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 The story of America defies any outdated restrictions of being an English story (xii), and the impressive scope of this story makes it all the more enjoyable to study.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.