Americans: A Collision of Histories

Americans: A Collision of Histories

by Edward Countryman


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In this social history, Edward Countryman shows how interactions among America's different ethnic groups have contributed to our sense of nationality. From the earliest settlements along the Atlantic seaboard to the battle over our nation's destiny in the aftermath of the Civil War, Countryman reveals Americans in all their diverse complexity and shows why the very identity of "American"—forged by the African, the Indian, and the European alike—is what matters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780809015986
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/14/1997
Pages: 324
Sales rank: 645,834
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Edward Countryman, professor of history at Southern Methodist University, is the author of A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790, winner of the Bancroft Prize, and The American Revolution. He lives in Dallas.

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A Collision of Histories
By Edward Countryman

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 1997 Edward Countryman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780809015986

PART ONESLAVERY AND FREEDOM, LOSS AND GAIN{T}o observe the character of a particular people we must examine the objects of its love. And yet, whatever those objects, if it is the association of a multitude not of animals but of rational beings, and is united by a common agreement about the objects of its love, then there is no absurdity in applying to it the title of a "people."--ST. AUGUSTINECHAPTER 1A COLLISION OF HISTORIESTHREE separate histories collided in the Western Hemisphere half a millennium ago, and American history began. The European navigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries drew upon an energy that set people in motion across every sea and every great landmass save Australia. Knowing already about Africa and Asia, Europeans went to them in this "age of reconnaissance" to trade. Whether it was for spices, silk, gold, or slaves made little difference. Knowing little if anything about what the navigators found to the west, Europeans set out to make these "new islands" their own.In numbers that swelled to the hundreds of thousands, Europe's willing people and Africans under great duress started to cross the Atlantic. They carried their worlds with them in their heads (memory, skills, language, knowledge, and beliefs), in the holds of the ships (implements, goods for trade, sacred objects, clothing, food, seeds, and animals), and in their own bodies (microbes and antibodies). What the Europeans and the Africans brought intersected immediately with the knowledge, the objects, and the other living species that the Western Hemisphere's people already had. The coming of the Old World made the Americas truly new to everyone involved: the Europeans, the Africans, and the tens of millions of people already there.Discovery, settlement, colonization, conquest, contact, encounter, a "moving frontier," the taming of "virgin land," civilizing the "wilderness": all these terms have been proposed to explain what began in 1492. Some, like "discovery" and "settlement" and "peopling," presume that only the Europeans made American history. Others, like "encounter" and "contact," try to deal in neutral terms with the meeting of groups. To use the word "multiracial" is to assume that the concept of race had the meaning then that the modern world associates with it now, which isnot true.1 To speak about "conquest" or "invasion" is to understand that what some gained, others lost. Each set of terms has its merits, even the outmoded language of "discovery," which appreciates at least that Europeans posed a problem for everyone else.A different approach will be attempted here. What happened after Columbus was a collision of histories. The people involved began as complete strangers. But in America all three groups, red, white, and black, became inextricably intertwined. All became different from their forebears, living in a different world. In most historical confrontations the parties agree about the questions, even as they quarrel and kill about the answers. Protestants challenged Catholics during the Reformation about the meaning of Christianity. Both royalists and republicans understood that the great problem of the American and French revolutions was political society. For the West and the Soviets during the Cold War, the defining issue was how to organize industrial production and large-scale trade. In these epochs, each side has had more in common with its opponent than either has had with anyone from another time. But during the "invasion of America" there were no shared terms or shared questions. Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans knew one another slightly, especially along the Mediterranean rim. It was not as equals: the institution of slavery already existed. But the people of the Old World and the people of the New were utter strangers.Even the name deceives. Before the invasion there was no "America." The hemisphere's people had names for the places that were theirs, but they had no idea of being Americans or "Indians." The modern names that we associate with them--Iroquois, Catawba, Seminole, Creek, Cherokee--were not what they called themselves. Becoming "Indians" was a change that the invasion forced upon them. Becoming Catawbas rather than Sugarees or Shuterees, becoming Creeks and Seminoles rather than Muscogulges, was forced upon them as well.Captured Africans were in no position to name the places where they were taken or the communities they belonged to, not, at least, with names that historians can recover. It was struggle enough to name themselves and their children, rather than have someone who claimed to own them say what they would be called. No more than the Natives, or the white tribes called English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish, were Africans a single people. They left Africa as Ovimbundu, BaKango, Mbundu, Mayombe, Limba, Lokko, Gizzi, and many more. Many whites knew that. They valued different Africans for their different abilities and knowledge and for what the whites thoughtwas their tribal character. In time, however, the