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Exploration and the Colonies


Week Two: Exploration and the Colonies

Perkins−Perkins: Selections from American Literature

Part Introduction Exploration and the Colonies

© The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2007

Exploration and the Colonies

European cultural exchange with North America stretched back to Leif Ericsson’s arrival at Newfoundland around the year 1000, but European settlement began to spread rapidly only after the first voyage of Columbus in 1492. For Europe in the sixteenth century, America became a golden western arena of Renaissance ener- gies that lured adventurers with shining opportunities for pelts and pelf and in- vited the colonial ambitions of rival empires. Soon Spaniards rimmed the Gulf of Mexico and pushed westward to the Pacific: Ponce de León explored the coast of Florida, Cabeza de Vaca and three companions lived eight years with tribes of the Southwest, Coronado reached the Grand Canyon, and de Soto ranged from Florida as far north as Tennessee—all by 1542. Meanwhile, Verrazzano, an Italian sailing under a French flag, explored the eastern coast from North Carolina to Maine, meeting and trading with the natives. This group constituted the first wave. After it, explorations came thick and fast for another half century. By the time the first settlers arrived at Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay, the Native Americans of the Atlantic coast had experienced nearly a century of both friendly and adversarial contact with light-skinned strangers from beyond the seas.

The seventeenth-century settlers of the future United States arrived in a world that was wholly new to them. Their experiences and cultural heritage lay far be- hind them, on the other side of the wide and dangerous North Atlantic Ocean. The climate, geography, native people, and culture they found on the wooded shores of Virginia and Massachusetts bore little resemblance to conditions in the tropical Spanish territories of the West Indies and Mexico. By the time these set- tlers arrived, the earliest depredations of disease and colonial cruelty in the south- ern lands were a century in the past. Although Spaniards had destroyed the Aztec empire and taken control of Mexico by 1521, Jamestown was not settled until 1607, Plymouth until 1620. The men and women of Virginia and Massachusetts bore with them from their homes in England and the Netherlands no burden of Old World guilt for those early atrocities. Equally important to American history and literature, the Native Americans who met them possessed no tragic history of strangers from abroad imposing massive subjugation and bloodshed upon them. North American seaboard Indians did not know, much less feel aggrieved by, the circumstances of confrontation, conquest, and acculturation in the West Indies and Mexico. From Virginia to Massachusetts, for Powhatan and Pocahontas as well as for John Smith and John Rolfe, for Squanto and Massasoit as well as for William Bradford and Anne Bradstreet, the spheres of their separate existence were forever transformed in the time of their meeting and not before. The men and women who would inhabit this New World together had much to learn about

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Perkins−Perkins: Selections from American Literature

Part Introduction Exploration and the Colonies

© The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2007

themselves, about each other, and about the structures of their mutual lives. From small coastal footholds, the land stretched before the newcomers in majesty and mystery, while the inhabitants they met told of wonders yet unseen—of towering peaks and mighty rivers, of shifting sands and ancient cities, in a continent of unimaginable size, more than half of it covered by forests of fabulous density. No wonder the American imagination vibrates to this day with indelible visions of this vast richness and of the people who inhabited these forests, plains, and cities, who coursed these rivers and traversed these deserts and mountains for twenty thousand years before the coming of the Europeans.

A century and a half after the first settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts, the people who declared their independence from Great Britain and established the United States of America were predominantly English in their language and political institutions, but they were deeply indebted both to the Indians and to the people from other European nations who quickly followed them to Atlantic shore colonies. By the time of the American Revolution, the population was numerous and diverse. Virginia began with Anglican settlers who within a dozen years ac- quired their first African slaves from Dutch traders. The Plymouth Pilgrims were Separatists from the Church of England, but the Massachusetts Bay Puritans who arrived ten years later wanted only to purify the English church, not separate themselves from it. In Maryland, Catholics mingled with Protestants. New York was first settled by the Dutch, Florida by the Spanish, Canada by the French. Rhode Island built on the religious freedom proclaimed by Roger Williams. Penn- sylvania was established by William Penn as a haven of Quaker tolerance. The Carolinas were settled by the English, Scots, French Huguenots, and Barbadians— the latter, English colonists who had established a thriving black slave economy on the uninhabited island of Barbados after 1627 and gave impetus to a similar economy in the Carolinas from the 1770s on. Georgia, especially, is often remem- bered as a primary destination of English convicts, until the American Revolution forced the British to shift much of their penal transportation to Australia, but the English also sent felons and debtors from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland to all the other colonies, beginning with Virginia in 1618. In the sixty years imme- diately before the Revolution, some four thousand men and women of this kind arrived to work out their seven to fourteen years of servitude. By the eighteenth century, the Middle Colonies, especially, had become home to Jews from Germany and Portugal, and by 1776 a number of Italian and Swiss colonists could also call themselves Americans.

