Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution


From the fearful crossing of the stormy Atlantic to the growth of the early settlements, from the French and Indian War and the unrest of the 1760s to the inevitable break with England?here is an insightful and fascinating account of the transformation of an unknown land into an extraordinary nation.

In this provocative history of colonial America, William R. Polk explores the key events and individuals that defined this critical epoch by offering vivid descriptions of the ...

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The Birth of America

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From the fearful crossing of the stormy Atlantic to the growth of the early settlements, from the French and Indian War and the unrest of the 1760s to the inevitable break with England—here is an insightful and fascinating account of the transformation of an unknown land into an extraordinary nation.

In this provocative history of colonial America, William R. Polk explores the key events and individuals that defined this critical epoch by offering vivid descriptions of the societies the Europeans came from and what they believed they were going to, while introducing the native peoples encountered in the New World and the black Africans who were brought across the Atlantic. As John Adams would point out to Thomas Jefferson, the long years that witnessed the formation of our national character and the growth of our spirit of independence were indeed the real revolution. That is the compelling story at the root of The Birth of America.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Although Polk's book contains little new information about early American history, he synthesizes a dazzling social history of early America. Polk reveals an evolving land at the mercies of various foreign governments, each with startlingly different visions of how to use the New World. The Spanish, for example, were less concerned with grabbing land than the British; Spanish explorers conquered small parts of America in order to establish sugar plantations worked by the enslaved native inhabitants. Polk paints the diversity of life among precolonial Native Americans as well as the African roots of black slaves; these cultural specifics give his history a human touch. His gripping account of the dangers of the transatlantic crossing-darkness between decks, filth, vermin-reminds us forcefully of the fears and risks that accompanied the hope of starting over in a new world. He likens the colonies to a daughter growing up and growing apart from her mother during the later 17th century as the colonies developed their own governments, industries and militias. Polk, an independent historian (The Elusive Peace), is a masterful storyteller who takes us into a strange world and helps us to understand it. 11 b&w illus., 6 maps. (Apr. 7) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
America grows from embryo to newborn, nurtured by an international cast of characters. With European explorers, Native Americans and African slaves converging on North America over a short period of time, the history of the not-yet-United States reads like a multicultural history of the world, which is just how Polk (Understanding Iraq, 2005, etc.) presents it in this concise narrative. Wars and internal strife in England, France and Spain forced outcasts, misfits and lawbreakers to set sail for the New World. There they met Native Americans, who were less nomadic and more civilized than traditional representations would lead us to believe, and utilized African slaves, who introduced farming and mining techniques far more advanced than those practiced by European settlers. Rather than furthering the conventional notion of a "melting pot," Polk's evenhanded, evocative account shows disparate groups fighting to carve out their niches in harsh new surroundings. Perhaps most interesting is his explication of events leading up to the Revolutionary War. Honing in on economic causes for the split, the author sees logical reasons for British irritation with the ungrateful colonists; he also understands why the Americans, emboldened by years of near-independence due to England's internal struggles, felt slighted. The fight for independence was not waged by a patriotic and unified nation, Polk declares. Rather, it was conducted by a loose coalition of states whose white inhabitants were nearly as different from each other as they were from slaves and Native Americans. Ultimately, however, this motley alliance was able to call on the shared experiences of criminals, religious pariahs and intrepidadventurers to unite them as they took up arms against the mother country to obtain the one thing that many of them had sought all along: freedom, or at least their version of it. Packed with impeccable scholarship and insightful analysis.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060750930
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/24/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,364,069
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

William R. Polk taught Middle Eastern history and politics and Arabic at Harvard until 1961, when he became a member of the Policy Planning Council of the U.S. Department of State. In 1965, he became Professor of History at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His many books include The Birth of America and Understanding Iraq.

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Read an Excerpt

The Birth of America

From Before Columbus to the Revolution
By William Polk

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright ©2006 William Polk
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060750901

Chapter One

The Native Americans

Who were the Native Americans? The Spanish, French, and English explorers were perplexed by that question. Their first assumption that the natives were Chinese was soon abandoned; the natives obviously were not European and did not seem to be African either. The explorers could not think of any other possibilities. William Strachey spoke for them in 1612 in his Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania: "It were not perhappes too curyous a thing to demaund, how these people might come first, and from whome, and whence, having no entercourse with Africa, Asia nor Europe, and considering the whole world, so many years, by all knowledg receaved, was supposed to be only conteyned and circumscrybed in the discovered and travelled Bowndes of those three."

