Making Enemies

Dublin Core


Making Enemies


Savage Indian, Native American, Indian, European, myth



Before Europeans began to colonize the New World, The Americas, they had already formed the image of the Savage Indian. It is this assumption by the explorers, traders, missionaries, and colonists that created the myth of the Savage Indian. This myth of the Savage Indian loomed over their interactions with Europeans creating a hostile relationship. It is this fear and hostility of the manufactured Savage Indian that transformed Native Americans into the object of those fears. The hostile treatment of natives created hostile natives. The myth was no longer just fearful paranoia projected by the imaginations of Europeans but they had now manufactured real Savage Indians. Europeans’ fear created a real Savage Indian and not the other way around; in which, the Savage Indian created European fears.

For Native Americans, their role as savages began with European contact, but for Europeans it was an image which existed before they knew the Americas did.[1] The ideas of savages and barbarians were not new concepts for Europeans before Columbus’s discovery of the New World. The term barbarian was used by the Greeks to describe the babbling speech of primitive tribes.[2] The term savage which was more commonly used means of the woods or wild.[3] This term persisted and was used to define unchristian behavior which was to suppress ones animalistic or wild urges. The term savage and barbarian were almost interchangeable in meaning to describe wild or primitive societies. As Christianity swept Europe, the term Christian would come to mean civilized and those of non-Christian faith would fall into the lumped category of uncivilized or savage and barbaric.[4] For Europeans it became a matter of us versus them with the them being not Christians.[5] Columbus thought he had landed in Asia or islands in Asia, which is why he would call Native Americans, los indios or Indians.[6] This was a generic term, which at that time did not carry a negative connotation, but was used to describe people of Asia east of the Indus river. As far a Columbus is concerned, his geographical error in naming the natives Indians was far less damaging to their image.

            Shaping the myth of the Savage Indian in the minds of Europeans comes from Christopher Columbus’s initial reports in 1493. He spoke of their generosity and good nature. He describes them as free and lacking possessions. The initial descriptions of natives were ones of ease and gave way to the fantasies of European superiority with a sense of obligation to dominate or instruct primitive savages.[7] He also provides the first negative images of natives as well. He describes them as naked, and worse cannibals.[8] With the newly invented printing press in Europe information spread faster than ever before and to a larger audience.[9] His accounts were reinforced in 1505 by Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine merchant whom the Americas became named after, who went into even greater detail in his descriptions of natives.[10]  His accounts further solidified the already assumed position of European dominance and the role of the Savage Indian.

As European presence became more prevalent in the Americas so did awareness of European brutality among different native tribes. As the Spanish made their way through the Americas it became clear to the Natives and much of England and France that the Spanish inflicted far too much brutality on the natives. This too had spread far and wide to native tribes.   Natives whom had once been inviting host had become leery and cautious. The later interactions of the French and English were shaped by early interactions with the brutish Spanish. Just as Europeans had created the myth of the Savage Indian so had the Natives created an image of the Savage white man. There is some evidence to suggest that in some cases colonizers sought to excite conflict for their own personal motivations. In Edward Randolph’s report on King Philip’s War, he makes note that:

“Some impute it to an imprudent zeal in the magistrates of Boston to christianize those heathen before they were civilized and enjoining them the strict observation of their laws. . . . [T]he people, on the other side, for lucre and gain, entice and provoke the Indians to the breach thereof”[11]

Randolph goes on to explain that the hostility leading to war was in large part due to the religious interference and colonial government influence. Their construct of the hostile white man also led them to become hostile towards Europeans.

The making of the myth of the Savage Indian which had been originally in the minds or fantasies of Europeans had now become reality. They had constructed an image of a Savage Indian which in turn played on their fears. These fears took over and controlled their interactions with natives.  As European’s became an active participant in the American landscape they began to develop two new polar views of the Savage Indian which they had to come to understand.[12] Europeans had created the myth of the Savage Indian but began to understand natives not as one cohesive group but distinguish between different tribes. These tribes could be viewed as friends or enemies. Since alliances were fluid this understanding was problematic for European colonizers.[13] The very understanding was that these Natives were savages, but now this group would be divided into the noble and ignoble savage.[14]

 For Europeans the ideas of Christianity thought of Adam and Eve making all people of the earth related and tracing back to one origin. This created problems in terms of the origins of natives. It was thought that they were Asian or later reconciled that they had at least from Asia.[15] Speculation of Native origins led to questioning whether they had souls or rather they were demons cast out of Asia.[16] This line of thinking shaped the European rationalization that Natives should either be killed as creations of satin or possessed souls which could be “civilized”. Whichever view point it was still a popular understanding that they were not native to America and therefor had no claim to the land. The fact that natives did not view ownership of land as Europeans did, made the case that much stronger. Whether Europeans viewed the Savage Native as noble or ignoble most of these understandings preceded their interactions.

