HSTW 301 Native American History, 1500-1800 (Spring 2016)

Florentine Codex cropped.fwThe history of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries is usually told as a tale of encounters and conquest. Europeans branched out across the Atlantic and met with a range of new cultures from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego. Armed with military technology and debilitating diseases previously unheard of in the lands they explored, they claimed millions of square miles for themselves, displacing or killing the natives they encountered. Through that process nearly three dozen independent nations arose in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. History, in other words, is written as a tale of European expansion.

But what if we flip the script? What if, instead of focusing on Europeans coming across the Atlantic to encounter Native Americans, we try to see the past through native eyes? This course will use that question as our entry point into studying native cultures between 1500 and 1800. There will be times when that will be difficult, not least because contact with Europeans was crucially important to the time period we’ll be studying. We will examine the written record—provided overwhelmingly by Europeans—to try to glean what we can about Native culture and the Native experience of encounter. We will also explore other types of evidence, including paintings and other visual evidence, oral accounts, and material objects from cups to canoes, to get as directly at possible at Native evidence. We will, therefore, work to uncover the experience of Native Americans in this period by practicing the craft of history: reading the work of other historians, interpreting evidence, and sharing thoughts both verbally in class and in writing.

Major Questions

  • What were the settlement patterns of Native groups in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? How did they change during the period of European imperial expansion?
  • What were the characteristics of the major peoples of North and South America? How did groups vary across space and time?
  • To what extent is it fair to consider Native groups “conquered?”
  • In what ways did Natives and Europeans interact either productively or with difficulty?
  • How do we solve the problem of having sources mostly written or mediated by Europeans? How can these sources be useful for understanding Native perspectives? What other sources can we turn to?


By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Interpret historical evidence in written, visual, and material forms.
  • Explain the chronology of major events in Native American history from 1500 to 1800.
  • Write a historical narrative using primary sources.
  • Compare and contrast the experiences of Native groups across both space and time.
  • Understand the methods of interpretation of material objects and how to put them into a historical context.

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Catalog Information

An exploration of the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas from first contact to the Age of Revolutions. The course focuses on native cultures of North and South America, the consequences of contact with European explorers and settlers, and the accommodation and resistance of native peoples as the Americas became sites of struggle among European imperial powers. Prerequisite: Sophomore standing and a 100-level survey course in United States or European or World history; or permission of instructor.