captives and their American-born descendants became just "Negroes"--or some term like it--in the captors' minds. Most eventually became "Negroes"--or some term like it--in their own minds as well. It marked the beginning of a long search for a Western Hemisphere identity that did not reek of what had happened to them.The Europeans thought that they alone brought change. They would teach Christianity and save heathen souls. They would build cities with cathedrals and churches, palaces and markets, universities and colleges. They would bring law. They would make this "New" World into an image of the "Old," improved perhaps, but recognizable: Nueva España Nouvelle France, Nieuw Amsterdam, New England. New Englanders especially believed that they were chosen by God to build a "citty upon a hill" that would show humanity how to live. Yet the Natives and the Africans changed the Europeans even as the Europeans were changing them. All became "Americans," and they did it because of their entanglement with all the others.By the end of the colonial years, whites throughout the hemisphere were Europeans no more and they knew it. Both the North American and Spanish American movements for national independence demonstrated so. The white English speakers of the northern continent's Atlantic seaboard declared themselves a people in 1776 and assumed their equal station among the powers of the earth. They changed "American" from a term of geography to a badge of identity. They would extend that badge, perhaps, to other white settlers who spoke French and Spanish. But "Indians not taxed" and the "persons" whom they "held to service" were among them, not of them. The Declaration of Independence caught their mood and perspective. The miscreant George III had "excited domestic insurrections" by promising freedom to slaves who would support the royal cause. He had "endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." Slaves and Natives were not part of the "one people" that was separating its "political bands" to another. They figured among the reasons for the separation.As they moved somewhat later toward their own separate peoplehood, the Criollo descendants of the Spanish Conquistadores knew better. They realized that Indios, Mestizo, Negros, Zambos, and Mulatos were necessarily a part of their American world. Those peoples' very presence helped distinguish American Spaniards from Peninsulares. The English speakersmisunderstood both themselves and their world. The effects of their mistake are with us still.{ I }In the beginning, there was death. Even Europeans who emigrated freely encountered a new environment and climate and suffered from it. Life expectancy for a "seasoned" white Virginia male was as low as forty-eight years in the mid-seventeenth century, about what it was in England. For newcomers, unused to hot summers or to malaria and yellow fever, it was lower. Virginians spent the seventeenth century "living with death."2 In the Carolinas and the Caribbean it was far worse for everybody concerned.The worst danger the colonizers faced was themselves. From Virginia to Barbados, young white men with no bonds to one another arrived to conquer, pillage, and make someone else work for their benefit. Where nobody else could be found, those who enjoyed power forced the rest to labor. The tobacco boom of early Virginia illustrated what could happen. The crop began to be grown about 1616. Three years later "the best grade sold for export at three shillings a pound," thirty-six times as much as it would bring in 1630, when the boom collapsed. Would-be planters and indentured English servants "poured ... into Virginia," worked a while, and died. Perhaps 3,500 persons migrated during the very first years of the boom. With these added to the number already there, Virginians should have totaled roughly 4,200 by the early 1620s but only 1,240 were actually alive at the end of 1622. "It Consequentlie followes ... that we had then lost 3000 persons," noted Samuel Wrote, "a disgruntled and disillusioned investor."3 Perhaps 15,000 more people came by 1640, but Virginia's white population rose to no more than 8,000.Disease, mistreatment, and actual starvation lay behind the carnage-like death rates. So did the sheer disorder of a society where people had no purpose beyond getting rich and getting out. The servants who grew the tobacco were young, poor men from the streets of London or from shire counties that offered no future. As servants in England, they might have enjoyed some protection from the church, the law, the nearness of their families, or the chance to change master or mistress at year's end. Even now the English town of Warwick celebrates an annual Mop Fair, commemorating the day servants moved. If necessary, a servant coulddisappear into England's swollen cities, especially London. In Virginia none of these safeguards existed in more than bare outline. Servants were at their masters' mercy, and mercy was in short supply. The dying was of some Englishmen at the hands of others, but they at least had brought it upon themselves by going. For Natives and Africans what happened was far worse and they had no choice at all.The demographic disaster that struck the hemisphere's aborigines after 1492 has no equal in history, not even the Black Death. Historical demographers debate the size of the Native population in 1492; the highest estimates suggest as many as 100,000,000. Whatever the actual figures, there is general agreement that the falling-off after contact was in the range of 90 percent. Tiny Block Island near Narragansett Bay had about 1,200 Native inhabitants on its eleven square miles as late as 1662, but virtually all disappeared by the seventeenth century's end.4An absence of resistance among people who had never been exposed to Old World microbes was one reason for the disaster. "Wildfire" or "green field" or "virgin soil" epidemics of plague, measles, smallpox, diphtheria, chicken pox, and influenza took a terrible toll. One disease or strain might follow upon another, perhaps quickly over one generation, perhaps more slowly, over four or five or six. Europeans and Africans brought the diseases, but once started an epidemic could leap from village to village without a white or African getting near. Even contact with the infected crew of a fishing boat could start death