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Colonial history without cranberry sauce

An auspicious start to 'The Penguin History of the United States,' a five-volume series

By David Shi / November 21, 2001



Colonial American history used to be much simpler. Until the 1960s, historians usually focused on the colonists from Great Britain who settled along the Eastern seaboard beginning in the early 17th century. In these traditional accounts, women, African-Americans, and Indians were given short shrift. The influence of the other colonial powers - Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia - in the development of American culture also received scant attention. Such a selective and "Anglocentric" approach to colonial history gave rise to the popular assumption that America before 1776 attracted mostly hardy British commoners who fled persecution to find freedom and prosperity in the New World.

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As Alan Taylor demonstrates in this superb overview of colonial America, the constricted conventional reading of early American history contains just enough truth to be sadly misleading.

In "American Colonies," he draws upon an extraordinary array of recent scholarship to present a much more comprehensive and complex story of the disparate cultures that combined to shape American life up to the Revolution. In the process, he punctures many myths and misperceptions.

Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at the University of California at Davis, dismisses the notion that the Indians lived in harmony with nature and one another until the Europeans arrived to corrupt their Edenic heritage. While less destructive of their environment than the white colonists, many native American tribes waged constant warfare upon one another and "put excessive pressure on their local environments, leading to increased violence and the collapse or relocation of their largest communities."

Taylor reminds us of the diversity of the Indian tribes (they spoke at least 375 different languages by the time Columbus arrived in the New World) and of the varied ways in which they resisted, accommodated, and aided European settlers.

In describing the catastrophic decline of the Amerindians after 1492, Taylor demonstrates that most natives were killed not by European muskets or swords but by infectious diseases carried across the Atlantic. By the mid-16th century, the Indian population in North America had declined by 90 percent, largely because of transplanted pathogens.

The Indians who survived were never able to form a united front against the invading British and Europeans. Rival tribes fought constantly over hunting rights and territory.

Taylor also reminds us that the vast majority of migrants to the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries were poor and that most of them did not come willingly: They were captive Africans purchased from African middlemen.

Ever increasing anxiety about slave revolts prompted the creation of colonial militias and the use of brutal force in punishing rebellious slaves. Racial fears thus helped bridge the social divide between rich and poor whites, while at the same time widening the division between blacks and whites. Eighteenth-century America, Taylor asserts, "was simultaneously and inseparably a land of black slavery and white opportunity."

In addition to emphasizing the importance of slaves and Indians to colonial development, Taylor skillfully integrates social history into his narrative. His accounts of gender roles, family life, and religious beliefs help illuminate the political and economic processes that shaped America's role within the international community.

Perhaps Taylor's greatest contribution to our understanding of early American history is contextual. He is one of the few colonial historians to devote a whole chapter to the settlement of the West Indian islands and their role in the development of South Carolina, and perhaps the only one to include developments on the Great Plains and in California, Alaska, and Hawaii before the Revolution. He also broadens our understanding of the multinational aspects of early American history, giving detailed attention to the Spanish, French, and Dutch involvement in North America.

"American Colonies" provides the most comprehensive and textured account of the diverse strands that formed the fabric of early American history. It is destined to become the standard work in its field.

David Shi is the president of Furman University, in Greenville, S.C., and the co-author with George Tindall of 'America: a Narrative History' (Norton).

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