Week One Reading

The introduction put some of my worries to rest, since many historical resources from previous classes I have taken have bordered on ethnocentrism. Taylor notes that the text will explore perspectives that have often gone unacknowledged in mainstream historical narratives such as those of women (“inconsequential helpmates,”) Natives (“unchanging objects of colonists’ fears and aggressions,”) and African slaves (“unfortunate aberrations in a fundamentally upbeat story”) (x). By acknowledging the faults in historiography in the earlier part of the twentieth century, Taylor shows that he will be offering a more inclusive and complete narrative of the story of colonial America.

I found chapter 1 to offer a wealth of information regarding Natives that was never presented to me in previous history courses. A notable fact that the reading shed light upon was the disparity between myth (that Native Americans were passionate conservationists) and reality (that their motives for minimizing ecological destruction came from animism) (19).

The topic of development also opened my eyes to the real reason behind the natives’ lack of mechanistic development. I had never thought to attribute the lack of societal development as seen in the “Old World” to animism. While I never subscribed to the idea that they were a “primitive people,” I was not aware that it was animism that “discouraged the sort of mechanistic development practiced by Europeans” (19-20). From the reading I came to see the Native Americans’ lack of technological development as a sign of restraint rather than one of inferiority. If they had desired to develop in ways the Old World did, they surely would have had the intellectual capacity to do so. Unfortunately, colonists chose to see the difference in technological development as an indicator of inferiority as opposed to one simply due to a stark difference of cultures.

American Colonies: “Introduction” & “Natives”

I appreciated the balanced historical approach laid out in Taylor’s introduction. While noting the over-simplification of the conventional histories, he suggests in his introduction that a “comparative perspective” including the Natives, Africans, and non-British colonialists better explains the dynamic cultures and events of the American colonies (xv). Even so, he does not neglect the British colonialists. Rather, he notes their significance and frames their history within a greater geographical and cultural context. America, after all, was not confined to the Atlantic coast. Nor were its customs restricted to those of the British. Such an approach, I think, appropriately treats the British colonies while justly advocating for those often overlooked.

In his account of the Native Americans, I was particularly struck by Taylor’s incorporation of American environmental history. He lists environmental history in the introduction as a “line. . . of scholarship” American Colonies employs, but I didn’t think that he would weave both the cultural and environmental history together so seamlessly (xiv). Presented together, the two—the Native Americans and the American landscape –seem inseparable. As when drought forced the Anasazi and the Hohokam to relocate or extinction led the Peleo-Indians to invent the atlatyl, the Natives’ dynamic history resulted from the responses of the environment. Considering the active role the land played in the Natives’ history, I wonder to what extent their past experiences shaped their religious beliefs and vice-versa.

Reading Taylor, I was surprised by his style. His prose reads smoothly, and though he structures the chapter like a narrative, he still seamlessly incorporates facts and figures without much digression. Although I enjoyed the lucidity of his narrative style, I wish he had listed further explanations or evidence for certain claims—perhaps via footnote. Granted, Taylor admitted that his claims were “highly speculative” and the evidence “fragmentary and limited,” but further explanation about the speculation of, or evidence for, certain claims would have been helpful (4). Nevertheless, Taylor presented what I believe to be a prudent historical approach and an informative narrative history. I look forward to reading his interpretation of the early European colonies.

Taylor, Chapter 1: A Diversity-Continuity Contradiction

Sherwood Callaway

HIS 141, Blog Post 1

In his introduction, Taylor describes colonial America as a melting pot of diversity, in which the three distinct cultures – European, Indian and African – each with its own subdivisions, were thrust together in a manner of unprecedented speed and force. Driven by “profit-seeking and soul-seeking,” the Europeans facilitated this gathering with their comparatively advanced navigational abilities, shipping entrepreneurial colonists and African laborers alike. British America emerged as the dominant cultural entity in the so-called New World, imposing itself upon Indian and African cohabitants. These less powerful cultures were certainly not less prominent, however; they held equal influence in the cultural mix. Taylor writes profoundly of colonial society, saying “in such exchanges and composites, we find the true measure of American distinctiveness, the true foundation for the diverse American of our time.” That particular statement struck me as Americentric (if that is even a word), and I was surprised to hear such a thing from Taylor, who makes such a point of debunking the “traditional story of American uplift” that is associated with the colonies.

Additionally, in chapter one, Taylor seems to contradict his description of colonial America – which I previously summarized in brief – by suggesting cultural continuity between pre-Columbian Indians and Europeans. Their violent tendencies, for one:

“the chiefdoms conducted chronic warfare. Burials reveal skeletons scarred with battle wounds; many towns were fortified with wooden palisades, and their art often celebrated warriors displaying the skulls, scalps, and corpses of their victims. Of course, none of this rendered them more warlike than their contemporaries elsewhere in the world; European graves, cities, and art of the same period (“the Middle Ages”) also displayed the prominence of war and the honors bestowed upon victors.”

Their metropolitan and technological advancements, for another: The Hohokam used a massive and complex system of irrigation canals for farming, which “demanded extensive, coordinated labor to build and maintain.” And near the Mississippi River, the Mound Builder city of Cahokia once sprawled – the notable home of an impressive calendrical device and the largest earthen pyramid in North America. Taylor seems to legitimize Indian civilization in the face of Eurocentrism by describing in detail these accomplishments.

In summary, Taylor seemed to contradict himself by first championing the diversity of colonial America, but then spending the entire first chapter writing an indigenous history in the way we usually write European history.