While the myth of the Savage Indian had existed long before America had been discovered and evolved into either a sympathetic or hostile view, it never the less continued through colonization and beyond. Much of the myth of the Savage Indian was exaggerated by imagination but some of these perceptions do hold a grain of truth. Many interactions between Europeans and Indians can be caulked up to misunderstandings or differences in culture. The two major factors leading to cultural confrontations between Natives and Europeans were involving warfare and trade. For Natives warfare war not seen as a means of total destruction but more of retribution. For Europeans war was meant to annihilate and dominate the opponent. It was a onetime total war in which the victor dominated the foe.[17] For native’s warfare was a perpetual way of life. It was not used as a total war but small victories in which warriors showed bravery and gained prestige.[18] Europeans viewed peacefulness as civilized behavior and the idea of constant fighting was seen as uncivilized.[19] Also the brutality natives inflicted during warfare helped perpetuate the myth of savagery. While warfare was a large part of native way of life, many tribes sought to make peace with colonists. The speech recorded by John Smith of Chief Powhatan shows some evidence of a willingness for peace.

“Why will you take by force what you may obtain by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war? . . . We are unarmed, and willing to give you what you ask, if you come in a friendly manner. . . .

I am not so simple as not to know it is better to eat good meat, sleep comfortably, live quietly with my women and children, laugh and be merry with the English, and being their friend, trade for their copper and hatchets, than to run away from them. . . .

Take away your guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy, or you may die in the same manner.”[20]

Misunderstandings not only caused conflicts in warfare but also in trade.[21] While both groups shared similar customs of trade, natives viewed trade as more of a binding friendship than an economic opportunity. This caused problem as natives began to think that a trade alliance was a binding waring alliance. Native Americans also used European fears to their advantage. In trade they used fear to allow them to intimidate merchants and take what they felt was fair.[22] Brutality in warfare also benefited them in some ways as they were able to slow down westward expansion by creating the ignoble Savage Indian.[23]

The Savage Indian was the construct of European fantasies. It was created to make the unfamiliar or frightening, familiar. The myth of the Savage Indian created a sense of understanding for Europeans which allowed them to make the transatlantic journey with a feeling of security.[24] It transformed the frightening, unknown New World into one which they understood and could adapt to. This security was comforting to Europeans who felt secure with their superiority in the world. As time passed and contact led to confrontation, their confidence eroded to fears and uncertainty. They found comfort in an uncertain new world where the enemies were transparent. Real or manufactured the Savage Indian was easy to identify as the enemy, which created a secure new world for Europeans. A world where they did not face uncertainty and could identify friends from enemies.                




[1] Bernard W. Sheehan, Savagism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 1.

[2] Robert F. Berkhofer, The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Knopf, Inc., 1978), 16.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Armstrong Starkey, European and Native American Warfare, 1675-1815 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 4. 

6] Berkhofer, The White Man's Indian, 4-5.

[7] Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, (New York: Harper, 2003), 3.

[8] Berkhofer, The White Man's Indian, 4-7.

[9] Ibid., 10.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] "Edward Randolph’s Report of King Philip’s War in New England, 1675," Smithsonian Source: Resources for Teaching American History, (Smithsonian Institution, 2007)

[12] Berkhofer, The White Man's Indian, 16.

[13] Ibid., 23.

[14] Ibid., 21-22 & 28.

[15] Ibid., 35.

[16] Ibid., 37.

[17] Starkey, European and Native American, 25-26.

[18] Ibid., 30.

[19] Ibid., 25-29.

[20] "Speech by Powhatan, as Recorded by John Smith, 1609," Smithsonian Source: Resources for Teaching American History, (Smithsonian Institution, 2007)

[21] Sheehan, Savagism and Civility, 148-149.

[22] Starkey,  European and Native American, 9.

[23] Ibid., 12-13.

[24] Sheehan, Savagism and Civility, 3.


Berkhofer, Robert F., JR. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1978. 

Chiappelli, Fredi, Michael J. B. Allen, and Robert L. Benson. First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

"Edward Randolph’s Report of King Philip’s War in New England, 1675." Smithsonian Source: Resources for Teaching American History. Smithsonian Institution, 2007.

Sheehan, Bernard W. Savagism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. 

"Speech by Powhatan, as Recorded by John Smith, 1609." Smithsonian Source: Resources for Teaching American History. Smithsonian Institution, 2007.

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. "Early German woodcut of a New World scene." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1505.

Starkey, Armstrong. European and Native American Warfare, 1675-1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1998. 

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper, 2003. 


Lance Whitmore


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University of Memphis




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Collection Items

The letter written by Edward Randolph is a report to make clear misunderstandings or misinformation which explains possible causes for the King Philip’s war. King Philip’s war or Metacom’s War took place in the New England colonies between 1675 and…

Powhatan was the paramount chief of 30 Algonquian speaking tribes of Virginia Indians that made up the Powhatan Confederacy. In the early part of the sixteenth century he maintained a somewhat civil alliance with the settlers of Jamestown. His famous…

New World Woodcut Image
This is one of the first visual depictions of the New World with images of its natives. It is a German woodcut print by an unknown creator. The print is taken from the descriptions provided by early explorers of the New World and gives Europeans one…
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