America: ‘Into the Heart of Darkness’

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 the American Dream, however, are absent from The Barbarous Years, chronologically the first of Bailyn’s volumes. Here the years from 1600 to 1675 appear as an American nightmare of savagery, suffering, and squalor. European colonists, seeking to establish order, created

confusion, failure, violence, and the loss of civility as they sought to normalize abnormal situations and to recapture lost worlds, in the process tearing apart the normalities of the people whose world they had invaded.

What invaders and invaded alike lost becomes clear from comparing the opening and closing chapters of the book. “The Americans” surveys Indian societies east of the Appalachians on the eve of colonization in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Indigenous peoples were competing and warring among themselves with growing intensity as a consequence of contact with European fishermen and traders who arrived annually on the coast bearing both the manufactures Indians coveted and epidemic diseases that decimated their populations. Even so, the Indians’ eastern seaboard was not a bad place to live. Their world was “crowded” with spirits and significance; they had adapted well to their environment, and lived about as long and as comfortably as contemporary European farmers.

“The British Americans,” by contrast, describes native people around 1675 as living in a blighted world. Their populations had declined from wars with colonizing Europeans and epidemic diseases, their hold on the land had weakened, and their dependency on European trade goods had greatly increased.

The colonists, hardly triumphant, “lived conflicted lives.” Their provinces had coalesced into three regional societies but remained ill-led, violent, riven by ethnic and other divisions, and imperfectly adapted to their environments. Their half-formed vernacular cultures created little unity; their ties to the metropolitan authorities in England served less to create order than to remind them of their provincialism. Atlantic commerce promised greater economic and cultural integration with Europe, but they lived “in a still barbarous world, struggling to normalize their own way of life, no less civil, they hoped, than what had been known before.”

Thirteen intervening chapters describe the transformation of eastern North America in a grim three-phase narrative. Six chapters trace the founding and evolution of the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland. Three describe the creation of New Netherland, its absorption of New Sweden, and the English conquest that turned the region into New York. Four explain how the convergence of Puritan energies on New England produced the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Bailyn populates this story with vivid characters, whom he describes in brief, deft portraits. Here, for example, is his sketch of the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who arrived in Salem in 1630:

In outward manner he was cool, austere, constrained, unbending, proud, and remorselessly purposeful, but his interior self was passionate, fervent, and sensuous. Though unbending in his belief that it was proper for women’s roles to be restricted, his heart-wrenching, prayerful deathwatch over the demise of his second wife—an exultation of piety and love which he recorded almost hour by hour for two weeks—and his deeply affectionate letters to his third wife, Margaret, testify to the force and warmth of his private emotions, however discreet and sober he appeared in public. When he and Margaret were separated for extended times they pledged to commune with each other telepathically—“to meet…in spirit before the Lord”—each Monday and Friday between five and six.
Severely self-disciplined, he knew the truth and sought to engender it in a world mired in error and corruption. He had the vigor, intelligence, and passion for the achievement of a commander, a leader of men, but he was a leader with a rigorously logical mind capable of fine discriminations in theological debate and a sense of human frailty. His greatest virtues were the clarity of his vision, his resolution, and his managerial skills; his weakness was his single-mindedness, which made him seem at times self-righteous. But he was always a commanding figure, and he dominated the circle of able men who shared in the leadership of the Puritans’ Great Migration.

Bailyn also analyzes the critical episodes of the history of the period with rigor and specificity, creating a narrative that defies easy summary. Certain broad patterns, however, suggest why these decades were so violent and disordered.

Colonies were organized as businesses; whether their founders intended them to make money or to serve more idealistic ends, every colony was expected to make a profit. The organizers invested colonial governors with great formal powers. Once in place, however, governors found colonists remarkably uncooperative and profits hard to come by. With the exception of New England governors, who confronted different sources of disorder, they complained bitterly about colonists’ laziness and tried to coerce them into working. Colonists resisted; punishments escalated; soon measures of astonishing severity were being used to produce discipline.

This happened not because governors and magistrates were sadists but because they were weak. In England (and Western Europe generally) society’s leaders had a variety of means to enforce labor discipline short of corporal punishment. Where most employment was in agriculture and laborers were comparatively plentiful, the landholders who occupied the highest social levels (and whose families controlled the disciplining mechanisms of state and church) held every advantage: the threat of dismissal sufficed, in most cases, to produce submission. But that sanction had little power in North America, where land was plentiful and laborers were scarce. Ordinary colonists grasped the significance of this fact before their leaders did. When they balked at the backbreaking labor their masters required, colonial authorities turned to terror. The colonies’ parent companies meanwhile sought to recruit more colonists.

