Tribes of the West Indies and Northern Provinces of South America

Indians First Seen By Columbus

At the time of the discovery of the New World by Columbus, the larger West India Islands and the Bahamas were, for the most part, inhabited by a kindly and simple-hearted race. Although living in the most primitive state of nature, unclothed, and possessed of only the rudest weapons and implements, they do not appear to have been deficient in intellectual capacity. The delightful climate of their country, and the spontaneous fruitfulness of the soil, removed the ordinary incentives to labor and ingenuity. The rudest huts of branches, reeds, and palm-leaf thatch, with hammocks, (originally the Indian word “hamacs”) slung between the posts, fully sufficed for their dwellings. Protection from the rain was alone necessary.

They were of good figure and proportion, their foreheads were high and well formed, and the general cast of their countenance and conformation of their features agreeable and regular.

Landing At Guanahani Natives Of Cuba

The great admiral landed, for the first time since the days of “the Northmen” that any European had visited the Western World, at Guanahani, San Salvador, or Cat Island, on the 12th of October, 1492. The shore was lined with naked savages, who fled at the approach of the boats; but watching from a distance the incomprehensible ceremony of taking possession, and the religious exercises of thanksgiving, performed by the strangers, fear soon gave place to reverential curiosity. If any thing could excite their wonder in a higher degree than the majestic approach of the ships, it might well be the splendor of the Spanish dress and arms, the strange complexion, and the thick beards of the strangers who arrived in them. The Indians soon began to gather round the little band, throwing themselves upon the earth in token of submission and respect, and worshiping the Spaniards as gods or divine messengers. As nothing but kindness appeared in the demeanor of the strangers, the natives grew more familiar, and, with unbounded admiration, touched and examined their dress and beards.

Columbus still further won the good will of the islanders by a judicious distribution of such brilliant beads and toys as ever attract the eye of the savage. Nothing delighted them so much as hawks-bells, of whose pleasant tinkling, when suspended from their arms and necks, they were never weary. The next day, laying aside all fear, the Indians came out to the ships, swimming or paddling in their canoes. They brought such little articles of trade as they possessed; balls of cotton yarn, parrots, and cassava bread (made from the yuca root); eager to traffic, upon any terms, for European commodities. Golden ornaments worn in the noses of some of them at once aroused the cupidity of the Spaniards, who eagerly bought them up, and made inquiry, by signs, as to whence the material, was brought. This was explained to be at the southward.

In his further cruise among the Bahamas, in the vain search for gold, Columbus pursued the most humane and gentle policy towards the natives, and their gratitude and delight at his caresses and presents knew no bounds. Equally generous, they were ever ready to proffer to the Spaniards all their little wealth of cotton, fruits, and tame parrots. Seven of the natives of Guanahani were taken on board the vessels upon the departure from that island.

The admiral had no doubt but that he had reached the islands of the Asiatic coast, and, in accordance with this mistake, bestowed the epithet of Indians upon the inhabitants. As he came in sight of Cuba, he supposed that he had at least reached Cipango. This opinion was finally changed, from a misapprehension of communications from the natives on board, to a firm belief that this was the main land of the continent of Asia, an error of which Columbus was never disabused.

Embassy To The Grand Khan!

The inhabitants appeared rather more advanced in the arts than those before seen, but, to the intense disappointment of all on board the vessels, none of them were possessed of any gold. Two ambassadors were sent by Columbus to explore the interior, and to visit the court of the prince of the country, whom his imagination led him to conclude, must be none other than the Grand Khan! A rude Indian village, of about one thousand inhabitants, naked savages, like those of the coast, was all that was discovered by these emissaries. They were received and entertained with the greatest kindness and reverence, but were unable to communicate with the natives otherwise than by signs. The most interesting report made by them upon their return, was of a custom then unknown to the whites, viz.: that of smoking. The name of tobacco, given by the natives to the cigars, which they used, was ever after applied to the plant.

