American Colonies: Introduction & Chapter 1 Reading

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Alan Taylor notably discredits the conventional, childlike view of American History in the introduction of his bookAmerican Colonies. In his view, the popular cultural tale of white men escaping from an oppressive monarchy to a land of freedom and opportunity appeals, “because it offers an appealing simplification that contains important (but partial) truths.” (Taylor x) Thankfully, he offers a more detailed description of how Native Indians and Europeans interacted.

I was impressed that the author strove to include the history and background of the native people. Taylor forced me to think not only about the acclamation of the colonists as they came into the new world, but also of the changes this immigration had on the Indians and the environment of North America.

Along with the section in the first chapter on how the Paleo-Indians lived in small groups by following and hunting different herds, I was really interested in how these small tribes grew and evolved into a settlement-like agricultural community. His discussion on the development of horticulture, by the Indians, through crossbreeding maize with wild grass to “create hybrids” (Taylor 10-11) with all of these protective, beneficial qualities sheds light on the innovation and intelligence of the Indian people. It was uplifting to read that not all Europeans thought of the Indians as savage beasts to be tamed and dominated, and that some of them even regarded them “by nature admirably ingenious.” (Taylor 20)

I drew a parallel between the 12th century powerhouse of Cahokia and our own modern world. In discussing Cahokia, Taylor says that as the growing population exhausted natural resources such as trees, animals, and crops, “the environmental strains became exacerbated into a severe crisis…” (Taylor 16) The doubts and rebellions caused by this overpopulation was a factor that led to the collapse of Cahokia. In modern times, we are obviously not dealing with the collapse of our civilization, but we are beginning to face similar problems with overpopulation and the drain on natural resources.

Week One Reading Response

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In his introduction, Taylor recognizes the conventional approach to understanding early American history and does not discard this narrative as completely invalid. He does, however, offer a more sophisticated view of North American colonization. I found his discussion of the role of racism in colonization particularly interesting. Taylor suggests that the oppressive racial roles inflicted on Native and African Americans were not pre-meditated but were in fact created through the colonial process. He points to a rise in white solidarity among European colonists as both an effect of the new work force found among racial minorities and the need to unite a white military as well as a cause of the subjugation of minorities. Even more interesting, however, is that he argues that the freedoms and rights so idealized as the foundations of our diverse American society are also offshoots of this racism. As white solidarity increased, Taylor says, the white elite was forced to offer more political and social freedom to lower class whites.

Taylor’s discussion of Native Americans was equally as interesting. He uses the term colonization to describe the migration across the land bridge from Asia into North America but also depicts this momentous incident as more of an accident than an earth-changing event. This casual discovery of America stands in sharp contrast to the usual fanfare and glorification that surrounds Columbus’ arrival in the “New World.” His notes on agriculture also challenged many common beliefs. The Agricultural Revolution marks the change in periods of human history and is generally thought of as one of the key factors that allowed modern culture and civilization to develop. Taylor, however, points out many of the downfalls of the agricultural system such as decrease in biodiversity, increased stress on the environment, and greater opportunity for the spread of communicable disease. Taylor backs up his claims with archeological evidence. His descriptions of the proof for his arguments were almost as comprehensive as his arguments themselves. He explains the archeological discoveries in terms of the tools and keepsakes found with the bodies that demonstrate gender roles as well as the physical characteristics that point to diet and tendencies towards violence.

In both of these sections, Taylor challenges customary and straightforward conceptions of early America. The differences in these readings stem from the differences in each of their purposes. The introduction seeks to explain the author’s purpose in writingAmerican Colonies while the first chapter includes more detail and is more focused on describing specific aspects of a culture rather than providing a broad overview of all the time periods the book covers.

Introduction-Chapter 1 Post (#1)

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Author Alan Taylor has a very interesting line on the first page of the Introduction that, in my opinion, gives early insight into what this book will discuss. After shortly describing white Europeans’ motivation for immigrating to what is the present day United States, Taylor opens his fourth paragraph with a captivating person opinion- “But the traditional story of American uplift excludes too many people” (Taylor, Introduction) To me, this line immediately informs the reader that the purpose of this book is to give a more complete description of American History, one that fills in the holes and gives credit to those often forgotten in less “detailed” accounts of American History. The first chapter in the book immediately shows that Taylor does indeed intend to fill in those blanks. In it he gives brief overviews of the history of a number of Native American tribes who called the lands home way before Christopher Columbus or any other Europeans set foot in the “new world”.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the first chapter as it informed me about much I had never even heard regarding early life in the Americas. I had known that Christopher Columbus did not in fact “discover” these lands but I was unaware of the deep history that so many different native tribes had on the land. Taylor also gives a description of the natives that does not mesh with the way they are often portrayed today. Modern day filmmakers have painted an image of these early natives in moves (which is admittedly the extent of my previous study on this topic) as a supremely spiritual and peaceful people who were unjustifiably taken advantage of by the Europeans. While Taylor does not defend the Europeans, he makes sure to inform the reader that the Natives were not completely innocent, peaceful tribes who wished only to be left alone. They were just as violent and war-prone as the people they fought, they simply did not have the technology and weaponry to seriously compete. I appreciated Taylor giving this perspective here. It assures me that he did his best to stay completely objective. I can only assume that the rest of the book is written in the same manor.

Week One Reading

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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”

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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

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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.