Offering free land to settlers who could procure workers on their own initiative increased the labor supply but created independent landholders who competed with companies for resources and authority over local affairs. The Dutch West India Company favored this solution in New Netherland, offering land and trading rights to colonists in proportion to the numbers of workers they could import. This attracted migrants from across northern Europe and around the Atlantic but created a population so mixed in ethnicity, religion, culture, and language as to be virtually ungovernable.

The tobacco colonies of Virginia and Maryland opted for bringing in indentured servants bound by multi-year labor contracts. This solution mobilized the energies of entrepreneurs who recruited workers throughout the British Isles and transported them to the colonies, where planters bought their contracts; it harnessed the power of courts to back up masters’ efforts to compel obedience. Over the long term, however, this approach aggravated the problem of authority. Because servants were generally young men, those who survived their indentures and became freemen found it difficult or impossible to find wives and form families. Social relations in the Chesapeake accordingly tended toward disorder and violence, and masters came in time to see freemen as an unruly, discontented, and threatening group.

Indians were an obvious labor pool, but refused to subordinate themselves as workers. They would trade with colonists, but only if colonial leaders were willing to enter into alliances on native terms and provide the kinds of goods that Indian leaders could use to advantage in dealing with other Indian groups. The Dutch traders at Fort Orange (Albany) understood this, and created the wide-open commercial community that became the engine of New Netherland’s economy.

From the late 1620s on, this trade tied the interests of the Dutch tightly to those of the Mohawks, and through them to the other peoples—the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas—who together comprised the Five Nations of the Iroquois. In New Amsterdam, the governors of the colony understood the centrality of trade to peaceful relations with the Indians less well; in the Chesapeake most colonists understood it not at all. When Indians on the lower Hudson refused to pay tribute or Indians in the Chesapeake declined to subordinate themselves to English rule, colonial authorities sought to compel their cooperation, with disastrous results.

In the wars that resulted colonists and Indians alike resorted to unrestrained terror. Every conflict produced massacres—but especially the Virginia wars of 1609–1614 and 1622–1632, and the war that Willem Kieft, the Dutch governor of New Netherland, fought against the native Lenape people between 1641 and 1645. Colonial troops, unable to come to grips with Indian warriors, attacked native villages and destroyed food supplies; Indian warriors responded in kind. Bounties made scalps and heads commodities in a grisly intercultural commerce. Raids and retaliations, uniform only in their horror, continued until exhaustion brought cessations of fighting, if not peace.

American Antiquarian Society
The Puritan leader John Winthrop

When wars drove the Virginia Company to collapse and the Dutch West India Company to radical reorganization, emergent colonial leaders—men whose ruthlessness and local knowledge enabled them not just to survive but prosper in this Hobbesian world—began to create, at ground level, a rough-hewn stability. As a result, thirty or forty years after the founding of the Chesapeake colonies—in the 1640s for Virginia and the later 1650s for Maryland—gentry families in England began to see the region as a suitable place for younger sons to be established, and fortunes made. As families like the Byrds and Carters in Virginia and the Neales and Carrolls in Maryland forged alliances with the hardened survivors of earlier colonization efforts, the Chesapeake planter elite took form.

In the late 1650s, also about three decades after the colony’s founding, New Netherland began to develop its own elite—a “tightly interrelated phalanx of mainly Dutch merchants in charge of the colony’s trade and politics.” When colonial governors cooperated with these leading families, stability emerged. Petrus Stuyvesant accomplished this, despite the resurgence of Indian war on the lower Hudson in 1655, a conflict that had barely concluded by 1664, when an English naval squadron seized his colony and put him out of a job.

In Virginia, Governor William Berkeley created a partnership with the colony’s new planter elite that lasted even longer—without, however, resolving underlying problems of labor supply, labor discipline, and access to land. In 1675 those tensions overflowed in Bacon’s Rebellion, the witches’ brew of Indian war and civil insurrection that swamped Berkeley’s governorship the following year. Thereafter Virginia’s great planters, understanding indentured servants and freemen as a threat to their control, resorted to African slavery. By 1700 that most barbarous of all forms of labor recruitment and discipline had become the durable foundation of the power of the planter class.

In the Chesapeake and New Netherland alike, then, the painfully slow convergence of interest between governors and emergent elites, adapted to American conditions, produced stability around midcentury, in the aftermath of wars with native peoples. In New England, where governmental and social leadership were more nearly congruent from the start, the pattern of development differed. That did not mean the region escaped conflicts with native people; indeed New Englanders fought Indians “with results that could properly be called apocalyptic” in the Pequot War of 1637–1638, in which the combined militias of Massachusetts and Connecticut, with about one hundred Narragansett allies, pursued hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children to a fort in Mystic, Connecticut. The English then “set the brush huts and timbered walls afire and stationed men at the exits to kill anyone who attempted to escape.” Captain John Mason, the commander of the Connecticut militia, estimated that forty of the Pequots “perished by the Sword” and “six or seven hundred” in the flames.

