Most histories of the United States begin with the arrival of European explorers after 1492 and the first European settlements in the early 1600s. The full story about the making of the American People must also encompass the history, so far as it is known, of the first peoples to have settled in this land, thought to be 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 before the arrival of Europeans 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 the Western Hemisphere and to what is now the United States.This chapter will focus on native tribal groups throughout different regions of the Western Hemisphere and the area encompassed now by the U.S.
Contemporary research indicates that there were probably more people living in the Americas than in Europe when Christopher Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. 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.
The NMAP would chronicle this history 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 about 2,000 years ago and the centuries since then? 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 when the English settled Jamestown? What was the nature of inter-tribal relationships then? What are the population estimates for North America around that time? What was the nature of native culture, economy, governing structures, communications, weapons, agriculture and health? The Museum will explore the impact first contact between Europeans and natives.
The first hundred years after Columbus' voyages were marked largely by Spanish expeditions and conquest throughout the hemisphere and Caribbean islands.
The Museum will discuss Juan Ponce de Leon going to Florida, Hernando de Soto to that is now the U.S. South and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in the West. The Spaniards sought a passage to Asia, riches from a variety of commodities and to convert Indians to Christianity.
The Museum would also Spanish settlements including St. Augustine, FL in 1565, the first permanent settlement in what is now the U.S. Three other European powers, Portugal, France and England also had forays into the hemisphere. This chapter ends in 1607 with the founding of the English colony at Jamestown, the colony that most directly led to the creation of the nation.
Particular attention will be paid to the Eurasian diseases that the Spanish conquistadors and then other Europeans brought with them coupled with the natives' lack of an immune response to fight those diseases which 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 most natives had any direct contact with Europeans. Thus when the Spanish set out to colonize the Americas and then later the British and French came to do the same in the North, the latter found the Indian populations already 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, natives could only partially oppose the new settlers on their land.
The NMAP will address the relationships between the early European settlers and Native Americans. How did these relationships evolve over time? How did they vary among the different European groups? How did the arrival of the Europeans affect relationships among Native American groups?
Some museums, including the Smithsonian's 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 different 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.