Colonial America

| | February 19, 2024

TO WRITE A HISTORY of colonial America used to be easier,” Alan Taylor’s fine new synthesis begins; “the human cast and the geographic stage were both considered so much smaller.” The past quarter-century of scholarship has enlarged that cast and stage exponentially. Instead of thirteen British colonies hugging the Atlantic seaboard, historians now must consider twice that number, arcing from Bermuda through the West Indies to the Floridas and northward to Nova Scotia.[1] Instead of using British as a synonym for English, historians now must consider not only the multi-ethnic polity that included the Three Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but also the incredible diversity of European immigrants that British America harbored by the mid eighteenth century. , they must now give due consideration to the vast Spanish and French claims, and indeed the Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, and Russian enterprises as well. Instead of using colonial as a synonym for European immigrant communities, they also must include diverse colonized Native Americans and enslaved Africans.[2]

And instead of a narrow slice of eastern seaboard, the historical stage now includes the entire North American continent (if not the entire Americas) and the entire Atlantic World (the vague bounds of which may, as Bernard Bailyn only half-jokingly observes, stretch as far as China).[3]TF Moreover, on both continental and Atlantic stages, all of the casts must now somehow encompass permutations of gender, sexuality, race, class, and identity that scholars barely mentioned twenty-five years ago. Even to attempt to put all this coherently between the covers of a single book–even a hefty one of just over five hundred sparingly illustrated pages–would appear to be the height of folly. To pull it off with great erudition and solid literary style (and to do it over the course of a few years of writing rather than a lifetime) is a feat only an historian of Alan Taylor’s stature could manage. To ask for more, alas, is a lesser task assigned to reviewers.

Taylor divides his book into three sections, which he describes as “a series of regional explorations that gradually move forward in time” (xiv). Part I, “Encounters,” begins with a short but insightful overview of the millennia of Native American history that preceded 1492. An equally succinct chapter titled “Colonizers” traces the roots of European expansion and some of the transformative ecological and epidemiological results of contacts among peoples. Three regional chapters then turn to developments in New Spain, on the North American Spanish frontier, and in the zone where French and Iroquois contested for control. Part II, “Colonies,” continues the regional approach with chapters on the Chesapeake, New England, the West Indies, the Carolinas, and the Middle Colonies. Part III, “Empires,” transcends region in chapters on the era of the Glorious Revolution and the first two imperial wars; on trade, communication, and immigration in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World; and on the Great Awakening. The focus returns to regions with chapters on “French America, 1650–1750” and “The Great Plains, 1680–1750,” sweeps out to examine “Imperial Wars and Crisis, 1739–75,” and narrows slightly again in a closing chapter on “The Pacific, 1760–1820.”

On its own, each chapter provides a masterful summary of the current literature. Undergraduates and general readers will find whole new worlds opened up: the rise and fall of the great civilizations of Anasazi, Hohokam, and Cahokia; the wattle-and-dawb firetraps in which mid-seventeenth-century Virginia planters lived; the complex ways in which various Great Plains Indians incorporated horses into their societies; the partnership between evangelist George Whitefield and the anything-but-evangelical Ben Franklin; the parallel attempts of eighteenth-century Russian and sixteenth-century English colonizers to define themselves against the “Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty. No reader will ever again be able to imagine a colonial environment peopled only by Pilgrims and Planters, Puritans and Cavaliers. Specialists, too–confined as they often are to their regional, thematic, or chronological corners of the vastly expanded colonial historiographical universe–will learn much from Taylor’s deft survey.

All readers alike will delight in Taylor’s eye for the telling quotation (a Swiss immigrant unimpressed by diversity described Pennsylvania as “an asylum for banished sects, a sanctuary for all evil-doers from Europe, a confused Babel, a receptacle for all unclean spirits, an abode of the devil, a first world, a Sodom, which is deplorable” [321]) and in his knack for the insightful phrase (“Without a God, the capitalist is simply a pirate, and markets collapse for want of a minimal trust between buyers and sellers” [22]). Taylor’s eye and voice assume particular power when, in widely separated chapters and contexts, similar phrases convey unexpected unities beneath profound regional differences. The comparative role of labor in English colonies provides just one group of examples. “In contrast to England, where there was too little work for too many people, the Chesapeake demanded too much labor from too few colonists” (142), and, likewise, “the New England colonies had too much work for too few colonists” (159). Yet how to explain the profoundly differing consequences? Clearly more than a simple relationship between work and bodies must have been involved. In the same period when “one Puritan subtly explained, ‘We teach that only Doers shall be saved, and by their doing though not for their doing'” (161), an English visitor to Barbados placed a different valance on equally busy slave owners whose “minds were ‘so riveted to the earth, and the profits that arise out of it, as their souls were lifted no higher'” (217).

