People of different races have mixed on North America ever since the first Europeans came.
Since De Soto first arrived in Florida, Africans found refuge in Native American communities. Throughout Desoto’s rampage from South Carolina to the Mississippi River, African slaves continually escaped and became first Old World settlers. Native groups remained sanctuaries for escaped slaves. They found their way to the more distant areas of the continent.
Some tribes did enslave the runaways, most notably the Creek and Cherokee. When enslaved together, Native Americans and Africans often intermarried. The first patriot to die in the American struggle for independence was the Native American and African man Crispus Attucks, who was shot in the Boston Massacre 5 March 1770.
According to Spanish observers, 50 percent of the English men in Jamestown had relationships with Native women. This information was kept out of American histories.
White settlers frequently left communities to live with the Native Americans. White captives often refused to leave. Women in particular were treated much better in Native communities. This created great theological and cultural problems for the colonial governments. Several colonies passed laws forbidding this. In an attempt to stop it, a new American genre of literature was born, accounts written by captives with horrifying details to induce fear of Natives.
The British government encouraged the immigration of Scottish men and their participation in the fur trade in the colonies. At this period of time, Scottish highlanders were considered almost as savage and uncivilized as the Native Americans. These traders usually were more successful if they married Native American women. It was a law with the Southeastern tribes. The children often held positions of respect because they knew both worlds.
In Canada the mixed families created their own society along the Red River in Manitoba, Canada. Wealthy Scottish traders sent their children back to the home country to be educated. Sometimes they retired there, taking their Native wives and their mixed-blood children home to Scotland.
Intermarriage was frequent between Spanish soldiers and Native women in Mexico, Florida, and Caribbean. The Spanish government ignored the need for Spanish women. Prejudice against Native blood in Spanish America was still common. People tried to hide their Native background. Native Americans who could speak Spanish and wore Mexican clothing were called mestizos. In the 18th century the Spanish colonial government gave the mestizos a way to become white by selling them certificates of whiteness.
In Alaska Russian male fur traders consorted with Native women. Their children were given equal rights and Russian citizenship and made subjects of the czar. After obtaining Alaska, the United States tried to deny their rights.
Mixed French and Indian people in French Canada are called Métis. Intermarriage was encouraged early on by the French government and continued after British took control. Native American women legally became French upon their marriage. In the western and northern provinces Native females were regularly sold for wives.
A large Métis population developed in western Canada. It combined Woodland and Plains culture with European. In the Victorian era, as a result of the Age of Reason and Charles Darwin’s writings on the survival of the fittest species, the people of mixed heritage were looked down upon. It was thought interracial coupling led to poor morals and behavior and could bring down the European race and the British Empire.
The educated Métis knew they were not intellectually inferior and wanted equal status and their own land in Canada. In 1869 Louis Riel first led the Métis to seize Fort Garry in Manitoba. They established a government in Winnipeg and petitioned for admission to Canada as a new province. They were not successful.
In 1885 the Métis tried again. They needed to defend their farms in Saskatchewan after they were driven away from the Red River in Manitoba. Riel tried to establish a Métis nation again. He worked through diplomatic and political channels with no success. Canadian government forces put down the revolt, captured Riel and hanged him 16 November 1885 in Regina.
After the second failure to create their own place in Canadian society, most Métis had to decide whether to be white or Native. Those choosing to be Native joined Native relatives in the Great Lakes area and the central plains of North American. Many French speaking families worked for white farmers. Others moved into Quebec, New England and New York to participate in communities there.