The Colonial Era To 1776


To teach, write, or read about the “colonial era” is a special challenge. No other part of American history is as remote from our own; by the same token, none has been studied for as long. Revisions lie piled on revisions; and divergent styles of scholarship are stretched across an extraordinary range. The tableau of colonial America constructed in, say, 1875 looks markedly different from its successors in 1920 and 1960, and the latter bear only partial resemblance to predominant views today.

The list of books here embodies the work of the last generation or so. As such, its emphasis is social history: everyday life, ordinary people; cultural tradition, popular mentality; race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Still, that constitutes a very big tent, with no single organizing center. The authors themselves are a mixed lot: a semiotic, a biographer, a novelist, a little clutch of museum curators, plus several professional historians (not all of them full-time “colonialists”). But this, too, is emblematic. Precisely because of its remoteness, early American history has excited many different imaginations; indeed it encourages—not to say, insists on—such diversity.

Two caveats. The list does not treat all of colonial America with an even hand; some colonies and regions are more fully represented than others. Moreover, the list makes only light reference to chronology and, if anything, tilts somewhat toward the first part of the story. No doubt, in years to come these same elements will have a very different distribution, since historiography, no less than history itself, is ever-changing.

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492

by Alfred W. Crosby, Jar. (1972; Greenwood). This was, and is, a foundational work in the very lively sub-field of environmental history. It traces the Old World/New World transfer of life forms—plants, animals, humans, microorganisms—that began with Columbus and continued for generations thereafter. Along the way it touches such key topics as the Native American “demographic catastrophe” (wholesale mortality among Indian populations, principally from the arrival of previously unknown disease pathogens), the highly controversial origins of syphilis, and a world-changing revolution in floodways. Implicitly it makes an even larger point—that 1492 remains the single most important date in modern history. Then did two worlds (or three or four) begin to become one, a process that continues still.

The Conquest of America

by Tzvetan Todorov (1982; English translation, 1984; University of Oklahoma). A European cultural theorist and semiotic here explores a vast existential issue, “the discovery self makes of the other ,” in a specifically American context. And as he does so, he throws a dazzling light on the history of cultural “encounter” between the colonizers and the colonized. His focus is sixteenth-century Mexico and the Caribbean; Columbus and the conquistador Courtés are among his chief characters. But the hopes, the doubts, the unleveled fears, the chronic misunderstandings, the whole indenting struggle to deal with newness and difference: These ingredients were present everywhere Europeans, Indians, and Africans came together.

Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

by William Cronon (1983; new edition, 2003; Hill and Wang). This is environmental history brought literally to ground level. It shows, with great clarity and precision, the intricate dynamics of ecosystem change, especially the role of cultural values (on the human side) and biological adaptation (on nature’s side). It also offers a different kind of vantage point for viewing the clash of colonists with native peoples. And it concludes with some suggestive foreshadowing of more modern developments, the most notable how a “people of plenty” began right away to become a “people of waste.”

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

by Edmund S. Morgan (1975; Norton). Considered a classic virtually from the moment of its publication, Morgan’s book “may be read as a history of early Virginia, but it is intended to be both more and less than that,” according to the author. Less, because it doesn’t try to cover every aspect of the subject; more, because its main theme has the broadest possible reach. In the rough, disorderly atmosphere of seventeenth-century Virginia was born a linked commitment to individual rights on the one hand and racially based slavery on the other. And from this grew “the central paradox of American history,” freedom riding piggyback atop bondage. The tale, as told here, combines erudition and interpretive ingenuity with much narrative panache. Its tone is ironic, its import profound.