To write a history of colonial America used to be easier, because the human cast and the geographic range were both considered so much smaller.

Not all of colonial America was English. Many native peoples encountered colonizers not was westward-bound Englishmen, but as Spanish heading north from Mexico, as Russians coming eastward from Siberia, or as French probing the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. And each of their empires interacted in distinctive ways with particular settings and natives to construct varied Americas.

To divide the peoples in three, into the racial and cultural catagories of European, African and Indian, only begins to reveal the human diversity of the colonial encounter. For each embraced an enourmous variety of cultures and languages. For example, the 18th-century 'British' colonists included substansial numbers of Welsh, Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish, Germans, Swedes, Finns, Dutch and French Huguenots - as well as the usual English suspects. Moreover, during the 18th century those nationalities were still inchoate, still complicated by powerful local cultures within each kingdom. Both the Londoner and the rural peasant of Cornwall, in far western England, were English subjects of the same king, but they could barely understand one another. Thrown together as neighbors in a distant colony, they had to find a new commonality of identity, dialect and customs.


~ 01 Natives: 13000 BC - AD 1492
~ 02 Colonizers: 1400-1800
~ 03 New Spain: 1500-1600
~ 04 The Spanish Frontier: 1530-1700
~ 05 Canada and Iroquoia: 1500-1660
~ 06 Virginia: 1570-1650
~ 07 Chesapeake Colonies: 1650-1750
~ 08 New England: 1600-1700
~ 09 Puritans and Indians: 1600-1700
~ 10 The West Indies: 1600-1700
~ 11 Carolina: 1670-1760
~ 12 Middle Colonies: 1600-1700
~ 13 Revolutions: 1685-1730
~ 14 The Atlantic: 1700-1780
~ 15 Awakenings: 1700-1775
~ 16 French America: 1650-1750
~ 17 The Great Plains: 1680-1800
~ 18 Imperial Wars and Crisis: 1739-1775
~ 19 The Pacific: 1760-1820


The period between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago was an ideal time for a crossing into North America, because the global climate was slowly warming and the glaciers were in gradual retreat, sufficiently so to permit an easier passage into the continent but not yet so far as entirely to refill the Bering Strait with water.
The first people who trekked into Alaska had no notion that they were discovering and colonizing a new continent, nor that they were crossing a land bridge that would subsequently vanish beneath the rising Pacific Ocean.
As the icecap receded over the centuries, the migrants found it easier to spread southward and eastward into North America and beyond.
As the land bridge submerged, migration from Siberia became more difficult, but not impossible for people possessing small boats made from animal skins stretched over a wooden framework. At its narrowest, the Bering Strait is only three miles wide. Contemporary Native Americans who speak and Athabascan language descended from a second pulse of emigrants who arrived about 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. Settling first in subartic Alaska and northwestern Canada, some Athabascan bands gradually worked their way down the Rocky Mountains, reaching the American southwest about 600 years ago. These people later became known as the Navajo and Apache.
A thirs surge of colonization began about 5,000 years ago and featured the ancestors of the Inuit (or Eskimos) and Aleut. The Aleut settled the Aleutian islands southwest of Alaska, while their Inuit cousins gradually expanded eastward along the Arctic coasts of northern Alaska and Canada, reaching Labrador and Greenland by about 2,500 years ago.


The stunning expansion of European power, wealth and knowledge would have seemed improbable in 1400, when the Europeans were a parochial set of peoples preoccupied with internal and interminable wars. Europe was also slowly recovering from a devastating epidemic of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, which during the 1340s had killed about a third of the population.
European Christians felt hemmed in by the superior wealth, power and technology possessed by their rivals and neighbors the Muslims, who subscribed to Islam, the world's other great expansionist faith. Dominated by the Ottoman Turks, the Muslim realms extended across North Africa and around the southern and eastern Mediterranean Sea to embrace the Balkans, the Near East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
15th century Christians felt beleagured, on the losing end of a struggle for the future of humanity. The Turkish capture of Constantinople and advance created in Europe a powerful sense of geographic and religious claustrophobia, which generated a profound longing to break out and circumvent the Muslim world.

