Readers will find little ancient history in this deceptively titled work, but rather a lucid, thought-provoking history of North America to the 1760s.
Dreams of the conquistadores’ riches influenced British, French and Dutch explorers after 1492, but Richter (Early American Studies/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, 2001, etc.) emphasizes that imperialism, trade and religious proselytism made an equally powerful contribution. For 150 years after Columbus, European arrivals in North America paid little attention to farming (and often starved as a result) but found trading profitable. The author downplays the traditional picture of early settlers driving hapless Indians off their lands. Exchanging a beaver skin for knives or guns seemed like taking candy from a baby to Native Americans. Obsessed with trading, many migrated toward, not away, from white settlements, fighting to expel tribes in direct contact with traders. Matters changed after 1700 with the Dutch out of the picture and France marginalized; Britain dominated seaborne commerce, commodity prices rose, African slaves poured in and Parliament began an intense, but unsuccessful, effort to convert the fractious colonies into a dependable revenue stream. Once land ownership—a mystery to Native Americans—and agriculture became the dominant source of profit, most Americans wanted Indians out of the way. Richter emphasizes that Europeans often treated each other as nastily as they treated other cultures.
An astute, thoroughly enjoyable mixture of political, economic and social history that culminates in a turbulent 18th-century North America whose people did not consider themselves on the verge of revolution but knew that things were not right.