American People - History of the American People
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American people

Pueblo family 1885
A Pueblo family in 1885 (Detroit Publishing Company)

Since 1500 AD there have been huge changes in North American people's relationships to one another. In the 1500s, most kids lived in small villages with their families. Many kids grew up in longhouses or pueblos, with their cousins and aunts and uncles sharing their house. Nobody went to school, because there weren't any schools. But as these people died of smallpox and people from Europe, Asia, and Africa moved to North America, it became more usual for kids to live just with their mother and father.

Cree school
A boarding school for Cree children in the 1960s

And by the late 1800s most kids began to go to school, at least for a few years - both boys and girls. While this was a good thing for the European kids, many Cree and Inuit kids were taken away from their families and forced to go to boarding schools run by Europeans, to keep them from learning their traditional ways of living.

Mill girl
A girl working in a mill factory

In the 1500s, families were the most important people that you had around you. A lot of people, especially among nomads like the Ute, lived alone with just their family. But as the European, African, and Asian settlers moved to North America, many people came alone, without any family, and they had to depend on friends for help. Slave-owners often forced African people away from their families. Even people who came with their fathers and mothers didn't have their cousins anymore, and they had to make new friends. So friendship became very important in North America. In the 1900s, as more and more people moved to the cities, they met lots of new people at work, or in parks or at social clubs, and so friendships continued to be very important as a way to find jobs, or find someone to marry, or anything else where people could help you out.

In the 1500s, people usually got married when they were about 17 or 18 years old. Women usually did not move when they got married, but stayed in their mother's longhouse with their sisters. Men moved into their wives' houses and lived with their wives' families.

Slave wedding
A wedding of two black people held in slavery, from 1820

Among the early settlers, in the 1700s, people did usually move into their own small house (often just one room) when they got married. African people who were forced to come to North America as slaves were not usually allowed to marry at all, but they did marry anyway, even though they were always afraid of being sold away from each other. The usual age when people get married has changed back and forth many times over time - sometimes people marry when they are older, as in the 1700s, when people had to wait until their indentured servitude was over, and sometimes people marry very young, as in the early 1900s, when many young people moved to the cities and met other young people and got married.

Slavery was an important part of many people's lives between 1500 and 2000 in North America. Some people were enslaved in North America even before the Europeans arrived, often people of different tribes who had been taken prisoner during an attack on their village. When the Europeans first came to North America, they tried to enslave the people who were already living there, but this failed because most of the people they enslaved died of sickness. The British government forced thousands of people to come to North America to work as indentured servants (a kind of temporary slavery). After 1718, many of these were people who had been convicted of crimes in England, usually stealing, and this was a way to get rid of them and make them useful. Others volunteered to be indentured servants in order to get enough money to get from England to North America.

slaves picking cotton
Slaves picking cotton. See the little girl?

Then the Europeans forced millions of African people to come to North America to work as slaves, especially along the East Coast and in the South. After the American Revolutionary War in 1776, no more indentured servants came from England, and by the early 1800s no more new Africans came as slaves either. But there were still many African slaves in North America until the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln announced that all the slaves would be free.

The enormous diversity that North America developed with all these new people moving in from all over means that there were also many different attitudes towards racism, friendships, kids, marriage, and families. In 1500, nearly everybody living in North America was Native American, with reddish-brown skin like modern Native Americans or Hispanics. By 1700, most of those people had died, and new people were moving in from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many of these people were white, but the African people who were forced to come as slaves were black, and some African black people came as free people too. People came from all over Asia as well, so that there were people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese origins as well. In the 2000s, more and more Hispanic people live in North America, and more white people are marrying people of color, and soon North America will again have more people with reddish-brown skin than white people.

More about American slavery

Bibliography and further reading about American people:

Native Americans
American History home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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