American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor

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American Colonies: The Settling of North America

by Alan Taylor
A Book Review by Heather Davis

March 2009

In his book, American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Alan Taylor, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, has written a wide-ranging history of the American colonies. He strives to give an accurate account of the diverse people involved with the colonization of North America. Throughout the book, he looks at exploration and colonization by Europeans, diverse groups of African slaves who were forced to work in the new world, and the many unique Indian tribes who were already scattered across the continent of North America well before its discovery by the Europeans. The book is an excellent read for anyone interested in learning about the history of the colonies beyond the Anglocentric perspective that has traditionally taken precedence in American history classes and texts.
American Colonies is the first book in a five-volume series meant to cover the history of the United States up to the present. However, in writing this first book in the series, Taylor diligently works to include information about not only the land that is today a part of the United States, but also other colonies in North America including those in Mexico, Canada, and the British West Indies. American Colonies does devote more coverage to British America than to the colonies belonging to the French, Spanish, Russian, or Dutch colonists simply because British America became the most populous and powerful colonial presence. However, Taylor does not belittle the importance of the other colonies. In devoting time to discussing colonies in the British West Indies, present-day Mexico, and Canada, Taylor recognizes that these regions played powerful roles in colonization and had big effects on the colonies that were within the present borders of the United States. By writing such a balanced account, he also helps his readers focus on the fact that at the time of the colonies, no one knew who would eventually come to control various parts of the New World.
Even the title of Taylor’s book embraces the diversity that shaped America. By naming the book American Colonies instead of Colonial America, Taylor indicates that the colonies were varied and cannot be lumped together. Throughout the book, he works to compare diverse groups of people who lived in the Americas at the same time but had very different values and ways of life. For example, when writing about the English colonists of the 1600s, he is careful to have different chapters for the poor English people attracted to the Chesapeake area by the prospect of getting work growing tobacco and perhaps one day owning land and prospering, versus the Puritans of New England who went to North America with hopes of purifying the Protestant faith.

American Colonies begins with an excellent introduction that helps the reader recognize and appreciate the author’s historical perspective and sets a tone that makes the reader want to continue through the book and gain a more thorough understanding of the differing people groups and cultures that played a part in the North American colonies. In his introduction, Taylor is very up front about denouncing the traditional view that colonists were only British men on the eastern coast of North America. He is quick to point out that there was colonization in both Alaska and Hawaii that has been ignored by many historians. Taylor believes that the traditional story of the American colonies excludes too many people, including the American Indians and the African slaves – two groups who were essential for European colonization. He also points out that colonial America included not only the British, but also Spanish, French, Dutch, and even Russian colonists. As he sets the stage for the rest of the book in the introduction, Taylor lets his readers know that by reading his book they will receive a broad history of the American colonies with time devoted to an accurate history of New France, New Spain, and New Netherland as well as New England and an exploration of how the mixing of various peoples including the Africans, Europeans, and Indians led to many conflicts and adaptations.

