Native American Women in the European Atlantic World

Upon the landing of the British and French in North America, the fates of those tribes already populating the country was bound to change dramatically. New fabrics, dyes, hunting tools, values, and, of course, diseases threatened the culture of the Native population. The lives of women in the areas around New England and, in some cases here, New France, were dramatically changed by the new religious values and social expectations that came from being colonised by European nations. This article will consider the nature of Native American societies and the impacts of colonisation on the lives of Native American women.


Prior to the invasion of European values, Native American women had very different lifestyles to many of their European counterparts. Their influence on their own marriage prospects and the attitudes towards marriage itself are perfect examples of this. Men and women both had a choice when it came to choosing their marriage partners. Parents were able to recommend choices but rejection of such suggestions was accepted. Within Huron tribes the man might ask parents for the woman; they would then spend two or three nights together as a sort of trial period, and if one or other of them did not want to marry then they could part ways. Polygamy was also acceptable, although most marriages were monogamous. Furthermore, attitudes towards divorce were incredibly lenient and it was perfectly acceptable to separate without much trouble at all. When Canada converted to Catholic laws under the French, monogamy was enforced and divorce was disallowed. Axtell tells that in 1644, a Jesuit told his superiors that “there is not one [law] that seems so hard to them as that which forbades polygamy, and does not allow them to break the bonds of lawful marriage.”


Attitudes towards female sexuality also diverged massively from European expectations. Sexual relationships prior to the marriage were often accepted, although being incredibly public about it was not considered acceptable. When the first sailors landed in the Americas, they were quick to try and woo Amerindian women. They were keen to learn phrases useful to such a task, “kiss me” and “let us go to bed” being two of the less offensive terms – Axtell suggests that there was still more “force than finesse” in their pursuit. There are many interesting stories in which Native American women used their sexuality to lure European men into their houses and kill them – Opposunoquonoske killed 14 men using this method. However, there were a lot of misperceptions from Europeans; one example of this is when they presumed that Powhatan’s gifts of women to their men was a sign of sexual leniency. In fact the gesture was purely political, and it has been suggested that Powhatan may have believed if the new men were distracted by women then they would be less successful in warfare. The Europeans were also shocked by the clothing of the Native women. As a general rule they had their breasts on show, with only a cloth around their waists and hips. Beads and tattoos covered the rest of their bodies. European men attempted to persuade women to change their dress yet they were relatively unwilling to do so, as it was a central part of their Native American identity. Those women who ended up in New English and New French praying towns were required to wear a more modest, European style of dress. The arrival of Europeans led to a change in the use of materials for clothing, with linen and cottons being acquired and coloured dyes being used. These changes to the clothes meant that they were a lot warmer and more durable. This also created a new task for Native American women: cutting and sewing.

NA woman with childFamily and Children

In Native American societies women had many tasks and important roles within society. Many of the societies were matrilineal prior to the arrival of Europeans. Native men would often live in longhouses with their wives’ families. The arrival of Europeans and the development of praying towns required women to be submissive to their husbands; before this a perfectly acceptable excuse for an Amerindian man would be to say that his wife opposed him. Women themselves always had a central role as mothers in the community. Childbirth itself gives a fascinating insight into the roles of women. They were expected to be stoic, and childbirth was perceived as a test of courage. The records show that women asked for their cries to be stifled. Europeans perceived this to suggest that women did not have difficulties when giving birth, however it was simply expected that women would not show their pain when giving birth, it was a part of the culture. Illegitimacy did not exist as a concept in these native societies. Since women did everything in groups, childcare was no different, and so all children were accepted into the society; furthermore, the common nature of temporary unions meant that illegitimacy was more likely to occur in an acceptable environment. A Huron man explained the acceptance of illegitimacy to a Jesuit: “You French love only your own children; we love all the children of our people”. Native American rearing of their children was also very different from European expectations. European colonists believed that the Natives were extraordinarily lenient in their treatment of their children; positive reinforcement was a central concept, whilst striking a child was not accepted as a part of child rearing. John White drew some fascinating images of his experiences with Native Americans; one image shows a Chief’s wife and daughter. Despite being an “elite” of the society, the Native women looks after her own child, whilst the child plays with a European doll, suggesting the beginnings of cultural exchange. The Natives were perceived to openly “love their children greatly”; something that was not, and could not, be said of all European women.