Many such subtleties await a careful reader willing to ponder them. And, for the most part, Taylor leaves the pondering to that reader. Few conceptual transitions link one topic with the next, and no general conclusion follows the closing discussion of the Pacific region. Nor does a single chronological narrative unify the book. The dates in regional chapters’ subtitles deliberately overlap and intertwine. Despite the regional organization of much of the material, geography–whether natural or political–does not really provide conceptual unity either. Instead, says Taylor, the “geographic and temporal bounds for colonial America are open-ended because process, as much as place, defines the subject” (xvi). The book thus ends not at Yorktown or Fallen Timbers but with Captain Cook in Hawaii, Junipero Serra in Alta California, and Grigorii Ivanovich Shelikhov on Kodiak Island.

In the quest for common themes, much turns on the meaning of process. “A cascade of interacting changes make up ‘colonization’ as the Europeans introduced new diseases, plants, animals, ideas, and peoples–which compelled dramatic, and often traumatic, adjustments by native peoples seeking to restore order to their disrupted worlds,” Taylor explains. “Those processes ranged throughout the continent, affecting peoples and their environments far from the centers of colonial settlement. In turn, resourceful responses by native peoples to those changes compelled the colonizers to adapt their ideas and methods” (xvi). The regional chapters that make up the bulk of the volume become case studies in the working out of this overarching process of colonization, a process that makes its first appearance on Hispaniola in the late fifteenth century and its last (in this book) on Hawaii in the late eighteenth.

In the exposition of the process, chapter 2, “Colonizers, 1400–1800,” takes on a significance for the book as a whole that many casual readers might miss. There is far more going on here than a familiar story of how “the discovery and exploitation of the Americas and the route to Asia transformed Europe from a parochial backwater into the world’s most dynamic and powerful continent” (24). Drawing particularly on the work of Alfred W. Crosby, Taylor shows how a mostly unintentional European “Ecological Imperialism” utterly transformed the human and non-human environment of both North America and Europe after 1492.[4] Viral diseases from Europe, Asia, and Africa devastated Native American communities. Foodstuffs from the Americas greatly enriched European diets, while imported cereal grains, weeds, and domesticated livestock crowded out American crops and animals. All of this “provided a double boon to Europeans,” Taylor explains. “First, they obtained an expanded food supply that permitted their reproduction at an unprecedented rate. Second, they acquired access to fertile and extensive new lands largely emptied of native peoples by the exported diseases” (46). The double boon replicated itself in region after region, period after period.

On one level, then, the process of colonization was one in which “the surplus population flowed westward to refill the demographic vacuum created on the American side of the Atlantic world” (46). On a deeper level, “by a mix of design and accident, the newcomers triggered a cascade of processes that alienated the land, literally and figuratively, from its indigenous people” (48–49). Still, “although shrunken in number and shaken by catastrophe, the native peoples proved remarkably resilient and resourceful in adapting to their difficult new circumstances.” That resilience made Native people “indispensable to the European contenders for North American empire” who “desperately needed Indians as trading partners, guides, religious converts, and military allies.” As a result, contests among European colonizers became “primarily struggles to construct networks of Indian allies and to unravel those of rival powers,” and “Indian relations were central to the development of every colonial region” (49).

Masterful as Taylor’s work is, several factors limit the ability of his processual approach to link the regional stories and transform readers’ broader understandings of North American history. The first is structural–or, rather, a product of how the book’s chapter organization is likely to interact with the expectations of readers. Most modern U.S. history textbooks open with sweeping overviews of three “old worlds” that came into contact with each other after 1492–the Americas, Africa, and Europe.[5] Primed for such an approach, readers comfortably encounter in American Colonies a first chapter that begins fifteen thousand years ago at the Bering Strait and then traces the development of Native American cultures through to the fifteenth century. Chapter 2 follows with what might appear on the surface as the usual story of how European culture emerged from the late Middle Ages to spew Columbus out into the Ocean Sea.

