Chapter One: Myths and Legends


“Myths and Legends” is intended to expose students not only to the history of this continent prior to the arrival of Europeans, but to show them that this history mattered. Over centuries, native peoples had developed ways of interacting with strangers, with allies, and with worlds natural and supernatural.  When Europeans arrived, native peoples did not simply set these things aside.  Native America was a vibrant and complicated world.  Students should understand something of that world into which Europeans intruded, and how it functioned.


To Learn More

Thomas Harriot’s Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, with which this chapter opens, is widely available. The best online edition is by the University of North Carolina’s “Documenting the American South” series, and can be linked to here.  Useful discussions of “first contact narratives” can be found in James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Matthew Dennis, Cultivating a Landscape of Peace, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); Robert Steven Grumet, Historic Contact: Indian People and Colonists in Today’s Northeastern United States in the Sixteenth through the Eighteenth Centuries, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995); Ramon Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1991); George R. Hammell, “Strawberries, Floating Islands, and Rabbit Captains: Mythical Realities and European Contact in the Northeast During the Sixteenth And Seventeenth Centuries,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 21 (1987), 72-94; Charles S. Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and The South’s Ancient Chiefdoms, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997); Cornelius Jaenen, “Amerindian Views of French Culture in the Seventeenth Century,” Canadian Historical Review, 55 (1974), 261-291; Karen Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000) and Settling with the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640, (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981); Miller and Hamell’s “A New Perspective on Indian-White Contact: Cultural Symbols and Colonial Trade,” Journal of American History, 73 (1986), 311-328; Michael Leroy Oberg, The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Martin Quitt, “Trade and Acculturation at Jamestown, 1607-1609: The Limits Of Understanding,” William and Mary Quarterly, 52 (April 1995), 227-258; Neal Salisbury, “The Indians Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” William And Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 53 (1996), 435-458, and Bruce M. White, “Encounters with Spirits: Ojibwa and Dakota Theories about the French and their Merchandise,” Ethnohistory, 41 (1994), 369-405.

On the fraught language historians use and how it can shape understandings of the place of native peoples in American History, see the recent “Forum: Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” William and Mary Quarterly, 69 (July 2012), 451-512 with an opening essay by James H. Merrell and replies by some of the most important scholars working in the field.

The stories of creation I employed in this chapter were found in a number of primary sources.  For secondary sources that take these stories seriously, see, among many works, Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirted Resistance: The Indians Great Awakening, 1745-1815, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) and Calvin Luther Martin, Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).   Discussions of the Iroquois creation story are included in Dennis’s Cultivating a Landscape of Peace, and Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in The Era of European Colonization, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992). Both of these books are valuable for their insights on the formation of the Iroquois League, as are Jon Parmenter, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701, (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2012) and Robert D. Kuhn and Martha L. Sempowski, “A New Approach to Dating the League of the Iroquois,” American Antiquity, 66 (2001), 301-314.

On Cahokia, see Timothy R. Pauketat, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (New York: Penguin, 2009); Gayle Fritz, Feeding Cahokia: Early Agriculture in the North American Heartland, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019); and Thomas E. Emerson, Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997). Brian Fagan’s books are valuable general treatments of the “prehistory” of North America.  See The Great Journey: The Peopling of Ancient America, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004) and Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995). On Chaco Canyon, see Fagan’s Chaco Canyon: Archaeologists Explore the Lives of an Ancient Society, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Patricia L. Crown, ed., The House of the Cylinder Jars: Room 28 in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2020);  Neal Salisbury, “The Indians Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 53 (1996), 435-458 and Stephen Lekson, A History of the Ancient Southwest (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2008).  As a historian, I benefited from these discussions of the archaeological record.

The size of the pre-contact population of North America is a question over which scholars have divided deeply over the years.  For the outlines of the debate, see John D. Daniels, “The Indian Population of North America in 1492,” William and Mary Quarterly, 49 (1992), 298-320; William Denevan, ed., The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976); Henry F. Dobyns, Their Number Became Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983); David P. Heninge, “Recent Work and Prospects in American Indian Contact Population,” History Compass 6 (2008), 183-206; and Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).

On native peoples’ religions prior to the arrival of Europeans, and the relationships native peoples maintained with human and other-than-human beings, see Dowd, (above), Martin, Keepers of the Game; and his deeply flawed but still provocative The Way of the Human Being: (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), as well as the more specialized studies listed on the bibliography.  Heather Lapham and Gregory A. Waselkov’s Bears: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Perspectives in Native American North America, (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2020); Daniel Richter, in Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), provides a useful synthetic overview of the entire period. Also worth reading is Matthew Peeples, Connected Communities: Networks, Identity, and Social Change in the Ancient Cibola World, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2021); Leigh Bloch, “Tales of Esnesv: Indigenous Oral Traditions about Trader-Diplomats in Ancient Southeastern North America,” American Anthropologist, 120 (Fall 2018), 781-794; Michael Leroy Oberg, “Tribes and Towns: What Historians Still Get Wrong about the Roanoke Ventures,” Ethnohistory 67 (October 2020), 579-602.


Thomas Harriot’s Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is available online and makes for a wonderful in-class reading.  The University of North Carolina has one edition here and Peter Mancall, in his Envisioning America: English Plans for the Colonization of North America, 1580-1640 (Boston: Bedford, 1995) has made available another in his fine edited collection. Harriot’s writings and the engravings by Theodor DeBry which accompanied the 1590 edition of his report can be accompanied in the classroom by the beautiful and important watercolors composed by John White, the first images of English America. White’s paintings can be searched for individually on the British Museum website, or looked at here.