Trade and Farming

Women’s tasks did not end with their children; as mentioned before they had a role in the making of clothes – this particularly extended to the development of the fur trade where women helped to prepare the fur for trade with the Europeans. Although Native women were rarely involved in trade, the seventeenth century did show an increase in women who traded. Once European influence had extended across many of the societies, some womenpocahontas_large (certainly the most successful ones) traded in rum and brandy. They also traded medicinal herbs and concoctions – some to heal snake bites: however, in 1769 a European doctor attempted to get women to trade remedies for helping them in childbirth, but the Native American women proved unwilling to share this secret. Nevertheless, women had a huge influence on farming, and this is something that European men commented on. Women were perceived to do all the “drudgerie” (George Percy), whilst Jacques Cartier perceived women to “work without comparison more than the men.” John Smith suggested that that “the women be very painefull, and the men often idle”. Therefore, we can see that the Europeans believed that it was only women who worked hard in the Native American villages. It is true that women worked the fields with their children, and made mats, baskets, prepared furs, and even took a role in small scale fishing and hunting. In fact, seventy-five per cent of a tribe’s calories were provided by women. In the meantime, men hunted and were central to the governing of the village. However, European views of traditional labour division suggested that hunting was a leisurely sport for the elite; a complete misinterpretation considering the vital importance of hunted food for the village’s survival. For the women in Iroquois tribes, their importance in farming actually gave them power as they had control over some of the few surplus products their society had. They stored surplus grain and consequently this meant that they were able to veto decisions to go to war. Nevertheless, upon the arrival of European cultures, the role of women in agriculture decreased massively. Their farmed foodstuffs became less important, particularly as imported goods from Europe began to make their way into the Native American’s diet. Despite women not having a key role in government, they did produce the wampum necklaces that were used in diplomatic occasions, and these actually became very popular products amongst the colonists’ women. Interestingly there was a tradition within many Native American societies that a woman could oppose the captivity of a prisoner and would have to be obeyed – such as the story with Pocahontas and John Smith.


Native American women were of considerable importance to their community. Their roles and values were entirely different from European expectations. Many historians claim that patriarchal values had an increasing impact on the Native societies following the arrival of Europeans; evidence for this can be found in the decreasing importance in female roles in farming, and particularly in the values espoused in praying towns set up by the Europeans. Yet, if we look at the evidence we can see that patriarchal values had been on the rise in the Powhatan tribes ever since the Powhatan took charge. He used wives as a symbol of power and women became increasingly less powerful across the sixteenth century. Despite this, in many other areas a matrilineal structure was retained and women were often seen as highly important to their distinct gender role in society. Thus, for a long time, Native American women retained a position which in some ways was largely dissimilar, and in some ways can be seen as hugely similar, to that of European women.

Written by Lauren Miller


Axtell, James. After Columbus: essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Axtell, James. Natives and Newcomers: the Cultural Origins of North America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Axtell, James. The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Berkin, Carol. First Generations: Women in Colonial America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Brown, Kathleen M. “The Anglo-Algonquian Gender Frontier”. In Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native America, edited by Nancy Shoemaker. New York; London: Routledge, 1995.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “Iroquois Women, European Women”. In American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850, edited by Peter C. Mancall and James H. Merrell. New York; London: Routledge, 2000.

Demos, John. The Tried and True: Native American Women Confronting Colonization. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Devens, Carol. “Separate Confrontations: gender as a Factor in Indian Adaptation to European Colonization in New France”. American Quarterly 38, no. 3 (1986): 461-480.

Nabokov, Peter. Native American Testimony. New York; London: Viking, 1991.

Sheehan, Bernard. Savigism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.