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America: ‘Into the Heart of Darkness’

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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.

  1. 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). 

  2. 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

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