During the colonial period, Native Americans had a complicated relationship with European settlers. They resisted the efforts of the Europeans to gain more of their land and control through both warfare and diplomacy. But problems arose for the Native Americans, which held them back from their goal, including new diseases, the slave trade, and the ever-growing European population in North America.

In the 17th century, as European nations scrambled to claim the already occupied land in the “New World,” some leaders formed alliances with Native American nations to fight foreign powers. Some famous alliances were formed during the French and Indian War of 1754–1763. The English allied with the Iroquois Confederacy, while the Algonquian-speaking tribes joined forces with the French and the Spanish. The English won the war, and claimed all of the land east of the Mississippi River. The English-allied Native Americans were given part of that land, which they hoped would end European expansion—but unfortunately only delayed it. Europeans continued to enter the country following the French and Indian War, and they continued their aggression against Native Americans. Another consequence of allying with Europeans was that Native Americans were often fighting neighboring tribes. This caused rifts that kept some Native American tribes from working together to stop European takeover.

Native Americans were also vulnerable during the colonial era because they had never been exposed to European diseases, like smallpox, so they didn’t have any immunity to the disease, as some Europeans did. European settlers brought these new diseases with them when they settled, and the illnesses decimated the Native Americans—by some estimates killing as much as 90 percent of their population. Though many epidemics happened prior to the colonial era in the 1500s, several large epidemics occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries among various Native American populations. With the population sick and decreasing, it became more and more difficult to mount an opposition to European expansion.

Another aspect of the colonial era that made the Native Americans vulnerable was the slave trade. As a result of the wars between the European nations, Native Americans allied with the losing side were often indentured or enslaved. There were even Native Americans shipped out of colonies like South Carolina into slavery in other places, like Canada.

These problems that arose for the Native Americans would only get worse in the 19th century, leading to greater confinement and the extermination of native people. Unfortunately, the colonial era was neither the start nor the end of the long, dark history of treatment of Native Americans by Europeans and their decedent’s throughout in the United States.


Native Americans in Colonial America
Whether through diplomacy, war, or even alliances, Native American efforts to resist European encroachment further into their lands were often unsuccessful in the colonial era. This woodcut shows members of the Cheyenne nation conducting diplomacy with settlers of European descent in the 1800s.

people or groups united for a specific purpose.

colonial expansion

spread of a foreign authority over other territories, usually through the establishment of settlement communities.


type of government where a geographic area is ruled by a foreign power.


boundary or limit.


result or outcome of an action or situation.


art and science of maintaining peaceful relationships between nations, groups, or individuals.


outbreak of an infectious disease able to spread rapidly.


process of enlarging.


targeted killing of a group of things.

indentured servant

person under contract to work for another over a period of time.

slave trade

traffic in slaves.


very contagious, often fatal disease wiped out with vaccination programs.


community made of one or several family groups sharing a common culture.