The Barbarous Years
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard Bailyn's book on the early settling of America is authoritative as well as entertaining.
Reviewed by Peter Lewis for Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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It is tempting to call The Barbarous Years: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675, Bernard Bailyn's third volume on the "peopling" of the North American continent – he has already won a Pulitzer for an earlier volume – simply magisterial: sweeping, authoritative, commanding. But it is that and so much more. It has rare scholarly warmth, an understanding of how to be nimble with the material, to be an entertainer as well as a teacher, someone possessing both an easy familiarity with the subject combined with a responsibility – an eagerness – to keep an eye skinned for recent progress in the field, open to history's secrets and surprises, finding the good stuff and steering clear of the fashionable.
And the story here is a brutal one – approximately from Roanoke/Jamestown to the more fixed European establishment of a colonial presence on the eastern American seaboard – marked by occasional acts of dignity and guarded civility. It's all too often a narrative of people fleeing persecution, enduring insanely difficult seaward passages and raw, early months on a new land, then – and critically – trying to recreate the life they knew before, "to normalize an abnormal situation as they wrecked the normalities of the people whose world they invaded."
Bailyn starts with an overview of the native communities in the Northeast. Without being either sentimental or woo-woo, he depicts a native society well adapted to its surroundings, moving to the right places at the right seasons, sensitive to the need for space, finely attuned to the roles of reciprocity, seeking balance, touching anima, and with as many foibles as any of us. If you need to smirk, then smirk. In Bailyn's hands, the portrait convinces.
Then Bailyn covers the traceable, toxic threads that disrupted the aspirations and sensibilities as they played out between colonials and native populations, the clashing social relations, the fur trade's ruinous consequences, and the calamitous miscommunications regarding land use and ownership. And it has always been about the land, from the Pequot War to Metacom to way past these barbarous years. You range freely across some terrain, and you need a significant piece to support your way of life. Then people come who take that land from your use and threaten your survival. They may be Europeans; they may be neighboring people with whom you don't see eye to eye. But the Europeans brought with them a strange notion of property rights. "It shaped the structure of social and political relations; it was the basis of the economy; and it was 'the chief measure of wealth, prestige, and political influence.' "
Little surprise, then, that "increasingly the natives came to see that the fur traders' deepening forays into their hunting grounds and the constant expansion of farms and pastureland would drive them from their homeland and destroy the basis of their lives. They grew wary, then resentful, then hostile." Trespass? Come again? When the stakes are this high, what's not to kill for?