Pre-Columbian America Wasn't Exactly a Paradise of FreedomTags U.S. HistoryWorld History
The story of European colonization of the Americas is popularly understood as the conquest of American Indians—the end of natives’ control of the land and the beginning of their subjugation. The contingencies of indigenous agency and geopolitics mean that the reality is much messier, as historians have been steadily revealing for decades, but this interpretation still circulates.
One possible reason for its longevity is the still common impression that Indians all roamed freely over the land, lacking a conception of private property and existing in a state of virtual harmony when the first agents of European states made contact in the late fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. A necessary corollary to this image of precontact native freedom is the implication that these societies had no state or barely had one to speak of and that the suffocating stays of political power were as novel to them as the diseases the strangers carried with them.
Certainly, many indigenous societies were self-governing—consensual chiefdoms in which leaders were unable to use force or to act without consulting their entire community. The chiefdoms of Hudson Valley societies such as the Mahicans (a.k.a. Mohicans) are a case in point. In these kinds of societies dissatisfied tribesmen could even desert a chief without fear of retribution. Other groups such as Inuit lacked chiefs entirely, though talented hunters’ and elders’ opinions held special weight when community members made decisions.
But it must not be forgotten that large centralized polities also existed in the Americas prior to European contact. These had the basic trappings of a state: a centralized authority’s superimposition of property claims (and accompanying authority) over the existing property rights of others through force and intimidation, and exploitative economic relations in which this self-proclaimed authority extracts wealth from others by force or intimidation rather than voluntary exchange.
For example, the Powhatan chiefdom of the Chesapeake consisted of a paramount chief (the mamanatowick), the chiefs (werowances, or “commanders”) of subject tribes under him, the werowances of satellite towns, and commoners. Unsurprisingly, the mamanatowick and the werowances (who all could be male or female) alike inherited their offices and had a symbiotic relationship with the influential clerical class, who were consulted in matters of foreign policy and crime.1
Powhatan, who was the mamanatowick in the days of Jamestown, inherited the paramount chieftaincy and six chiefdoms (Powhatan, Arrohateck, Appamattuck, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Chiskiack) from his parents between the 1550s and 1580s. He then expanded his rule: he conquered the Kecoughtans (he had his goons kill their chief), exterminated the Chesapeakes (had his goons massacre most of the people, who would not submit), and by 1607, when John Smith made landfall in the name of the English state, had subjugated all the peoples of the Chesapeake coastal plain except for the Chickahominies.2
Tribute payments of food and other valuables went up the hierarchy, extracted by both the mamanatowick and the werowances. The only exception was copper, which Powhatan monopolized and used to pay his werowances for their military services—that is, for them to kill others, stare down those who remained, and thereby keep the great chief in power. He also made gifts of copper to others, buying support and perhaps submission.3
The tribute payments were involuntary—there is even record of people hiding food in underground storage pits in addition to the aboveground buildings specifically designated as storehouses, possibly to keep more of their wealth. As contemporaneous observer William Strachey noted:
Their corn and (indeed) their copper, hatchetts, howses, beades, perle and most things with them of value, according to their own estymacion, they hide, one from the knowledge of another, in the grownd within the woods, and so keepe them all the yeare, or untill they have fitt use for them … and when they take them forth, they scarse make their women privie to the storehowse.4
The Narragansetts, Massachusetts, Wampanoags, and Pequots of southern New England had a similar political economy. Here power was concentrated in sachems, who also inherited authority, and local elites. There were layers of sachemships, with subordinate sachems paying tribute to the dominant sachem with the wealth created by their people. Internal tribute was also levied on communities, which enriched the sachem and allowed him to make war on other peoples to expand his dominion.5 As Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow explained:
Every sachim knoweth how far … his own country extendeth; and that is his own proper inheritance…. In this circuit whosoever hunteth, if [his men] kill any venison, bring him his fee…. Once a year the pnieses [warrior elite] use to provoke the people to bestow much corn on the sachim.6
The Nahuas of central Mexico are an even better example of people living under a pre-European state. The Nahuas consisted of a variety of Nahuatl-speaking nations among whom the Aztecs (sometimes called Mexicas) were dominant when the agents of the Spanish state marched in in 1519. This complex society in the early sixteenth century was organized into a network of kingdoms or city-states. Each kingdom (altepetl, pl. altepeme) was inhabited by a specific Nahua group, ruled by a tlatoani, and had “ranked classes of warrior-nobles, priests, commoners, and slaves.” Each altepetl was subdivided into districts and neighborhoods, called calpulli.7
The Aztec elite extracted tribute from conquered Nahuas and from their own local peasantry, and each altepetl in turn demanded tribute from altepeme under its control (if any) and from its own commoners. Tribute was collected by the officials of the local calpulli. A variety of special lands set aside for the support of the clergy and incumbent politicians, as well as for the personal benefit of nobles, were worked by slaves and by commoners under temporary forced, corvée-like labor, which was part of their tribute burden. Historian Allen Greer describes the Aztec Empire as “an engine of tribute exaction.” Much like the contemporary states of today, when the empire subsumed a new kingdom, they sometimes installed a puppet tlatoani to keep the gravy flowing smoothly.8
Each person was carefully accounted for: local officials conducted censuses for the altepeme that tracked the population of each calpulli down to the household (calli) level. Each household’s head and members (along with their age, sex, and civic status) were detailed, and their specific landholdings were surveyed, mapped, and the dimensions and surface area noted. Although each household held a specific piece of land, the family did so “under the authority and eminent domain of the local calpulli and its officials,” their property rights superseded by the claims of their state. Calpulli land could not be alienated outside the kin group and was subject to tribute for the local or Aztec government in proportion to its size—no wonder those nifty maps were in the census! At least purchased land could be sold, and it was not subject to tribute, something that cannot be said about most land purchased in the US today. Each altepetl could also handle its own internal affairs without interference from above as long as everyone forked over their “protection,” or, better, leave-me-alone money.9
The moral of the story here is that we cannot forget the polygenic character of the state in telling the story of the unending struggle between freedom and subjection across the world. Just as different ancient societies developed agriculture on their own, the institution of the state surfaced independently in different parts of the ancient world, continuing on its ruinous trajectory from there. To tell the story of the Americas as the violent “pacifying” and corralling of free indigenous peoples by white outsiders is to erase the long history of statism in many places. Sadly, statism had plagued many people for a long time when the agents of European states arrived, many with the express aim of aiding their states in continuing their reign of pillage and oppression in a new land. After all, using aggression to get ahead in life is an age-old tactic.
- 1. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), pp. 9–11.
- 2. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People, pp. 10–11, 25–27.
- 3. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People, pp. 8, 9.
- 4. William Strachey, The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia: Expressing the Cosmographie and Comodities of the Country, Togither with the Manners and Customes of the People, ed. R.H. Major (1612; London: Hakluyt Society, 1849), p. 113.
- 5. Allen Greer, Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires, and Land in Early Modern North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 40–42.
- 6. Edward Winslow, “Good Newes from New England: Or a True Relation of Things Very Remarkable at the Plantation of Plimoth in New-England” , in Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625, ed. Alexander Young (Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1844), pp. 361–62, quoted in Greer, Property and Dispossession, p. 41 (“warrior elite” gloss by Greer).
- 7. Greer, Property and Dispossession, pp. 30–31, quote on p. 30.
- 8. Greer, Property and Dispossession, pp. 30–31, 33–34, quote on p. 31.
- 9. Greer, Property and Dispossession, pp. 323, 34, 36, 31, quote on p. 34.