There is every indication that for centuries Native Americans swam in great numbers with a superior overarm stroke, while so-called civilized world persisted with breaststroke and sidestroke.
Unfortunately, early organized swimming in North America copied the European swimming style, particularly the methods brought to America by the colonial English. This was a pity because more advanced styles already existed in North America, as noted in 1739 in the diary of the English colonial William Byrd, founder of Richmond, Virginia, and a planter, satirist, and writer of diaries (Byrd 1928),
Writing on September 30, 1739, Byrd noted:
“This being Sunday, we were glad to rest from our labors; and, to help restore our vigor, several of us plunged into the river, not withstanding it was a frosty morning. One of our Indians went in along with us, and taught us their way of swimming. They strike not out both hands together but alternately one after another, whereby they are able to swim both farther and faster than we do (Byrd 1928).“
Even when the better American style was exported to England 100 years later in an 1844 London exhibition by two Native Americans from the Ojibbeway Nation – Flying Gull (we-nish-ka-wen-bee) and Tobacco (Sha-ma) – the English paid little attention and refused to change, despite the obvious superiority of the Native American swimming style. This forerunner of the modern crawl (freestyle) stroke was described in The London Times (April 22, 1844) as being totally “un-European,” declaring that the Indians thrashed the water violently with their arms like sails of a windmill and beat downward with their feet flowing with force and performing grotesque antics.