Native American population in 1492
The Indian population of the continental United States was small. Nobody really knows what the Indian population was in what became known as North and South America when Columbus arrived in 1492. However, everyone agrees that the vast majority of Indians lived south of the Rio Grande River, in Central and South America.
One fact few people know is that the horse is NOT native to America; horses were brought to the New World from Europe. Until the Indians began to get horses (through trade or theft), their range was limited to walking distance from their villages. The Indians didn’t have rifles either. Without horses or rifles, the Indian’s ability to hunt and get food was limited and the sustainable population was very limited.
Anthropologist James Mooney, in the 1890s, estimated a population of one million Indians in the United States. Mooney, who spent much of his adult life living with and studying different Indian tribes, determined his estimate by computing population density of each tribe, based on what the land could sustain.
Anthropologist Russell Thornton has the population at 5 million for the continental US, 2 million for Canada and 65 million Indians for Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands. These numbers do not necessarily represent the high mark for the native population. There are numerous instances of large native civilizations dying out long before Columbus arrived. Some anthropologists believe the population peak occurred around 1200 AD.
When large numbers of settlers began moving westward from the east coast of the US, a lot of the land in North America was open land and uninhabited. The Indian population - which had never been large - had been reduced even further by tribal wars and disease. Most of the land that was “stolen” had no one on it. The Indians only used a small percentage of the land mass north of the Rio Grande River.
Sections in this article
Native American population in 1492 (this page)
4. American Indian holocaust and survival: a population history since 1492 (1990) By Russell Thornton