Discovery of Hayti, and Intercourse with the Natives

From Cuba, Columbus took several Indians, men and women, on board, at his departure, that they might be taught Spanish, and thereafter serves as interpreters. In December, he discovered the island of Hayti, named by him Hispaniola, and landing on the 12th of the month, he raised a cross in token of taking possession. All the inhabitants had fled into the interior; but a young female was taken by some roving sailors, and brought on board. She was sent on shore with abundant presents of ornaments and clothing, to give a favorable report of the whites to her own people. Next day a party was sent to visit the Indian town upon the bank of the river of Three Rivers. The town consisted of about one thousand houses, from which the occupants fled at the sight of the Spaniards. They were finally reassured, and induced to return. Some two thousand of them made their appearance, advancing slowly, with every gesture and expression of humiliation and respect.

The woman, whom the Spaniards had the day before entertained, had not failed to report magnificent descriptions of her captors and their vessels. The tokens which she brought back, in the shape of beads, hawks-bells, &c., were yet more convincing evidence of the beneficence and wealth of the Spaniards. She now came forward, with her husband, at the head of a throng of Indians, and every expression of gratitude and good will was lavished by them upon their guests. Every thing that the poor natives possessed was freely at the Spaniards service.

Honesty And Hospitality Of The Native Inhabitants

Columbus writes of these islanders: “True it is that after they felt confidence and lost their fear of us, they were so liberal with what they possessed that it would not be believed by those who had not seen it. If any thing was asked of them, they never said no; but rather gave it cheerfully, and showed as much amity as if they gave their very hearts.”

The early voyagers, and all contemporary writers, agree that this was the character of nearly all the inhabitants of the West India Islands, with the exception of the Caribs. A more guileless, innocent, contented race has never existed, and never were strangers welcomed to a foreign shore with more genuine and kindly hospitality; but what a return did they receive for their friendliness and submission!

Coasting along towards the east, Columbus landed at Acul, and held friendly communion with the inhabitants, whose first fears were easily dispelled. The same scenes of mutual presents and hospitalizes that characterized the former landings were here repeated. The whole of that region of country was under the command of a great cacique, named Guacanagari, from whom the Spaniards now, for the first time, received messengers, inviting them to visit, him, and offering various curious presents. Among these articles were some specimens of rude work in gold.

While pursuing his course eastward, with the intention of anchoring in a harbor described as near the residence of the cacique, Columbus had the misfortune to be cast away upon a sandbar. No shipwrecked mariners ever received more prompt and efficient relief than was immediately extended by Guacanagari and his subjects. Every thing was brought to land from the wreck, and guarded with the most scrupulous honesty. The cacique himself, with tears in his eyes, came on board the caravel Nina, whither the admiral and his crew had been obliged to be take themselves, and offered every assistance in his power.

With respect to the goods brought on shore in the natives canoes, “there seemed,” says Mr. Irving, “even among the common people, no disposition to take advantage of the misfortune of the strangers. Although they beheld what must, in their eyes, have been inestimable treasures, cast as it were upon their shores, and open to depredation, yet there was not the least attempt to pilfer, nor, in transporting the effects from the ship, had they appropriated the most trifling article; on the contrary, a general sympathy was visible in their countenances and actions; and, to have witnessed their concern, one would have supposed the misfortune had happened to themselves.”

Trade for Gold

The Spaniards, wearied with long and profitless voyaging, now reveled in the enjoyment of true Indian hospitality. The cacique, who was regarded with the utmost love and reverence by his subjects, continued his kind offices, and the people were not behind-hand in following his example. What delighted the shipwrecked mariners more than any other circumstance, was the number of gold ornaments possessed by the natives, and which they were eager to dispart for any trifle of European manufacture. Hawks -bells, above all other articles of use or ornament were universally in demand. “On one occasion,” says Irving, “an Indian gave half-a-handful of gold dust in exchange for one of these toys, and no sooner was in possession of it, than he bounded away to the woods, looking often behind him, and fearful that the Spaniard would repent of having parted so cheaply with such an inestimable jewel.”

