by Rod D. Martin
October 12, 2015

The question is sometimes asked, “Why doesn’t the United States recognize the massacres of Native Americans as genocide?”

This question is bigger than it looks. It compresses the history of every country currently or formerly on this continent and the one to the south, plus about a four hundred year period of time, into an argument for an enormous wealth transfer (a point that is objectively true regardless of whether you think that wealth should be transferred). And therein lie all manner of problems.

Let’s start at the start.

War of the Worlds

Most Indians did not die because of any human action. As in the famous H.G. Welles / Orson Wells classic War of the Worlds, it was disease that wiped them out. Indeed, but for that, European settlement might have been impossible: the Americas would have been like India or China, not the largely empty wilderness our history records.

A shocking 80% to 90% of the inhabitants of the Americas were wiped out by disease, very early in their contact with Europeans. There were roughly 37 million natives in what became Latin America immediately prior to Columbus, including 6 million in the Aztec Empire, 8 million in the Mayan States, 11 million in what is now Brazil, and 12 million in the Inca Empire. There were probably about 7 million more to the north, in all of what became the United States and Canada.

While it is true that smallpox was a disproportionately large part of this catastrophe, other deadly diseases inadvertently introduced by the Europeans included typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, mumps, yellow fever, and pertussis (whooping cough). All of these were chronic in Eurasia, and while deadly there too, the natives of those continents had built up significant resistance over time. The Indians, far less numerous, far more spread out, and isolated to a great degree from each other and, up to that time, entirely from Eurasia, had developed no resistance whatsoever.

There is no disaster quite like it in all of history.

Taking a middle-of-the-road 85% figure, what’s left is only about 6.6 million people, spread across both continents. That’s the population of Indiana (36,418 sq. miles) or El Salvador (8,124 sq. miles), but spread out over a total of 16,428,000 sq. miles. And remember, the overwhelming majority of them remained in Spanish (and Portuguese) lands.

So our first question has to be whether this admitted catastrophe constituted a genocide. But if one posits this, who exactly should we hold accountable? Europeans did not even know bacteria existed (and wouldn’t know they were linked to disease for another four hundred years). Does anyone believe that the Chinese should pay reparations for the “genocide” of the Black Death, which killed between 75 and 200 million Europeans in the middle of the preceding century? No, I can’t think of anyone who believes that; and it is obviously right that they do not.

The aftermath of this catastrophe resembled Mad Max or some other post-apocalyptic horror movie far more than we conventionally consider. We are regularly treated now to new satellite discoveries of lost cities. One particularly interesting recent find is a vast and sprawling urban civilization in what is now the Amazon rain forest:

Amazon explorers uncover signs of a real El Dorado

Many scientists saw the jungle as too harsh to sustain anything but small nomadic tribes. Now it seems the conquistadores who spoke of “cities that glistened in white” were telling the truth. They, however, probably also introduced the diseases that wiped out the native people, leaving the jungle to claim – and hide – all trace of their civilisation.

According to our pre-2010 understanding, such a civilization could not have existed; and likewise, our belief was that Indians “lived in harmony with nature” and all sorts of other latter day revisionism. But in fact, Indians were highly accomplished clear-cutters, and the jungles that dominate much of Latin America (like many forests in the U.S.) were significantly smaller, if not nonexistent, under the reign of the Native Americans. Ten times as many people living in a largely non-technological society meant a lot of need for farm land and for wood to burn as fuel; and generally speaking, few Incas and Aztecs had ecology degrees from Berkeley.

But that was before First Contact. After, with 80% to 90% of the population gone, and Spanish settlement priorities (e.g., sea ports) rather different, much of what had been farms and cities was overrun by nature, in much the same way imagined for the world after so many globe-girdling disasters on screen. Can you imagine what the remnants of our own civilization might “function” like after being similarly decimated?

