“These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity.”
-Michel de Montaigne

Warning: Heavy research going on here and it’s a pretty long story, too, but a really important one.

Without a doubt, the 17th Century is the century that we all know A LOT about, isn’t it? After all, we’re on common ground here – all of us with white, pasty skin, and mousey brown hair think or believe that we are somehow related to the early English and Puritan settlers, if not DNA-wise at least spirit wise. And from kindergarten on, we dressed up in Puritan hats, made turkey tail cut-outs with snub-nosed scissors, and learned all about the First Thanksgiving.

Those early settlers, we listened as we sat in our little desks, crossed a frightening ocean, faced a frightening fate, and were innocents in a frightening New World. We know this stuff, backwards and forwards. If we think we’re lacking for some detail, there are thousands of books and hundreds of movies and TV shows to pull from, even an animated movie (Pocahontas, Disney Films, 1995, great music).

We are well-schooled with the enduring images of write man meeting red man for the first time. Cue the dramatic if not scary music: Shock and awe register on each man’s face, fingers tentatively reach out, then one or both flee in opposite directions to ostensibly to tell the others’ people about this completely unexpected First Encounter.,

So what, you ask, is wrong with all of that?

A lot, since it’s mostly B.S.

First, if I haven’t dissuaded you from the notion that the preamble to the 1600s has been ignored by 95% of all American historians, and that the Spanish and French criss-crossed their way from one part of the North American continent to the other, then I never will. You’re hopeless, so leave now and never – ever – darken my domain name again.

OK, now that probably about five people are still reading this, consider what is so obvious, yet obscured by the billions of the books in those thousands of books:

The early settlers knew what they were getting into. They knew because hundreds of Spanish books, diaries and essays had been printed, translated, disbursed, and discussed throughout Europe for the hundred years before Jamestown was ever conceived by the London/Virginia Company as a money-making opportunity. Despite Spain’s attempts at controlling the flood of material, it still got out. The “Columbian Exchange” was in super-heated mode. Turn to Indian Givers to learn that not only gold and silver were glutting European and Asian markets, food markets were thriving with the new edibles – corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, and more.

We also need to look no further than Montaigne to know this is true.

Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 and died in 1592. He was one of the most prolific and respected writers of his time – indeed, his writings – they’re called Essays, published in 1580 – continue to inspire. He wrote in French, but remember many Europeans spoke and read French, it was not uncommon, especially with aristocracy and the growing middle class. His Essays were translated into English in 1603.

PUHLLEEEZE remember these dates.

He is considered a true Renaissance Man. He was called erudite – that means really, really smart. He believed in full equality for men and women (he has been referred to as the first champion of women’s rights). While he was born to a comfortable lifestyle, he disdained war and power and the accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake.

I studied French for three years in high school, and later a year in college. I’m not particularly adept at it (wasn’t then, either), but you can’t study French and any European history without running into at least a casual reference to Montaigne. I also had an advantage. My paternal grandmother collected books, which fortunately passed on to an aunt, who then fortunately got tired of dusting them, and gave many of them to me while I was still in high school.

One of those books is – you guessed it – Montaigne’s Essays.

During many times in my life, I have found it interesting and even helpful to read snippets of Montaigne. Don’t believe for a minute that I’ve read all 660 pages of it, but it is superbly indexed and I have found that for almost any subject, Montaigne had something to say.

For America, More or Less, he hasn’t let me down.

Book I, pgs 114-116:

Montaigne writes about the newly discovered world: I’ll omit various Latin phrases and references to Scythians, Hungarians, and references to some Greeks and Romans. I’ve highlighted the really important parts but I urge you to read all of this.

“…I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.…These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ’tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them…I should tell Plato, that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of. How much would he find his imaginary republic short of his perfection?

