Sexuality and the Invasion of America: 1492-1806

Vicki Jaimez

"In youth, the human body drew me, and was the object of my secret and natural dreams..." --Cabeza de Vaca

Europeans were lured to the American continent during the fifteenth to nineteenth century by a variety of temptations. To many adventurers, perhaps most, it was the hope of obtaining gold and other natural resources which drew them westward. The desire for material gain through the exploitation of the continent's resources was augmented by the attending fame conferred upon explorers of uncharted territory by those in political power and by European popular culture. Spurring the exploration onward were groups who had religious and scientific motives for the conquest of America, and there were those who pursued an elusive dream of personal liberty.

But there was another allurement which exerted an effect on the invasion of the American continent, a desire common to all mankind, and integral to the political and social structures of the nations of the world. Here on this continent occurred an abrupt and immediate collision between two distinct perceptions of human sexuality. For Europeans, sexual allurement manifested itself in the forms of sex as reward (officially incurred or not) for service to country, sexual interaction as politics or sport, and fascination with native displays of European sexual taboos. In addition, they were lead by a desire for sex for the sake of pleasure, as a form of comfort in a land far from home. Native American involvement in sexual interaction with Europeans, however, was too often the result of political considerations, and ranged from willingness on the part of individuals to forced submission.

To begin, much attention has been given to Christopher Columbus for his supposed discovery, in 1492, of a "new world." But to him also goes the distinction of being the first European to register amazement at Native American nakedness:

The inhabitants of both sexes in this island, and in all the others which I have seen, or of which I have received information, go always naked as they were born, with the exception of some of the women, who use the covering of a leaf, or small bough, or an apron of cotton, which they prepare for that purpose...they are well-formed...

Although the concept of nakedness would seem to be an absolute, European observations of the practice reveal that nakedness was a relative concept as compared to European notions of dress, which were detailed and considerable. Nakedness, to the Europeans, ranged from the unadorned truth to the descriptions of elaborate native clothing whose only shortcoming was that it was, well, too short. At any rate, the scarcity of native attire became a fascinating, if surprisingly subtle, aspect of the mystique which lured Europeans to America.

Columbus was also the first to pass the judgment that native women worked harder than native men, a perception, repeated numerous times in the following centuries, which made it easy to believe that the natural resources of the land were only wanting for a few good men. As if to underscore the strength of native women, he introduced Europeans to reports of an island of warrior women who mated exclusively with fierce cannibalistic males from the Carib Islands. To his credit, Columbus deplored the enslavement and sale of young female captives in the colonial era which quickly followed in his wake, but his admonishments were too late to prevent a precedent which he was powerless to control.

Cortez witnessed the corruption imposed by the colonials of Columbus' era, and proposed to do better. Through the words of Bernal Diaz, a conquistador loyal to Cortez, and a reliable chronicler, we gain insight into the methods Cortez used to subdue the natives of Mexico. Observing how anxious native chiefs were, at least initially, to maintain good relations with the Spaniards, Cortez used the women he received as gifts to inject Christianity into the native culture. Upon the promise of a group of beautiful native women, daughters and nieces of caciques, Cortez voiced this opinion:

...I think this would be a good time to induce these chiefs to give up their idols and stop their sacrifices, for they will do anything we tell them.

To which his advisor replied:

Sir that is true. But let us leave the matter until they bring their daughters. Then we shall have a pretext for your lordship can say that you will not accept the maidens until they give up sacrifices. If that succeeds, good, if not, we shall have done our duty.

Among the first women given to him as gifts was the daughter of a powerful cacique of a local town who sold her into slavery so her brother could succeed to the caciqueship. During her slavery she learned to speak local dialects in addition to her native Nahuatl.. Being one of the first women to convert to Christianity in the "New World," she changed her name from Malinal to Rebecca, and became Cortez' chief interpreter. She bore him a child while married to the Spanish gentleman Alonzo Puertocarrera and was simultaneously married to a native convert, Juan Jaramillo! Always in the presence of Cortez, she has come down through Mexican history to be known as Malinche.

Of her, Bernal Diaz stated: "This was the great beginning of our conquests, because without Doña Marina [as she was known to the Spaniards] we could not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico."

Another Spanish explorer, Alvar Nuñez‹better known as Cabeza de Vaca, treasurer to the Narvaez expedition to Florida in 1628‹left a different record of sexuality as a factor in the invasion of America. After being shipwrecked off the coast of Florida, he led the survivors, two other Spaniards and a Negro (variously described as a Moor), on an eight year journey through the Southwest which took on such miraculous tones that it has come down through time as an odyssey. Among the more miraculous aspects of the journey, apparently, was the sexual prowess of the African, Estevanico, who was, we are told, "all too prone to abuse his privilege of godhood with the wives of men."