That post-apocalyptic aspect is highly relevant to much of what came later. Of such civilization as existed before (and that was extremely variable from region to region), the vast majority broke down. Contact changed groups in other ways too: it’s hard to imagine the Comanches, Apaches or Sioux other than on horseback, but no horses existed in the Americas before the Spanish brought them. Those tribes’ “ancient” hunting cultures did not exist before Columbus, at least not in any form recognizable to moderns. Whatever they had been before (and many of them weren’t much to start with), most of them were either assimilated or reduced to abject primitivism and barbarism of a sort that was and is highly incompatible with any settled society, Indian, European or otherwise.

In any case, the net effect, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in what became the United States, was that Indians existed in smallish, disconnected xenophobic groups at a subsistence level, constantly at war with each other and anyone else in reach. There was little concept of boundaries or real property, for the same reason that Mongols had little such concept and (much later) ranchers felt no need to fence the open range. That much land used by that few people simply didn’t require such concepts. The flip side of that, of course, is that it’s very hard to “steal” what no one owns; but that’s an issue for another day, fraught with many complications. Suffice it to say that when fences came, there were range wars between ranchers too.

North of Tenochtitlan: Early America’s Experience With the Natives

At this point we could spend a lot of time examining the treatment of various Indian groups and/or nations by the Spanish and Portuguese, and there’s a lot to be said for and against both sides. But there are two salient points, to wit: (1) that the Spanish and Portuguese are not and were not then “the United States,” and (2) their activities predate the existence of the United States by three hundred years. This is particularly important when you consider (as described above) that the overwhelming majority of the native inhabitants of the Americas were concentrated in Mexico, Peru and Brazil.

So what about America?

It is a marvel to note how seriously the medieval Spanish took the colonization of the New World. On his second-ever voyage to the Americas, Columbus brought 1,100 men to found a colony: this is as though America had founded a city on the Moon a few months after Neil Armstrong landed. Across Latin America, in places like the captivating Antigua, Guatemala, you find massive cathedrals built just a few years or decades after their locations were discovered, in spots nowhere near the ocean or any port. You might not like everything the Spaniards did, but their vision, passion and execution was breathtaking.

Not so the English. When my ancestors founded Jamestown in 1607 — 120 years after Columbus’ first voyage and nearly a century after the Spanish had colonized 2/3 of the New World — they showed up with 104 men (I stress “men” because they brought no women). They were not sponsored by their government, but rather by a private corporation in which my eleventh great grandfather was a founding shareholder (he later settled at Jamestown and helped found the first freely elected parliament in the New World, the Virginia House of Burgesses). By 1609, their numbers were up to 500, or less than half the number of colonists Columbus brought to Hispaniola on just his second voyage more than a century before. That winter, nearly all of them died: only 60 were left by Spring of 1610.

So you can imagine why they reacted differently than moderns expect to the 21,000 Indians — 350 times their number — in their immediate vicinity. Living in an era when swords, bows and arrows remained prominent even in European warfare, the colonists were not just outnumbered but held only a thin technological advantage if any.

The Coronation of Powhatan, John Gadsby Chapman

“The Coronation of Powhatan,” by John Gadsby Chapman

What’s more, though they were careful to maintain peace with the natives and to settle in places that would be as inoffensive as possible, they were under verbal assault almost immediately — Powhatan bragged to John Smith that he had personally massacred the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke — and they were attacked soon enough thereafter, beginning with the famed Indian Massacre of 1622 — which wiped out over a third of the population of the colony — and continuing in warfare for a decade thereafter. This played out in similar form in Massachusetts and elsewhere, and continued to do so through many decades to come.

In other words, the Natives were not some pitiable lot, not to the English. They were an existential threat, and they made good on that threat all too often. And whereas disease had indeed wiped out most of the indigenous population of the Americas in the preceding century, in Virginia in particular the shoe was on the other foot: not disease but actual, savage human beings slaughtered nearly all of the English.

The psychology of the settlers has to be understood in this light. Ignore all the superficial matters: the Indians were racist too, both sides thought of their own civilization as superior, everyone involved had shortcomings. None of that is the point.