spreading. That happened in Massachusetts in 1616. Puritans arriving there a few years later thought it was God's way of clearing the land for them, the new Israel entering their Land of Canaan.The epidemics struck the young, the adolescent, the adult, and the old. They could destroy the whole social fabric that might have enabled some who survived to tend others and help them survive too. William Bradford, governor of the Mayflower Pilgrims' Plymouth Colony, wrote of Indians who were "not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead."5 Traditional ideas about medicine were no help and might even increase the danger. The great death struck as well at the Natives' self-awareness and self-esteem. Their historical memories and sacred knowledge were oral or hidden within objects, rather than written. If the wise man or woman who knew the stories and understood the objects' meaning died before the knowledge could be passed on, the knowledge would die too. If the holy rituals failed to cure, they might cease to be holy and just be forgotten.The migrants' alcohol seemed to offer a quick way to see visions of the spirit world. But the result might be mayhem as self-restraint disappeared. Under alcohol's influence a Native might sign a legal document without realizing that it gave away all that the village had, or created debt that never could be paid off. Behind the death, drink, desecration, and dispossession lurked the danger of enslavement, particularly by the English. Algonquian speakers along the Connecticut River, Rappahannocks and Pamunkeys in the lower Chesapeake, Choctaws near the Tombigbee and Pearl rivers, and Pawnees on the western tributaries of the Mississippi all faced raiders from the English colonies who wanted to use them as forced labor.A Dutch boat brought twenty black people to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. It was the middle of the tobacco boom, and there is no reason to think that they fared any better than did the English servants who were complaining of being treated "like damn'd slaves."6 By this time the Atlantic slave trade was more than a century old. Tens of thousands of its victims had already been taken to the Mediterranean, Iberia, Sao Tome, the Canaries, Madeira, the Spaniards' New World kingdoms, and Brazil. Slavery was already everywhere and these first Africans to enter British North America were most likely slaves when they boarded ship. But there is no reason to think that they remained slaves in Virginia. The law of England, which governed Virginia if any law did, contained no provision that recognized the legality of enslavement. By the middle of the century there was a free black community a few hundred strong on Virginia's Eastern Shore, the tongue of land between Chesapeake Bay and the open Atlantic.We know some of those people's names, what they did, and what they owned. Anthony Johnson, as he came to call himself, arrived in 1621. He came from nobody knows where, but it was probably the West Indies. In 1625 he was a servant growing tobacco. If ill luck brought him to Virginia, it did not last. He married "Mary, a Negro Woman," and they spent four decades together, surviving their servitude, and acquiring hundreds of acres. When "an unfortunate fire" destroyed their buildings in 1653 the "county justices viewed the damage," decided the Johnsons needed help "in the 'obtayneing of their Livelyhood," and freed them of taxes. Anthony Johnson gave legal testimony, raised tobacco, sought redress against whites who aggrieved him, argued with officials, and had servants of his own. At his death he was farming a three-hundred-acre leasehold in Maryland. His widow renegotiated the leasehold in her own name, receiving a tenure of ninety-nine years.7If all arriving black people had fared like Anthony and Mary Johnson, African-American history would have been far different. But during the Johnsons' lifetimes Virginia was loosening its bonds upon white servants and imposing new burdens upon black ones. In 1676 there was open rebellion. Named for the English adventurer who led it, Bacon's Rebellion was an inchoate, ugly affair, but it demonstrated the fragility of Virginia's social order. Most especially, it posed the problem of servants who survived their time and wanted land as well as freedom. The problem would disappear if neither land nor freedom ever could be claimed. Slaves could be had whenever white colonists decided to spend the higher price that slavers charged. After 1660 it "probably ... became more advantageous for Virginians to buy slaves" than servants. Making the decision did not arouse moral qualms.8During the next four decades white Virginians broke with their English heritage of personal freedom and created their own New World law of slavery. By 1700 black Virginians could not bear arms, testify against any white, or be punished with longer terms for running away. They already were serving for life. Husbands and wives, parents and children enjoyed no protection from the law. They had no hope of escape, other than fleeing into the forests or swamps. Some did flee, establishing independent "Maroon" communities in the Dismal Swamp south of the James River. Some found a welcome among Indians. Others did not. In the eighteenth century the Catawbas accepted the role of catching and returning slaves who were trying to free themselves. It was the price they had to pay for their own survival.9Black men and women made up a tiny fraction of Virginians in 1640. They comprised 15 percent in 1690, and by the middle of the eighteenth century they accounted for two Virginians in every five. Some 54,000 slaves entered the province between 1700 and 1740, all but 5,000 of them imported from Africa rather than the West Indies. They came to Virginia from Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Windward and Gold Coasts, the Bight of Biafra, Angola, Mozambique, and Madagascar, but to Virginians it made little difference. Complicit now in direct enslavement rather than simply buying people who were slaves anyway, eighteenth-century planters wanted young, strong men. The tobacco boom was long since over, so the planters had less incentive to drive their slaves to the absolute limit, as Virginia's first masters had driven the servants. Nonetheless, the Africans experienced all the shock and disruption and stress of