English Settlements in North America

Throughout Chapters 6 & 8, Taylor focuses on the English settlements in North America. He notes that the English crown followed the French and Spanish example of subcontracting to individual companies. The most prominent group (at least in the beginning) to undergo the exploration were a group of gentlemen known as the “West Country men,” who had previously led the English conquest of Ireland. In addition to discussing the English desire to settle in the New World, Taylor explores the domestic problems that plagued England at the time. Affected by rural displacement, increasing poverty, and mounting crime, the English citizenry were even more inclined to venture out to a new colony in Virginia. In order to overcome the citizens’ fear of dealing with natives to the land, the West Country promoters “insisted that the Indians of Virginia would welcome the English as their liberators” (122). After a failed settlement at Roanoke that started in 1585, the English colonizers found an easier time in Chesapeake Bay in 1607 thanks to the “better harbors, navigable rivers, and a more fertile land” (125). However, the settlers still (understandably-so) faced opposition from the native Powhatan Indians—named for their chief by the same name—and the tension only escalated with the settlement of Jamestown. Compounded by the fact the settlers were deceived to believe that the Indians would graciously welcome their presence, the Englishmen grew frustrated. After several raids on one another, Powhatan eventually died off (presumably from natural causes, though the book does not make this explicit) and was promptly replaced by his brother Opechancanough. Following several more attacks back and forth, the English eventually captured Opechancanough, upon which “an angry soldier shot [him] dead” (135). Moreover, “disease and war reduced the Virginia Algonquians” significantly in this time period, while the emigration from England skyrocketed (136). Although the Virginia Company found a new lucrative crop in Tobacco, it was not immediately profitable enough to prevent the impatient Crown from terminating the charter and seizing control for itself, which marks “the first royal colony in the new English empire” (136). With this newfound opportunity, the Crown instrumented the “founding” of Maryland—led by Lord Baltimore—and oversaw the settlement of a successful colony.

At least in my opinion, the most interesting story comes in Chapter 8, in which Taylor explores the Puritans’ struggle in England and subsequent settlement in New England. As noted in the post entitled “Instability of Trade, Economy, and Structure,” the possibility of newfound wealth in the New World was the main incentive for Europeans to leave their homes. In light of that post, the Puritans seem to make the first departure from this norm. The Puritans were equally motivated by religious reasons. Indeed, Taylor explains that the English Crown instituted the Church of England, which required all citizens to follow the same religion. He notes that “faced with the growing power of the king and his bishops, some despairing Puritans considered emigrating across the Atlantic to a New England.” While he warns us that “it is anachronistic for us to separate” the Purtians’ economic and religious incentives, Taylor does highlight that “purely economic motives, however, would have dispatched few people to cold, distant, and rocky New England” (167). This emphasis on a weak economic incentive underscores the religious motive that influenced the Puritans to leave England. In the “Great Migration” in the 1630s, the Massachusetts Bay Company—headed by the Puritan elites—colonized New England. The migration did, however, suffer from its own shortcomings, such as a lack of willing Puritan settlers. Founded on Puritan values, New England was not the wealthiest colony, but appeared to be the “healthiest, the most populous, and the most egalitarian in the distribution of property” (170). Within a few years, New England became both a commerce hub and a shipbuilding center in the empire. However, the Purtians’ success did not last long and their influence declined in New England. In addition to their strict membership policies, the Puritans also saw public opposition to their religious stronghold on the colony. Faced with “witches” and other public dissenters, Puritan New England soon declined. Additionally, Taylor argues that the Restoration “terminated and discredited the short lived revolutionary regime led by English Puritans” (185). Nonetheless, Taylor credits the Puritans for instilling their values into American culture, which he claims persist today.