Contrary to popular myth, 15th century European intellectuals and rulers did not think that the world was flat. What deterred Europeans from saling due west for Asia was not a fear of sailing off the edge of the world but, instead, their surprisingly accurate understanding that the globe was too large. Breaking with geographic orthodoxy, Columbus dared the westward trip to Asia because he underestimated the world's circumference as only 18,000 miles, which placed Japan a mere 3,500 miles west of Europe.
Columbus was fortunate indeed that the unexpected Americas loomed at about the 3000-mile mark to provide fresh water and provisions before his men mutinied. It is one of the ironies of world history that profound misunderstanding set in motion Columbus's discoveries.

Native Americans had developed certain wild plants into domesticated hybrids that were more productive than their Old World counterparts. By introducing the New World crops to the Old World, the colonizers dramatically expanded the food supply and their population. In Europe, maize and potatoes endowed farmers with larger yields on smaller plots, which benefitted the poorest peasants.
During the 18th century, the potato first gained its close association with Ireland, and Irish numbers grew from 3 million in 1750 to 5.25 million in 1800. The Irish then became vulnerable to any blight then devastated their potato crop. When such a blight struck furing the 1840s, thousands starved to death and millions fled overseas, primarily to North America. In microcosm and exaggerated form, Ireland tells a common European story.

The colonizers brought along plants and animals new to the Americas, some by design and others by accident... the remaking of the Americas was a team effort by a set of interdependent species led and partially managed (but never fully controlled) by European people.


Although important advantages, the technology and animals of European war were not sufficient to overcome the far larger numbers of proud and defiant Indian warriors. But the Spanish evened the odds by finding local allies in subordinated Indian peoples who resented the dominant native people in each region.
But the Spaniards' greatest single advantage came from their unintentional and microscopic allies: the pathogens of diseases new to the Indians. Such weakened people could put up little resistance. The feats of the conquistadores seem superhuman because, in the world of Alfred W. Crosby Jnr., 'they were just that - the triumphs of teams that included more than humans'.


The introduction of firearms revolutionized Indian warfare as the natives recognised the uselessness of wooden armour and the folly of massed formations. Throughout the northeast, the Indians shifted to hit-and-run raids and relied on trees for cover from gunfire. They also clamored, with increasing success, for their own guns as the price of trade.

The French came to depend upon Iroquois hostility as a barrier that kept the northern Indians from traveling south to trade with the Dutch. The French recognized that they could not compete with the quality, or quantity, or price of the Dutch trade goods. Because the northern Indians possessed better furs, they would, in the event of peace, become the preferred clients and customers of the Dutch, to the detriment of the Iroquois. As inferior suppliers of furs, the Iroquois had a perverse common interest with the French, as inferior suppliers of manufactured goods. They both tacitly worked to keep apart the best suppliers of furs (northern Indians) and of manufactures (the Dutch). In effect, during most of the 17th century, the Iroquois and the French needed one another as enemies.

17th century Europeans regarded non-Europeans as socially and culturally inferior - but not as racially incapable of equality. Lacking a biological concept of race, 17th century Europeans did not yet believe that all people with a white skin were innately superior to all of another color. European elites primarily perceived peoples in terms of social rank rather than pigmentation. 17th century colonial leaders ordinarily considered the common peasants and laborers of Europea as little better than Indians. Once assimilated to French culture and religion, Indians were entitled to equality with common colonists. Of course, assimilation to the bottom ranks of a European social hierarchy was not an especially appealing prospect.


Diligent and realistic, most New England families sought an 'independent competency'. Independence meant owning enough property - a farm or a shop - to employ a family, without having to work for someone else as a hired hand or servant. A 'competency' meant a sufficiency, but not an abundance, of worldly goods: enough to eat, adequate if simple clothing, a roof over their heads, some consumer goods, and an ability to transmit this standard of licing to many children. Although no land of riches, New England provided many independent farms and a secure household competency to hard and persistent labor.
Compared with those in the Chesapeake or West Indies, social gradations were subtle among the New English, who overwhelmingly belonged to the middling sort. Their modest and diversified farms produced less wealth than did the staple plantations of the Chesapeake and the West Indies, but the New England economy distributed its rewards more equitably among many farmers and tradesmen.
Because New England had the most decentralized and popularly responsive form of government in the English empire, royalists depised the region as a hotbed of 'republicanism'.

