Incredible Facts About Native American History

Native Americans are the indigenous people who inhabited what is now the United States thousands of years before a single settler step foot on the shore. They lived in tribes, developing complex yet simple societies, establishing villages and distinct cultures depending on the region and people. However, they were greatly affected by the European colonization of the Americas which began in 1492. They suffered a drastic population decline and were losing land, eventually becoming a minority. Take a look into the fascinating culture of Native Americans and their storied place in history.

See how some Native Americans influenced Benjamin Franklin.

Native American Code Talkers Created The Only Unbreakable Code During World War II

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USMC/Interim Archives/Getty Images
USMC/Interim Archives/Getty Images

During World War II, over 24,000 Native Americans served in the armed forces. Among them was a specialized group known as the code talkers. These were a select group of bilingual Native American volunteers recruited by the United States Marines who used their knowledge of Native American languages to transmit messages.

Utilized mostly in the Pacific theater, the Japanese were beside themselves when they were unable to break the code even though it was just Native Americans speaking in code using their native languages. This practice can be traced back to World War I and is still the only code used in history that was unbreakable during wartime.

Abraham Lincoln Ordered The Largest Mass Execution In American History

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Hulton/Archive/Getty Images

In 1862, a group of Santee Sioux in Minnesota killed 490 white settlers in response to the atrocities being inflicted among the indigenous tribes. However, the United States Army managed to capture over 300 of them, and on November 16, 1862, all of them were sentenced to death by hanging.

A month later, President Abraham Lincoln decided to only sentence 38 of them to death, resulting in the largest mass execution in American history. On December 26, all 38 were publicly executed in the center of the town they had attacked as hundreds of spectators watched.

The Bald Eagle On The U.S. Seal Was Possibly Inspired By The Iroquois Confederacy

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Bettmann/Getty Images

Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the United States and co-author of the Constitution, was greatly intrigued by the Iroquois Confederacy. He saw similarities between the colonies and the Iroquois Confederacy, which was a coming together of five different Native American nations in the southern Great Lake area.

Established in the mid-1400s, the Confederacy was referred to as “The Great League of Peace,” comprised of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. His admiration for the Confederacy can possibly be hinted at on the United States seal which depicts the Iroquois bald eagle, a symbol of the tribe.

See which European people visited the Americas before Christopher Columbus!

The Love Story About Pocahontas And John Smith Is A Lie

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MPI/Getty Images

Counter to popular culture, the love interest between Pocahontas and John Smith is not real. When John Smith first arrived in Virginia, Pocahontas was only around eight years old. Supposedly, her only connection with Smith was saving his life before her father, Chief Powhatan, executed him. Yet, even that’s a hotly debated topic.

What is assumed to have happened is that the colonists captured Pocahontas, converted her to Christianity, and she ultimately decided to stay with her captors. She then took on the name Rebecca, married a man named John Rolfe, had a son, and moved to London. There, she lived out the rest of her life as a “civilized savage” and a kind of celebrity.

The Last “Wild Indian” Died In 1916

Ishi
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Ishi was the last surviving member of the Native American Yahi people that resided in present-day California. The last of the Yahi, as well as numerous other tribes, were wiped out during the California genocide in the 19th century. Ishi, who survived, lived in the wilderness in seclusion, away from developing society.

In 1911, at the age of 50, he was discovered in the foothills of Lassen Peak, California. Ishi was taken in and studied by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California, Berkely. There, he spent his remaining five years demonstrating Yahi culture and working with various anthropologists.

They Were One Of The First Creators Of Anesthetics

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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, given their extensive knowledge of the fauna and flora in their surroundings, Native Americans were among one of the first people to implement the use of anesthetics in their healing practices. A few that they were most known for include coca plants, peyote, and other natural ingredients that they had at their disposal in order to either completely or slightly numb an ailment.

These forms of anesthetics weren’t even discovered by foreign doctors until the 1800s. Up until then, settlers typically only used alcohol or other more rudimentary forms of anesthesia.

They Laid The Groundwork For Westward Expansion

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Stock Montage/Getty Images

Because Native American’s knew the land so well and understood what conditions would allow for them to prosper the best, they established their settlements in ideal locations. Because many of these settlements were in such ideal areas, it’s no surprise that they became trading posts which would eventually be turned into small cities by pioneers.

Some of these small cities, thanks to the Native Americans, would even go on to become some of the largest cities in the United States. These include cities such as Detroit, Michigan, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and more.

Christopher Columbus Wasn’t The First European Native Americans Encountered

Christopher Columbus
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Contrary to popular belief, it has recently been established that Christopher Columbus and his men weren’t the first Europeans to step foot in North America. In the late 10th century AD, Norsemen were exploring and settling areas in the North Atlantic, including some areas in North America.

This was proven when in 1960, a Norse settlement was found at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, an island off the east coast which is now the Canadian Mainland. There is also evidence that there was trade between the Norseman and Native Americans with artifacts such as iron, combs, chess pieces, and more being found.

Do you know which sport comes from Native American culture?

They Were The First To Create Popcorn

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although Native Americans relied on many crops that are still popular today such as potatoes, beans, cotton, and more, one of their greatest staple crops was corn. They relied on corn for countless different purposes, even outside of the realm of food.