I find it odd that Taylor puts so much emphasis on external threats to the English settlements in Chesapeake Bay and Jamestown (i.e. Indian resistance) and then focuses on the internal problems within Puritan New England. It seems that we lack sufficient knowledge regarding the internal difficulties of Jamestown and we are never exposed to the Puritan interactions with the natives. Taylor, however, still provides quality insight into the English domestic problems. Not to jump too far ahead, but Taylor does foreshadows the revolutionary war—by around 150 years—when he confronts the internal problems within England, both in economic and religious terms. He additionally discusses the Crown’s growing frustration with Puritan New England, which reminds us of what will be similar issues between the colonies and the King. This invaluable knowledge will help us eventually contextualize the plight of a disgruntled group of men who are subjected to English abuse—an association of men who will become known as our Founding Fathers.

English Colonization in the New World

Chapters 6 and 8 of Taylor’s American Colonies describe the English journey to colonization. Taylor highlights that the situation in England during the time of exploration was unstable and that the leaders were eager to share in, but not directly fund, the exploration and exploitation of the New World. The English settled in a very different land with resources that were not as readily accessible as those from the areas of Spanish conquest. Many questions arose as to how the colonies could not only survive, but also generate the cash flows like those that Spain and France were receiving. The English answers to these questions involved different commodities and styles of living.

Despite early failures, the English developed successful colonies that grew to have different economic and social drivers, especially considering commerce and the treatment of native peoples. As one of my classmates mentioned in his post “The Instability of Trade, Economy, and Structure,” the Spanish used religion as a front for plunder and the enslavement of both the land and the people.  However, Taylor leads the reader to conclude that the English approached the problem of native people differently. The people of Jamestown did not initially wish to enslave, but rather assimilate natives and “transform the Indians into lower-sort English men and women” (Taylor, pg. 128). Statements from colonial supporter Sir William Herbert explain that this was to keep the colonists from escaping to the apparently less strenuous life of the Indians. I find this motivation curious due to the fact that Jamestown suffered greatly because the colonists themselves refused to undertake the labor of producing corn, which led to food shortages. Conflicts with the native people arose when the English expected to be provided for, leading to bloodshed that was less for the direct seizure of wealth and more for means of survival. Through this sporadic violence, the colonists began to cultivate tobacco, and production exponentially increased. The English of Chesapeake discovered a sustainable agricultural method of benefiting from colonization, but only after forsaking positive native relations and many lives.

The other branch of English colonization arose from the Puritan settlement of New England. This is the first group of colonists presented to the reader as middle-class Englishmen searching for subsistence rather than wealth. They lived in a strict society that revolved around small-level farming. Many of their conflicts were not over wealth, but rather aspects of life with religious implications. In this society men and women were more equal, and men were more equal to each other. Shipbuilding and fishing entered into their society in the mid and late 1600s, and with them came both societal disruption and sustainable commerce.

Both varieties of English settlers found success in American colonies through different means than either the French or Spanish. They had great differences from each other, and both found unique niches in the colonial economy through agriculture and trade (though New England’s trade was initially more local).Their colonization produced systems that could support themselves and become sustainable, independent economies.

inability to have peaceful relations

As brought up in the previous blog post, the main reason for expansion into the new world was for economic gains. In both main areas of conquest talked about in the reading there was a struggle to keep relations favorable. The Spanish took the approach of brutal force and torture to get the desirable trade, which obviously cannot allow for peaceful transactions. The economic gains of the Spanish created a desire for the rest of Europe to try and gain riches from the Americas. They however were able to do this through the piracy of Spanish ships, which created dissension in Europe. In Canada, the French may have initially been peaceful, but their trade only further hurt relations amongst native Americans. The draw of economic gains made all parties fight to get the most favorable goods, which meant there could be no peaceful relations.

The Spanish conquistadors conquered native Americans relentlessly. It is obvious that they did not care for peaceful relations and only wanted to maximize their own profit. They even destroyed Tenochtitlan, a city the conquistador Hernan Cortes admitted had no comparable Spanish counterpart, “In Spain there is nothing to compare with it.”(53) What could have been a great acquisition was destroyed so that Cortes could get his loot as quickly as possible. Fear spread through the tribes and destroyed Spain’s chance at prolonged trade. The lack of stability required that Spain import slaves for the fallen native Americans.

