Assertions of European technological superiority appeal to our common sense. We know that guns are better than bows and arrows, and when we read some of the primary sources from the colonial era we encounter numerous references to the enthusiasm of American indigenes for firearms. Indians wanted guns, Europeans needed gold or furs or food—exchanges were made.
As he became the first European to sail around the island on the west coast of North America that now bears his name, Captain George Vancouver found several groups of Native that had acquired firearms before they had seen a European. Certainly his observations support the notion that guns were valued by North American Indians.
In the afternoon [17 July 1792] we were visited by two canoes, having a musket, with all necessary appurtenances in each. … it would appear that the inhabitants of this particular part are amply provided with these formidable weapons.”The guns Vancouver saw, as well as those he had available for trade were far superior to those available in the sixteenth century, but not yet as good as those about which Ulysses S. Grant would complain more than seventy years later. Writing in his memoirs about the capture of Vicksburg, Grant wrote:
George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery, vol. 2 (1801), 264
The small-arms of the enemy were far superior to the bulk of ours. Up to this time our troops at the West had been limited to the old United States flint-lock muskets changed into percussion, or the Belgian musket imported early in the war—almost as dangerous to the person firing it as to the one aimed at—and a few new and imported arms.
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (Library of America, 1990), 384
Our common sense understanding of the superiority of European firearms runs so deep that most of us experience no cognitive dissonance when we watch scenes such as my favorite from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995). John Smith is under a waterfall when he first encounters the voluptuous Indian maiden. As she sneaks up on him as a panther might, he slowly turns and points his matchlock. The tension is broken before he fires the weapon, and this resolution benefits him because the open flame required by his gun would have been extinguished as quickly as it was lit.
Smith lacked Diamond matches that he could strike on his denim, and also lacked the denim. Nor was Smith in possession of a Zippo with its patented protection from the elements. Even if he managed to light the wick which the serpentine (the lock) delivers to the flash pan, it would not continue burning under such moist conditions. If Smith’s protection had depended upon his firearm, and Pocahontas had been hostile, he would have died a long time before he could write and repeatedly revise his Generall Historie of Virginia (1630) that spawned the misreadings and fabrications which in turn facilitated the myths propagated by the Disney cartoon.
Smith published The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1606-1612) in 1612 and The Generall History of Virginia, the Somer Iles, and New England in 1623. The former lacks his story of the rescue by Pocahontas, which first appears in the latter. Pocahontas died in 1617. There also is good reason to believe that Smith had read an almost identical story of the experience of Juan Ortiz who had come to Florida in 1528 in search of the missing Panfilo de Narváez. His story of rescue by an Indian maiden—Ulele was her name—whose father was prepared to roast him over a fire was published in accounts of the De Soto expedition. See chapter IX of the account of The Gentleman of Elvas.
Smith might have used a more expensive wheelock, which would not require an open flame but would still fail under a waterfall. Wheelocks had been available since the mid-sixteenth century, but never became as popular with soldiers as the matchlock. A good discussion of seventeenth century British weapons is available at the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. The world’s library offers many other sources of reliable information regarding seventeenth century firearms, including the story of a project of replica manufacturing and a newspaper story (PDF) concerned with the film The New World (2005), another Smith-Pocahontas saga.
Correction (14 Dec 2007): My brother phoned to take issue with some inaccuracies in my initial description of the mechanism of Captain Smith's firearm. I have corrected these errors.
In their failed attempt to conquer the land Juan Ponce de León had named Flowery Easter (Pascua Florida), the men under the command of Panfilo de Narváez were nearly helpless against the arrows of the Indians. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was the highest ranking survivor of this failure. In his La Relación, first published in 1542, he recalled those traumatic days of 1528:
Good armor did no good against arrows in this skirmish. There were men who swore they had seen two red oaks, each the thickness of a man’s calf, pierced from side to side by arrows this day; which is no wonder when you consider the power and skill the Indians can deliver them with. I myself saw an arrow buried half a foot in a poplar trunk.Despite its collapsed chronology, the 1991 film Cabeza de Vaca by Nicolás Echevarría captures this scene well. One moment the Spanish are cutting their way through the flora and the next they are being cut to pieces by a rain of arrows coming in fast and thick. They flee, although a great many are killed.
Cabeza de Vaca, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, trans. and ed. by Cyclone Covey (1998), 42
Before his death in the failed effort to conquer Florida, Narváez had failed in another enterprise. With orders reminiscent of those given much later to Charles Marlow (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness) and Captain Willard (Francis Ford Cuppola, Apocalypse Now) to go after the renegade Kurtz, Narváez was ordered to capture or kill Hernando Cortés, who had disobeyed orders. This part of the story of the conquest of Tenochtitlán is obscured in Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History. They tell us that Spanish military technology—guns and tactics—“made any single Spanish soldier the equal of several poorly armed natives” (7). They tell us that Narváez’s “force of 600, including cooks, colonists, and women” was able to “overcome native Mexican armies outnumbering them two, three, and even ten times at any particular time” (7). They do not tell us that Cortés was able to overcome Narváez with a smaller army, nor do they tell us why he did so. In any case, the reinforcements from the captured army of Narváez and their Tlaxcalan allies returned to Tenochtitlán where they suffered astounding defeat on Noche Triste (melancholy night), returned a third time and laid seige , and finally overcame the great Aztec empire.
Mexico was born as Cortés put himself in place of Montezuma and his heirs in the now destroyed city.
Wars of the Iroquois 1648-1652
In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Iroquois all but destroyed the Huron, their traditional enemies. Many historians that have narrated these events have attributed the Iroquois success to the so-called 400 guns of the Mohawks, which allegedly they had acquired through trade with the Dutch. Brian J. Given investigated these claims, and published his findings in “The Iroquois Wars and Native Firearms,” in Bruce Alden Cox, ed., Native People, Native Lands: Canadian Indians, Inuit and Metis (1988).
Given notes, “[t]he premise that the European harquebuses of the seventeenth century were vastly superior to aboriginal projectile weapons is pervasive in the literature” (3). In his examination of these claims he set up field tests firing at a target measuring 2’ x 6,’ finding 50 to 75 yards the maximum range at which it could be hit when stationary “under ideal conditions” (10). In his summary of the bow vs. seventeenth century firearms, he points out the native bow had six times the rate of fire, could be reloaded while crouching (extremely difficult to do with a muzzle loaded firearm), and had an effective range of at least 100 yards. The bow could penetrate armour, and was accurate.
Bows never blow up and seldom misfire; the musket does both. A 20 to 50 percent misfire rate is usual in good weather under field conditions. In the lightest of rains the flint-lock becomes virtually useless, where the performance of the bow is little affected.
Brian J. Given, “The Iroquois Wars and Native Firearms,” 10
A New Thesis
In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, Charles C. Mann offers a cogent summary of what he had learned from reading various secondary accounts of colonization. Mann states:
It is true that European technology dazzled Native Americans on first encounter. But the relative positions of the two sides were closer than commonly believed. Contemporary research suggests that indigenous peoples in New England were not technologically inferior to the British—or, rather, that terms like “superior” and “inferior” do not readily apply to the relationship between Indian and European technology.The terms inferior and superior do not apply. Indeed, they cloud our judgment. The exchanges that began on Watling Island in 1492 and continued to be initiated again and again for more than three centuries were complex exchanges. Each side found itself attracted to or repulsed by cultural elements and technologies of the Other; each side was transformed through the encounter.
Mann, 1491, 63.