being ripped out of their communities, transported under horrific conditions, prodded, inspected and sold, brought to a country where theyknew neither language nor custom, and subjected to a new regimen of work unlike any they had known, in a new climate, colder in winter than they ever could have imagined.Traders and masters understood that the first year was most risky. It was the most trying for whites as well, and they learned to arrive in the autumn, avoiding the first summer's heat and disease. However, Africans were generally imported in the spring, as the tidewater heat was beginning to build. The odds were that one out of every four would die from respiratory disease before the first year was out. Virginia's slave population did become self-sustaining by roughly 1740, and at mid-century the total number of its slaves was twice the total number who had been imported. By the eve of American independence, most black Virginians probably had been born there. The roughly 12,500 Africans who died during their first year after their arrival in Virginia were the price that had been paid.10In other places that price was far higher. The heaviest slave concentrations of all were in the West Indies sugar islands. Throughout Caribbean slavery's history until it declined in the nineteenth century, it was sustained by the African trade rather than natural growth. Jamaica imported about 750,000 slaves before the trade was closed at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet its reported slave population in 1808 was only 324,000.11 In the midst of such enormous losses only one consolation remained: the island's population became almost entirely black and a distinctive Jamaican culture could emerge, with only a veneer of English influence. 12The other great mainland black community took shape in South Carolina. That province's first black people came from Barbados with their white masters during the late seventeenth century. From the start, slavery defined the legal condition of black Carolinians, but for perhaps half a century after its founding South Carolina had no plantations. Like the lower Mississippi Valley somewhat later, it began as a "frontier exchange economy" based upon forestry, small farming, open-range herding, and the trade in animal skins.13 A slave in earliest South Carolina might well be a cowboy, herding cattle without the master's supervision on an interior savanna much as his West African forebears had done.Early in the new century South Carolina changed, and the reason was rice. Who taught whites that the grain could grow in the Carolina lowlands remains an open question. Some have said the knowledge came from Italy. Some even have said China. Most likely, the knowledge came from West Africans, to whom rice cultivation was perfectly familiar. Theactual strain of rice grown in South Carolina was not the same as in Africa, but Carolina rice cultivation used many West African techniques. These planters imported skills as well as labor, preferring "above all to have slaves from the Senegambia, which meant principally Bambara and Malinke." They wanted Africa's rice-growing people, rather than just any slaves. Many whom they brought were Muslims, building their lives in America as they had in Africa around the Koran. Some were literate in Arabic. 14Once the ability to grow the grain was shown, white Carolinians moved rapidly into rice production. At first it was on "dry, upland soil, using rainfall to water their crop," but "most rice production" shifted "to marshy areas along the coast."15 The whites knew that the swamps were deadly in the summer, thanks to what they called "fever and ague," which they attributed to miasma and "bad air." We know now that it was an African strain of malaria known as falciparum. The disease was carried to America in the bodies of slaves and then transmitted through the bites of Anopheles mosquitoes. Whites also believed that Africans could survive where they themselves could not. The belief was correct; the genetic sickle-cell trait that many Africans carried created an environment in a carrier's bloodstream where the parasite that causes falciparum malaria could not survive. The trait is not "racial," restricted to Africans. It flourishes genetically among Europeans and Asians where malaria is endemic as well, and in principle they could have survived the rice swamps. The trait does not offer protection against the nonfatal forms of the disease that were native to America. Carriers of the sickle-cell trait might not die from falciparum malaria. But malaria's American varieties could leave their bodies fevered and pain-wracked, too weakened to resist other diseases or the sheer stress of their lives.No one, black or white, connected the Africans' ability to survive in the swamps with the short, difficult lives of many of their children. These children were victims of sickle-cell anemia, which can result when two carriers of the trait conceive a child together. The red blood cells of a person who has it may not carry adequate oxygen to the body. Collapsing into the sickle shape that gives the disease its name, they can clump together in a sticky mass that blocks blood vessels, causing terrible pain and destroying vital organs. Sickle-cell anemia would not receive clinical recognition until the twentieth century. We still have no cure.16However well the Africans could survive malaria, they did not survive the conditions of rice cultivation during the early decades. As in Virginia or the West Indies, cheap land, cheap labor, and high profit on whatthe land and labor could produce meant disaster. When Carolina's rice boom began just after 1700, the African trade was in full force and there was no question of using servants. Black people formed Carolina's majority by 1708 and the slave trade went unabated until about 1740, when a major rebellion prompted whites to cut it off for a time. Still South Carolina wanted slaves. Twice more, just before the Revolution and early in the nineteenth century, it opened its ports to the ships from Africa. Carolina slaves generated wealth beyond any to be found elsewhere on the mainland. A careful and rigorous sampling of probate records filed in 1774 showed that nine of the ten richest colonials who died that year were Carolinians .17Carolinians, like Virginians, wanted young, single men. For