More than the colonists in any other region, the orthodox New English maintained that they had a divine mission to create a model society in America. Moreover. as God's stronghold, Puritan New England invited relentless attack from Satan, who meant to destroy the Bible Commonwealth. Embroiled in the cosmic struggle between God's will and Satan's wiles, New England was a pivotal battleground for the eternal fate of all mankind. Puritans did not doubt the ultimate power and eventual triumph of God, but they also knew that, to castigate unwary humans, God permitted Satan to wax powerful on earth in the short term. No distant abstraction, the battle raged in every act and event that affected human life.
Like all 17th century peoples, the New England Puritans did not dwell in the disenchanted universe of pure reason. Instead, they regularly saw and heard wondrous signs of God's purpose of the devil's menace. These included strange lights in the sky, prophetic dreams, comets and deformed births (of humans or livestock).
A belief in magic and witches made perfect sense to a premodern people who felt vulnerable to an unpredictable and oftend deadly natural world beyond their control.


Carolina's early leaders concluded that the key to managing the local Indians was to recruit them as slave catchers by offering guns and ammunition as incentive. To pay for the weapons, the native clients raided other Indians for captives to sell as slaves, or they tracked and returned runaway Africans. Far from undermining colonial security, the gun trade rendered the natives dependent upon weapons that they could neither make or repair. If deprived of ammunition, the natives would suffer in their hunting and fall prey to slave-raiding by better-armed Indians more favored by their colonial supplier.

Carolina became the preeminent cattle country in the English empire, as the Carolinians pioneered many practices later perfected on a grand scale in the American West, including cattle branding, annual roundups, cow pens and cattle drives from the interior to the market in Charles Town. Many owners entrusted the roaming cattle to the care of black slaves, who had previous experience as herdsmen in Africa. In Carolina the black herdsmen became known as 'cowboys - apparently the origin of that famous term. During the 1670s and 1680s, slaves constituted about a quarter of the Carolina population. Frontier conditions obliged the planters to allow their slaves more autonomy than was common in either the West Indies or the Chesapeake.


During the early 17th century, the English developed two distinct and populous clusters of settlements along the Atlantic seaboard: the Chesapeake to the south and New England to the north. Until mid-century, the English neglected the intervening mid-Atlantic coast, despite its advantages. More fertile and temperate than New England, but far healthier than the Chesapeake, the mid-Atlantic region was especially promising for cultivating grain, raising livestock and reproducing people.
The English neglect enabled the Dutch and Swedes to establish their own small colonies: New Netherland in the Hudson Valley and New Sweden in the Delaware Valley. Although the English protested, they initially lacked the power to oust their rivals, and deemed it impolitic to try, for the Dutch and Swedes were fellow Protestants and allies in the European wars of religion during the early 17th century.
At mid-century, however, as the English grew in power and ambition, their rulers developed a violent envy of Dutch wealth. King Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York, hoped to build the crown's clout within England by expanding the empire in America. By conquering New Netherland, Charles and James meant to strengthen England's commerce by weakening its principal rival, the Dutch empire. The acquisition of New Netherland (which had swallowed up New Sweden) would also close the gap between the Chesapeake and New England, promoting mutual defense against other empires and the Indians.

A conquest also promised increased crown control over its fractious colonies. Compared with the Spanish, French and Dutch rulers, the English monarch exercised little power over his colonists, primarily because of the persistent reliance on a proprietary system of colonization. During the early 17th century, the underfunded English crown had lacked the means to launch and administer distant colonies. Instead the crown entrusted early colonization to private interests licensed by royal charters, which awarded the proprietors both title to colonial land and the right to govern the colonists, subject to (sporadic) royal oversight.
The colonists compelled their disant and weak proprietors to share political power. The proprietors appointed the governor and council, but propertied colonists elected an assembly with power over finances. Throughout the empire, propiertied Englishmen cherished legislative control over taxtion as their most fundamental liberty.The proprietors accepted assemblies as a means to attract or retain propertied colonists.

