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Essay: History questions

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  • History questions
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1. Describe one geographic region prior to European contact. What were the defining political, economic, and social features of that place? How was the region in question connected to the rest of Native North America?

Often in American history classrooms, the first classroom period begins when Columbus first arrived on North American shores in 1492 or maybe even five hundred years earlier in the 900s when the Vikings first arrived in North America. The problem with history being taught this way is that it discounts the history and culture of the many Native American societies who lived in America long before Leif Eriksson or Christopher Columbus even knew about the existence of the continent. The lack of Native American history could be due to the lack of Indian testimonials and written history or that America is a largely Eurocentric nation. No matter the reason, the lack of knowledge about these societies has caused many myths to arise about pre-contact Indian societies. However, these societies were very complex, thought out, and constructed to accommodate thousands of Native Americans. An example of these societies would be the Hopewellian culture, which was followed by the Mississippian culture. These societies disprove the myths of pre-contact Indian societies by the towering architecture, interactions with neighboring societies, and the societal hierarchy and roles played by the Mississippians and Hopewellians.

Likely the most well-known factor of these societies are their impressive mound-based cities and structures. One of the most awe-inspiring structures is the Great Serpent Mound in current-day Adams County, Ohio (Calloway, p.35). This mound is more than one thousand feet of dirt placed to resemble a serpent. Around 700 CE, one of the largest Mississipian towns, Cahokia, was founded. At its peak, Cahokia was home to “between ten thousand and thirty thousand [people], or about the population of medieval London,” (Calloway, p.33). The city contained plazas, religious hubs, and astronomical observatories.

The Mississippians interactions with their neighbors were just as impressive as the structures they built. When the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, the mound structures of the Mississippians were still thriving. Many mound towns were still hubs for population, trade, and ceremonial life. Due partly to the Spanish arrival, however, many of these societies collapsed because of “escalating warfare, epidemics, and slave raiding,” (Calloway, p.38). Before the arrival, there were many trade routes across America between different Mississippian societies and non-Mississippian societies alike. They traded goods like corn, squash, and flint, among other things.

The Mississippians had a distinct and unique society, culture, and hierarchy to go along with the architecture and trade routes. At dig sites at Cahokia, archaeologists discovered proof of a society in which “elite rulers claiming divine descent controlled the distribution of food,” (Calloway, p.35). There was also evidence of ritualistic sacrifice by the Mississippians. Another important factor of life in Mississippian society is agriculture. The rhythmic cycle between growing corn, beans, and squash reflected the life of the people living in Cahokia and other mound cities. The society was thriving until its eventual collapse due to the arrival of Europeans and the growth of a population who could not be supported by the resources.

2. What is “geomythology,” and how can it be used to learn about the ancient North American past? Answer this question while describing more broadly “how we know what we know” about Native North America prior to European contact.

Geomythology is a term that means the study of legends that strive to explain geological phenomenon such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and the like. These legends allow mythologists and historians to explore the deeper meaning behind Native American stories and to get a first-hand account on how Indians saw the world that they inhabited. Often times historians “do not know quite what to make of stories and consequently dismiss them as myths, not appropriate or useful as historical evidence,” however, “oral transmission of stories is common to all human societies and ‘is probably the oldest form of history making,’” (Calloway, “A Navajo Emergence Story and an Iroquois Creation Story,” p.44). In stories like the Navajo, where the First Man and First Woman emerge from several lower worlds in order to eventually find the present world, or the different Iroquois tribes, which all tell slightly different tales, a historian can learn about how a Native American society viewed life. For example, the Iroquois story conveyed “the importance of women in Iroquois society, the duality of good and evil, and the need for balance,” (Calloway, “A Navajo Emergence Story and an Iroquois Creation Story,” p.48). Geomythology is not only important because it conveys stories from different Indian groups, but it is one of the few remnants to a pre-contact Native America.

Geomythology, being a way to access pre-contact Native American history, is a very important tool for historians. However, it is not the only way historians are able to extrapolate information about this time period in the Americas. Some of the main evidence is physical items or towns from these people. At North American dig sites in Folsom and Clovis, New Mexico archeologists discovered weapon points and flint from over 8,000 years ago, (Calloway, p.17). Another connection to pre-contact societies is the mounds used by the Mississippian societies like the mound city of Cahokia. Physical evidence and geomythology are two of the main ways that historians know about pre-contact Native American societies.

3. What is the “Middle Ground?” Define and explain that term and provide examples that illustrate diplomacy and interaction between Native people and European empires within that physical or ideological space.

