques de Austria, duques de Borgoña e de Brabante etc., condes de Flandes e de Tirol, etc., señores de Bizcaya e de Molina etc.


I am a little uncertain whether the Indias and the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean sea were supposed to be two separate kingdoms, or a single Kingdom of the Indias, the Islands, and the Mainland of the Ocean sea.

In 1581 "Indias" was replaced with "East and West Indias" so the title became "East and West Indias, the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean sea". The "East Indias" were the Philippines and other islands in East Asia, often called the "East Indies" in English, and some Pacific islands, and the "West Indias" were all the islands, sometimes called the "West Indies" in English, and mainlands in the Americas.

The term "West Indies" for Caribbean islands is the reason why a movie about fictional female pirate Anne Providence in the Caribbean is titled Anne of the Indies (1951).

Don Phelipe, por la gracia de Dios, Rey de Castilla, de Leon, de Aragon, de las Dos Sicilias, de Jerusalen, de Portugal, de Navarra, de Granada, de Toledo, de Valencia, de Galicia, de Mallorcas, de Sevilla, de Cerdeña, de Córdoua, de Córcega, de Murcia, de Jahen, de los Algarues, de Algecira, de Gibraltar, de las islas de Canaria, de las Indias orientales y occidentales, Islas y tierra firme del mar Océano, archiduque de Austria, duque de Borgoña y de Brauante y Milan, conde de Abspurg, de Flandes y de Tirol y de Barcelona, Señor de Vizcaya y de Molina, etc.


Joseph Bonaparte, the monarch from 1808-1813, used the short title of "King of the Spains, the Indias".

Don Josef Napoleón por la gracia de Dios y la Constitución del Estado Rey de las Españas y de las Indias


And in 1813 the old title was readopted, including "King of the East & West Indias, the Islands and Mainland in the Ocean sea".

Don Fernando, por la Gracia de Dios, Rey de Castilla, de Leon, de Aragon, de las Dos Sicilias, de Jerusalen, de Navarra, de Granada, de Toledo, de Valencia, de Galicia, de Mallorca, de Menorca, de Sevilla, de Cerdena, de Córdoba, de Córcega, de Murcia, de Jaen, de los Algarbes, de Algeciras, de Gibraltar, de las Islas de Canaria, de las Indias Orientales y Occidentales, Islas y Tierra firme del mar Océano; Archiduque de Austria; Duque de Borgona, de Brabante y de Milan; Conde de Abspurg, Flándes, Tirol y Barcelona; Señor de Vizcaya y de Molina, &c.


The Kingdom of the Indias ruled the largest area ever in any kingdom ruled by Europeans, and claimed a much larger area, all of the American continents except for eastern Brazil and eastern Greenland, and also claimed rule over most of the Pacific Ocean.

And since the official name of that vast region was the Indias, it was only natural that the native peoples as a whole would be called Indios, "Indians", and that English speakers copied that name.

In short, any person residing in the western hemisphere has almost as much right to be called an Indian as any person residing in the Republic of India.

The Heraldry of the Kingdom of the east and West Indias

Here is a link to a discussion of the coats of arms of the Spanish Kingdom of the Indias.


I may add another coat of arms for the Indias. The Austrian Candidate for the Spanish throne in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), Archduke Charles, lost, but became Emperor Charles VI in 1711. By treaty he retained the right to use his Spanish titles during his lifetime. So his full title was:

Emperor of the Romans; King in Germany, of Castile, Leon, Aragon, both Sicilies, Jerusalem, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Navarra, Grenada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Sevilla, Sardinia, Cordova, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, the Algarve, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, East & West Indias, the Islands & Mainland of the Ocean sea; Archduke of Austria; Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Milan, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Limburg, Luxemburg, Gelderland, Württemberg, the Upper & Lower Silesia, Calabria, Athens, Neopatria; Prince of Swabia, Catalonia, Asturia; Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, of Burgau, Moravia, the Upper & Lower Lusatia; Princely Count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Ferrette, Kyburg, Gorizia, Artois; Landgrave of Alsace; Margrave of Oristano; Count of Goceano, Namur, Roussillon, Cerdagne; Lord of the Wendish March, Pordenone, Biscay, Molina, Salins, Tripoli, Mechelen;


Thus the successors of Emperor Charles VI sometimes used Spanish coats of arms among their many coats of arms. Including one which can be blazoned: "Azure (blue) a lion rampant (rearing up) argent (silver) with a cross or (gold) in the dexter (right) paw". This coat of arms is called "India" and no doubt refers to "the Kingdom of the East and West Indias, the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea".

  • I suspect a typo in your otherwise informative answer. "Joseph Bonaparte, the monarch from 1818-1813..." seems hard to do without travelling backwards in time. (Wikipedia says he was king of Spain 1808-13.) Also, it's still quite common to refer to the islands stretching east of the Indian subcontinent as the "East Indies", and their inhabitants as "East Indians".
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 17:27
  • @jamesqf Yes, it was a typo, now corrected. And I added a statement explaining that the "East Indias" in the Spanish royal title refereed to what is sometimes called the "East Indies".
    – MAGolding
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 16:17

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