That conflict’s intensity and brevity, however, demonstrate New England’s distinctive lack of problems arising from divided authority. Just seven years after its founding, Massachusetts was able to respond to the Pequot challenge with a force and singleness of purpose that neither of the other regions could have mustered after forty years of settlement. The disorders from which Massachusetts suffered derived not from poor leadership but rather from the diverse religious convictions and varied regional origins of its colonists. A settlement system based on the identity between towns and churches, however, allowed disputes to be resolved by creating new towns into which antagonists could separate. Truly dangerous dissenters like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished from the colony. By the 1670s the withdrawal or exile of dissenters had brought an end to the Bay Colony’s fears of religious disorder. Even Quakers worshiped in Boston in 1674.

By then Massachusetts’s leaders were less concerned about the ill effects of religious zeal than religious indifference. Boston and Salem merchants had built a thriving commercial economy by disregarding just-price concepts and pursuing their self-interest; farmers were scrambling after land with as little restraint as merchants seeking profits. In the jeremiads of the 1670s, Increase Mather and other divines warned that God would not long refrain from chastising New England for such fallings away from the founders’ principles.

But the farmers’ behavior, in fact, reflected not so much a decline in piety as their ingenuity in solving the persistent problems of labor scarcity and discipline. Lacking a profitable crop to sell beyond the Atlantic, New England farmers could not afford indentured servants or slaves, and so relied for labor on their own abundant supply of children. Parental control over property enforced work discipline: fathers decided when to bestow the land and movable goods that sons and daughters needed to marry and establish farms of their own. That time typically arrived when sons reached their mid-twenties and daughters were slightly younger. Grown children who chafed at lives as unpaid laborers in their parents’ households had few alternatives to continued patience.5

A second strategy for conserving scarce labor—livestock farming—accelerated the expansion of settlement even beyond what would have been required to accommodate a human population that doubled with each passing generation. Booming cattle and swine populations demanded pasture and forage, displacing the game animals that Indians hunted; strays wreaked havoc on Indian cornfields. If Indians remained willing to sell land and colonists paid for the damage their livestock inflicted on Indian crops, colonists and natives could live in peace. When Indians adopted livestock rearing and began refusing to sell lands, however, the system collapsed.

Conflicts between Wampanoag Indians and Plymouth colonists over animals and land erupted in King Philip’s War in June 1675 (named after the Wampanoag leader, Metacom, whom the English called King Philip). It was the most destructive war, by far, to afflict seventeenth-century North America. By the war’s end, over six hundred colonists (including one tenth of men available for military service) and three thousand Native Americans had died; only the nearly simultaneous Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia compared to it in suffering and loss.6

Bailyn ends The Barbarous Years before these wars began. Yet because their story brings the three regional narratives together in a single concluding episode, it may be worth considering the implications of those conflicts—and particularly the central role the Iroquois played in concluding them.

New York’s Governor Edmund Andros appealed to the Iroquois League in August 1675 to intervene in both New England and the Chesapeake. The chiefs of the League, hoping to establish an advantageous alliance with New York, agreed. The Mohawks accordingly denied Metacom access to gunpowder, then attacked his winter camp in early 1676, scattering the Wampanoags and exposing them to pursuit and destruction by New England soldiers and their native allies. Meanwhile, Iroquois diplomats visited the Chesapeake to invite the Susquehannocks to move to New York and live under Andros’s and the league’s protection. When the bulk of Susquehannocks did indeed join the Onondaga and Seneca nations, no native power remained to prevent land-hungry Virginians from occupying the Northern Neck, the land between the Rappahannock and the Potomac rivers.

Iroquois actions crucially affected the outcome of both wars. Most of all, however, the alliance that Governor Andros and the Onondaga leader Daniel Garacontié established—the Covenant Chain, a series of treaties between the Iroquois Confederacy, the British colonies, and other Indian tribes—opened a new era in colonial history. Thereafter the Chesapeake experienced eighty years of peace, New York became the focus of English Indian policy, and New England became absorbed in a prolonged, inconclusive confrontation with New France and its Abenaki allies. British North America achieved the stability it had previously lacked.

While its dramatic unity might have made this episode a satisfying end for The Barbarous Years, to use it Bailyn would have had to reconstruct a narrative in which Indians are principally objects of attack in what he calls a “racial conflict…that one can conceive of [as] a single, continuous Euro-Indian war…that lasted from 1607 to 1664 and beyond, to reach its climax in the ferocious upheavals, north and south, in the 1670s.” This formulation effaces differences between Indian groups that competed with one another, often violently, in pursuit of advantage or survival. Native leaders, acting independently, offered their services as allies to colonial governments even when colonies were engaged in egregious acts of aggression against native groups.