Some readers will find their sense of familiarity disrupted by the sudden turn of chapter 2 toward such topics as disease, weeds, and ecological imperialism, but reassurance arrives soon enough with what appears (again on the surface) to be an organizational scheme from the most traditional kind of textbook. Two chapters on the Spanish are succeeded by six focused solely on English colonies and a seventh on the Dutch region that became New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. These seven chapters comprise the entirety of the “Colonies” described in Part II, and the Anglo-centered story continues through the first three non-regional chapters of Part III. By the time “French America” reenters the stage in chapter 16 (a chapter that might more usefully have diversified the Anglo-centered Part II), the Gallic material almost seems an interruption in a British-American story. Similarly, the subsequent discussion of the Great Plains and–especially after the resumption of familiar Anglo-American issues in “Imperial Wars and Crisis”–the closing chapter on the Pacific may strike readers more as fascinating afterthoughts than as the paradigm-busting case studies that Taylor intends them to be.

Apart from organizational issues, some deeper questions might be raised about the colonization process. American Colonies introduces the process as one driven primarily by ecological transformation, by the “cascade of interacting changes” stemming from the arrival of “new diseases, plants, animals, ideas, and peoples” to the North American continent. And indeed, broadly conceived, environmental themes certainly are woven throughout the whole of the book. One of the New England chapters begins with the observation that “Instead of viewing the precolonial landscape as beautiful, the leading Puritans perceived, in William Bradford’s phrase, ‘a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men'” (188). The West Indian chapter opens with a description of “an arc of volcanic peaks rising from the ocean” that “were lushly vegetated with tropical rain forests, appearing dark green to the sailor’s eye–until the lighter green of ubiquitous sugarcane later replaced the trees” (205) and goes on to explain how profoundly the shape of the land determined the different courses of development on Barbados and Jamaica. The interaction of Euro-American population growth with patterns of land use and distribution is a constant theme.

Yet the stories told in the regional chapters seldom explicitly turn on environmental issues–nor, indeed, can they, given their need to summarize the vast diversity of recent studies on these regions. Instead, the message comes across that–within the broad constraints defined by microbes, vegetation, and demography–the primary determinants of regional stories were neither wildernesses (hideous or otherwise) nor hurricanes striking those West Indian volcanic peaks nor interactions between English fecundity and patriarchal land tenure, but those “Doers” whom Puritans praised and visitors to the Caribbean abhorred. As Taylor’s chapter on New Spain puts it, “During the sixteenth century, the Spanish created the most formidable empire in European history by conquering and colonizing vast stretches of the Americas” (51). Conquering and colonizing are human, not environmental forces, and so too were the “English, French, and Dutch mariners [who] intermittently crossed the Atlantic to plunder Spanish shipping and colonial towns or to conduct a smuggling trade” and who eventually realized that “to enjoy a steady and enduring share in the trade riches of the Americas, Spain’s rivals needed their own colonies” (92). Again and again, the colonizing process turns out to be far less an impersonal “cascade of interacting changes” than the conscious work of people and nations seeking the main chance. Even the New England Puritan governments, which, on the whole, receive a balanced treatment from Taylor, “in effect …,” he says, “ran a protection racket that compelled native bands to purchase peace with wampum,” and “this racket financed the steady expansion of the settlements that dispossessed the natives of their lands” (194). Many possible emblematic figures for this kind of far-from-inevitable colonizing process appear in the book, and none is a microbe or a weed. A prime candidate, perhaps, is Sir John Yeamans of Barbados, who, Taylor tells us, “murdered a political rival and a few weeks later married his widow.” As a contemporary put it, “If to convert all things to his present private profitt be the marke of able parts, Sir John is without doubt a very judicious man” (223).

Stories like this show that, if there is a problem with American Colonies, it is not so much that the colonization process removes individual human agency from the picture but that process itself somehow comes across as abstracted from human agency, which can only, individually or collectively, respond to it. “Processes ranged throughout the continent, affecting peoples and their environments far from the centers of colonial settlement,” says Taylor. “In turn, resourceful responses by native peoples to those changes compelled the colonizers to adapt their ideas and methods” (xvi). As American Colonies brilliantly shows, such responses to the process played out in multiple variations in multiple times and places. Hispaniola and Hawaii really do belong in the same book. But they do not so clearly seem to belong in the same unified story. Or, at least, the motive force that might unify that story–that might take readers logically from Hispaniola to Hawaii, that might better unite the dazzling regional chapters–remains elusive.

