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400 Years And Counting

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 Land was the key to English settlement after 1620. It was logical to assume in these circumstances that the Native would not willingly give up the ground that sustained him, even if the English offered to purchase land, as they did in most cases. For anyone as property conscious as the English, the idea that people would resist the invasion of their land with all the force at their disposal came almost as a matter of course. Thus the image of the hostile, “savage Indian” began to triumph over that of the receptive, “friendly Indian.” Their own intentions had changed from establishing trade relations to building permanent settlements. A different conception of the Native American was required in these altered circumstances.

What we see here is a subconscious attempt to manipulate the world in order to make it conform to the English definition of it. The evidence also suggests that the English stereotype of the hostile savage helped to alleviate a sense of guilt which inevitably arose when men whose culture was based on the concept of private property embarked on a program to dispossess another people of their land. To typecast the Native American as a brutish savage was to solve a moral dilemma. If the Indian was truly cordial, generous, and eager to trade, what justification could there be for taking his land? But if he was a savage, without religion or culture, perhaps the colonists' actions were defensible. The English, we might speculate, anticipated hostility and then read it into the Native's character because they recognized that they were embarking upon an invasion of land to which the only natural response could be violent resistance. Having created the conditions in which the Native American could only respond violently, the Englishman defined the native as brutal, beastly, savage, and barbarian and then used that as a justification for what he was doing. 

Religious Endorsement

Slavery was rationalized because Africans were not Christian, therefore labeled “heathens” and considered sub-human. The Promised Land theology of the book of Joshua with its model of military conquest was used to justify the wars against indigenous peoples, the “Canaanites” of the New World. The Puritans who came to the New World saw themselves as God’s elect, called to establish the New Israel. Frontier individualism and the optimism of progress through expansion and wealth led to the political slogan “Manifest Destiny,” which reflected Christian or Protestant ascendancy, a biblical interpretation that encouraged an attitude of the moral and economic superiority of white Christians over all others, and justified the taking of land."We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us...," the Puritan John Winthrop wrote. The Puritans who disembarked in Massachusetts in 1620 believed they were establishing the New Israel. Indeed, the whole colonial enterprise was believed to have been guided by God. "God hath opened this passage unto us," Alexander Whitaker preached from Virginia in 1613, "and led us by the hand unto this work."

Promised Land imagery figured prominently in shaping English colonial thought.

The pilgrims identified themselves with the ancient Hebrews. They viewed the New World as the New Canaan. They were God's chosen people headed for the Promised Land. Other colonists believed they, too, had been divinely called. The settlers in Virginia were, John Rolf said, "a peculiar people, marked and chosen by the finger of God."

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This self-image of being God's Chosen People called to establish the New Israel became an integral theme in America's self-interpretation. During the revolutionary period, it emerged with new force. "We cannot but acknowledge that God hath graciously patronized our cause and taken us under his special care, as he did his ancient covenant people," Samuel Langdon preached at Concord, New Hampshire in 1788. George Washington was the "American Joshua," and "Never was the possession of arms used with more glory, or in a better cause, since the days of Joshua, the son of Nun," Ezra Stiles urged in Connecticut in 1783. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted Promised Land images for the new nation's Great Seal. Franklin proposed Moses dividing the Red (Reed) Sea with Pharaoh's army being overwhelmed by the closing waters. Jefferson urged a representation of the Israelites being led in the wilderness by the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. Later, in his second inaugural address (1805), Jefferson again recalled the Promised Land. "I shall need...the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life."

The sense of divine election and the identification of the Americas with ancient Canaan were used to justify expelling America's Indigenous Peoples from their land. The colonists saw themselves as confronting "satanic forces" in the Native Americans. They were Canaanites to be destroyed or thrown out.


This view of Native Americans was challenged by a Mohawk chief named Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) in a letter to King George III of England: “Our wise men are called Fathers and they truly sustain that character. Do you call yourselves Christians? Does the religion of Him who you call your Savior inspire your spirit and guide your practices? Surely not. It is recorded of him that a bruised reed he never broke. Cease then to call yourselves Christians, lest you declare to the world your hypocrisy. Cease too to call other nations savage, when you are tenfold more the children of cruelty than they….”

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Dr Edward Rhymes, author of When Racism Is Law & Prejudice Is Policy, is an internationally recognized authority in the areas of critical race theory and Black Studies. Please view his Rhymes Consulting Services website at (more...)

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