America: ‘Into the Heart of Darkness’

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Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
An engraving of the 1622 Virginia Massacre, in which some 330 English colonists were killed by Powhatan Indians in a few hours. Bernard Bailyn writes that the engraving, by the German Matthaeus Merian, ‘is a work of the imagination, but it…conveys accurately [the Virginia Company secretary Edward] Waterhouse’s sense of the wild frenzy of the attack and the settlers’ complete surprise.’

A half-century ago the historian Herbert Butterfield usefully distinguished between “studies” and “stories” as ways of writing about the past. Studies were exercises in analytical scholarship: they presented evidence in the form of arguments that answered carefully defined questions, and were typically static. Stories showed past worlds in motion, as places in which the reader “can never quite guess…what is going to happen next.” Butterfield argued that historical writing, at best, would be

both structure and narrative combined. This has been achieved on occasion by scholars and writers; and here, where history is both a story and a study, one may gain a profounder insight into both the ways of men and the processes of time.1

Bernard Bailyn, Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, makes a nod to Butterfield in presenting The Barbarous Years as a series of “studies within stories,” analyses of episodes woven into a complex narrative of the seventeenth-century founding and evolution of England’s North American colonies. Taken together, they are scenes from a journey into the heart of darkness.

It seems unlikely that Bailyn anticipated how dark this story would be in 1975, when he embarked on “a large-scale project” to investigate and “describe as a single story the recruitment, settlement patterns, and developing character of the American population in the preindustrial era,” with special attention to the migrations that brought European and African colonists to North America.2 The first two installments appeared in 1986. The Peopling of British North America described four major “propositions”—concerning migration, settlement, labor recruitment and land speculation, and culture—that would be central to a multivolume narrative.

Voyagers to the West was the first of those volumes, although chronologically it fell at the end of the projected series.3 In detailed quantitative analysis and vivid short narratives it described the experiences of several thousand British subjects who moved to North America between December 1773 and March 1776. Most of these emigrants built new lives there, in

a risky world where one lived not [as in Europe] in a dense and elaborately nuanced human environment that nourished and civilized but also limited one’s activities, but in a loose, still-forming society where it was possible to proceed alone, free of encrusted burdens and ancient obligations, and to become, like the emigrant Yorkshireman Luke Harrison, “independant.”4

Those concluding words connect Voyagers to a familiar immigration narrative, in which the struggles and adaptations of ordinary people contribute to shaping a relatively open society and an individualistic culture in the United States, creating a new identity for themselves and their descendants. Anticipations of …

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  1. 1

    Herbert Butterfield, George III and the Historians (Macmillan, 1959), pp. 204–205. 

  2. 2

    In the preface to The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (Knopf, 1986), Bailyn noted that the volume’s three essays had originated “in a single paper, written in 1978 to organize my thoughts after three years of work.” 

  3. 3

    Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (Knopf, 1986). 

  4. 4

    Luke Harrison, the eldest son of an emigrant family from Rillington in the East Riding of Yorkshire, moved to Nova Scotia in 1774 at about age twenty. Initially he hated the Chignecto region, where he worked on his father’s rented farm; in a letter to a cousin back home he wrote of his longing to return to Yorkshire. Thirty years later, as the head of a family of ten and owner of a big farm in the Maccan Valley, he wrote to that same cousin that he preferred remaining in Nova Scotia “ten to one” over returning to Rillington. That, he said, he would never do unless “I could live in it independant.”