There is no easy answer. This review began, after all, in awe of both information overload and Taylor’s attempt to harness the material. But the introduction to American Colonies does suggest a way in which the colonizing process might acquire simultaneously a firmer grounding in collective human agency, an historical narrative transcending regional variation, and a chronology stretching more seamlessly from Hispaniola to Hawaii. The great advances in recent scholarship–particularly those emphasizing the formative influence of Native Americans–have “sometimes come at the cost of underestimating the importance of European empires to the colonial story,” Taylor observes. Yet, “as catalysts for unpredictable change, empires mattered” (xvi–xviii). Empire in the singular–Spanish, English, or French–appears often enough in American Colonies. But empires, in the competing and historically developing plural, could play a much stronger unifying role in helping to explain when, how, and why the colonizing process moved from region to region and, especially, in helping to portray each regional variant less as deja vu all over again and more as a cumulative process with winners and losers, beginnings and endings. Much more than catalysts for a process, empires were the process.

That plural word, of course, does title the last of the book’s three sections. “Empires” begins with a chapter called “Revolutions, 1685–1730,” a chapter that focuses almost entirely on England and its colonies and that places the emergence of the British empire in the context of the Glorious Revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet how much different might the development of British imperial institutions have looked if the starting point were not the death of King Charles II in 1685 but his restoration to the throne in 1660? Most of the imperial reforms that took hold after the Glorious Revolution traced their roots back to the Restoration; indeed their centerpiece, the Navigation Acts, originated during the Puritan Interregnum. More important, if the origins of the British Imperial system are traced back to the 1660s, they immediately become enmeshed in at least a four-way struggle among emergent, dominant, and eclipsing European imperial powers. The Navigation Acts were primarily directed against the Dutch, who by the 1650s were by far the preeminent force in North Atlantic shipping, controlling much of the carrying trade of New England, Virginia, the West Indies, and West Africa. That preeminence–and indeed Dutch nationhood–had been hard won from the Spanish and, by 1715, would be hard lost to the English, who would take over most of the Atlantic shipping lanes, the slave trade, and the mid-Atlantic territories of New Netherland (and along the way absorb a Dutchman as king in their Glorious Revolution).[6]

The British imperial rivalry with the French also assumes a new visage if seen forward from the 1660s. In that decade, the Restoration Parliament passed its first Navigation Act, the crown began trying to revoke the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Duke of York’s forces conquered New Netherland, and the forerunner of the Royal African Company received its charter. At almost precisely the same time and for the same anti-Dutch reasons, Louis XIV’s government instituted a policy of système de l’exclusif, assumed direct royal control of New France from the trading company that formerly governed it, sent troops to invade the country of the Iroquois, and greatly expanded its nation’s slaving activities. In competition with each other and with the Dutch and Spanish, meanwhile, both Britain and France aggressively moved to seize or establish new colonies in the West Indies and in the parts of North America that became the Carolinas and Louisiana.[7]

In this light, colonies become not just regional stories but chapters in a larger imperial drama–a drama in which both the Native Americans who maneuvered among the imperial powers and the enslaved Africans whose transportation and labor were central to imperial success also acted in broader as well as regional contexts. And this same drama provides additional context for the emergence of a new imperial power that eventually displaced all others on the Great Plains and the Pacific coast. As Taylor concludes in the book’s closing sentence, “the Americans proved worthy heirs to the British as the predominant colonizers of North America” (477).

As that closing sentence suggests, almost all of the evidence–indeed almost all of the conceptual pieces–for putting the colonization process into imperial motion already appear within Taylor’s overstuffed pages. That they are there, and that readers can be inspired to reassemble them in their own ways, are among Taylor’s greatest achievements. Both readable synthesis and state-of-the-art portrait of the field, American Colonies is a remarkable piece of work.

DANIEL K. RICHTER is the Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001).

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1. Of course the number of British colonies varied over time; Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy fixes the count at 26 “administrative units” on the eve of the American Revolution. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia, 2000), 251.

2. In many respects, the fountainhead of the new historiography is Gary B. Nash, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974). The bibliography appended to American Colonies provides excellent guidance on the recent literature.

3. Bernard Bailyn, “On the Contours of Atlantic History,” lecture delivered to the University of Pennsylvania Interdisciplinary Seminar in Atlantic Studies, Philadelphia, Oct. 25, 2002. For the most recent discussion of Atlantic World paradigms–and the observation that “We are all Atlanticists now–or so it would seem,” see David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (London, 2002), 11–29 (quotation from p. 11).

4. Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, Eng., 1986).

5. This approach was first popularized in Mary Beth Norton et al., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States (Boston, 1982), and has since been widely emulated.

6. No single work pulls together all these themes, but for introductions see Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (New York, 1994); and William Roger Louis et al., eds., The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 1: The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1998).

7. The standard overview of the French colonial policies designed by Jean-Baptiste Colbert remains W. J. Eccles, France in America (New York, 1972), 60–89.


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