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.