In selecting his timeline for the book, Taylor works to change the Anglocentric view of colonial history. He begins before the arrival of the first European explorers and ends well after the American colonies declared independence. His timeline starts in 13,000 B.C. with the migration of what would become the American Indians to the North American continent in three surges and how these groups of Indians changed over time even before the arrival of European colonists forced further major adaptations. His endpoint for colonization extends beyond the time when thirteen of the British colonies declared independence in 1776. Instead, he argues that the colonial experience did not end in the west until 1820 and devotes the last portion of the book to presenting a history of colonialism in California, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Taylor divides his book into three major parts: Encounters, Colonies, and Empires. Within each section, Taylor organizes his book chapters by discussing individual regions. Each part of the book slowly moves the reader forward in time. Therefore, instead of learning about Spanish colonization from start to finish in one section, the reader learns first about the beginnings of New Spain and then reads about French colonies of the time before learning more about how the Spanish colonies progressed. This allows Taylor to easily compare the way the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries interacted with American Indians in the south with the way French fur trappers and Jesuit priests interacted with Indians in the North at about the same time. The contrast between the experiences and progress of the different people groups and cultures involved in colonization gives a unique perspective that would not be present in a purely linear presentation.
Throughout his book, Taylor devotes time to giving his reader an accurate look at two groups of people who, against their will, played a major part in American colonies: American Indians and African slaves. He explains that both major groups were made up of many smaller groups that were very different from one another in both language and culture. The assorted tribes of North American Indians spread across the continent were greatly decreased in number forcing consolidation and change as groups of colonists came. Taylor points out the fact that North America actually lost population between 1492 and 1776 as diseases and wars killed Indians faster than they could be replaced by colonists.
The author does not gloss over the atrocities committed against the Indians or African slaves. In his discussion of slavery, he begins not with the African slaves, but with the Indians who the Spanish came hoping to make into slaves but who died off due to illnesses the Spanish brought. He notes the precedent set by the Iberians before the discovery of the North American continent when they took over the Canaries and forced the native Guanche people into slavery. The Iberians’ rationalized conquering and enslaving the natives by pointing out that the Guanche were not Christian or even civilized. This ethnocentric reasoning was used again and again in the New World at the expense of the native Indians. As he continues to discuss the exploitation of the Indians and Africans, he points out that English colonists in Carolina actually managed local Indians by recruiting them to be slave catchers. This theme of Europeans using groups of Indians to their advantage when there was something to be gained (i.e. furs or protection from other tribes) and then quickly turning against and destroying the same groups runs throughout the book and reminds the reader that the land that eventually became the United States could not have been formed without the suffering and deaths of various Indian and African groups.
As Taylor revisits the topic of slavery throughout the book, he notes the ways in which it changed over time as the number of African slaves grew. For example, we learn that early slaves in the Chesapeake could work for freedom, own land, vote, and even have their own slaves but laws prohibiting all of these rights were introduced as the number of African slaves increased and white colonists began to fear rebellion. This fear stemmed from the fact that slaves were actually in the majority in some colonies and in the 18th century most emigrants were enslaved Africans.
Taylor also works to discount popular myths that many people have traditionally accepted as history. One such myth that he challenges regarding slavery is that European shippers attacked Africa to obtain slaves. In reality, shippers bought their slaves from African middlemen the majority of the time. Another myth he dispels is the idea that Europeans were deterred from sailing due west to get to Asia because they believed the world was flat. In reality, ancient Greek mathematicians had an accurate understanding that the world was both round and very large. Columbus also had the knowledge that the world was round, but unlike the Greek mathematicians, he underestimated the circumference of the globe and took the westward trip to Asia thinking that his route would save time. Yet another myth Taylor refutes using his research on American Indian rituals is that Pocahontas took pity on John Smith and saved him from death making John Smith very grateful and compassionate toward the Indian people. Taylor believes that Pocahontas was taking part in a ceremony in which her father, Powhatan, was trying to adopt John Smith as a subordinate chief. Upon being released, John Smith continued to exploit the Indians.
As Taylor seeks to give an even account of the many groups involved in American colonization, he provides many examples of how the groups came to adapt to and rely on one another, to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. For example, though they had successfully adapted to life in North America over many years on their own, many Indian tribes became reliant on Europeans for horses as well as guns and other goods. Traders, particularly the French, became heavily reliant on Indians for furs and used some tribes against others to get the best furs for the lowest prices. Likewise, Indians traded with the European groups who were able to provide them with the best European goods for the fewest furs and Indian goods. Though few New Englanders owned slaves, they relied on trading with the West Indies which had a slave-based economy. When thirteen of the British colonies declared independence, other British colonies such as those to the north in Nova Scotia and Quebec, and those to the south in the West Indies, were too dependent on British protection to consider rebellion.
Alan Taylor’s work is carefully constructed and backed by a wide variety of sources. Each source is noted by chapter in the book’s extensive bibliography. Taylor used a more than adequate supply of both primary and secondary sources to support his scholarly work. Throughout the book, Taylor bolsters his points with quotes from people who were very influential in the colonies including Christopher Columbus and Benjamin Franklin as well as less known historical figures. When Taylor is presenting information about the origins of the American Indians, he uses his resources to the best of his ability, but is also very honest in explaining that some of his statements and dates regarding the subject are approximations because there are no written records and new discoveries are being made daily.

I recommend American Colonies: The Settling of North America to anyone looking for a balanced and wide-ranging account of the history of colonies in North America. Alan Taylor presents a very interesting history of the New World that goes beyond the traditional Anglocentric perspective to demonstrate how America was shaped by a very complex mix of very diverse groups of people. Taylor keeps his readers engaged from start to finish.
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