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First Contact

European explorers were the first to encounter indigenous peoples of the New World. The first contact may have occurred when Thorvald, brother of Leif Eriksson, died in a skirmish with natives near Vinland in present-day Newfoundland. Thorvald may have been the first European to die and be buried in America.

Nearly five centuries later, word that Christopher Columbus had discovered what was believed to be a western approach to the East Indies spread through Europe, which energized other nations to dispatch explorers. Like Columbus, they were searching for gold, silver, spices and other valuables. They also were looking for new lands to claim for their empires. They quickly realized that what Columbus had actually found was another world altogether.

The Europeans came to the New World with underlying assumptions, some based on what would later be called Manifest Destiny, others based on Christian beliefs. Some, including Columbus, believed it was God's design to convert non-Christians everywhere. Extracting wealth from the New World was justifiable because the peoples there were heathen. Imprecations against Native Americans were sanctioned because they were Satan's own, and it followed that their cultures could be crippled as well.

By and large, indigenous peoples first welcomed European explorers, and trade was a hallmark of their relationship from the beginning. The natives introduced the Europeans to such plants as maize, potatoes, other edible plants, and tobacco. The Europeans introduced the Native Americans to horses, guns, and alcohol, among other things.

Contact would wreak radical changes in Native American lifeways through the impact of trade, missionary influence, intermarriage, disease, enslavement, defeat in battle, forced relocation to reservations, and acculturation.