ONE of the most dramatic situations in history was the first meeting of the white man with the red. Europe had not suspected the existence anywhere of races in a wholly different stage of development from herself, and she had not yet traced her own ancestry back to the cave, when suddenly she came face to face with a people 5000 and 6000 years behind her.
Although the American aborigines were loosely called savages, all but a few tribes on the Pacific slope really, had advanced beyond savagery. Most ethnologists rank men according to the tools they possess. The lowest grade of savages have none, and must live off nuts and berries. The middle grade have the fish hook and the secret of fire, which enables them to cook their catch. The highest grade have the bow and arrow, and these give them dominion over the animal kingdom.
The Indian in what is now the United States had also a pot in which to boil what his bow and arrow shot, and that advanced him out of savagery into the lowest stage of barbarism. His brother in New Mexico had also a crude plow and a system of irrigation. Even he had no well, because he did not know that there was water under his feet.
Without a plow, the Indians in the United States may have been fewer in numbers at the time of the discovery than they are today, when they total some 400,000. They were only emerging from the nomadic stage. They had villages of wooden huts, but they moved from place to place as the seasons changed; to fertile ground for their gardening; to the streams in fishing time and to the protection of warm valleys at the approach of Winter.
The all-surrounding forests supplied its children with meat for their table, skins for their moccasins and for the little clothing they wore. Their snowshoe in Winter and their birch bark canoe in Summer were admirable methods of locomotion, which the white man still copies.
The North American Indians scratched holes in the soil with bits of stone or bone or shell and dropped in the seed for their corn, butter beans, pumpkins, squashes and melons, which grew almost without cultivation. Even the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas of Yucatan and the Incas of Peru had not learned the art of smelting ore and the making of metal tools and weapons.
Nor had any of the peoples of America those tools of flesh and blood, the beasts of burden, excepting only that miniature camel, the llama of Peru. For lack of a horse the Indian had to drag his heavier load behind him on poles. The wheel, greatest of all inventions of man, was unknown to him. For lack of a cow the squaw nursed her papoose from four to as many as 12 years, in some instances. For lack of beef, mutton and port, the red man could not progress out of a race of hunters and settle down in the pastoral age, where the recorded history of our white people only begins.
Man cannot go far on the road of progress under his own power alone. The Indian hardly could have climbed up into what we call civilization without the aid of a four-footed servant.
Although far inferior in the practical arts and living far below the standards of Europe, the Indians often surpassed the Europeans in moral qualities at the first meetings between the races. Why? Because they were a freer people, and therefore more self-respecting.
Before he became embroiled and prejudiced in his struggle to conquer and dispossess the aborigine, the white man's own story—and we have no other—is filled with instances of the red man's dignity, hospitality, magnanimity and sense of honor, which the sons of European chivalry and the professors of Christianity did not, by any means, always repay in the same coin. The Indian seldom, if ever, showed any hostility at his first contact with the pale-faced stranger. We shall see, as these tales unfold, straggling, shipwrecked white men, alone and by twos and threes and fours, wandering for years up and down and across the continent, as they passed in safety from tribe to tribe.
Welcoming Columbus as a god descended from Heaven, the Indians helped him save his Santa Maria from wreck, and he said: "They exhibit great love to all others in preference to themselves." And the discoverer promised the Spanish King and Queen as many red slaves as they should order him to capture!
Gosnold reported that the New England natives were "fearless of others' harm as intending none themselves." In the midst of his ruthless kidnaping of those New England Indians, Weymouth said that "if you give anything to one of them, he will distribute part to every one of the rest." Henry Hudson was greeted by "a very loving people" near the Catskills, who brought him and his Dutch crew corn, pumpkins and tobacco.
After the Indians had reduced one of Verrazano's men from drowning, that French expedition stole a red baby! The inhabitants of Montreal saved Jacques Cartier from disaster, and that French pioneer in Canada requited their humanity by treacherously stealing their chiefs! When both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies would have perished of starvation, they were succored by red Samaritans, whose saving kindness is recorded on those corner stones of this Nation.
The red man remains first in the respect of the white man, after four centuries of exploration among the aborigines in all the dark corners of the earth. He alone is excepted from the color prejudices of the Americans, who make a boast of any drop that flows in their veins from the race of Pocahontas.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 6, 1927, p. 18