The French at least were able to begin with peaceful trade among the native tribes in the north. The French did not have to means to conquer and destroy as the Spanish had, and so were at the mercy of the natives trading terms. This peaceful transaction was good for both parties, until other native tribes learned of the items to be gained by trading with the french, and later other European traders desire to trade with the northern natives. The competition for furs led to an exhaustion of animals to hunt, forcing the tribes to hunt elsewhere, usually in rival tribe lands. This led to conflicts between tribes. Other European nations saw the wealth to be had in the North and began to compete with the French. This competition in some cases meant giving guns and other weapons to the tribes to be used as they pleased. All this fighting and hostility was caused by the desire for wealth. The way that the different nations went about fulfilling their desires led to many problems and a complete lack of peaceful interaction.

The new world was full of potential for trade and prosperity for all parties, but the greed of the parties led to unequal trading, infighting, and fighting amongst economic rivals. All parties at one point manipulated another and this lead to hostility.  The Spanish killed and instilled fear, the French tried to rip off the native people whenever they could, other European nations tried to steal goods and trade routes, and the native Americans fought to get the best items for their goods. The riches to be had caused too much greed and this ultimately destroyed any chances for peaceful interaction.

Instability of Trade, Economy, and Structure

In Chapters 3 & 5 of American Colonies, Taylor focuses on New Spain and Canadian post-initial contact interactions with the native tribes and mainly focuses on the trading and economic relationships. Especially with the Spanish Empire, Taylor argues that violence and domination of the native cultures was largely the result of economic incentives by privately investing Spaniards financing conquistadors. The Spanish middle class was faced with a stagnant social and economic situation on the Iberian Peninsula,  and therefore found the greatest opportunity for social mobility and economic gain was the new world. Taylor notes the most noticeable change of economic status happened with successful conquistadors. Veiled by religion, the conquistadors were simply out for economic gains.

However, Taylor notes that these immediate and violent conquests were often unsustainable. This would be the point where in order to maintain a sense of credible, long term, and sustainable economic cashflow, administrators, priests and skilled workers were required to enter into the social and economic structure of the Spanish conquests. This influx of new Europeans, mainly males, began to form the new social structure based off of race in the new world. This poses a significant problem for the Indian culture, however. As Rebecca stated in the last post, the Native social structure was not a monolith. There had already existed an extremely complicated hierarchy and tribal system well before the conquistadors made their first contacts. Treating an entire culture as a subservient entry into the new European system will ultimately be problematic and unsustainable.

The unsuitability of the new social structure and the increase of a Catholic presence augments Taylor’s argument that religion, while being the basis of conquistadors’ justification for attacking, killing, enslaving and usurping the natives, was truly an afterthought that rode the coattails of economic conquests. Only when the conquistadors failed to consistently create a market due to social disruption did priests find their way into the social scheme of the Americas and given authority. I find this argument overwhelmingly compelling.

It is strengthened further when almost an identical situation unfolds in Canada, as the French initially successful with fur trades only later provide substantial religious presence in the areas. While the violence in the north was perpetuated more by the natives and the Five Nations especially, Taylor argues that the increase in violence led to an increased demand in European Weaponry, especially guns, by the natives. This demand led to the over-hunting of beaver and again, to an unsustainable economy.

This does seem slightly simplistic, but as an Economics major, I enjoy understanding the effects simple economic transactions can have on overall populations, and it seems that through both of these geographic areas religion was used as an economic tool rather than a moral or religious one. In order to rectify the deep harm the European conquests had on both civilizations, religion was brought in to rectify it. Not for religious purposes itself, but rather for an assurance of stable social structure for long term economic prosperity.