In Richard White’s novel, he describes the “Middle Ground” as two different and distinct concepts. The first of these concepts is a then French region of North America which consists of parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Canada, among others. The second definition was a process of mutual appeasement and accommodation between the Native American tribes of the region and the French, British, or Americans that they were negotiating with. This term refutes the myth that Europeans, from the minute they stepped foot on the American continent, had the upper hand. Richard White’s concept of the “Middle Ground” is proven correct based on the gift-giving relationship between the Indian and mainly French settlers.

One aspect of Indian and European relationships that represents the “Middle Ground” is gift-giving. These gift exchanges “lay at the heart of Indian relations with other Indians, and they became equally important in Indian relations with the Spanish, French, and English,” (Calloway, p.139). When they first came to the United States, Europeans had to learn these customs in fear of being seen as rude. These exchanges “were not conducted solely for profit but involved social, political, and even spiritual aspects as well as economic incentives,” (Calloway, p.140). It was important to maintain this relationship with the Indians because “France’s North American empire…depended on the maintaining the goodwill of an array of Indian peoples,” (Calloway, p.140).

While this gift giving relationship between the Native Americans and the mainly French settlers helped the trading of goods between the two sides for a while, this all changed after the French and Indian War. In the Treaty of Paris, the French had to give all of their mainland North American land to the British. This put a strain on the interactions between the Europeans and the Native Americans because the British favored power over appeasement and the overall relationship soured because of this and the “Middle Ground” slowly dissipated.

4. What does it mean to study the history of North America “Facing East from Indian Country,” as the historian Daniel Richter suggests? How does doing so change traditional perspectives on North American history from a geographic, chronological, and methodological (what sources we use and how) perspective?

In historian Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country, Richter writes about the Eurocentric manner in which American history is taught and learned. He urges us to “face east from Indian country” and to consider the Native American point of view about American history. Richter wrote that the goal of the book was “to outline stories of North America during the period of European colonization rather than of the European colonization of North America,” (Richter, p. 9). It is important for a student and a historian to be able to consider both sides of every story and to account for the arguments and flaws with every viewpoint. As the old adage states, “history is written by the victors,” and, while this is not always true, it is still a solid reminder that some histories are less known about than others, but that does not make them less true or less valid.

It is also important when facing east from Indian country, to realize that there are many societies of Native Americans who all had different opinions about the events in America at the time. The importance of knowing the perspective of the Native Americans becomes most abundantly clear when discussing wartime in America, more specifically the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.

In the French and Indian War, the French and the British fought over control of the eastern side of continental North America. Many Native American societies aligned with their closer trading partners, while others decided that neutrality was the best path forward. However, those who fought did so with their own motivations. For example, the Abenakis joined the French due to British encroachment onto their land.

Later in the 1700s, the Revolutionary War broke out between the British and the British colonies in America, now the United States. Once again, Indians were forced to choose a side and hope that they were able to choose the winning side in the end. One of the most interesting decisions that was made during the Revolutionary War was the split between the Six Nations. Four of the tribes, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Mohawks joined the British and the other two tribes, the Tuscarora and the Oneida joined the Americans. Many tribes ended up joining the British due to American attacks by colonists who lumped all Indian tribes together and attacked without warning.

6. What is environmental history? What does the study of colonial North American history through an environmental lens change and/or add to our understanding of Natives’ social developments pre-contact, and of European-Native interaction in the colonial era?

Environmental history is the study of the interaction between the affairs of a human population and the nature around them. This is particularly important in studying Native American history because of the Colombian exchange, overgrazing by European animals, and the fur trade.

Possibly the most important change in the Native American environment was during the arrival of the Europeans. There was an exchange of livestock, animals, plants, and diseases more commonly known as the Colombian Exchange. In the late 1400s, Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the Hispaniola region of the Caribbean islands, brought with him “more than a thousand settlers, and a cargo that included horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, dogs, seeds, cuttings for fruit trees, wheat, and sugarcane,” (Calloway, p. 70). Despite the many of the helpful crops and livestock brought from Europe to the Americas, the Europeans also brought many Old World diseases that harmed the Indians.

Another aspect of environmental history in the Americas that impacted Native American societies is the overgrazing of Indian agricultural areas. Often sheep from European settlers overgrazed on Native American farming areas and caused mass erosion and the land was unable to be used by the Indian societies. This, in turn, caused starvation for many Native Americans and they were forced to move somewhere where the land was farmable.

A final way that the environmental history of the Americans continent impacted the Native Americans is through the fur trade. North America had many animals with pelts that could be made into clothing, while Europe did not have as many. This caused these furs to be an important commodity for trading for Indians. “Europeans provided capital, organization, manufactured goods, and equipment for the trade. Indians provided much of the labor force: they hunted the animals, guided the fur traders, and paddled the canoes that carried pelts to the market, (Calloway, p. 70). The fur trading industry was largely successful for both the Europeans and Native Americans until the end of the French and Indian War.

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