During Kieft’s War, for example, Mohawks acting as Dutch allies attacked lower Hudson Valley Indians and later imposed peace upon them. They did so both to exact a gift of four hundred muskets from Kieft, which made Mohawk warriors the most heavily armed force in native America, and because they wanted to take captives for adoption into villages depleted by epidemic disease. This marked the beginning of the Beaver Wars, a generation-long campaign of raids in which Iroquois warriors, seeking captives to replace the Five Nations’ population losses, displaced or destroyed native communities from Maritime Canada west to the Mississippi Valley, and from the subarctic Canadian Shield south to the Ohio Valley. In consequence, Dutch New Netherland prospered on the tens of thousands of plundered beaver pelts brought to Fort Orange annually to be exchanged for arms, ammunition, and other supplies.

Indians created alliances before 1675 with individual colonies, and even with individual traders. These intensified the destructiveness of Indian–Indian wars of which colonists knew little and cared less. Andros understood, however, that an exclusive partnership between a single English authority (representing the empire, not one of its colonies) and the Iroquois League (speaking on behalf of various Indian groups) might stabilize the chaotic world of eastern North America. Iroquois diplomats who understood the strategic needs of other groups could negotiate with them with the greatest prospect of success, as the relocation of the Susquehannocks had shown. If diplomacy failed, Iroquois warriors could fight Indian enemies most effectively, as had been the case with the Wampanoags. To endure, however, the Anglo-Iroquois alliance had to presume equality between its partners, as alliances between European crowns did.

When Governor Andros and Daniel Garacontié created the Covenant Chain in 1676, the trajectory of eastern North American development began to shift. The stability of coming decades would be founded in part on the colonists’ ever-deepening commitment to slavery; by their provincial embrace of a British political ideology that glorified liberty; by the emergence of a trans-atlantic market in land and labor; and by the integration of North America into Western European migration patterns. Above all, the establishment of an American balance of power in which native people played a central role would foster stability until Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) destroyed that balance and ushered in the next phase of American history.

Historians’ decisions about where to begin and end impart shape, meaning, and significance to their narratives; they enable readers to make connections to other, larger stories, or invite readers to reconsider old assumptions. But like a weaver mounting the warp on a loom, a historian must make choices in beginning a work that can make later alterations difficult or impossible. Bailyn’s design for The Barbarous Years reflected the state of historical writing in the early 1980s, and particularly the need to recognize the influence of demography and migration on early American history. Fully a decade later historians began to understand that new works by Daniel K. Richter, James H. Merrell, Richard White, and other ethnohistorians would require them to reassess Indians as historical agents. Syntheses incorporating those studies began to appear around the turn of the century. Now, a decade later, those syntheses and a rising tide of specialized studies are influencing the formulation of larger interpretive schemes.

Bailyn’s project was well advanced before these studies and syntheses emerged, its arguments formulated without reference to Indian politics, the impact of warfare between Indians, the role of mediators in intercultural diplomacy, the impact of domestic animals on Indian life, and so on. All these would have had to be incorporated into the fabric of his narrative to make clear that native people shaped the world in which the seventeenth-century colonists lived fully as much as colonists reshaped the world of the Indians.

That his treatment of native peoples and their influence is less full than it might have been had he undertaken the conception and writing of this book at some later moment in time, therefore, invites the reader to consider what this book says not just about the nightmare of seventeenth-century colonization but about the carrying capacity of historical narrative. Judged as a statement of the current state of its scholarly field, The Barbarous Years is incomplete. As a study of the brutal realities of seventeenth-century colonization and a story about the tragic origins of American civilization, however, it fully conveys the “insight into both the ways of men and the processes of time” that Herbert Butterfield so highly valued. It is a book to ponder, and to keep.

  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.” 

  5. 5

    Bailyn’s narrative assumes rather than describes this system; for a detailed account of its operation see Daniel F. Vickers, Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850 (University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1994). 

  6. 6

    On the complex impact of livestock on the seventeenth-century New England and Chesapeake colonies, their environment, and the relations between native and colonizing populations, see Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (Oxford University Press, 2004). Bailyn notes the impact of domestic animals on intercultural relations and population dispersal (e.g., pp. 217–218 and 352) but does not integrate the theme into his narrative. The death toll cited in the text (six hundred colonists and three thousand natives killed) reflects the soberest of contemporary estimates; it was made by a royal official, Edmund Randolph, dispatched in the aftermath of the war to make an official report to the Privy Council. Other estimates ranged considerably higher. See James D. Drake, King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675–1676 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), p. 168 and passim