By Alan Taylor

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American Colonies: The Settling of North America

By Alan Taylor

A Book Review by Krista Kincaid

March 2009
Alan Taylor is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis and an accomplished and successful writer. In a previous book, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the frontier of the Early American Republic, he won the 1996 Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes for history.
In American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Alan Taylor takes a fresh and unique historical perspective by concentrating on the contributions, travails and interrelationships of the Native American peoples and enslaved Africans in the colonization of North America. He views the historical context of the period through the eyes of not only the European immigrant, but also those of native peoples and slaves, providing a level of balance in the colonial story that has not heretofore been achieved. His review goes on to further dissect this perspective by a regional analysis, highlighting the differences, for each of these groups, within the unique and diverse geographical areas of the colonies. While concentrating on the relationships of the indigenous peoples with English immigrants, he provides another level of balance by reviewing the Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian and even Swedish contributions. The author deftly uses a variety of historical records to debunk commonly held myths associated with the Anglo-centric view of the relationship between European immigrants, the native peoples they displaced, and the native and African peoples they enslaved.
From the perspective of an educator, Taylor’s work is a valuable contribution because of the balance it provides to students in the telling of the colonial story. The preponderance of historical reviews of this period have, of course, viewed the colonial history of the Americas through the spectacles of the English immigrant. This has unfortunately led to stereotypical treatment in our history classes. In reviewing the value of Taylor’s narrative, it is helpful to review his insight as it relates to overcoming a variety of myths associated with popular and conventional history. For example, a common myth is that Puritan settlers encountered a vast and unbroken expanse of wild and untamed land upon their arrival in America…the “starving time” was a direct result of having to hack their fields out of the wilderness. Mr. Taylor is effectively able to debunk this myth. In point of fact, the local tribes of the Massachusetts Bay area had a highly productive horticultural system with a large expanse of cleared fields in the vicinity of the colony. The advent of European diseases such as smallpox (from previous visitors along the coast), in the year prior to the arrival of the colonists, decimated Indian populations. As a result, the Plymouth colonists were able to take over vacant villages and conveniently cleared fields immediately (p.165).
Another myth, often perpetuated to our younger students, is that of the “Happy Thanksgiving,” where natives and Pilgrims join together in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. Taylor is effectively able to demonstrate that the Plymouth colonists, without previous pretext, viewed the Indians from a perspective of cultural superiority, as “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.” The colonists concluded that their survival depended upon practicing premeditated violence against the Indians. This resulted in a variety of unscrupulous and genocidal attacks upon several Indian tribes, often displaying heads upon their fort as a warning to others (p. 194).
Taylor addresses, in a very colorful manner, the myth that has long been perpetuated that the colonies were founded and established to be a bastion of religious tolerance and freedom for the oppressed religious minorities in Europe such as the Puritans, Huguenots and Calvinists. While religious tolerance was indeed desired by each minority sect, they sought such freedom for their group only, and vigorously denied it to all others within the reach of their authority. In fact, few colonists wanted religious freedom, feeling that plurality of religions was a dangerous notion. With the possible exception of the Quakers in Pennsylvania, this was universally true throughout the colonies. The Catholics in French Canada, the Puritans of New England and the Anglicans within the Chesapeake and Virginia colonies, all denied religious freedom to those not of their sect. As Taylor puts it “at the end of the seventeenth century, most colonies offered less religious toleration than did the mother country”(p.339).
Another commonly accepted myth was that black Africans were the first slaves in America. The first slaves of the European immigrants were the Indians that they found upon the shores of the new world. Indeed, slavery was almost as effective as epidemics of European diseases, in decimating Indian populations. As the victors and writers of American history, the English have often overlooked the more “uncomfortable” issues of their past. Taylor brings a number of these events to light. Slavery has had some surprising bedfellows. In 1636, the self-righteous Puritans destroyed most of the Pequot nation because they refused to pay tribute. Those who were not killed were kept by the Puritans as personal slaves or sold into the West Indies slave trade. According to Taylor “…the Puritans interpreted their especially bloody victory as compelling proof that God had found them worthy” (p.196). In early Virginia and the Carolinas, colonists recruited some Indians as slave catchers to prey on other tribes. In order for Indians to obtain guns and other trade goods, the only currency the colonists accepted was slaves or deerskins. In 1708, one-third of slaves on plantations in South Carolina were Indians (p.231). Slavery had reduced the Indian population of North Carolina from 15,000 in 1700, to less than 4,000 in 1730 (p.235). Taylor points out that it was the decline of the Indian populations that led directly to the increase in importation of African slaves to support the burgeoning tobacco, rice and indigo plantations.
A final eradicated myth is useful in illustrating Taylor’s approach toward expanding the “value” of the non-English contribution to the settling of North America. This oft-perpetuated myth suggests that most of the immigration to America during the colonial period was by English settlers in search of freedom, who, whether in New England, Virginia or the Carolinas, established the bulk of the population. This notion could not be further from the truth. Most immigrants in the 18th century came not seeking freedom, nor did they come of their own free will. The 1.5 million enslaved Africans who immigrated to America in the 18th century outnumbered European immigrants by more than three to one (p.314, 323).

The author has provided the reader an extensive bibliography, relying upon the work of a wide array of contemporary authors for support of his thesis. His work is an effective synthesis of ideas and information, delving into topics that have not received a great deal of attention. The greatest attribute of his work is that he challenges long-held beliefs and offers a fresh perspective. While he does not use historical accounts, documents, or manuscripts and as such, his work cannot be considered scholarly, it is not presented as such. The book is broken into three parts: Encounters, Colonies and Empires. These three parts relate chronologically to pre- and early history, the early colonization period, and finally to the events leading to dissolution of the colonies. Each of these parts is subdivided into chapters that present the unique geographical character of each of the regions within the colonies. The climates, motivations, outlook, environments, and particularly politics were dramatically different in different regions of the colonies…there was almost no homogeneity between New England and Virginia, less than 300 miles to the south. Taylor’s approach toward evaluating the dynamics on a regional basis is one of the strong points of the book.

This book has undoubtedly enriched my understanding of Massachusetts’s history, particularly in the area of the interplay between the New English and the indigenous native peoples. I admit to a preconceived notion of the “Pilgrims” as a relatively strict, but benign, religious sect who came to America seeking freedom and religious tolerance. Taylor’s excellent analysis of the complex underpinnings in the relationship between the Puritans and the Indians, has given me a valuable new insight into the history of this area. I found the Puritan’s decided lack of tolerance, as well as their enslavement of Indians, to be eye opening. The history of the Massachusetts Bay area, as it relates to the relationship between these diametrically different societies on an inevitable collision course, is clearly one of opportunity and loss, misunderstanding and mistrust, and lost chances. I am greatly looking forward to the opportunity of expanding my understanding of this area by viewing the historical juxtaposition first-hand.
American Colonies: The settling of North America has a valuable place in any high school classroom. I enjoyed reading it and I would highly recommend it as a resource for history teachers to add color and perspective to their lectures. Taylor’s destruction of a number of preconceived colonial myths, many of which may still be propagated in largely Anglo-centric American History textbooks, make it a valuable read for any history teacher, or ardent student of history.

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