The natives described the mountains of Cibao as the principal source whence gold was to be obtained. Valuable mines were, indeed, afterwards discovered in that region, although their yield fell far short of the extravagant anticipations of the Spaniards.

A portion of the crew of the wrecked vessel expressed a strong desire to remain at Hispaniola until another expedition could be fitted out from Spain, upon the return of the Nina, and Columbus was not displeased with the proposition. The Indians were overjoyed at the prospect of retaining some of the powerful strangers in their island, as a protection against the invasions of the dreaded Caribs, and as security for a future visit from European vessels. They had seen, with wonder and awe, the terrible effect of the discharge of artillery, and the admiral had promised the assistance of his men and weapons in case of any inroad from an enemy’s country.

Building of the Fortress of La Navidad

The little fortress of La Navidad was speedily constructed out of the materials of the stranded vessel, and fortified with her cannon. The Indians eagerly lent their assistance in the labor of transportation and building. Thirty-nine men were chosen, from the numerous volunteers for that service, as a garrison for the fort: to these Columbus addressed the most earnest exhortations to discretion and kindness in their intercourse with the natives. His heart might well be touched by the continued courtesy and affection of Guacanagari, who could not refrain from tears at parting with his venerated friend. The Nina sailed on the 4th of January 1493. Coasting eastward, the caravel joined company with the Pinta, under Pinzon, of which no accounts had been for some time received, and the two vessels passed cape Caboon, and came to anchor in the bay beyond. Here was seen a tribe of Indians very different from those of the west end of the island. From their bold and warlike appearance, their bows and arrows, clubs, and wooden swords, the Spaniards took them for Caribs, and, unfortunately, before coming to a friendly understanding with them, a skirmish took place, in which two of the Indians were wounded. Reconciliation and friendly intercourse succeeded. The tribe proved to be that of the Ciguayans, a hardy race of mountaineers. Columbus was particularly struck with the noble demeanor of the cacique, supposed to be the same afterwards prominent in history as Mayonabex.

Disorders and Destruction of the Garrison at La Navidad

Not long after the departure of the admiral from La Navidad, the Spaniards left at the fort began to give themselves up to the most unbounded and dissolute license. Their savage quarrels among themselves, and the gross sensuality which characterized their intercourse with the natives, soon disabused the latter of the sublime conceptions formed by them of the virtues and wisdom of their guests. “With all this misrule, the precautions of a military post were utterly neglected, and full opportunity was given for an attack. The destruction of the fort by the Carib chief Caonabo will be found described in a subsequent chapter.

When Columbus returned to Hispaniola, upon his second voyage, nothing but dismantled ruins marked the spot of the settlement. Guacanagari and his people described the attack of Caonabo and his warriors, their own futile at tempts to assist the garrison, and the slaughter of the Spaniards. Notwithstanding the apparent good faith of the cacique, many of the Spaniards began to mistrust his accounts, and to suspect him of having acted a treacherous part. This suspicion was strengthened by his sudden departure with several of the female captives brought away by the admiral from the Caribbee Islands.

Fort of St. Thomas

The hope of procuring rich treasures of the precious metals, and the desire of holding in check the warlike Caonabo, induced Columbus to establish the fortress of St. Thomas in the province of Cibao. Those stationed at this remote interior position, in the midst of more hardy and proud-spirited tribes than those of the coast, collected and transmitted much curious information concerning native superstitions, customs, and nationalities. Some crude notions of supernatural influences, apparitions, necromancy, &c., were entertained by these islanders, in common with most savage nations. They had also an idea of a future state of happiness for the good, in which all earthly pleasures should be enjoyed in unalloyed perfection.


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

1 thought on “Tribes of the West Indies and Northern Provinces of South America”

  1. Hi everyone.
    I am wondering how to find the Indian heritage from my great grand parents and my father. My father was born in El Salvado -San Salvador and his parents and their parents were from Spain. Thank you

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