Native Americans First View Whites From The Shore

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhenever Indians and Europeans met, the process of discovery was usually reciprocal.

In hindsight, these first encounters were asymmetrically momentous events, presaging catastrophic consequences for the native peoples of North America. Europeans wrote accounts of these meetings; Indians did not. Nevertheless, memories of such meetings passed from generation to generation within the tribes. Some traditions recalled dreams, premonitions, and prophecies that foretold the coming of powerful strangers, stories no doubt retold with increasing bitterness as Europeans kept coming.

In some accounts people looked from the shore and thought the awesome approaching ships were giant white seabirds or floating islands. The hairy men onboard had firearms, armor, and metal goods. But, contrary to what European explorers frequently asserted, there is little evidence that Indians regarded them as gods. Early Europeans lacked the power and dominance they would later amass, and they did not always seem to pose an immediate threat. They relied on Indian guides, Indian foods, and Indian technology (birch-bark canoes, for instance) to travel inland. To native eyes, their pale skins made them look sickly.

Henry Hudson and his Dutch crew met people who were probably from the Munsee branch of the Delaware or Lenni Lenape at Manhattan in 1609, and they met Mahican farther up the Hudson. The Moravian missionary John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckwelder (1743–1823), who lived for many years among Delaware and Mahican displaced into Ohio, recorded a native account of the meeting in 1765, in which Hudson features as a figure dressed in red. Heckwelder kept journals and wrote about native life, most notably his Account of the History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania (1819). By the time he transcribed this tradition sometime in the 1760s, the Indians knew all too well the consequences of meeting Europeans who peddled alcohol, infected them with new diseases, waged war against them, denigrated their cultures, and stole their lands.


The following account of the first arrival of Europeans at York Island, is verbatim as it was related to me by aged and respected Delawares, Momeys, and Mahicaanni, (otherwise called Mohigans, Mahicanders,) near forty years ago. It is copies from notes and manuscripts taken on the spot. They say: