History Timeline 1490s

Above: Explorer John Cabot. Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Right: Painting Christopher Columbus taking possession of San Salvador, Watling Island by L Prang and Co., 1893. Images courtesy Library of Congress.


Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1400s

Columbus and Cabot

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  • Timeline

  • 1491 - Detail

    December 31, 1491 - The Americas prior to European exploration saw a North American and Caribbean population of native Americans that spread across the continent at a level still debated amongst scholars. Between one million and one hundred million people are estimated to have lived in the Americas prior to Columbus.

    Newark Moundbuilders

    It was the end of the year before the world changed. Once the final day of 1491 arrived, within one year, the Americas would never be the same. But what did Columbus encounter once he landed his first voyage in the Caribbean later the next year? How prevalent was the population of the Americas, from the Caribbean to the area that would become the United States? How large were its cities? What were the possibilities for a census from Hispaniola to the area that would become colonial America before European smallpox or typhus or yellow fever arrived.

    Scholars differ on what life was like in the Americas prior to the first Columbus voyage at such a wide swath that it's hard, at times, to get a grip on what life was like. For some, life in the Americas included large prosperous cities with advanced agricultural cultures. Some claim that the population in 1491 would have approached that of Europe and that life in the Americas during the height of native population was better.

    Archeologists and anthropologists in some quarters now contest the notion that twelve thousand years ago, native peoples crossed the Bering Straight and lived in small isolated communities. They think that the world of the Americas was dominated by humans who cultivated the landscape to their liking. Others contend that the long held belief of small tribal communities with a minimal footprint on the earth still holds true.

    How to Put it All Together

    Let's admit up front that it's almost impossible beyond broad parameters to know what an accurate history was. By the time colonial settlements were established in Plymouth or Jamestown, the landscape of population had significantly declined. It's reported that even just several years prior when other explorers such as Samuel de Chaplain, 1605-6, and Ferdinando Gorges, 1607, attempted small colonies in New England, that they decided against it due to the large tribes in the area and the difficulty they might have if conquest was needed, much greater than confronted in 1609 when the Mayflower arrived.

    But just what is the estimate of the population of the Americas prior to Columbus, all the way back, almost one hundred years prior to those North American colonial attempts. The first estimate, in 1910 by James Mooney, said 1.15 million. By 1966, scholar Henry Dobyns had increased that estimate to between ninety and one hundred and twelve million people in the continents of North to South America.

    But what's the evidence and is it convincing? Juan de Soto's 1539 expedition across the southeast stated that the indigenous population was congregated in large towns with thousands of warriors. By the time European exploration came again, over one hundred years later, that population had decreased so dignificantly that Sieur de LaSalle reported in 1682 that the Indian population of the same area had decreased so that the villages, once fifty in number had been reduced to ten. It is estimated that the Caddoan population near the Texas-Arkansas border between de Soto and LaSalle's exploration had been reduced from two hundred thousand to eight thousand five hundred.

    Mid-range estimates of the population in 1491 of North America was between ten and twenty-five million, albeit that is largely dependent on unknown assumptions of numerical rates that can not be accurately concluded. In 1900, the population of Indians in North America was 500,000.

    Where were Some of Those Population and Cultural Centers?

    Cahokia - Southwest Illinois. Part of the Mississippian culture that appeared around the year 600. They were an stratified agricultural society situated along the Mississippi River and Ohio River with a large city at Cohokia near today's East St. Louis. Cahokia had around twenty thousand people at its height, perhaps double including its suburban centers, the most populated city in North America, the largest in the Americas outside Aztec culture. A wall fifteen feet high guarded the city. Its decline occurred prior to de Soto's arrival in the Mississippian region in the 1540's. It is unknown the exact reasons why the decline occurred, but recent finds suggest flooding of the Mississippi River as one of the major causes; one such flood may have been thirty-three feet high. Today the site of Cahokia is preserved as a two thousand two hundred acre park, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, with a world class interpretive center and guided or self-guided tours. There are eighty mounds today; one hundred and twenty estimated during the height of Cahokia.

    Poverty Point - Epps, Louisiana. The prehistoric mounds at Poverty Point in northeast Louisiana suggests a Native culture of hunter gatherers that extends back to 1650 BC with use as a settlement, trading post, or religious center. The mounds were built over centuries and are now preserved as Poverty Point National Monument. It is estimated that it would have taken five million man hours to build.

    Hispaniola - Dominican Republic and Haiti. When Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492 and 1493, the native Taino population is estimated at between 500,000 and 1,000,000, with some higher estimations. After Columbus brought 1,300 colonists during his second voyage to inhabit the island, with successive harsh treatment and disease, by 1517, only 14,000 Taino survived. On Puerto Rico, the Taino culture had become dominant by the year 1,000. By the time of the Columbus arrival on November 19, 1493, 30,000 to 60,000 Taino lived on the island of Puerto Rico. The first Spanish settlement, Caparra, was established in 1508. By the 1530 census, the Taino population had decreased to 1,148.

    Chillicothe/Newark - Ohio. Hopewell culture in south-central Ohio around the Scioto River. A series of mounds were built, often with astronomical significance and geometric shapes up to twelve feet high. These sites are now preserved within Hopewell Culture National Historic Sites (six units) as well as the Newark, Ohio, Great Circle State Park. These sites were not known as settlements, but as burial and ceremonial sites for surrounding villages. It is estimated that these mounds were constructed by the Hopewell culture society over two thousand years ago.

    Photo above: Indian mound complex at Newark Moundbuilders, Great Circle State Park, Ohio, 2014. Image below: Artist rendition of the Poverty Point archaeological site in Epps, Louisiana, 2016, Herb Roe. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Info source: "1491", The Atlantic, article by Charles C. Mann, March 2002; Cahokiamounds.org; Illinois Times; National Park Service; Yale University Genocide Studies Program, Puerto Rico; Wikipedia Commons.

    Poverty Point, Epps, Louisiana

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