So, through their experimentation with the crop, they also discovered how to make popcorn. The oldest popcorn found to date was in New Mexico and dates back to 5,600 years ago. Not only is it an excellent travel food, but it was also believed to be used as a fashion statement.

Their Red Dye Was Valued More Than Silver In Europe

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Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One of, if not the most valuable exports coming from the New World back to Europe in the 16th century was red dye. Centuries prior, the Native Americans had discovered a process of producing red dye by extracting it from a cactus eating insect known as cochineal. To them, it wasn’t anything greater than any other color.

In Europe at the time, red was a color that indicated social status and wealth because it was so rare. So, when the die from cochineal was brought back to Europe it was worth its weight in gold.

They Created A Hairstyle That Is Popular Today

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Mohawk hairstyle, which is still popular among some groups in society, can actually be traced back to the Mohawk tribe, one of the peoples who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy. The males of the tribe were known for shaving both sides of their head, keeping one clean and painting the other with a bright color.

They had communities in what is now northern New York and southeastern Canada. Known in the Iroquois Confederacy as the “Keepers of the Eastern Door,” they guarded the Confederation against invasions from the east.

Lacrosse Dates Back To Native American Culture

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Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

A popular sport today, lacrosse actually has its roots in Native American culture. It’s even considered to be one of the oldest sports in North America. The Native American version of the game was frequently played on the east coast, around the Great Lakes, the South, and even in parts of Canada.

Although the game could be played within a tribe, major games were social events with hundreds to thousands of men from different villages and tribes participating over a span of days. Usually played in the space between two villages, the goals could range from hundreds of feet to miles.

See which part of the world they originated from.

Numerous English Words Are Derived From Native American Language

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Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

During the time of Columbus, and when Europeans began to settle in the New World, it is estimated that there were over 2,000 Native American languages among the various tribes. The settlers adopted many of their words especially when it came to animals that they weren’t familiar with. Some of these include caribou, chipmunk, muskrat, moose, opossum, skunk, and more.

Other non-animal words were also adopted including bayou, barbecue, cannibal, poncho, mesquite, tornado, shack, guacamole, chocolate, toboggan, and more. Many of these words can from the Native Americans who spoke Algonquian languages.

Their Population Was Decimated

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MPI/Getty Images

By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, there were tens of millions of Native Americans roaming the lands. However, after violence and being pushed from their homes, only an estimated 500,000 remained after just a few hundred years since the arrival of the Europeans.

On September 2000, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs submitted a formal apology to the remaining Native American people. They apologized for their role in what they called “ethnic cleansing” and they said they’re now trying to do what’s right.

They Originated From Asia

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While Native Americans have inhabited North America for thousands of years, they’re originally from Asia. Academics claim that the ancestors of Native Americans we know migrated from Asia to North America around 20,000 years ago. It’s assumed that they crossed the land bridge in the Bering Straight that connected Russia to what is now the United States.

Known as the Beringia Bridge, it is believed to have been passable when ocean levels were lower. This exposed the seafloor creating a land bridge allowing humans and animals to cross.

A Dark Rumor About The Origins Of Thanksgiving

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Most people are taught that Thanksgiving originated from a meal when the settlers and Native Americans came together to share a meal. While this might be exaggerated, there’s rumor about Thanksgiving that’s much more sinister. When a murdered man was discovered near Plymouth Rock in 1636, Mayor John Mason and the others were quick to blame the neighboring Pequot tribe.

In response, they massacred the tribe and burned down their village. Supposedly, the Massachusetts governor, William Newell, proclaimed “This day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.” Quite a different story.

A Dark Time In American History

Trail Of Tears
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1838 was one of the darkest times in American history. The United States forcibly relocated thousands of Indians from their lands to designated areas on the west side of the Mississippi River. This march to their new “homes” is regarded as the Trail of Tears.

This is because it was an incredibly inhumane journey with thousands of Native Americans dying from all different tribes. Many of the deaths are attributed to disease as well as exposure to the elements.

They Fought Beside The Europeans In The French And Indian War

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In what is regarded as the French and Indian or Seven Years War, conflict broke out between Britain and France when France began expanding into the Ohio River Valley. Both the British and the French wanted the territory and violence broke out. After a few battles, the British officially issued a declaration of war in 1756.

Since the British and French had both been occupying their own lands prior, each had established relations with the local Native American tribes. These tribes then fought on the side they were most familiar with. In the end, the British won the war at the Battle of Quebec.

The Reintroduction Of Horses Changed Everything

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MPI/Getty Images

Thousands of years before the Europeans arrived to colonize the New World, horses roamed North America. However, the ancestors of the Native Americans quickly over-hunted them, eventually leading to their extinction in that part of the world.

On top of bringing foreign animals such as cattle, sheep, and pigs, the Europeans also brought horses. This completely changed the lifestyle and culture of the Native Americans, with horses becoming a staple in their society. Even today, Native Americans are often associated with horses.

Some Of Them Were Sold In Slavery

Slavery
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Even before African Americans were used as slaves in the United States, white settlers were already selling Native Americans into slavery. Not long after establishing settlements, conflict began to break out between the European settlers and Native American tribes.

If the settlers won a skirmish, they sometimes sold the surviving natives into slavery. One instance of this was when a local Pequot tribe tried to fight colonists in Connecticut in 1637. They lost, and the men and boys were sold into slavery in the West Indies. The women were then taken captive to work as slaves in the households of the victors.