a time in the eighteenth century the Carolina lowlands became "more like a Negro country," with an overwhelming black majority. Between 1720 and 1740, while rice was being established as South Carolina's major cash crop, the province's black population doubled. By the end of those two decades the province had almost 40,000 black people, but the growth was driven by the slave trade, not natural increase. Conditions in the emerging rice country were fierce. Shocked by enslavement, the Africans were ill shod or barefoot, ill clothed, and poorly housed and fed. They drained swamps, dug ditches, built dams, and planted and harvested rice while their immune systems tried to cope with American diseases. A man who survived might spend his whole life without the possibility of a woman's love, because planters generally imported male and female slaves at a ratio of two to one. For women who did come, the disruption of menstrual cycles and the capacity to bear and nurse a child can only be imagined. Planters did not care. They knew that it would be cheaper to work their slaves to the limits of endurance and replace them when they died. During the first great burst of the Carolina slave trade, from roughly 1720 to 1740, the rate of death was so great and the rates of childbirth and infant survival were so low that the slave population could not sustain itself. The population grew, but only because fresh Africans were entering even faster than other Africans could die.Slaves were brought to every colony, northern or southern, British, Dutch, French, Spanish, or Portuguese. By the middle of the eighteenth century perhaps a fifth of the people of New York City were black and their number was several thousand strong. Twice, in 1712 and 1741, rumors circulated in New York City that slaves were plotting revolt. Each time, white New Yorkers met the rumors with mass arrests. "Thirteen slaves" whom they arrested "were hanged, one [was] left to die inchains without sustenance, three {were} burned, one {was} burned over slow fire for eight to ten hours, and one [was] broken on the wheel."18 There was no place in early-eighteenth-century America where being black did not also mean being enslaved, stripped of all honor, and subjected to some European's absolute, total power.{ II }A society driven by death cannot sustain itself. One of the central problems in early America turns on the fact that places where illness and early death were the norm became societies where people could expect to live. By the middle of the eighteenth century the change had happened among both Europeans and Africans. It was starting to happen among Indians as well.The Mayflower Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony experienced a brief "starving time" when they arrived in 1621. It was brought on by their own poor planning, not by the structural causes that brought mass death to Native people, early Virginia white servants, or incoming Africans. The main New England group that settled Massachusetts Bay after 1630 did not have a starving time at all. In the Massachusetts town of Andover, the first generation had a life expectancy higher than seventy years, men and women alike. An Andover couple could expect at least five children. Almost nine of every ten children born during the first generation would survive to age twenty.19Andover's low mortality and high infant survival were not identical to other towns'. But seventeenth-century New Englanders survived astonishingly well into adulthood and old age, in comparison both to the other colonies and to the Old World. Perhaps 20,000 people migrated to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Plymouth, Rhode Island, New Haven, and Connecticut during the two decades that followed the voyage of the Mayflower in 1621. Then civil war broke out in the home country between Parliament and the monarchy of Charles I and migration virtually stopped. When the English began to emigrate again after the monarchy was restored in 1660, they did not find the Puritan provinces attractive. Nor did most other Europeans. Nonetheless, the population grew rapidly, thanks to the health of New England's own settlers.This was due to ecological and social factors rather than medical. New England's topography and its colder climate do not lend themselves to tropical and subtropical diseases. Its forests offered vast amounts of woodfor housing and winter fuel. But more important is what New Englanders did with these resources. From the beginning, they were going to America to stay. A man in Massachusetts was not rootless, young, and socially isolated. Nor was he bent on enriching himself and returning "home" to become a landed gentleman or to flaunt his wealth in London. Nor would he be a servant in the Virginia sense. Massachusetts settlers represented the whole spectrum from the newborn to the elderly and they came primarily from the middle ranks. Though founding governor John Winthrop advised his fellow voyagers in the first fleet that "God ... hath so disposed ... of mankinde, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion," neither the genuinely rich nor the really poor joined the venture.20 Even if they went out alone, most New England male settlers were married, and they expected their wives and children to follow. They sold what they had and made the proceeds a basis for starting again. The sex ratio evened out rapidly and a society of families took shape within the first decade.As family life emerged in Virginia, the individual farm or plantation remained the most important unit of society. In New England the basic social unit became the town. Our modern image of white clapboard houses, a meetinghouse with its spire, all surrounding a village green, is nothing like what the Puritans actually created. There was no typical town. Boston and Salem both became centers of commerce. Marblehead was a largely male fishing port, as rough as any place in Virginia. Springfield, in the Connecticut Valley, began as a fur-trading outpost under the father and son William and John Pynchon. Andover and Dedham were communities of farmers whose plan was to create static perfection for themselves and their families.John Winthrop called the sermon that he preached to the first voyagers "A Modell of Christian Charitie." Likening his people to a new Israel, he called upon them to build