Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, authors of A Patriot’s History of the United States, offer a long aside entitled “Did Columbus Kill Most of the Indians?” followed by a lengthy footnote (7-10). Reading this portion of the text in the aisle of Borders, I observed that the authors:
* mention several sources with which I was unfamiliar,
* omit certain texts that are central to the field of Native American Indian demography, and
* put forth a perspective regarding disease and depopulation far out of step with the norm.
These three observations provoked my interest in close reading and critical examination of A Patriot's History, and thus contributed to my decision to purchase the book. That decision spawned this blog.
Schweikart and Allen claim, “several studies put the native population of North America alone within a range of 8.5 million (the highest) to a low estimate of 1.8 million” in 1500. Their low figure likely comes from Douglas H. Ubelaker, “North American Indian Population Size, A.D. 1500 to 1985,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 77 (1988), 289-294, which they cite. Ubelaker based this article on the work of hundreds of reputable scholars. He constructed a tribe-by-tribe estimate, the first since that done by James Mooney (1910), based largely on the work of scholars contributing to the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians (1978-1986)—several more volumes have been published since 1986.
Ubelaker states that his “estimated total figure is 1,894,350 with a minimum-maximum range from 1,213,475 to 2,638,900” (291). It seems to me that 1.9 million is a better reflection of Ubelaker’s estimate than rounding down his figure the lowest round number as must have been done to arrive at 1.8.
Ubelaker explains variances built into his estimates due to the uneven progress of European colonization of the continent—initial contact ranged from just after 1500 in the east to 1740 in Alaska. His estimates assumes that population at the time of “initial contact was maintained as far back as A.D. 1500”; he notes that such “stability is unlikely but must be assumed in the absence of specific data to the contrary” (291).
Methods of Scholarship
There are more American Indians alive today than there were when Columbus arrived or at any other time in history. Does this sound like a record of genocide?Ubelaker identifies efforts to estimate the aboriginal population at time of contact as rooted in either ethnohistorical or in archeological methodologies. Ethnohistorical approaches rely upon primary sources: “direct observations by Europeans in early contact” (289). Archeological approaches draw upon settlement patterns, including housing and refuse, and analysis of skeletal remains. Bias, limitations of an etic perspective and unreliable counting procedures affect the reliability of ethnohistorical sources, while sampling challenges affect archeological data. Ubelaker notes also that “ecological resource potential [estimated] from environmental and cultural data” can establish upper limits of population. Henry Dobyns, who is cited in the next paragraph, employs such methodologies for Their Numbers Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America (1983).
Rush Limbaugh, See, I Told You So (1994)
Seizing upon the low estimate, Schweikart and Allen report “800,000 Indians … died from disease and firearms,” which “still represented a destruction of half the native population” (8). Ubelaker’s figures differ: “numbers at nadir for all areas total 515,757, or a reduction of 73%;” due to variability in “average dates of nadir” he finds a probable “reduction of 1,364,350 from [his] estimate for 1500 of 1,894,350 or about 72%” (291). If Schweikart and Allen arrived at their figure of 1.8 million through improper rounding of Ubelaker’s figures, they nevertheless ignored his other figures.
Ubelaker’s article offers superficial support for Rush Limbaugh’s contention (1985’s 2.5 million is greater than 1.9), but not for the strange figures reported by Schweikart and Allen. His work, however, neither supports the contention of polemicist Limbaugh nor of historians Schweikart and Allen that aboriginal depopulation was insignificant, or greatly exaggerated. He states, “the end result was devastating” and the “remarkable demographic recovery has occurred in spite of the extensive cultural disruption, morbidity, and populations losses sustained in the centuries immediately following initial European contact” (293-294).
I am indebted to Erik Carter for bringing me a copy of Ubelaker's article. Some of Dr. Carter's scholarship is referenced in the post "Library Acquisitions".