Most histories about the making of the peoples of this nation begin with the arrival of European explorers after 1492 and the first European settlers around 1600. We propose that the full story must also encompass the history, so far as it is known, of the first peoples to have settled in this land, an occurrence thought to have taken place some 20,000 years ago.
This seldom told and little understood story about the great and diverse civilizations, cultures and peoples that prevailed in the Western Hemisphere and throughout North America before 1607 is an integral part of the history of the American people. The Museum's first chapter would start with the earliest known groups to come to what is now the United States.
Contemporary research indicates that there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe when Columbus landed. The people living here had transformed the land so completely that when Europeans arrived in the hemisphere, it had already been massively 'landscaped' by humans.
Using the latest findings from the fields of archeology, genetics, history, linguistics, demography, geography, anthropology, and others, the Museum would portray the long history of human settlement and accomplishment in this land before 1607.
The Museum would try to answer a long list of questions: When did the first humans come to this land? How did they get here? Did they come in different waves? Why did they come? How did their cultures evolve from 20,000 years ago to 2,000 years ago? Answers to these questions will focus on the peoples who populated the Western Hemisphere, including the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands that are now part of the United States.
In the century before Columbus, how were Indian tribes distributed across what is now the United States? What were their histories up to 1607? What was the nature of inter-tribal relationships? What are the population estimates for North America in 1607? What was the nature of native culture, economy, governing structures, communications, weapons, agriculture and health?
The first hundred years after Columbus' voyages were marked largely by Spanish and Portuguese expeditions into what is now Latin America with forays into areas now occupied by Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. The Museum would explore Hispanic settlements in what is now the United States during this period. While the Spanish and Portuguese dominated the Western Hemisphere in the early part of the 16th Century, the English began their explorations in the 1580s when Sir Walter Raleigh led expeditions to the North Carolina coast.
During the 16th Century, the Spanish sent waves of expeditions into South America, the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico. Their main purpose was to exploit the gold and other riches from the Western Hemisphere and to convert the Indians to Christianity. However, the Eurasian diseases that the conquistadors brought with them coupled with the natives' lack of an immune response to fight those diseases led to waves of pandemics that spread throughout the Americas. There is evidence that these killed more than half of the native population, with some estimates ranging up to and above 90 percent, within 150 years of the first contacts.
Because of the interactions of peoples throughout the Americas, much of the devastation in North America occurred before any direct contact with Europeans. Thus when the Spanish and Portuguese set out to colonize Latin America and then later the British came to do the same in the North, the latter found the Indian populations reeling; their civilizations and cultures that had been built over many millennia crashed in a matter of years. In the very early stages of colonization native groups made attempts to incorporate European settlers into native political activities. But in their weakened state, the Indians could only partially oppose the new settlers on their land.
Some museums, including the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, depict the cultures, beliefs and art and artifacts of different Indian tribes. Others, such as the Pequot Museum in Connecticut, tell the story of a particular tribe. But they only give hints about the overall history of native peoples and can only partially answer the questions raised above due to their narrower focus.
While some of the questions asked here could not have been answered a generation ago, or even a decade ago, new research and discoveries about early human life on this land is bringing more and more of the past into light.
This story of America's earliest settlers and inhabitants as it is currently known and understood needs to be told, and it needs to be open to updating as authentic new information is found. This Museum, working with Native American scholars and others, will stimulate the search for that information.
NOTE: The material herein is based largely on two books that tell part of this story, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, and Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life by Roger Daniels. Ideas and material from both authors are presented here to give readers a sense of the story. Leading scholars would be expected to develop a detailed outline of the Museum’s story following the establishment of the Museum.