Scholarly Source: Delores Bird Carpenter, Early Encounters

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

Delores Bird Carpenter, Early Encounters: Native Americans and Europeans in New England. From the Papers of W. Sears Nickerson (Michigan State University Press, 1995) 1-10.

Delores Bird Carpenter teaches survey courses in American literature, oral communication, and persuasive communication at Cape Cod Community College. Her work in Early Encounters provides updated commentary on the papers of W. Sears Nickerson who was born in 1880 and began researching research on the Native American tribes that dwelt between the Bass River and Provincetown areas of Cape Cod. To aid his studies he researched deeds, old documents, court records, military lists and early town records.

Indisputably, the arrival of Columbus produced a clash of cultures further hampered by death by disease, by cultural oppression, by disrespect for native culture or traditions, by colonization, by violent usurpation of native lands, and by brutalization of native inhabitants. The subsequent explorers of occupied shores, with goals as varied as those of Columbus, invariably encountered vast cultural differences. Anthony Pagden observed, “the traveler, the discoverer, the settler, the immigrant, the missionary and the colonist: all such people came to American with battered ambitions, different expectations and different objectives. But if they were at all sensitive, they all came in time to see that, culturally at least, incommensurability was inescapable.” They wanted to transform unfamiliar cultures of which they had no prior understanding, into something recognizably like their own.

Verbal communications between Europeans and Indians collapsed on fundamental cultural and philosophical differences. With these cultural clashes, the resulting atrocities and the pattern of revenge or retaliation were set in motion. . . .What Huizinga calls “the violent tenor of life” in the fifteenth century was so pervasive—death was so daily, brutality so commonplace, destruction of the animate and inanimate so customary. . . People of such background made contacts with natives (who had their own violent confrontations with other native groups . . . .) which initially were friendly. Such honeymoons were short-lived as some incident invariably happened, potentially having its roots in cultural ignorance, no doubt oftentimes rooted in insensitive natures with possibly evil motives. This set up a never-ending chain of retaliations. . . In New England, it should have been no surprise when natives met their unfamiliar visitors with hostilities. In 1602 when Bartholomew Gosnold came into Elisabeth’s Isle on Buzzard’s Bay, some natives helped the English dig sassafras and feasted with them, yet within less than two weeks four natives attacked two crewmen. Perhaps the natives’ change in attitude had something to do with Gosnold’s stealing a canoe. . . or perhaps they resented Gosnold’s group being amused at their response to hot mustard which they could have thought to be poison. . . Therefore, what the Pilgrims called “The First Encounter” was not, except for them. Fresh from European ports, the Pilgrims could not know that the natives who received them so ungraciously were not acting out of some atavistic racial hatred or primitive xenophobia but from a well-founded sense of revenge for injuries inflicted by earlier European[s].