Indian Population

The question of the number of the native population of America, and particularly of the United States and British America, at the coming of the white man, has been the subject of much speculation. Extremists on the one hand have imagined a population of millions, while on the other hand the untenable claim has been made, and persistently repeated, that there has been no decrease, but that on the contrary, in spite of removals, wars, epidemics, and dissipation, and the patent fact that the aboriginal population of whole regions has completely disappeared, the Indian has thriven under misfortune and is more numerous to-day than at any former period. The first error is due in part to the tendency to magnify the glory of a vanished past, and in part to the mistaken idea that the numerous ancient remains scattered over the country were built or occupied at practically the same period. The contrary error, that the Indian has increased, is due to several causes, chief of which is the mistake of starting the calculation at too recent a period, usually at the establishment of treaty relations. The fact is that between the discovery of America and the beginning of the federal government the aboriginal population had been subjected to nearly three centuries of destructive influences, which had already wiped out many tribes entirely and reduced many others to mere remnants.

Another factor of apparent increase is found in the mixed-blood element, which is officially counted as Indian, although frequently representing only 1/16, 1/32 or even1/64 of Indian blood, while in the late Indian Territory (Oklahoma) it is well known that the tribal rolls contain thousands of names repudiated by the former tribal courts. The Indian of the discovery period was a full-blood ; the Indian of today is very often a mongrel, with not enough of aboriginal blood to be distinguishable in the features, yet, excepting in a few tribes, no official distinction is made.

The chief causes of decrease, in order of importance, may be classed as smallpox and other epidemics; tuberculosis; sexual diseases; whisky and attendant dissipation; removals, starvation and subjection to unaccustomed conditions; low vitality due to mental depression under misfortune; wars. In the category of destroyers all but wars and tuberculosis may be considered to have come from the white man, and the increasing destructiveness of tuberculosis itself is due largely to conditions consequent upon his advent. Smallpox has repeatedly swept over wide areas, sometimes destroying perhaps one half the native population within its path.

One historic smallpox epidemic originating on the upper Missouri in 1781-82 swept northward to Great Slave Lake, eastward to Lake Superior, and westward to the Pacific. Another, in 1801-02, ravaged from the Rio Grande to Dakota, and another, in 1837-38, reduced the strength of the northern Plains tribes by nearly one-half. A fever visitation about the year 1830 was officially estimated to have killed 70,000 Indians in California, while at about the same time a malarial fever epidemic in Oregon and on the Columbia, said to have been due to the plowing up of the ground at the trading posts-ravaged the tribes of the region and practically exterminated those of Chinookan stock. The destruction by disease and dissipation has been greatest along the Pacific coast, where also the original population was most numerous. In California the enormous decrease from about a quarter of a million to less than 20,000 is due chiefly to the cruelties and wholesale massacres perpetrated by the miners and early settlers. The almost complete extermination of the Aleut is attributable to the same causes during the early Russian period.

Confinement in mission establishments has also been fatal to the Indian, in spite of increased comfort in living conditions. Wars in most cases have not greatly diminished the number of Indians. The tribes were in chronic warfare among themselves, so that the balance was nearly even until, as in the notable case of the Iroquois, the acquisition of firearms gave one body an imminence superiority over its neighbors. Among the wars most destructive to the Indians may be noted those in Virginia and southern New England, the raids upon the Florida missions by the Carolina settlers and their savage allies, the wars of the Natchez and Foxes with the French, the Creek war, and the war waged by the Iroquois for a period of thirty years upon all the surrounding tribes.

A careful study of population conditions for the whole territory north of Mexico, taking each geographic section separately, indicates a total population, at the time of the coming of the white man, of nearly 1,150,000 Indians, which is believed to be within 10 per cent of the actual number. Of this total 840,000 were within the limits of the United States proper, 220,000 in British America, 72,000 in Alaska, and 10,000 in Greenland. The original total is now reduced to about 403,000, a decrease of about 65 per cent.

The complete study is expected to form the subject of a future bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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