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The Very Violent Road to America

Smithsonian American Art Museum
George Catlin: Back View of Mandan Village, Showing the Cemetery (detail), 1832

As historians and ethnohistorians have turned their attention to these peoples of the interior, like the Osages, the Comanches, and the Pueblo Indians—peoples who themselves were undergoing great transformations while living out their own histories—it is not surprising that Atlantic history has been finding a counterpoint in the developing field of continental history. This has not yet been subject to the kind of historiographical surveys that Atlantic history has generated, but it has produced some impressive works, like Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire, that are revolutionizing our knowledge and understanding of Native American history.10 Such books reinforce the current trend toward seeing Indians as actors rather than victims. They also show how apparently remote events occurring deep in the American interior impinged on and shaped the history of the developing colonial societies. As Paul W. Mapp has shown in an important new book, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713–1763, colonial history by the eighteenth century requires a perspective that spans the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.11

These many changes in our perception and understanding of the colonial past have confronted historians who aspire to write accessible surveys with a number of dilemmas. How do they find space for so much that is new without jettisoning too much of the old that is both valuable and important? How wide should be their geographical range, and whose pasts, among the many possible pasts, are they relating? One of the surveys that has most successfully faced up to these challenges is Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, first published in 2001.12 It has now been joined by Daniel Richter’s Before the Revolution.

Alan Taylor’s solution to these various problems was to move forward through time by dividing his book into three chronological sections, entitled “Encounters,” “Colonies,” and “Empires,” and then dividing them into regional subsections, such as “The Atlantic, 1700–80” and “The Great Plains, 1680–1800.” This made his survey widely inclusive, although at some cost to inner coherence. Daniel Richter, who is director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, adopts a different strategy. He, too, follows a chronological approach, but one that presents the history of North America as consisting of a succession of layers, superimposed one on another. Thus we start with “Progenitors,” covering in two chapters medieval North America and medieval Europe, and then move on to “Conquistadores,” both Roman Catholic and Protestant, and then to “Traders,” “Planters,” “Imperialists,” and finally to what he calls “Atlanteans,” by which he means the peoples of Britain’s Atlantic Empire or those within its orbit. He ends his book, as he begins it, on the eve of the Revolution, with the figure of Thomas Paine.

Paine is important to him because, as Richter points out, even as Paine talked about beginning the world over again, he remained well aware of the presence, and the weight, of the past. It is this presence of the past at each successive stage of the North American story that Richter seeks to demonstrate in his layered history. Inevitably there is something rather artificial about this layering device, as if conquistadores, traders, and planters can be separated into neat substrata, but it has the advantage of presenting the continuities in North American history, as against its ruptures. There is no better antidote to the tendency to see the Revolution as beginning the world again than to take the North American story back to the Indian settlements at Chaco Canyon (in present-day New Mexico) and Cahokia (in present-day Illinois), and show how their inhabitants, and their descendants, contributed to the shaping of the world that the Founding Fathers inherited and wanted to remake.

As is to be expected, Richter is particularly strong whenever he turns to Native Americans and their interaction with those of European descent. He has much less to say about Africans, perhaps feeling that in recent years they have had a substantial share of the limelight. Much of his book, however, is devoted to the telling, or the retelling, of the story of European, and primarily English settlement—of how the English grabbed the land, and ultimately contended successfully for the control of North America. To many readers, therefore, his story will have a familiar ring, although he tells it well, and with many touches of freshness.

He is good, for instance, at drawing on contemporary sources, like the House of Lords Journal for 1710. He uses this to show how contemporaries viewed the Glorious Revolution of 1688, before going on to suggest—not, I think, entirely convincingly—that imperialism looked much the same after as before it. He is also alive to the importance of environmental history, and at various points dwells on the impact on peoples on both sides of the Atlantic of the Little Ice Age that began in the 1300s and reached its peak in the seventeenth century.

Yet as they read his recapitulations of British history and colonial politics, or his excellent brief discussion of such bloody events as Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676, some of Richter’s readers will wonder how far, if at all, his new layered history differs from its predecessors. The history of English colonization consumes a considerable amount of space. So, too, does the development of British imperial policy and the domestic events that lay behind it. In many respects this is to be welcomed, and reflects another trend of the times—a rethinking of imperial history, with a particular emphasis on the struggle of the European powers for control of the continent.13 Francis Parkman, indeed, should have been living at this hour. Richter’s book does, however, raise the question of just whose past a survey of North American colonial history should embrace, and of the relative amount of space to be accorded to each of the many peoples who figure in its story.

Richter certainly gives Native Americans and the English their due. He also has a welcome comparative chapter, entitled “Dutch, French, Spanish, and English Counterpoints,” designed to illustrate what he calls “the oddity of the English model.” That the English settlements in North America differed in important ways from those of their European rivals is undoubted, although one of the great historical questions remains the extent to which English attitudes toward land, patriarchy, and religion, on all of which Richter places much emphasis, account for these national differences, as against the American environment into which respective European peoples moved, and the character of the Native American peoples with whom they came into contact. This is not, however, a question with which the author can be expected to grapple in a survey as compact and wide-ranging as this.

Yet if Richter often seems to be treading well-trodden ground, even though successfully including many features of the new Atlantic and continental history on the way, his story has an ending that is rather less familiar. There is no triumphant build-up here to a successful Revolution. The final chapter, ominously called “Gloomy and Dark Days,” covers the Seven Years’ War and its aftermath. The words chosen for the chapter title are those of Teedyuscung, a Delaware chief, both warrior and peacemaker, who was murdered in his sleep. Those words convey “the violence that ripped North America’s Atlantean peoples apart,” in Richter’s reading of the period, far better than that “antiseptic term” the Seven Years’ War. In his summation, “Native American traditions of property, land, trade, and power smashed against those of Europeans, in turn setting land-grabbing creole planters against imperial offi- cials. The final victim was the fragile unity of the Atlantean world.”

Ultimately, his history is a history of violence, of violence perpetrated by Europeans against Native Americans, by Native Americans against Europeans, and by both peoples against their own kith and kin. It is a dark and brutal story, although one in which the Native Americans are shown as for long holding their own, manipulating Europeans as trading partners and playing off one set of Europeans against another until the overwhelming British victory of 1763 no longer made this possible. There is precious little uplift here, and little sense of the more constructive characteristics of the brave new world that was rising amid the wreckage of the old. But, in patiently uncovering the layers beneath the rubble, Richter forcefully brings home to us that the American past belongs to many peoples, and that none should be forgotten.

  1. 10

    Yale University Press, 2008. 

  2. 11

    University of North Carolina Press, 2011. See my review in The London Review of Books (forthcoming). 

  3. 12


  4. 13

    As reflected, for instance, in the proliferating literature on the Seven Years’ War and its impact since the publication of Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766 (Knopf, 2000). 

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