In addition to his record of Estavanico, Cabeza de Vaca reinforced Columbus' observations about the diligence of native women. He recounted an instance of a Spanish man mated to a native woman (having adopted her lifestyle) and gave a detailed description of native homosexuality, which appalled him. Perhaps it was these intimate glimpses into alternative lifestyles as well as his own experiences, which prompted him to say, in conclusion to the remarks which opened this article, "...but body after body has taken away from me that sensual phosphorescence which my youth delighted in..."

If Spanish sexuality was expressed in the arena of commodities and exploitation, British sexuality took on the conflicting values of Puritanical virtue and courtly pomposity. Sent to found the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1606, Captain John Smith soon found himself concerned with more than simple survival. Captured by the powerful chief Powhatan, he would have met certain death had he not been rescued by Pocahontas, the chief's favorite daughter, who had fallen in love with the beguiling adventurer:

...Pocahontas, the king's dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her own upon his to save him from death...

A perennial bachelor, Captain Smith, upon freedom, sailed for England. Pocahontas, on the rebound, married a young warrior but she was kidnapped by the remaining colonists at Jamestown and held prisoner, her ransom being a vow of peace from Powhatan. Pocahontas, as usual, took matters into her own hands. She accepted Christianity, was (prophetically enough) christened Rebecca, and married a fervent young Puritan named John Rolfe in 1614.

Fraternity with the heathen was a controversial affair, and John Rolfe pondered the matter deeply before presenting his desires to those in charge. His justification for marrying a "savage":

...for the good of the Plantacon, the honor of the countrye, for the glorye of God, for myne owne salvacon, and for Convertinge to the true knowledge of God and Jesus an unbelievinge Creature, namely Pohahuntas. To whom my hart and best thoughts are and have byn a long time so intangled and enthralled in soe intricate a Laborinthe that I was even aweared to unwynde my selfe thereout...

This convinced even King James I, grudgingly, to approve the arrangement. Powhatan likewise agreed, and there ensued four years of friendly intercourse between the Powhatans and the Virginians, known as the Peace of Pocahontas. This peaceful interlude allowed the beleaguered colony to regroup, reorganize, and flourish in the new land.

As a reward for her role in the invasion, Pocahontas was summoned to a royal appearance at the royal court (though her husband was relegated to the balcony). Upon taking ill, she was transported to Rolfe's family home in Northern England. While recuperating, she was paid an unexpected visit by Captain John Smith, whom she had long believed to be dead, and then took a sudden turn for the worse. Rolfe tried to rush his wife home to her country, but her desperate condition made it necessary to turn back. Pocahontas died and was buried, in an historic irony, at Gravesend, England, on March 21, 1617. Through her son, Thomas Rolfe, "a long line of proud Virginians claims consanguinity or affinity with Pocahontas..."

Although sexual allurement between the British and the natives, in this instance, was confined to the elites of both continents, French chivalry took a different course of interaction with Native Americans. While Samuel de Champlaign explored the territory between Maine and Quebec in the early years of the seventeenth century, he made the usual observations about native nakedness and sexual indecorum but was not above using native women as implementers of the invasion. Citing a magnificent opportunity for French colonization in the New World through fur trading, Champlaign issued a proclamation of inter-marriage with native American women: "Our sons shall marry your daughters and henceforth we shall be one people." Though he advocated a new race of French Christian mixed-blood peoples to populate North America, Champlaign was unwilling to contribute his posterity to the cause. He, himself, rejected native women:

A shameless girl approached me with affrontery, offering to keep me company, for which I thanked her, sending her away with gentle remonstrances, and I passed the night with some savages...

But he consented to a marriage with a twelve year old French girl, with whom he promised not to have sexual relations for two years, unless she should change her mind earlier. In this light, Champlaign's designation as the Father of New France might be a misnomer.

LaSalle furthered France's reach by exploring the Mississippi from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, establishing Ft. St. Louis in 1683. He recorded observations of polygamy, female chiefs, hermaphrodites and cross-dressers. But one of his most honest observations places native women in danger of French soldiers: "Never-the-less, the Sieur de LaSalle, fearing lest some of his party might go after the women, encamped three leagues from the village."

The French priest Jean Cavalier, during LaSalle's Texas expedition of 1684-1688, put a more traditional interpretation to the same phenomenon: "...several of our people, among them two wretched traitors, had debauched themselves with women during the four days we spent in the village of the Cenis..."

Cavalier notwithstanding, French chivalry towards native women was not extended to females of their own kind, as illustrated by the mysterious story of a young French noblewoman during the earliest years of French exploration in the New World. The young orphan had been placed in the charge of Jean-Francois de la Rogue, Sieur de Roberval, friend of the King of France, who was responsible for an expedition sent in 1542 to colonize Canada following Cartier's discoveries. While on board, the girl known to us only as Marguerite, fell in love with a young nobleman whose name is not known. Enraged by his ward's conduct, de Rogernal ordered her to be abandoned on an island called Isle of the Demons by the natives, by the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, near Labrador. Her lover jumped ship to join the girl and her elderly nurse, who had also been left behind. After eight months the lover died, and shortly afterwards Marguerite had a baby, the first French child born on American soil. In a matter of months, the elderly woman died, followed by the baby. Marguerite persevered until she was rescued by a fishing fleet in the spring of 1544, daily fighting for her life against bears and wolves, the first European to survive more than one winter on American soil. Following her rescue she returned to France and lead a reclusive life under the shelter of Queen Marguerite of France, a working sovereign who earned money through the sale of explicit stories of courtly intrigue called The Heptameron Tales.