The point is that once the settlers had been forced to defend their land in warfare, they believed — just as the Indians also believed — that it was theirs by right of victory, regardless of other considerations. And unlike the Indians, the Europeans were building things — Harvard College, for instance — and not merely passing through, hunting, or whatever. They felt that those things mattered, and they’d paid for them with their own blood and the blood of loved ones lost.

For the most part, they did not see the Indians as deserving of a lot of sympathy. Again, the Indians outnumbered them (which, based on the discussion above, tells you how few settlers there were, reaching just 3 million almost two centuries after Jamestown at the time of the American Revolution), and they felt they had every right to defend themselves and their families while they went peacefully about their lives. After all, it was a big continent, with plenty of room for all, not just in their subjective view, but in fact.

It took a very long time for the settlers to grow into a nation. It took until after the American Revolution for them even to press past the Appalachians; and the Revolution was nearly lost because the settlers had to divide forces to defend their homes from Indian attacks. But in that also lies a tale. The various separate Indian nations, however tiny and primitive they might have been, were still quite large and powerful compared to those frontier settlements, and virtually all of them formally allied in war with the settlers’ enemies, notably France in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and later the Revolution. They were numerous (relatively speaking), well-armed (by the French and British), and deadly.

And the colonists beat them.

Walking in Other Men’s Shoes

Why am I belaboring this? Because to determine if someone is guilty of a thing, you must first understand their motivation and mindset. The early Americans were outnumbered families defending their homes and schools and livelihoods. As a group they grew, but only over time. They reached a certain parity at some point, but did not perceive that until much later, and had to defeat the native tribes again and again just to survive.

And having survived, they did not, could not, see those tribes as moderns see them. They saw them as the equivalent of ISIS living down the street in your neighborhood.

All of this took centuries. What we think of as “winning the West” — the part where Americans and Canadians spread out from the Atlantic coast across the continent — largely took place over just a few decades in the 19th century, after all the rest of this had shaped and molded everyone. All of these perceptions had developed slowly but were ingrained, and with reason. The point at which whites gained clear superiority and even dominance in numbers and technology happened more quickly than most could perceive, and importantly even then, not everywhere at once. The frontier line ran through Florida even as late as 1890.

It is easy to look at Wounded Knee and marvel at the mismatch, of these insanely advanced whites overwhelming those poor outnumbered, barely armed underdogs. The picture today is of machine guns vs. bows and arrows, a nation of 320 million people or some large fraction thereof raping a defenseless indigenous people.

But that isn’t how any of this came to be. Some but not all of the early tiny settlements survived. Over time they thrived. They had to fight for their survival. They won. They lost loved ones and held grudges, against a still superior native foe. They grew. More came as they won and they grew. They continued to live in daily fear of being raided, kidnapped or scalped. Decades passed. Centuries passed. The end wasn’t pretty for the Indians, just as a Celtic uprising against modern England wouldn’t be pretty. But back in the thick of things, Scots were a dire threat to the English time and again, and pretending otherwise today would be not only to ignore history, but to demean its participants.

Was It Genocide?

The Indians — a nebulous term encompassing countless separate tribes who did not then identify with one another in any way — lost. But they fought. They weren’t slaughtered by the whites: they were slaughtered by the germs. And for most of four hundred years after, they held their own, extremely well.

Some will interject that the settlers had no right to be here in the first place. But again, how does that make any sense? The continent was virtually empty, particularly by the time the English arrived: it wasn’t equivalent to an English army showing up on the shores of France, or India for that matter. And anyway, the same people who claim that Plymouth and Jamestown were unjust “invasions” tend in the next breath to advocate unlimited, often illegal immigration and settlement into those same lands today.

What happened to the Native Americans was in many respects tragic and horrifying, in other ways self-inflicted and richly deserved. What it certainly was not, in any sense of the word, was genocide. It was Caesar conquering Gaul, William defeating Harold, the Manchu overwhelming the Ming. It was just history, like all the rest of history, and it happened not in an instant but over an extremely long stretch of time. And thankfully, the American nation that rose in the Indians’ place not only includes them, but has attained to values and compassion that today make discussions like this one possible.

In that, both groups are infinitely better than they were when they began.

This post originally appeared as an answer on Quora.