As to the rest, they live in a country very pleasant and temperate, so that, as my witnesses inform me, ’tis rare to hear of a sick person, and they moreover assure me, that they never saw any of the natives, either paralytic, blear-eyed, toothless, or crooked with age. The situation of their country is along the seashore, enclosed on the other side toward the land, with great and high mountains, having about a hundred leagues in breadth between. They have great store of fish and flesh, that have no resemblance to those of ours: which they eat without any other cookery, than plain boiling, roasting and broiling. The first that rode a horse thither, though in several other voyages he had contracted an acquaintance and familiarity with them, put them into so terrible a fright, with his centaur appearance, that they killed him with their arrows before they could come to discover who he was. Their buildings are very long, and of capacity to hold two or three hundred people, made of the barks of tall trees, reared with one end upon the ground, and leaning to and supporting one another, at the top, like some of our barns, of which the coverings hang down to the very ground, and serves for the side walls. They have wood so hard, that they cut with it, and make their swords of it, and their grills of it to broil their meat. Their beds are of cotton, hung swinging from the roof, like our easman’s hammocks, every man his own, for the wives lie apart from their husbands. They rise with the sun, and so soon as they are up, eat for all day, for they have no more meals but that: they do not then drink…but drink very often all day after, and sometimes to a rousing pitch. Their drink is made of a certain root, and is of the color of our claret, and they never drink it but lukewarm. It will not keep above two or three days; it has a somewhat sharp, brisk taste, is nothing heady, but very comfortable to the stomach; laxative to strangers, but a very pleasant beverage to such as are accustomed to it (Accidental Historian’s note: this may be a reference to a drink made from cocoa or cocao). They make use, instead of bread, of a certain white compound, like Coriander comfits; I have tasted of it; the taste is sweet and a little flat. The whole day is spent in dancing. Their young men go a-hunting after wild beasts with bows and arrows; one part of their women are employed in preparing their drink the while, which is their chief employment. One of their old men, in the morning before they fall to eating, preaches to the whole family, walking from the one end of the house to the other, and several times repeating the same sentence, till he has finished the round, for their houses are at least a hundred yards long. Valor toward their enemies and love toward their wives, are the two heads of his discourse, never failing in the close, to put them in mind, that ’tis their wives who provide them their drink warm and well seasoned. The fashion of their beds, ropes, swords, and of the wooden bracelets they tie about their wrists, when they go to fight, and of the great canes, bored hollow at one end, by the sound of which they keep the cadence of their dances, are to be seen in several places, and among others, at my house. They shave all over (Accidental Historian’s note: no, they didn’t), and much more neatly than we, without other razor than one of wood or stone. They believe in the immortality of the soul, and that those who have merited well of the gods, are lodged in that part of heaven where the sun rises, and the accursed in the west.

They have I know not what kind of priests and prophets, who very rarely present themselves to the people, having their abode in the mountains. At their arrival, there is a great feast, and solemn assembly of many villages: each house, as I have described, makes a village, and they are about a French league distant from one another. This prophet declaims to them in public, exhorting them to virtue and their duty: but all their ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives. He also prophesies to them events to come, and the issues they are to expect from their enterprises, and prompts them to or diverts them from war: but let him look to’t; for if he fail in his divination, and anything happen otherwise than he has foretold, he is cut into a thousand pieces, if he be caught, and condemned for a false prophet: for that reason, if any of them has been mistaken, he is no more heard of.

They have continual war with the nations that live further within the mainland, beyond their mountains, to which they go naked, and without other arms than their bows and wooden swords, fashioned at one end like the heads of our javelins. The obstinacy of their battles is wonderful, and they never end without great effusion of blood: for as to running away, they know not what it is. Every one for a trophy brings home the head of an enemy he has killed, which he fixes over the door of his house. After having a long time treated their prisoners very well, and given them all the regales they can think of, he to whom the prisoner belongs, invites a great assembly of his friends. They being come, he ties a rope to one of the arms of the prisoner, of which, at a distance, out of his reach, he holds the one end himself, and gives to the friend he loves best the other arm to hold after the same manner; which being done, they two, in the presence of all the assembly, despatch him with their swords. After that they roast him, eat him among them, and send some chops to their absent friends. They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices among their neighbors, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this. I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not among inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbors and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under color of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.

…The men there have several wives, and so much the greater number, by how much they have the greater reputation for valor. And it is one very remarkable feature in their marriages, that the same jealousy our wives have to hinder and divert us from the friendship and familiarity of other women, those employ to promote their husbands’ desires, and to procure them many spouses; for being above all things solicitous of their husbands’ honor, ’tis their chiefest care to seek out, and to bring in the most companions they can, forasmuch as it is a testimony of the husband’s virtue. Most of our ladies will cry out, that ’tis monstrous; whereas in truth, it is not so; but a truly matrimonial virtue, and of the highest form.”

Montaigne then goes on to recount meeting three Native Americans at the Rouen Court of Charles IX*; he didn’t understand them very well: “I had so ill an interpreter,” but he gathered that war was a big deal to them …this does not sound very ill, and the last was not at all amiss, for they wear no breeches.”

If you’re still with me, there are some really important things to take from these pages.

  • Montaigne is referring to South American Indians – from Mexico and Peru, probably, since 300 pages later he writes specifically about Mexico and Cusco.
  • His descriptions are idealistic, harkening to later visions of Native Americans as “Noble Savages.”
  • Indians at the French Court? We know that Columbus brought a few back to Spain after his first trip to the New World (only a few survived the voyage, don’t know what happened to the ones that made it). However, I have found no other mention anywhere of this happening – but I don’t think Montaigne fabricated this event.
  • Finally, go back and read the second paragraph – let me cut and paste the relevant sentence for you:
    “no clothing, no agriculture…no use of corn…” This is important. Not the clothing part, we know they wore clothes. But that agriculture and corn part. That is an extraordinary statement! Native Americans had potatoes, tobacco, cocoa, and corn – and the Spaniards brought all of those and more back to Europe. By the mid-1500’s corn was so much of a staple in Europe that even a smart guy like Montaigne didn’t remember or acknowledge that it was an original New World product. In less than half a century, a couple of generations, corn had become a European native.

That is a HUGE WOW deal. And it is a very, very sad deal, because it helped to set up the next 300 years of genocide very nicely, didn’t it.

*Bonus history note: Carolina both North and South, were named to honor Charles IX, Carolina being a fancy name for Charles.