AP United States History – Sample AP Essay written by Mr. Ian Stewart

Sample Essay – European-Indian relations 1600s

Here’s something I came across in my archives. I humbly submit that it is a fine example of an AP essay in that it develops a specific thesis and is well organized and supported with facts. The link contains the essay you will find immediately after this paragraph.

Humans will often seek to turn a set of circumstances to their own particular advantage. Humans also unfortunately lack the prescience to be able to fully appreciate the impact of the pursuit of their own short-term goals. These observations are clearly illustrated by tracing the relationship between English colonists and the Indian people in both the New England and Chesapeake regions of North America in the seventeenth century.

In both New England and in the Chesapeake regions, initial contact between the English and the Indian people were seen by both sides as a win-win situation. The Powhatan Confederacy of the Chesapeake viewed the English newcomers with suspicion, but Powhatan himself recognized that an alliance with the English and the access to European technology that would accompany such an alliance would be a valuable asset in extending Powhatan hegemony over neighboring groups. Clearly there was something to be gained through contact with the people from across the Atlantic.

For the English who came across the Atlantic under the charter of the Virginia Company, the Americas presented an opportunity for investors in the venture to gain some sort of return on investment. The failed attempt to forge a settlement at Roanoke foreshadowed the idea that the English were going to have a difficult time establishing a foothold in North America without some level of assistance. Because “King Powhatan” saw the usefulness of an association with the English, Indian assistance was provided at that most crucial time when the English settlement at Jamestown teetered on the edge of extinction. While the English presence was at negligible levels, the relationship between the two peoples appeared to satisfy the pursuit of their mutual self interests; however, as the century progressed a conflict of interests began to arise.

As the Chesapeake region developed into a successful moneymaking venture for the English built on the back of tobacco farming, the English desire for arable land increased dramatically. Further, the labor-intensive nature of tobacco farming produced a further need for more people and spurred population growth in the form of indentured servants. As the terms of service for indentured servants expired, it was a natural next step for these newly-independent Europeans to want to stake their claim in the region as they certainly did not enter into their term of servitude as an end in itself. This of course intensified the thirst for the acquisition of more land and the need to press further inland as all the land in the immediate area had already fallen under European control.

As a consequence, the backcountry of Virginia became more populated with Europeans looking to stake out a claim for land, and this naturally led to conflicts with the Indians over the land. Escalating violence in the Virginia backcountry between European colonists and the Susquehannock Indians inspired the Charlestown government to intervene to try and put an end to colonists’ raids on Indian villages and to maintain some level of respect for the rights of the Indians to possess the land. Feeling cornered and betrayed, Nathaniel Bacon and his followers turned their wrath from the Indians to the Virginia government.

Although Bacon’s Rebellion ultimately died out, the chaos that accompanied the rebellion caused the political power structure to rethink their policy towards the Indians at the frontier of their colony. The end of the century saw a rather pronounced shift in policy that was more closely in line with the ideas of Bacon and his followers. The party line in Virginia was now much more in line with the idea that the Indians were an obstacle to be removed from the land rather than people who might be engaged in a mutually-beneficial relationship. This paradigm shift would be applied on a much broader scale in the following centuries in North America. The self-interests of the Europeans and their descendants trumped those of the Indians as imbalances in power between the two groups became more pronounced.

The beginnings of the Plymouth colony of New England have some degree of parallelism with the establishment of Jamestown. In both cases, the original settlers faced the possibility of succumbing to the environment and one could argue that they only survived due to the assistance of the Indian populations in those respective areas. Again in New England, this assistance was provided because the Indians felt that an association with the English would provide certain competitive advantages. In New England, this is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the Puritan settlers and the Narragansetts joined forces to wage war against the Pequots, a traditional rival of the Narragansett tribe. While this might seem to be an arrangement that exclusively favored the Narragansetts, one must keep in mind that the Pequots had trading relationships with the Dutch who were rivals to the English for economic control of the region. The approach that the English took to warfare against the Pequots revealed the ruthless nature of a people who were willing to do whatever was necessary to have their interests prevail.

While the underlying motivations of the New England colonies might not have been as obviously economic as those of the Chesapeake, a common thread that runs through both models of settlement is that at some point the English perception was going to be that the land wasn’t sufficient to support both groups of people and this would necessarily mean that the Indians were no longer welcome to inhabit the land that was once theirs. Puritan motivations were clear with various strategies to move the Indians off the land that ranged from the purchase of land to the cession of land through treaty to the confiscation of land from Indians as civil punishment for breaking Puritan laws. Puritan ethnocentrism and the justification of their own actions by referring to the concepts of predestination and the execution of God’s will left the Indians with no promising method for reversing this particular trend.

The tension that followed the Pequot War finally exploded in the latter part of the century with the outbreak of King Philip’s War. Metacom, known to the English as King Philip, was well aware of the English thirst for land and came to the realization that there was nothing that could be done to deal with this lust for land in a reasonable fashion. Metacom’s attempts to forge alliances to resist English expansion provided the English with the rationale to launch an offensive against the Narragansetts, former allies of the Puritans. Understanding the role of self-interest in human action, it is not at all surprising that Metacom would wish to break treaties with the English or that the English would begin a war of annihilation against former allies. To the Indians, they were fighting a last-ditch resistance movement to save their land and their culture. The English of course believed that it was God’s will that they possess the land and this rationalization was sufficient to engage in bloody warfare against the original inhabitants of the land. Any hope that Metacom had of success was dashed when the Iroquois, pursuing what they perceived to be *their* own self interest, took the opportunity to attack the weakened Pokanokets and attempt to reap the benefit of a relationship with the English.

In summary, the relations between Indian and Englishman in both Chesapeake and New England began with some air of mutual benefit. However, as time passed through the seventeenth century it became increasingly clear to both sides that their respective self-interests had come into greater degrees of conflict. By this point, the English had a sufficient foothold and the Indians had been so weakened by waves of disease that the outcome of the struggle for control of the land took on an air of inevitability that would dictate the nature of the relations between these two groups of people over the course of American history.


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