Harriot sheds light on Algonquian culture at the dawn of its contact with Europeans. Hints of what native peoples believed can be seen in other sources as well.  It was William Strachey who noted the Powhatan story of the Great Hare. Strachey’s Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia is available as a free e-book on Google Books.  James Mooney, in “Myths of the Cherokee,” published the story of Selu. The article appeared in the Journal of American Folklore, Volume 1, (July-September, 1888).  You can read a copy hosted online here. The Iroquois Creation Story is widely available.  John Norton’s 1816 version is hosted on the History Matters website, a resource for teaching American history.  You can read it here.  For the formation of the Iroquois League, the second of the two great League legends, the J.N.B. Hewitt edition from the late nineteenth century is available here, from JSTOR.  For images of Saynday, the best place to look remains the National Anthropological Archives. Two examples can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution’s Learning Lab.

Valuable online material about Cahokia can be found at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site webpage. For Chaco Canyon, see the webpage for the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, available here.

Joseph Medicine Crow, whose work is so important for understanding the history of the Crows, died in April of 2016. His Washington Post obituary is worth reading. A collection of N. Scott Momaday’s poetry is available in the collection In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991, (St.Martin’s 1991). Vi Hilbert’s obituary, which appeared in the Seattle Times in December of 2008, is also available online. It is important for students to hear Native American voices in a course on Native American history.

An older edition of John Smith’s Generall Historie is available on Google Books; your library may have the authoritative edition of Smith’s work edited by Philip Barbour.  The Houghton Library at Harvard has made available some of the images from Smith’s most important work.  Wikipedia must be used with caution always, but it does include some public domain maps for Chaco Canyon.


Assignments and Study Question

  1. People, Peoples, Places, and Things: Terms for Identification

Thomas Harriot                                           Ossomocomuck

“Discovery”                                                   Tsennacommacah

Powhatans                                                    Great Hare

Cherokees                                                     Kanati and Selu

Iroquois                                                         Haudenosaunee

Sky Woman                                                  Sky Grasper (Tharonhiawagon)

Tawiskaron                                                   Five Nations

Peacemaker                                                  Hiawatha

Wampum                                                      Thadodaho

Caddos                                                           Kiowas

Saynday                                                         Beringia

Chaco Canyon                                              Cahokia

Henry Dobyns                                              James Mooney

Joseph Medicine Crow                              Crows

No Vitals                                                       Rainy Mountain

N. Scott Momaday                                      Mohegans

Manitou                                                         orenda

dwdw                                                              shuy

Old Lady Horse                                            Paul Le Jeune and Jesuits

Cautantouwwit                                            Vi Hilbert

Green Corn Ceremony                               Wahunsonacock

John Smith                                                   Claude Allouez


  1. Discussion Questions

1)  Over the years I have found that some of my students arrive in my classes in Native American History with the sense that the beliefs they hold dear are part of a “religion,” while native peoples, in their view, believe in something less, in the “myths and legends” I refer to in the chapter title.  Setting aside the fact that many Native Americans are Christians, and that there have been Native American Christians since the sixteenth century, I find it useful to deal with these biases directly.  Students might read, for instance, the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis alongside one or more of the creation stories discussed in the chapter.  Links to these stories are available under “Resources.”  What do these stories do? What functions do they serve?  In what ways are they alike and unalike?

2)         This chapter includes a copy of Emanual Leutze’s painting depicting the founding of Maryland.  Depending on where your students live, and the nature of museum resources and public art there, you might find similar art work where you live.

Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church, Ventura California, where I attended grades 1-6, depicting the arrival of the Franciscan Fathers accompanying the Portola Expedition amongst the Chumash.

Images like Leutze’s are common, and you can find them in museums, in municipal buildings, on historical markers, and in other public spaces.  Students can investigate the history of these images, and attempt to understand what the artwork communicated about native peoples, and the role they played in the region’s history.  It might be worthwhile to have students reflect upon how images like these may have shaped their own understandings of the Native American past. Are the images the students saw harmful? Hurtful? Helpful? What sort of history does this public art tell?

3).  I have written at length about the Roanoke ventures, and I do relatively little with Roanoke in Native America.  Still, John White’s 1585 paintings of North America are an immensely valuable source for understanding how native peoples lived at the dawning of their contact with Europeans, as well as how the English perceived Carolina Algonquians.  What biases are present in White’s work? What can we learn about native peoples from works of art like White’s?  If the students look at White’s paintings of the Algonquian towns of Secotan and Pomeiooc, they might consider what it was that made one group of people “civilized” and another “savage.”  How does one define savagery? Civility?  After coming up with a list of characteristics, students might consider whether John White thought of the Carolina Algonquians as “savage.” The best published edition of White’s artwork is Kim Sloan, A New World: England’s First View of America, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), but the paintings are also available at the Virtual Jamestown website and on other sites on the web.

4) Much of this chapter relies on oral traditions, the “myths and legends” of native peoples.  But it also relies on archaeological evidence.  Good historians of Native America are necessarily interdisciplinary in their approach.  It can be a worthwhile exercise to have students read from the archaeological record, to assess the strengths and limitations of archaeological evidence.  Looking at the tabular data available in Patricia Rubertone’s Grave Undertakings, for example, or some of the discussions that appears in the work on the Chumash published by Lynn Gamble, will provide important insights for students about how archaeologists work.

A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History