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The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675

by Bernard Bailyn

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-394-51570-0
Publisher: Knopf

Continuing his magisterial, multivolume history of North American colonization, two-time Pulitzer winner Bailyn (To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders, 2003, etc.) recounts the surprisingly brutal early steps.

Nowadays, we divide the parties into whites and nonwhites, but no Native American saw it that way. They considered whites subhuman but no less subhuman than members of other tribes with which they fought constantly. Bailyn reminds readers that America’s earliest settlers in 1607 Jamestown were not seeking land or liberty but the bonanza of riches the Spanish had discovered further south. For years, arrivals were dominated by upper-class adventurers who shunned manual labor, dying en masse of starvation, disease and Indian attack. As late as 1610, the first ship to arrive after winter greeted 60 skeletal survivors begging for food. After 1614, tobacco farming ensured the colony’s survival and the Indians’ doom. Schoolchildren learn about Lord Baltimore’s effort to provide a tolerant Catholic haven in Maryland but not about the fierce hatred this provoked from Protestants (always a majority even in Maryland) that produced a bloody quasi-civil war. New Holland remained underpopulated because the prosperous Dutch eschewed immigration; disputes and smuggling drained the ruling trading company’s profits. Its governor provoked local tribes who annihilated distant settlements and threatened Manhattan, whose quarrelsome citizens refused to resist when English forces arrived in 1664. Religious freedom brought the first settlers to Massachusetts where they established a positively Orwellian theocracy, treating nonconformists with marginally less brutality than the Indians.

Popular histories often gentrify these early events, but Bailyn’s gripping, detailed, often squirm-inducing account makes it abundantly clear how ungenteel they actually were.