a "citty upon a hill" that would show the Lord's way to the "eies of all People." He did not exaggerate the Puritans' audience. English Protestants and Catholic observers in France, Spain, and the Vatican all watched with interest what the Puritans were doing. Winthrop's call was for a hierarchical social order. That was God's desire. But all within that order should be "knitt more nearly together in the Bond of brotherly affeccion."21Some Puritan towns made serious attempts to live out what Winthrop had sketched. The town founders of Dedham started with a covenant to establish their terms for living together, including old "English ways"that they wanted to transfer intact.22 The next step was to petition for land, which the provincial authorities granted to the town as a whole. Then either the whole town meeting or selectmen whom the meeting chose divided the land. Some towns experimented with open-field agricultural patterns, with the land cut into strips and worked communally rather than fenced into farms and worked separately. Towns did not divide their land equally. One man's prestige brought from England, another's large family, the need to attract a minister or a miller or a blacksmith: these factors could make a difference in deciding how much land a man got, where it lay, and how fertile it was.Dedham seems like a neo-peasant utopia, what medieval "bond men" might have established should the lord's castle be toppled and themselves "made free."23 That, perhaps, is what the founders intended. Not all towns adopted open-field farming, and not all towns sought to create perfection. But in farming, commercial, fur-trading, and fishing villages alike, New Englanders built enduring social structures. Town meetings; gathered Congregational churches whose members were "Visible Saints"; powerful families in which parental control lasted well into the younger generation's adulthood: these created a strong though undoubtedly constricting sense of belonging. Epidemic illnesses appeared among Puritan New Englanders just as they did among Indians who had no immunity, Africans in the aftershock of enslavement, and white Virginians and Carolinians who had developed no more than the most basic forms of social organization. But when illness struck in New England there was someone who had an obligation to give care. That is one reason why New Englanders survived so well in a world that surrounded them with suffering and death.Closing his shipboard sermon, Winthrop admonished his listeners to "choose life, that wee, and our Seede, may live." The transition to a demography of life that the Puritans achieved so quickly took others much longer. "Virginia was founded in 1607," a historian has written, "but it was not settled until nearly a century later."24 For most of the seventeenth century it remained a ramshackle place, torn by conflict. The tidewater finally began to evolve a distinctive and permanent social order after Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 and that order was not fully in place until the 1730S. Unlike New Englanders, who started off with a vision of community, white Virginians created community slowly. The first step was to even the sex ratio. Women first came to Virginia as servants, and, like male servants, some survived their terms and gained freedom. A female servant had little recourse against a master who approached herwith sex on his mind; pregnancy during servitude would merely prolong her service, whoever the father was. But once free she might marry well, within the possibilities Virginia offered. For women as well as men, Virginia's less healthy climate and more demanding economy than New England's meant the probability of a short life. The hazards of childbirth were bad enough in New England, where death from its complications terminated perhaps one marriage in four during the woman's fertile years. In Virginia the danger was worse, by far. But a white woman who outlived her husband might inherit much of his property and become a highly desirable partner. An ambitious Virginian would seek the widow rather than the daughter of a man who had left a good estate. George Washington's choice of Martha Custis offers a perfect example.As the sex ratio evened out and more families were formed, the outlines of a larger society began to take shape. By the early eighteenth century successful planters were building the elegant mansions that still line the estuaries and rivers feeding into Chesapeake Bay. These were more than dwellings. They were public statements about wealth and community. Most Virginians lived at a much cruder level and a planter could easily dominate his lesser neighbors. Nonetheless, he and they had two things in common: growing the province's single staple crop and controlling the slave population. A great planter might be a member of the provincial House of Burgesses, a vestryman of the state-established Anglican Church, a militia colonel, and a judge of the county court. Such marks of distinction set him apart. So did his costume, the horse he rode, the carriage he maintained, his diet, the books he read, the distant people he wrote to and heard from, and the good wine that he drank. But in Virginia's emerging synthesis a planter was also bound to lesser whites. He represented them, prayed with them, commanded them, and judged them. He also entertained them at the annual barbecue, drank and gambled with them at the tavern, and raced his horses and pitted his gamecocks against theirs. Most of the adult males among his neighbors had the sixty acres of freehold land required to vote. If the planter had political ambitions he would stand to receive his fellows' votes at open-air elections, ceremoniously thanking each "gentleman freeholder" who voted for him. Eighteenth-century Virginia became a far more stratified place than New England. In no sense did it proclaim or value human equality. But it did create a social order that freed its white people from the squalor the founders had wrought.