During the Pleistocene epoch, global cooling led periodically to the expansion of glaciers and lowering of sea levels. During the last ice age, people journeyed across the ancient land bridge connecting Asia to North America. Although it's gone now, the Bering Land Bridge persisted for thousands of years, from about 30,000 years ago to 16,000 years ago.
The drop at 30,000 years ago was very rapid due to the build up of ice sheets across North America. For most of the time from about 30,000 to 18,000 years ago, the land bridge was nearly 620 miles wide in the north-south direction. Grasslands, shrubs and tundra-like conditions would have prevailed in many places. These environments helped megafauna — animals such as the woolly mammoth, thrive. Early man soon followed...
The Paleoindian Period, also called the Lithic stage, from about 16,000-8,000 BC, refers to a time at the end of the last ice age when humans first appeared in the archeological record of North America.
During this time period, big-game hunting was the way of life. Nomadic small bands, wearing hide and fur, lived-in caves and tracked woolly mammoths, giant sloths and other huge animals. Primitive stone and bone point weapons were developed.
The Archaic period is charcterized by a forging way of life. From around 8,000 to 1,000 BC. a migratory existence of hunting and trapping small game and the gathering of edible wild plants dominanted. When food sources ran out in one area, groups moved on to another. The Archaic period ending is defined by the adoption of sedentary farming.
Hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild plant food, nuts, and berries with dugout canoes along rivers. Cultural continuity from Late Archaic included expansion of long distance trade routes from Paleoindian times, the introduction of birch bark canoes, basic horticulture, bow and arrow, ceremonial internments and the development of rich and varied woodworking, basketry and pottery.
The Formative, Classic and post-Classic stages are sometimes incorporated together as the Post-archaic period, which runs from 1000 BC to the Euopean arrival. Different parts of the continent evolved in different ways. Sites and cultures include: Adena, Old Copper, Woodland, Fort Ancient, Hopewell mound builders tradition and Mississippian cultures.
Increased settlement with cultivation of corn, beans, and squash in the Upper Connecticut River Basin. Extended nuclear family units coalesced into bands and semi-permanent villages focused on low-lying tract of lands along rivers and seasonal upland base camps.
From the 16th through the 19th centuries, the population of Native Americans dramtically declined. Epidemic disease brought from Europe was the overwhelming cause of the population decline because of their lack of immunity to new diseases brought from Europe. The high rate of fatalities caused breakdowns in Native American societies and disrupted generational exchange of culture.
The subject of the European colonization of the New World is fraught with emotion. For many early white historians, the "Indians" were an obstacle to Manifest Destiny and the perpetrators of frontier violence. This long-standing bias has fed the popular perception of Native Americans as villains with settlers as victims and frontiersman as heroes.
With a broader historical perspective (now more widely accepted) the natives become increasingly seen as victims due to the purposeful destruction of their culture, the cession of millions of acres of their hunting grounds and the tragic death toll of millions due to diseases and a government policy of extermination and forced exile.
Once the Appalachian Mountains had been crossed, settlers poured into the fertile lands beyond, having scant regard for the native Americans who lived there. One after another the eastern peoples were doomed: Delaware, Seneca, Shawnee, Ottawa, Choctaw, Sauk & Fox, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Potawatomi. Unwillingly, they were mercilessly shifted from their homeland to the barren lands west of the Mississippi which the new Americans regarded to be of such use that it was labeled “The Great American Desert” on their maps at the time ‘removal’ took place.
In May 1830, the Great Removal Act was passed by Congress. What follows was a long and tragic tale of deceit by the United States government as treaty after treaty was signed and then soon reneged.
By 1837, the Jackson administration had “removed” 46,000 native Americans from their land east of the Mississippi, and had secured treaties which led to the removal of a slightly larger number. Most members of the five southeastern nations had been relocated west, and this alone opened up 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery. Tribes such as the Cherokee died by the thousands in the infamous Trail of Tears forced migration (see map).
In the end, the sad fate of America's Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash. The Indians were not prepared to give up the nomadic life of the hunter for the sedentary life of the farmer. The new Americans, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, were unwilling to grant the original inhabitants of the continent the vast preserve of land required by the Indians’ way of life.