Diversity in American History and in Native Culture

In Taylor’s Introduction to American Colonies, he presents a critical question: what precisely does the study of American history encompass? Historians no longer describe a successful group of English men conquering the free world and trouncing the iniquitous Indians; instead, our perceptions of colonial America have broadened to include the preexisting culture of the Native Americans, other European colonies—Dutch, French, and Spanish—and African slaves (Taylor x).

Taylor argues that the tendency to isolate the people of the New World “into the racial and cultural categories of European, African, and Indian” obfuscates the level of diversity present at that time and impedes our full understanding of American history (xi). This eclectic collection of fluctuating cultures came to define America. No group went without struggle in a new environment alongside unfamiliar people. The story of America defies any outdated restrictions of being an English story (xii), and the impressive scope of this story makes it all the more enjoyable to study.

Taylor also touches on the topic of race in his Introduction, another facet of this concept “diversity.” He explains that the colonization of America, in fact, engendered widespread “racialized sorting of peoples by skin color” rather than reinforced a longstanding belief (xii–xiii). Although I had failed to consider this perspective before, after some consideration, I believe Taylor makes an excellent point. Most who have taken an American history class at some point are well-versed in the exploitation of Indians and Africans, but certainly some Europeans faced a similar degree of deception and mistreatment, such as indentured servants. According to Taylor, as the British vied for more leverage in a competitive environment, the notion of white superiority became a powerful tool to ensure their success (xiii). The claim that such racial views developed in the colonial setting has changed the way I think about America’s history of both liberty and oppression.

Taylor opens his discussion of American history in Chapter 1 with a comprehensive description of pre-contact Native Americans, a more specific account of diversity in American history than the Introduction’s broad overview. He refutes the image of Native Americans as a static culture (4) concerned with preserving the earth and living in peace (19), a distinction that, I believe, is pivotal to our understanding of European interactions with the natives. While the history of exploitation in these interactions remains indubitable, it stems from several important European advantages and not from Native American naivety.

A significant portion of the chapter focuses on the growth, successes, and failures of horticulture in native civilizations. The successes certainly challenge notions of natives lacking sophistication and technology: the Hohokam and Anasazi built large towns ruled by a customary social hierarchy (12), horticulture’s popularity prompted the development of extensive irrigation canals, the fertility of the Mississippi Valley allowed the construction of great monuments (15), and many enjoyed a more stable and longer life in permanent settlements (11). However, excessive use of the land also elicited disastrous results for many of these large native groups, and horticulture “never spread universally” in pre-contact America (11).

The numerous cultures presented in this chapter raise an issue. How can one define Native American culture? While a number of similarities exist across native peoples, the category of “natives”—which we would prefer to define as easily as the archetypal Indian of “Cowboys and Indians”—comprises hundreds of distinct groups. Taylor speaks of natives who adopt a “more sedentary” lifestyle and grow maize until it overwhelms the land, yet others never depart from nomadic hunting and gathering (11), and others still settle permanently in areas rife with fish or edible plants (12).

As natives discovered viable ways to reside in a single place, the development of horticulture fostered new cultures. Hunting and gathering remained an option, but it became a single choice in an array of possibilities. Because completely grasping the span and diversity of Native American culture presents a considerable challenge, each exposure to this culture opens my eyes to something different. Some small piece of me may hold onto portrayals of natives such as The Indian in the Cupboard and The Lone Ranger, but popular, stereotypical images of Indians give us all the more reason to delve into the true complexity of Native American culture. A deeper understanding of the preexisting conditions in America, before Columbus made his legendary trek, necessarily enhances one’s understanding of American history as a whole. Diversity in America clearly has a much more substantial history than the more recent melting pot era.


Welcome to the history of North America from the colonial era to the Civil War, taught at Davidson College in the Spring of 2014.  This space will function in lieu of a Moddle forum – as a place for you to register weekly opinions on the reading, drop in interesting links.  The blog is not indexed with Google, but it is still accessible to any who might stumble upon it.  To that end, if you don’t want your posts to be searchable by your Davidson handle, feel free to change it (users>your profile>nickname) and send me the name you’ll be posting under.