{ III }For enslaved Africans and their first African-American descendants, community and the conditions of survival came more slowly and with much greater difficulty. While the slave trade remained, southern planters continued to need young men, and the young men continued to arrive, work, and die. Women also began to come. Africans of both sexes survived the shock, the work, and the disease and the survivors began to form families. The first New England-born Puritan generation had enormous difficulties with its English-born parents because they did not share the parents' English experiences.25 We have no way of knowing how enslaved Africans and their African-American children dealt with one another, if the parents lived long enough to know their children as adults. But America was the only world the children knew. Their America was a harsh, demanding place, where families could be disrupted by sale, inheritance, or movement. If a wife and husband belonged to different masters the probability of disruption was even higher. Nonetheless, family and community life did take shape and a demography of life rather than of death began to emerge. By the middle of the eighteenth century Virginia's black population was increasing naturally, just as New Englanders and white Virginians were. The province no longer needed the slave trade and white Virginians could afford to feel moral qualms about it. The slave population began to grow of its own accord in South Carolina too, but whites there still wanted all the slaves they could buy.Slaves who worked alone for a poor farmer or artisan knew that the master shared their labors. But finding a wife or husband, teaching and protecting their children, or joining with others to celebrate or mourn could be difficult. It was not impossible. By the early eighteenth century New York City's black population was creating its own life in hidden places that whites could not see. It was from this that the attempted rebellions of 1712 and 1741 emerged. Where the number of slaves was larger, the master might not realize what he forced the slaves to endure and he might push them all the harder. But on the plantation a slave community was easier to form. The whites of Middlesex County, Virginia, knew about the "negro road" that wound through the woods on their farms and plantations. But they knew very little about what went on along it, and because they were the ones who kept the records it is difficult for modern observers to know much more.26Nonetheless, we can get glimpses. On the James River plantation called Carter's Grove careful archeological work sponsored by the ColonialWilliamsburg Foundation has re-created the slave quarter as it looked around the year 1770. The houses are made of wood and brick from the plantation itself, and they were built with tools and techniques that the slaves would have used. The slave village stands only a few hundred yards from the elegant brick great house. But it belongs to another world. Built around a central square, intensely communal and inward-looking, open through many cracks to the cold Chesapeake winter winds, the buildings that comprise the quarter are a tiny part of Africa washed up on the shores of the New World. Carter's Grove bespeaks the aspirations and achievements of its master. The quarter bespeaks the slaves' yearning, their memories, and their means of survival.The strongest African-American communities emerged in South Carolina, where physical conditions were most harsh. Though the death rate during the rice boom was appalling, the continuing arrival of the slave ships created a largely black world. During the summer malaria months every white left who could. In 1739 that world exploded in the uprising called the Stono Rebellion. Slaves who aimed to free themselves and escape to Spanish Florida slew some sixty whites before armed militia crushed them. Nonetheless, the enduring monument of that time is not the memory of rebellion. It is the beginning of Gullah culture, which still survives on the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands. The people of the low country and the islands developed a distinctive speech, part African and part English. They transferred folktales, foods, work patterns, marriage customs, and religious beliefs to this new world that they could not escape. They Americanized themselves while they Africanized America. Gullah culture shares much with what black majorities created elsewhere. British West Indies patois offers one example; so does the French-African creole of Louisiana. All are distinctively American .27Despite its fierce demands, rice culture lent itself to a regimen different from the gang labor of tobacco and sugar and later of cotton. South Carolina evolved a "task system" that gave slaves considerable control over their lives. They developed customs that even governed their relations with their masters. Nothing they could do would alter Carolina's environment of heat and disease or its economy of rice. The place where they found themselves remained hungry for new Africans long after Virginia had imported enough and closed its ports. Nonetheless, on the rice plantations the slaves opened a sizable zone of autonomy.28{ IV }By the mid-eighteenth century the Natives had lost the coastal woodlands. In the Chesapeake, the Carolina lowlands, southern New England, and the Hudson Valley, the tribes were virtually gone. Indians farther inland survived, but in ways that were drastically changed. When Europeans first came to the Carolina piedmont or the Mississippi hill country in the late seventeenth century to trade for deerskins, Indians set the terms on which they met. By the eighteenth century the balance of power and the formal ceremonies that signified it were shifting. Remnants of old villages were forming into tribes, such as the Carolina Catawbas. It was necessary; otherwise they would simply have disappeared. As Catawbas they became secure on their own land, thanks to a treaty with the provincial government. But less and less did they set the terms of a meeting. Less and less did their customs determine a meeting's etiquette. They had become totally dependent upon European goods and they protected themselves from whites by catching escaped slaves.29The Iroquois nations of the Mohawk Valley and the Lake Ontario plain fared better. They too traded in furs, but astute diplomacy and their reputation as a warrior people served them well. They created a "Covenant Chain" that bound them to the government of New York and that made them, in the English view, suzerains over lesser tribes like the Delawares and the remnants of the Susquehannas. Although the Iroquois established a special relationship