In mobilizing 17th century emigration across the Atlantic, push was stronger than pull, and push was far stronger in England than in the Netherlands. Blessed with a booming economy and a higher standard of living, the 1.5 million Dutch had less reason to leave home than did the 5 million English, who were suffering through a painful economic transition and bitter religious strife.
But if religious conflict and economic misery sufficed to push colonial emigration, the French would have triumphed over both the English and the Dutch. The further difference was that, unlike France, England permitted its discontented freer access to its overseas colonies and greater incentives for settling there.


In England, King James alarmed the Protestant majority by ruling arbitrarily and by favoring his fellow Catholics. Several Anglican bishops and aristocrats secretly write to William, the Dutch Prince of Orange, urging that he come to England with an army to intervene on behalf of the Protestant cause.
In 1688 the Dutch face a renewed war with powerful France, under the aggressive rule of Louis XIV. In a bold and desperate gamble, William invaded England as a preemptive strike to capture that realm for a Dutch alliance.
William's English supporters, known as the Whigs, called the transfer of power a 'Glorious Revolution', which they creatively depicted as a spontaneous uprising by a united English people. In fact, the revolution was fundamentally a coup spearheaded by a foreign army and navy.


During the 18th century, a swelling volume of British shipping carried information, goods and people more regularly across the Atlantic. The annual transatlantic crossings tripled from about 500 during the 1670s to 1500 by the late 1730s. The increasing shipping (and diminished piracy) reduced insurance costs and freight charges, which encouraged the shipment of greater cargos.
The ocean became less of a barrier and more of a bridge between the two shores of the empire. Clustered close to the Atlantic, most colonists felt oriented eastward toward the ocean and across to Europe, rather than westward into the interior. The continental interior of dense forests, Indian peoples and immense but uncertain dimensions was far more mysterious and daunting than an ocean passage.
Far from dividing the colonists from the mother country, the ocean and the passage of time both worked to draw them closer together during the first two-thirds of the 18th century. The colonists became significantly better informed about events and ideas in Britain and especially London.

William Penn explained that it had become 'the interest of England to improve and thicken her colonys with people not her own'. By recruiting for colonists in Europe, imperial officials hoped to strengthen the colonies without weakening the mother country. In 1740, Parliament passed the Plantation Act, which enabled foreign-born colonists to win British citizenship: a necessary prerequisite for legal ownership of land as welll as for political rights.
The new recruitment invented America as an asylum from religious persecution and political oppression in Europe, with the important proviso that the immigrants had to be Protestants. Colonial laws and prejudices continued to discourage the emigration of Catholic and Jews to British America, from a fear they would subvert Protestantism and betray the empire to French or Spanish attack. As a land of freedom and opportunity, British America had powerful limits.

More than any other 18th century empire, the British relied on foreign emigrants for human capital. The new emigration included far fewer English but many more Scots and Germans. As the colonial population became less English, it assumed a new ethnic and racial complexity, which increased the gap between freedom and slavery, privilege and prejudice, wealth and poverty, white and black. At the same time that high culture and consumer culture became more tied to English models, the colonial population and vernacular cultures became less homogenous.

Relatively large farms and fertile soil enabled colonists to raise or to purchase cheaply the grains, vegetables, milk and meat of a plentiful diet. The muster rolls for colonial military regiments recorded heights, revealing that the average colonial man stood two or three inches taller than his English counterpart.


Environmentally, the horse-centered way of life was highly unstable. Near their encampments the Indians concentrated horses in numbers greater than the local grass could bear. The strain was greatest in winter, when the people were least mobile and the grass was less nutritious, but the horses needed more calories to stay warm. Consequently, the horse herds depleted the most fragile, scarce and important niches on the Great Plains: the river and stream valleys that provided the winter refuges.


