America’s barbarous roots

Daniel K. Richter writes: Colonial history, I’ve often told my students, isn’t pretty. The well-scrubbed Williamsburg, Virginia, that tourists see today would have been unrecognizable to Thomas Jefferson, much less to the enslaved laborers who made up most of its population in the eighteenth century. And almost anywhere in British North America during that century was a paradise compared to what had existed a hundred years earlier. Today’s images of the seventeenth century — up the road from Williamsburg at Historic Jamestowne or down the road from Harvard at Plimouth Plantation — aren’t so well scrubbed. But neither site can begin to recreate the stench, the terror, the misery that haunted every place and everybody in that bloody era. Living-history museums dare not drive away those they hope to educate by revealing too much of the bitter truth. And so Web surfers are cheerily invited to “Dine at Plimouth Plantation.” In the accompanying photograph, a jolly Jacobean couple stands behind a modern man hoisting a huge roast turkey leg, while a multiracial tableful of guests lift their glasses and entice visitors to join them. What, one wonders, might the starving band of seventeenth-century religious zealots — who had watched half their compatriots perish during their first horrible winter on Cape Cod — have made of this cheerful picture?

The eminent Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn, Ph.D. ’53, LL.D. ’99, has a pretty good idea. “Death was everywhere,” he says in his aptly named new book, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675. “America, for these hopeful utopians, had become a graveyard.” No one is better qualified to survey the carnage at Plymouth than Bailyn, now Adams University Professor emeritus, who began teaching at Harvard in 1953, published the first of his more than 20 books in 1955, and has earned the Pulitzer Prize for history twice. The heaping dishes he would serve to latter-day Plymouth diners are not pretty to look at — indeed they often purposefully turn the stomach — but they provide some necessary doses of past reality that only someone of his vast learning and experience could prepare.

The Barbarous Years resumes a series that Bailyn began in 1986, with the publication of a brief overview called The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, and a massive tome entitled Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. The opening pages of the shorter volume conjure “a satellite circling the globe from the early medieval period to the advent of industrialism.” Its camera, Bailyn says, would reveal that “the transforming phenomenon was…the massive transfer to the Western Hemisphere of people from Africa, from the European mainland, and especially from the Anglo-Celtic fringes of the British Isles.” Voyagers to the West is a high-resolution snapshot, developed from intense analysis of every recorded departure from the British Isles for North America between late 1773 and early 1776. Packed with numbers, tables, graphs, and maps, it traces broad patterns. But Voyagers is also full of personal stories revealing the motives, experiences, and emotions of those who made new homes in North America.

As Bailyn admits, for the seventeenth century “the data do not exist” for this kind of comprehensive analysis. The Barbarous Years must therefore be far more impressionistic than its predecessor, although it does the best it can with the fragmentary passenger lists, port records, and other materials available. Colorful characters — familiar and often unfamiliar — leap from its deeply researched pages. Groups of chapters organized by region — Virginia and Maryland, New Netherland and New Sweden, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay — survey what is known about the varied backgrounds, controversies, and personalities in the founding years of European colonization in each place.

The three regions, each treated mostly in isolation from the others, differed in geography, environment, and economy, but “of one characteristic of the immigrant population there can be no doubt. They were a mixed multitude.” Chesapeake colonists spanned a vast range of social statuses, and they came from all over the British Isles. New England Puritans mostly sprang from middling social strata but brought with them multiple local traditions of farming and government. And once they escaped their common enemies in England, they discovered huge theological disagreements among themselves. Meanwhile, New Netherland and short-lived New Sweden — the substrate on which, after two military conquests, the later English colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware would be built — “left behind, on the shores of North America, one of the strangest assemblages of people that region would ever know,” a “farrago” of Finns, Jews, Walloons, and motley others.

Presiding over this assemblage were Dutch rulers like Willem Kieft and Petrus Stuyvesant, “the chronicle of whose administrations read at times like Tacitus’s annals of imperial Rome.” Dominant figures in New England and the Chesapeake were no less remarkable, and their populaces no more governable. Chaos and violence were the orders of the day, not just among the colonists themselves but especially in their relations with indigenous people. Beginning with its title, The Barbarous Years highlights the brutality that Europeans and Indians inflicted on each other.

Still, for all the book’s learned strengths, its discussions of Native Americans are disappointing, even for a study focused on European migrants rather than Indian affairs. Many of the problems involve unfortunate choices of language, beginning with the decades-old decision to call the series The Peopling of British North America. [Continue reading…]

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