When Lewis and Clarke were commissioned by President Jefferson in 1804 to chart the unexplored territory of Louisiana, they opened the way for the fur trade and the conquest of the American West. Not until 1893 would Frederick Jackson Turner declare that conquest complete. Anglo America was very young, but Native America had become old before its time. In addition to the then commonplace descriptions of "lewd" ceremonies, nakedness, and the "venery" of native women, the expedition's chroniclers revealed a sense of sexual independence among Native American women, an independence which allowed them to survive in their violated world. "The person is in fact often the only property of a young female," wrote Lewis in 1806, "and is therefore the medium for trade, the return for presents, and the reward for services..." The expedition detailed the prevalence of prostitution, and records the first instance of a native woman tattooed with a distinctly American sexual art form: "'J. Bowman' (apparently a trader who visits the mouth of the Columbia"). Expedition carpenter Patrick Gass stated his observations more succinctly: "An old bawd with her punks may also be found in some of the villages on the Missouri, as well as in larger cities of polished nations." He failed to understand that it was men such as himself who had bridged that cultural gap. Years of interaction with French fur traders had taught native women the value of sexual allurement.

By all accounts, Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who served as guide and interpreter for Lewis and Clarke's "Corp of Discovery," was responsible for the success of the expedition by procuring horses for the party in order that it could cross the Rockies before snow blocked the high passes. But at the end of the expedition, after assisting the party from North Dakota to the Oregon coast and back, all the while carrying her baby on her back, she received no reward. History may have repaid her with fame, but it was her husband, whose name is remembered by no one except the most closely involved historians, who got the cold hard cash. "This man has been very useful to us," remembered one of the crew years later, "and his wife particularly useful among the Shoshones...We therefore paid him his wages, amounting to five hundred dollars and thirty-three cents..." Reluctance to capitalize on sexual allurement set Sacajawea apart from other native women memorialized by the American invaders of the continent.

Many conclusions can be drawn concerning the role of sexuality in the conquest of America, as interpreted through these selective records. It must be taken into account that the chroniclers cited here were all males, and that each brought with him a cultural bias which made objective observation of Native American sexuality almost impossible. Yet it is on these records that historians must rely for clues to the collision between the two continents.

As found in the Spanish experience, sexual allurement was practiced by the elite of both races, with motives of political gain and religious rewards (for the Aztecs were fearful that their gods would destroy them if they lost control of their nation, and the Spaniards feared they would displace theirs if they failed to gain it).

The British experienced sexual desire as a religious opportunity, as did the Spanish, but expounded upon the concept by lifting it to the level of formalized foreign relations, a matter of state. Interactions occurred between elites, again like the Spanish, but culminated in a treaty of peace which was formalized by the Crown when it conferred upon Pocahontas a stipend for life.

The French popularized sexuality at the level of the commoner in order to create a new race of mixed-blood people who would be easier to Christianize and govern than their native predecessors had proved to be. Their political aims succeeded, but the desensitizing effect of the policy was discovered when Americans explored the territory long familiar to French trappers.

Lewis and Clarke's observations of sexuality among Native Americans indicated that native women looked upon sex as an asset useful to survival. By the early 1800s, sexuality had long since been commercialized by interaction between European men and native women, as the result of the strongest desires known to humans, pleasure and survival.

Taken as a whole, the observations of the European explorers in America are perhaps most significant for what they do not say, for there is not one instance of a Native American male sexually interacting with a European woman! The implications inherent in this omission are complex and far reaching, deserving study in their own right, but beyond the scope of this article.

Finally, one last shred of evidence as to the importance of sexuality in the invasion of America can be found by a return to Columbus, who has been credited by mythology with challenging the notion that the earth is flat:

But I have now seen so much irregularity...that I have come to another conclusion respecting the earth, namely: that it is not round, as they describe, but of the form of a pear...or like a round ball, upon one part of which is a prominence like a woman's nipple...

Columbus could more correctly be credited with giving a whole new meaning to the Native American concept of Mother Earth.

(Selected Bibliography: Biddle, The Journals of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke, Vols. 1 & 2; Bishop, The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca; Boyer, A Colony of One: The History of a Brave Woman; Cohen, Bernal Diaz: The Conquest of New Spain; Cox, The Journeys of Sieur de LaSalle, Vol. I; Ford, Writings of Columbus: Descriptive of the Discovery and Occupation of the New World; Long, The Power Within Us: Cabeza de Vaca's Relation of His Journey from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536; Morrison, Samuel de Champlaign: Father of New France; Mossiker, Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend; Pagden, Hernan Cortez: Letters from Mexico)