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Alan Taylor

American Colonies: The Settling of North America

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary and Study Guide


American Colonies: The Settling of North America is the first volume of the five-part Penguin History of the United States series. In it, Pulitzer-prize-winning historian Alan Taylor surveys the history of the Americas before the formation of the United States.

Taylor aims to expand, enrich, and complicate our understanding of this period. American Colonies covers a broader temporal and geographical range than most works of its kind, spanning from the earliest Paleolithic settlements in North America in 15,000 BCE to 19th century exploration of the Pacific. This inclusivity reflects Taylor’s primary goal of presenting a pluralistic history. Traditionally colonial narratives concentrate on the English colonies that became the first 13 states, but Taylor rejects this Anglocentrism. In calling his book American Colonies rather than, say, Colonial America, he signals his intent to present the continent’s colonial history rather than the history of the English.

American Colonies focuses primarily on the process of colonization: the introduction of new ideas, peoples, religions, cultures, technologies, even microbes, and the reactions that resulted. Arranged in chronological order, 19 chapters serve as case studies for the process of colonization in different regions. These regions, however, did not operate independently. European colonists, Indians, and Africans regularly interacted with, changed, and adapted to each other, creating a complex composite culture which Taylor marks as the true measure of American distinctiveness. Colonization was a messy, transformative process for both the colonizers and those they colonized.

Using recent historiography, Taylor breaks the typical temporal and geographic boundaries on colonial America to present a more diversified perspective. He utilizes especially three tracts of scholarship: “an Atlantic perspective, environmental history, and the ethnohistory of colonial and native peoples” (xiii). Taylor often forgoes the details of microhistory—individuals and specific events—to cover the big picture, or macrohistory. He writes in clear, narrative prose with little academic jargon and no footnotes. There are annotated bibliographies for each chapter, which Taylor limits to cutting-edge scholarship at the time of writing. Scholars widely accept American Colonies as a seminal work on this period.

Notably, Taylor opens Chapter 1 with a history of Indian settlements on the continent before the Europeans arrived in 1492. Chapters 2 through 4 detail the arrival of the Spanish and the expeditions of their conquistadors in Central America. Chapter 5 situates the French fur traders and their first settlements in what is now modern-day Canada and Acadia. The English arrive in Chapters 6 and 7 with the foundation of the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, collectively called the Chesapeake. In the early 17th century a combination of religious persecution and economic possibility draw the Puritans to the Americas. The foundation of their New English colonies and Puritan interactions with the Indians are covered in Chapters 8 and 9. This period also sees the colonization of Barbados and Jamaica in the West Indies in Chapter 10, where sugar production invites African slavery to take an early hold in the colonies. Colonists from the West Indies and the Chesapeake found North and South Carolina and Georgia in Chapter 11, which are also slaveholding plantations societies. In the 18th century the English King Charles II takes New Netherland from the Dutch and solidifies English power on the Atlantic seaboard north of Spanish Florida, as described in Chapter 12. In Chapter 13 his successor, James II, attempts to reassert royal authority over the colonies and enacts controversial religious policies at home, resulting in the Glorious Revolution of William III, Prince of Orange. Chapter 14 details the narrowing economic and cultural gap between Great Britain and her colonies in the Americas, but prerevolutionary problems also begin to arise, as evidenced in the Great Awakening of Chapter 15. Chapter 16 and 17 pivot back to Britain’s imperial rivals, the French and Spanish, who have steadily lost a foothold in the Americas after the British secured the eastern seaboard. Chapter 18 details the coup de grâce to Britain’s rivals, the Seven Years’ War, which largely evicts France and Spain from North America. Finally, Chapter 19 covers the Pacific exploration of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Hawaiian Islands in the early 19th century.