with New York, they understood that their interest would best be served if they could play that province off against others, British and non-British alike. Dealing with Pennsylvania, they happily signed away land that actually belonged to other Indians. Among the Iroquois nations the easternmost Mohawks were most closely linked to the English. The Senecas, "keepers of the western gate," kept links open to the French. Both nations kept their own counsel during the imperial wars. Even if they did fight on different sides in the Europeans' wars, they remained Iroquois and maintained their league of peace with one another.After 1750 Iroquois dealt with the English most often at Johnson Hall, the frontier mansion of Britain's northern Indian superintendent, Colonel William Johnson. Johnson set out to make himself a lord in almost medieval style, staking out his estate on one people's turbulent border with another and peopling it with tenants whom he would treat well and who would be loyal to him. He meant his estate to be a quasi-feudal buffer between Iroquois and land-hungry whites. The British governmentagreed. It rewarded Johnson by making him a hereditary baronet, one step down from nobility. It gave his son a knighthood at the same time, even though Sir John would someday inherit his father's new title. In 1763 the British established a "proclamation line" down the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia. It was to set a western limit to white settlement. It was hopeless as a means of penning up the whites, but it represented an attempt to preserve the western Indians in their own ways.30Nonetheless, the Iroquois nations and the tribes farther west had large grievances. Their Tuscarora relatives had been driven out of North Carolina in 1714, settling in Iroquoia proper as a junior sixth member of the Confederacy. The Mohawks, "keepers of the eastern gate," remembered losing the 800,000-acre Kayaderosseras Patent. In 1753 the Mohawk council speaker whom whites knew as Hendrick declared his people's absolute independence to New York's governor, George Clinton:Brother when we came here to relate our Grievances about our lands, we expected to have something done {and} we have told you that the Covenant Chain of our Forefathers was like to be broken ... . [nothing had been done and] Brother we desire to hear no more of you.31The Mohawks did hear a great deal more of the whites. Even by the time Hendrick spoke, Virginia and Pennsylvania were encroaching on the upper Ohio Valley and challenging Iroquois dominion over Delawares, Mingoes, and Shawnees. The Iroquois image was still one of great power. But the Six Nations were surrounded and they knew it.32So too were all the Indians between the Atlantic and the Mississippi. Webs of war, diplomacy, sexuality, and commerce spread all over the eastern half of the continent by the mid-eighteenth century. French traders, soldiers, missionaries, settlers, and the mixed-race trappers called coureurs de bois mingled with Indians until France's historic withdrawal from North America in 1763. A world of agricultural and hunting villages covered what we call the Midwest, which the French knew as the pays d'en haut. For nearly two centuries, roughly from 1640 to 1815, the people of that world lived in balance, even if they were enemies. When Indians and whites first met they were mutually ignorant. Now the people of the pays d'en haut dwelt together, fully aware of one another and appreciative of each other's ways.33In what we now call Mississippi, the Choctaws worked out much the same strategy as the Iroquois. They had English, Spanish, and Frenchneighbors, and they used war, trade, and diplomacy to play their neighbors off against each other while the Europeans struggled for mastery of America. The English were to their east, in South Carolina and Georgia. The French were to their west, the whole length of the Mississippi. The Spanish were to their southeast along a line from St. Augustine to Pensacola. Like the Iroquois, the Choctaws controlled a vast land that whites thought was "howling wilderness." Like the Iroquois, they dominated lesser tribes. Unlike Indians farther north, they avoided direct involvement in the great Anglo-French wars. Nonetheless, when the French withdrew from the lower Mississippi Valley in 1763, the Choctaws' land then belonged to England, as far as European claims to sovereignty went. Another consequence was that the Choctaws' tactic for survival was reaching the end of its time.34The evidence is skimpy, but it seems that, like coastal whites and blacks, Indians west of the mountains were negotiating the transition from a demography of death to one of life. Their eighteenth-century populations were not high. The Cherokees apparently dropped from about 32,000 in 1675 to only 8,500 in 1775. Creek numbers bottomed out at 9,000 in 1700 and rose to 14,000 in 1775. By the time of American independence the Choctaws and Chickasaws were rebounding too, reaching roughly the same level, as were the Algonquians of the western Great Lakes, in a "village world" in which the boundaries of race had partially dissolved.35 Among the Muscogulge people of the Gulf coast "destruction" was giving way to "regeneration." In the Ohio country the Miami nation "fell dramatically in number" early in the eighteenth century, "their total warrior strength" dropping from about 1,500 in 1781 "to about 550 in 1736." By 1750, however, a combined community of Iroquois refugees, Shawnees, Wyandots, Delawares, and Miamis had 1,000 to 1,500 warriors available.36Whether we speak of Iroquois, Cherokees, Choctaws, Shawnees, or anybody else west of the mountains, we are talking about people who were coping with their new world. The West had become stable, as a zone where cultures met and traded and warred without absolute destruction. There was no moving "frontier" that marked an expanding culture off from a retreating one. Compared with Europeans and Africans the Indian numbers are small. But they suggest recovery from what had begun when the Indians, Europeans, and Africans first collided. The worst could have been over. But that was not to be.Copyright © 1996 by Edward Countryman


Excerpted from Americans by Edward Countryman Copyright © 1997 by Edward Countryman. Excerpted by permission.
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