The British overwhelmed New France with sheer numbers of soldiers and sailors, warships and cannon. That ability to project military power across the Atlantic reflected British superiority in shipping, finance and organization. And that superiority reflected the far more advanced nature of Britain as a capitalist society endowed with far more liquid capital and financial acumen. The conquest of Canada cost the British empire about £4 million, more than 10 times what the French spent to defend it. Never before had an empire spent so much to wage war on a transoceanic scale.
And the conquest of Canada was only part of a global set of British victories in the largest war ever waged by Europeans. In 1759 the British reaffirmed their naval supremacy by crippling the Spanish and French fleets in battles at Lagos, off Portugal, and Quiberon Bay, on the west coast of France. In the Caribbean, a British amphibious operation captured the lucrative sugar island of Guadeloupe. In West Africa, the British seized the French slaving entrepot at Senegal. The British also secured a dominant position in India by routing the French and their local allies.

So many victories embarassed British diplomats striving to draw the proud French and Spanish to negotiate peace. At last, in early 1763, the belligerents concluded the Treaty of Paris. The French concded Canada and all their claims east of the Mississippi, including the Ohio Valley. The British also retained the lesser of their French West Indian conquests: Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent and Tobago. To mollify the French, the British returned the major islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Lucia. The victors also restored French access to the valuable fishing waters off Newfoundland by conceding tow small unfortified islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. To regain Havana, the Spanish ceded Florida to the British.
In preparing for the negotiations, the British considered keeping most of the French West Indies and returning Canada. Although much smaller, the sugar islands were far more lucrative. But the influential British West Indians lobby did not want to weaken its advantageous position within the empire by accepting new competition and lobbied to keep Canada instead.
In surprising ways, the peace benfitted the war's losers more than the British victors. Generating scant revenue, Louisiana, New France and Florida had drained the French and Spanish of funds and soldiers, all better spend employed on more valuable colonies in the Caribbean. While losing little of real (immediate) value, the French and Spanish recovered their most valuable losses.
Humiliated by their defeats, the French and Spanish resolved to strike back and restore the balance of power at their next opportunity. In the next war, the British could not count on assistance from any European allies, for all concluded that Great Britain had grown too rich and powerful. The British had replaced the French as the expansionist power considered most dangerous to the rest of Europe.

Within 13 years of the treaty of peace, thirteen Atlantic seaboard colonies would revolt to wage a long war for their independence. That shocking conflict between the colonies and the mother country developed from strains initiated by winning the Seven Years War. The conquest of Canada deprived the mainland colonists and the British of a common enemy that had united them in the past. Victory invited the British to redefine the empire and to increase the colonists' burdens. But victory also emboldened the colonists to defy British demands because they no longer needed protection against the French.


The subtle ingenuity of the California Indian cultures did not impress the Hispanics. Instead they labelled the natives as 'gente sin razon' (people without reason) in contrast to themselves, the 'gente de razon'.
By emphasizing 'razon' as the basis of privilege, the Hispanics conceded, in theory, that the natives could become 'gente de razon' with the proper education. For 'gente sin razon' were the equivalent of children, inferior today but potentiall equal tomorrow. Through the medium of the mission, the Spanish officials and priests meant to rescue the Indians from the cultural childhood by remaking them into especially pious Hispanics.

The Spanish regarded Alta California as a wilderness but in fact the natives had subtly reshaped and enhanced their environment... in sum, much of the California landscape was subtly anthropogenic (human influenced) long before colonizers arrived with their own even more demanding system of manipulating nature.
By alienating native peoples from their traditional role in structuring nature, the newcomers distressed the Californian environment. Because many grasses and trees had, over many centuries, adapted to the Indian fire management, they suffered from its decline... the environmental trauma was all the greater because it disrupted a nature long shaped by native peoples, rather than the pristine 'wilderness' imagined by the Hispanics (and by romantics ever since).

Note: This is the first book in a planned series "The Penguin History of the United States", edited by Eric Foner.

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