“The Barbarous Years”: What 17th-Century America Really Looked Like

A new masterpiece of history by Bernard Bailyn shows American life in the 17th century to be nasty, brutish, and short. By R.B. Bernstein.

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The colonial past is a mystery to most Americans. Popular memory jams together events and people separated by decades, such as the Pilgrims (1620), the Salem Witchcraft trials (1692), and Benjamin Franklin (born in 1706). We forget that the period between 1607, the year of the founding of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Va., and 1776, the year of the declaration of American independence, is as long as the period between the events of 1776 and President Harry S. Truman’s inauguration in 1945. As problematic as the conflating of chronology is the misleading quality of the remembered colonial past—pastel-colored, mild, and civilized, like Downton Abbey in knee-breeches.

In reality, the founding of colonial societies was uncertain, terrifying, and costly almost beyond expression. For example, consider the heart-breaking appeal sent by Richard Frethorne to his parents from Virginia in 1623, just months after his hopeful arrival on board the ship Abigail as an indentured servant hoping to work off his passage. Frethorne had just learned that his master might have to let him and his fellow servants go for want of resources to house and feed them:

“Then wee shalbe turned up to the land and eate barks of trees or moulds of the ground. Therefore with weeping teares I beg of you to helpe me. O that you did see [my] daylie and hourelie sighes, grones, and teares, and that the thumpes that I afford mine owne brest, and rue and curse the time of my birth with holy Job. I thought no head had beene able to hold so much water as hath and doth dailie flow from mine eyes.”

Frethorne was dead within a year of writing this letter, and we do not know whether the aid he sought from his parents ever reached him.

This is but one of the many individual stories skillfully woven together by Bernard Bailyn in The Barbarous Years, a book that tells a tale of the European settlement of North America as far removed from the remembered colonial past as it is possible to get. For nearly six decades, Bailyn, now Adams University Professor and James Duncan Phillips of Early American History Emeritus at Harvard University, has defined the study of the early American past in books that are intellectually challenging, formidably researched, and brilliantly written. The Barbarous Years, the capstone of his extraordinary career, returns Bailyn and his readers to the 17th century, the period to which he devoted his earliest scholarly work, and reveals a time of torment, want, and what the poet John Donne called “a flood, a flood of blood.”

In 1986, after writing two prize-winning studies of the American Revolution—The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967; revised and expanded, 1992) and The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974)—Bailyn launched his last major project, The Peopling of British North America, with two books. The first, a set of three lectures sketching the larger project, argued that the early modern era’s most sweeping and important development was the movement across time and space of hundreds of thousands of people from Europe and Africa to and within the Americas. This vast, intricate movement of people transformed the Old World societies that they left and the New World societies that they created or joined. Indeed, in the early 1770s, the movement of people westward was so large that it threatened to depopulate Britain. In response, British officials launched an unprecedented effort to compile information on all immigrants from the home islands to the Americas between early 1773 and early 1776. That rich database was the basis of Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Voyagers to the West, a grand, engrossing volume that was the first major installment of Peopling. The Barbarous Years, the long-awaited companion to Voyagers to the West, is an even greater achievement.

Both in the span of time he examines (the years 1600 to 1675) and in his effort to capture the full range of “the conflict of civilizations” in the early European colonization of North America, The Barbarous Years is Bailyn’s most ambitious book. Its three-part structure exemplifies one of Bailyn’s favorite strategies of historical interpretation. He has often told his students to pick a body of sources, read them in chronological order, and, when they identify a change, seek to explain it. This grand book practices what Bailyn has preached.

The Barbarous Years charts and analyzes the vast changes separating the era of Native American dominance of North America from the era when North American colonial societies achieved some kind of stability and coherence. It is a narrative of the evolution of a cluster of European-American societies—their founding, development, conflicts, and occasional disintegration—that pays close attention to the political processes shaping and responding to their creation. Part I, “Foundations,” presents an illuminating portrait-in-miniature of the Native American world; Bailyn first works outward from their religious and spiritual beliefs and then inward from their customs of war, agriculture, politics, and family. The thirteen rich chapters of Part II, “Conquest: The Europeans,” explore English, French, Swedish, Finnish, and Dutch attempts to found and maintain North American settlements, as well as the agonizing, tormented roles of Native Americans and Africans within the settlement process. Part III, “Emergence,” describes the societies created by British Americans in North America, tracing their disturbing mix of savagery and civility, so different from the muted, decorous version of this history that until now has defined most Americans’ knowledge of our colonial origins.

With an extraordinary mastery of primary and secondary sources and a deft, vigorous prose style, Bailyn explores the clashes between Europeans and other peoples and among the Europeans, chronicling stories of horrific cruelty and suffering. No settlement was foreordained to succeed, and many succumbed to such ever-present threats as famine, weather, conflict with Native American peoples, incompetence, greed, and the simple despair of being thousands of miles from home. The odds were against any settlement taking hold. England, France, and (for a time) Holland may have succeeded in establishing settlements, but Sweden and Finland failed, and, even as they struggled to survive, the new European settlements battled with one another for resources, ambition, or simple survival. All the while, the Native American nations tried to assess their new neighbors—whether seeking to make room for them in the delicate balance of power in North America or waging desperate wars against them, to oust them from the continent or to curb their attempts to control North America.

In “A Domesday Book for the Periphery,” chapter III of The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, Bailyn previewed the complex, terrifying, and engrossing story that he now tells in The Barbarous Years. Even readers familiar with the earlier book will be astonished and moved by Bailyn’s fulfillment of that promise. In its scope and depth, and in its ability to bring before us the appalling and sometimes ghastly story of early North America, this historical masterwork ensures that its readers will never again swaddle themselves in the comforting clichés of the colonial past.