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The Colonial Era To 1776

June 2024
5min read

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.

The Sot-Weed Factor

by John Barth (1960; Doubleday). Sometimes fiction conveys a truth to which academic scholarship does not (cannot?) aspire; take Sot-Weed , for example. Set first in post-Elizabethan England, then in early Maryland, this long novel offers up an edgy, earthy, altogether human portrayal. Its central character, one Ebenezer Cooke, is a brilliant composite of then-prevalent values, opinions, style, taste, and (most remarkably) diction. His Don Quixote-like exploits are realistic, outlandish, and, often enough, hugely funny. The result is time travel of the most absorbing kind; moreover, Barth’s imagined world fits neatly with all we have learned from the usual run of documentary “facts.”

The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors From European Contact Through the Era of Removal

by James Merrell (1989; Norton). Forty years ago Native Americans barely registered on any radar screen of colonial history. Now, thanks to a powerful new research enterprise—with the scholarly tag of “ethnohistory”—they have a central position. The Indians’ New World follows the Catawba people from their origins in the Carolina backcountry through their first dealings with white colonists, the resultant disease, a growing involvement in external trade, missionary contact, demographic and geographic reconfiguration, and, finally, the renewal of their tribal identity. At every point the book shows them not simply as victims but also as resourceful agents of their own destiny—a picture that applies broadly to other Indian groups as well.

The Life and Times of Cotton Mather

by Kenneth Silverman (1984; Welcome Rain). Puritanism: We can’t avoid it, nor should we. And perhaps the best way to approach it is through its crankiest, most famous, most frequently stereotyped and caricatured American exemplar, the Boston minister Cotton Mather. Fortunately, Mather is the subject of the finest account of any individual life from early America. Read this book, and you know him. Moreover, the times no less than the life are fully presented here: society and economy, religion and science, the natural and the built environment, ideas, fashion, custom, and taste. Take it all together, and this is biography morphing into histoire totale .

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft

by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (1974; Harvard). Witchcraft is another subject impossible to avoid. Nothing else in the sprawling terrain of colonial history is quite so notorious, or so vulnerable to popular sensationalism. However, witchcraft has also attracted serious scholars, as a kind of prism for examining the inner-life dimension of early American (especially Puritan) experience. Witness the Boyer-Nissenbaum team’s remarkable Salem Possessed . Starting from a bit-by-bit dissection of the local community, the book moves outward and downward to uncover a host of hidden but fundamentally dynamic connections. Its endpoint—and the deepest, broadest connection of all—is an unexpected bridge between witch-hunting and early capitalism. Thus is Salem’s story rescued from the hands of antiquarians and hucksters and given lasting historical significance.

New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century

by Jonathan Fairbanks et al. (1982; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; out of print). Historical evidence comes to us in things no less than in words. And New England Begins was perhaps the supreme example of a historically informed—and informative—museum exhibition. Mounted some 20 years ago by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, it re-created a long-lost physical world—the look, the tone, the texture, the feel of it, and, by dint of careful interpretive effort, much of its meaning as well. The range of objects included was enormous, from high-style parlor chairs, needlework embroideries, and silver goblets to humble chamber pots, firedogs, clay pipes, and shovels. The show, like all shows, was evanescent; fortunately, however, it lives on in a handsomely produced catalogue three volumes long. Here one can find a full array of excellent images together with 10 essays reflecting the best of recent material culture study.

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

by Ira Berlin (1998; Belknap). Only within the past decade have historians come to appreciate the centrality of chattel slavery in early American life. Take out slavery, most now agree, and everything would look different: economic growth and development, most obviously, but also social structure, cultural forms, even individual psychology. As much as or more than any other group, African-American bondsmen (and women) built the foundations of our modern nation. This is the burden of Many Thousands Gone , a sweeping overview of its inevitably painful subject. But the book does more than establish the matter of sheer importance; it adds complexity and nuance by showing the many different forms slavery took, the concomitant growth of racist ideologies, and the never-ceasing struggle of the slaves themselves to resist, or at least to temper, the terms of their oppression.

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