A barbarous time
Bernard Bailyn, professor of history emeritus at Harvard, has written several times about various aspects of early American history. One such work was a sympathetic biography of Thomas Hutchinson, the last colonial governor of Massachusetts who over the years has received bad press from people favoring Samuel Adams and writing about the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.
Bailyn’s latest work, issued last year, is about the peopling of British North America, 1600 to 1675. The book’s title is “The Barbarous Years,” and those years were barbarous in more ways than one — not only settlers against Indians but settlers against settlers.
The account is not exactly chronological. It covers each of the different regions in a separate chronological order. First there is the settlement of Virginia. Then comes the settlement in Maryland, where the Catholic proprietors were often at odds with Protestant settlers. Next are the Swedish and Dutch settlements in the region of what’s now Delaware and New York, and then the Pilgrims at Plymouth and finally the other Puritans in the Boston region.
The methods used in settlement varied from section to section. Virginia promoters had to advertise several times with glowing descriptions of what was in store, bringing new settlers who were often disappointed. The Puritans came initially in a single fleet, to escape religious oppression at home, and if they found disappointment it was not because they were spiritually unprepared for such things.
The first 31 pages of the book are given over to an extensive description of Indian life in the area in question, and those pages alone should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand the nature of pre-European Indian attitudes.
In the first place, ownership of land was communal. Families farmed on family plots, or hunted as families, but the garden plots and hunting areas were the tribe’s. So an individual did not have a stretch of land that was private property. The author says a real estate dealership would have been unimaginable.
So when a tribe north of Manhattan “sold” some land to the Dutch, it did so believing it was merely giving the Dutch the right to have access to the communal property in question. The Indians couldn’t understand “no trespassing” signs if they went up.
This way of thought was not limited to Indians on the East Coast. My parents knew a family whose forbears had settled on land west of Chicago. The farmhouse was built in the 1870s. Less than a dozen years later the family was at dinner when some Indians came in the front door and exited out the back door. It turned out the house had been built on a trail used for decades by tribes in the area on the way to a river, and they were not about to let an unwanted obstruction get in their way.
One of the things I learned from Bailyn’s book is that “Pocahontas” was not the given name of the girl who rescued John Smith. That was a nickname given to her when she was young. Her given name was “Amonute.”
The affairs of her father, Chief Powhatan, in trying to extend and consolidate his tribe’s authority, are given considerable detail, because that condition had an effect on how the Indians reacted to the English arrival in Jamestown, and how the English reacted to the Indians.
Just as they were arriving, the tribal habits of centuries were being changed by the advent of the fur trade. But the author says the living conditions of most tribes were far better than what could be found in many European cities.
Curiously enough, given today’s comment on whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear certain headgear in public, the author describes how Roger Williams, before he was ejected from Massachusetts, insisted when he was in Salem that women should wear veils in public. He had several ideas at variance with what was accepted at the time, though he is praised today for coming to the belief that people should be free to worship as they see fit.
That was certainly not the case in Massachusetts at the time. Quakers, when they were caught, were whipped and ejected from the colony. If they returned, they were branded.
The author has a favorable word for Peter Stuyvesant as the most effective governor of New Netherlands. I had forgotten that though the English took over the colony in the 1660s, they lost it to the Dutch in a later naval war, and didn’t get it back until after the end of that war. The contrast between Dutch landowners and English administrators is extensively documented.
The Pequod tribe of Indians in what is now Connecticut was active, pagan and warlike, leading the Puritans to treat them as underlings of the devil. So they had no compunction about eliminating them in what amounted to a series of massacres.
The slave trade was profitable for New England shipping companies, and slaves were much better than indentured white servants, in the minds of the Virginia tobacco planters, so that institution got an early start.
This is not always a pleasant book to read, but it should be absorbed if one wants to understand the reality of early European arrivals.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Rutland Herald.