Settling Fantasy America

Today is Thanksgiving here in the United States. Our Canadian neighbors celebrated it a month ago. Here in the United States the general story is the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth and the Wampanoag tribe had a feast of thanksgiving.

Being the history geek that I am I've done some reading on what the European settlement of America was like. As a gamer, I'd often thought of doing a game along those lines and did run a brief one about a fantasy version of a Viking settlement in a fantasy analogue of Manhattan.

My own research has revealed an awful lot of myths about the European settlement of the Americas. The biggest one in my opinion is that the Americas were an untamed wilderness. The Native American method of using the land was definitely different from the European one but they most definitely made large changes to the land - one of the better known things they did was perform controlled forest burnings.

Where does such an idea originate? Here I'm not particularly authoritative. If I were to guess, I can think of two reasons. The first is it just makes one feel better to have settled in an untamed wilderness rather than squat in land that had been originally cultivated by others. The other reason I believe is how  decimated the native population was after exposure to European disease. Cracked had one of the best descriptions in their article 6 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About the Founding of America:
There's a pretty important detail our movies and textbooks left out of the handoff from Native Americans to white European settlers: It begins in the immediate aftermath of a full-blown apocalypse. In the decades between Columbus' discovery of America and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, the most devastating plague in human history raced up the East Coast of America. Just two years before the pilgrims started the tape recorder on New England's written history, the plague wiped out about 96 percent of the Indians in Massachusetts. 
In the years before the plague turned America into The Stand, a sailor named Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed up the East Coast and described it as "densely populated" and so "smoky with Indian bonfires" that you could smell them burning hundreds of miles out at sea. Using your history books to understand what America was like in the 100 years after Columbus landed there is like trying to understand what modern day Manhattan is like based on the post-apocalyptic scenes from I Am Legend.
This is something to keep in mind when considering a fantasy game based on the Americas. Suppose you give the fantasy analogue or version of the Native Americans use of real magic - if they have the ability to cure diseases there's a pretty decent chance they'd have been able to keep the settlers/invaders out - or at the very least, make such a settlement a very expensive undertaking. After all, these are the same people who made the Vikings decide perhaps they'd rather go elsewhere.

I seem to recall a few ideas floating on the internet about using elves as a fantasy analogue for Native Americans. What I would prefer to do instead is make the natives of a New World to be of the same races that can be found in the Old World. I believe it makes such people more real - there's a tendency to oversimplify the original Americans - either as magical people who lived in perfect harmony or as savages who lacked the technical know-how to fight off the Europeans. In reality they were people, just like the European settlers were people. Some honest, some deceitful. Some friendly, some standoffish. I believe the "elves=native nature lovers" shorthand greatly oversimplifies an entire group of civilizations. This falls into advice I've mentioned before from James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess fame - only use non-humans in a fantasy game if there is a very compelling reason to do so. In my Vikings in Fantasy North America game I did actually use dwarfs - dwarfs like those of Norse myth, living within mountains. They were very, very different form the natives, based off of the Lenape Indians and the Viking settlers had a much easier time dealing with the Lenape than the dwarfs.

There's a number of works I've read that I believe give a good foundation of life in North America before or shortly after European settlement. Some of these include:

  • Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. An excellent view of the empires and other civilizations present in the Americas. The Incan Empire seems like it'd make for an awesome inspiration for a fantasy civilization - an empire centered around a mountain range, far longer than wide, presenting lots of unexplored places just a few days travel.
  • Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Perhaps most interesting is the examination of the decades following the famous "first" Thanksgiving (it's far from the first, but it is the one everyone thinks of). With the outbreak of King Phillip's War we see the son of Massasoit, who helped the Pilgrims survive, led Native Americans into war against the settlers of New England.
  • James Horn's A Land as God Made It. An examination of the Jamestown settlement. You quickly see how there is no way the English would have survived without help. And as in Mayflower, you'll see leaders who want to use the settlers for their own benefit against nearby rivals. One interesting fact that came out in my reading of this book - the native's small arms, their bows and arrows, were typically superior to the muskets of the settlers. 

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