The Indian societies he saw, Strachey would have been astonished to learn, were formed by thousands of years of migration, splitting apart, rejoining, exchanging mates, settling, and adapting -- essentially the same process that shaped European lives and culture. Just as Europeans were products of the migrations of western Asians, so the Native Americans were descendants ofmigrants from eastern Asia. And just as the Europeans' languages give a view of their history, so American Indians' languages illustrate their background.

The first Indians the Spaniards encountered in what they named La Florida spoke dialects of a language known as Muskhogean. It was one of 583 languages that have so far been identified as spoken by natives in North and South America. Linguists trace it back to a tongue they call Amerind. Linguistic evidence points toward northeastern Asia as their "origin." What the spread of language indicates has now been confirmed by genetic studies. Together they suggest that ancestors of the American Indians probably began crossing to North America roughly 30,000 years ago. Climatologists now believe that from about 60,000 years ago, Asia and North America were joined at what is now the Bering Strait and archaeologists have found evidence of human settlements in northeastern Siberia from about 40,000 years ago. So it was possible for humans and animals to walk across a land bridge, which geologists call Beringia. They began to do so because, although much of North America was covered by huge glaciers and sheets of ice, parts of Alaska enjoyed a relatively mild climate. Even in the coldest times, there was a corridor of relatively open countryside that channeled movement of animals and men to the south. Then, about 10,000 years ago, with the coming of what geologists term the Holocene, a warmer epoch, so much ice melted that the sea rose as much as 120 meters and submerged the land bridge. Those people who had already made the passage from Asia profited from the melting of the vast sheets of ice to move inland and further south. By about 14,000 years ago, some had reached Patagonia and others had spread over both continents.

After their arrival in the New World, the speakers of Amerind spread out across almost the whole of North and South America. Pockets of other languages remained in the American Southwest and the Canadian Northwest. These were derivatives of an Old World language now called Na-Dene and were spoken in the far north of the continent where what is known as Eskimo-Aleut was the common tongue. Then, for thousands of years as families and small clans moved apart from one another, they acquired different habits, adapted to different environments, and made changes in the way they spoke. We can see how this process works by delving back into the past of our own language. Shakespeare's English is intelligible to us although it contains expressions we no longer understand. Middle English, spoken a few centuries earlier, is arcane. Farther back and farther away, English's close cousins -- Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese -- although sharing some vocabulary and much syntax and grammar, were already largely foreign. If we move yet farther afield to languages in our same Indo-European family, Russian, Persian, Greek, Armenian, and Sanskrit appear almost totally alien. So it was with the Indian languages. Over thousands of years and a large stretch of geography, each society elaborated from the common ancestor its own way of thought and speech.

When the French explorer Sammuel Champlain landed on the Saint Lawrence in 1608, he encountered a people speaking Algonquian, a language related to the language spoken far to the south in Virginia. What that seemingly unlikely fact tells us is that the two groups must have originally been one people; as one or both migrated, they first became neighbors and finally strangers, just the way our European ancestors did.

The largest, most sophisticated, and most warlike of the northeastern Indian societies were speakers of Iroquoian. When the explorers first encountered them, they had divided into five nations but were still linked by a confederation which they called Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian for "the Long House"). The 6,000 or so members of the confederation were tribes known as the Kaniengebaga (or, as their enemies called them, the Mohawks), the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Related to them and speaking dialects of Iroquois were the Cherokee and Tuscarora, who had earlier migrated southward.

Another family of languages was Siouan, spoken by peoples who dominated the Piedmont southward from Maryland. They included the Catawba, Saponi, Tutelo, Occaneechee, and Cheraw of the Carolinas and the Creek of what became Georgia, as well as scores of smaller, now mainly forgotten groups.

A fourth collection of societies, the North American native people the Spaniards first knew, spoke varieties of Muskhogean and inhabited the Gulf coastal region from Georgia to the Mississippi.

Speakers of these four groups of languages, the Native Americans living east of the Mississippi, probably numbered about 2 million on the eve of first contact with Europeans.

As they spread out over North America, the Indians developed such distinctive characteristics as to seem alien to one another, just as the European and African nations did. Frequently clashing with one another as they sought to defend . . .


Excerpted from The Birth of America by William Polk Copyright ©2006 by William Polk. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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