Reasons for coming were as diverse as the people. Important early settlements on America’s East Coast derived from motives far different from those that drove the financial engines of European colonialism. While the great tide of Renaissance exploration and conquest was still at flood, the Protestant Reformation was preparing another restless host, for whom America became the Promised Land of the human spirit, offering to people of sober purpose and lofty ideals a vision of expanded freedoms and new hopes denied them in the Old World. The majority of these settled in New England and the Middle Colonies, establishing there a Protestant presence of overwhelming importance to American history and tradi- tions, a fact that continues to influence the life and thought of the United States.

Exploration and the Colonies 3

Perkins−Perkins: Selections from American Literature

Part Introduction Exploration and the Colonies

© The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2007

An enormous amount was written about America during the early periods of exploration and settlement. Europeans wrote descriptions of the country, its flora and fauna, its native inhabitants, its offshore fisheries. They wrote of trading with the Indians and of treaties, wars, and captivities; they created instruments of gov- ernment and law; they kept personal journals; they recorded the history of their colonies, often for political or economic purposes but also, in New England espe- cially, to “justify the ways of God to man” in the New Jerusalem. A large number of these works were printed in England or on the Continent. Most were bound to the particulars of their time and place and not very readable to later generations, although often immensely useful to historians. Still, with an amazing frequency, in view of the physical conditions of their lives, writers appeared who communicated a richness of spirit or character that time has not tarnished. Our early literature became an abundant reservoir of material and inspiration for the great burst of energy in American literature of the nineteenth century. For readers today it still provides an understanding of those bedrock American experiences that developed our national character and peculiarly American institutions.

VIRGINIA AND THE SOUTH The first permanent English settlement resulted from mercantile rather than reli- gious motives. In promoting the settlement of Jamestown (1607), the Virginia Company expected to provide goods for British trade and to attract English set- tlers in need of homes and land. The company’s conception of the New World was so unrealistic that it sent to Virginia a perfumer and several tailors. Epidemic fevers and Indian raids during the first few years reduced the colony as fast as new re- cruits could be brought in on the infrequent supply ships. The Indians, whom the company had counted on for cheap labor, refused both enslavement and incen- tives to work as free men and women. Innocent of the European concept of prop- erty, they resented the settlers who fenced and cultivated their hunting grounds, and they retaliated with blood and fire. Still, somehow the Virginia colony in- creased, first at Jamestown, and then at Williamsburg, the handsome colonial cap- ital where the second college in North America, William and Mary, was founded in 1693. Other southern colonies were established in Maryland in 1634 and in the Carolinas and Georgia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

NEW ENGLAND In the New England colonies, the situation was different. At Plymouth (1620) and Massachusetts Bay (1630), more than twenty thousand English men and women soon found new homes. A considerable number were learned, especially the Puri- tan clergymen and governors, and some of them embodied greatness of spirit and creativity. Even in the seventeenth century they produced a considerable body of writing. Yet they were not professional literary people; they were mainly intent upon subduing a wilderness, making homes, and building a new civil society, on which they had staked their lives and fortunes. In Plymouth, which lay outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, the Pilgrims fostered a stern independence by their insistence on separation from the Church of England and by the prece- dent for American self-governance set in the Mayflower Compact. The political isolation of the Plymouth Colony proved short-lived, however, as Massachusetts

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Perkins−Perkins: Selections from American Literature

Part Introduction Exploration and the Colonies

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Bay quickly assumed the natural hegemony of New England. It had the physical situation—a harbor and rivers—for expansion into a cluster of small towns in close association with each other. When the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, John Winthrop, a strong Puritan, brought the charter of his company from England to Boston, he transformed a British company directly under the con- trol of the king into an overseas colony with limited but unprecedented powers of self-government. The Puritans who followed Winthrop were thrifty, and they thrived. They initiated a town-meeting government, popular elections, a bicameral council, and other novelties that soon evolved into major parts of the machinery of democracy. Theirs was in some ways an intolerant society, for their consensus on matters of dogma left them few substantial challenges of the kind that made toleration inevitable in the Middle Colonies. Even in Massachusetts Bay, however, diversity of opinion was never stilled, and such outcasts as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson soon founded colonies of their own, accelerating the outward flow of forces of self-realization from Boston into New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. In 1643, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Con- necticut, and New Haven founded the New England Federation, adopting a con- stitution for “The United Colonies of New England”—a union with limited powers that left each colony free to solve its own internal problems and provided another New World model of independent self-regulation.

History Literature

Leif Ericsson establishes first A.D. 1001 European settlement in North America

Pueblo at Mesa Verde, Colorado c. 1073

Rise of the Aztec empire c. 1300

Mound Builders in Mississippi and Ohio River valleys c. 1400

Columbus arrives in the Bahamas 1492

Tenochtitlán surrenders to Cortés 1521

Verrazzano explores the eastern 1524 Giovanni Da Verrazzano coast of the present-day United Verrazzano’s Voyage States

Cabeza de Vaca’s travels from 1528– Florida to Mexico 1536

1542 Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca

Spanish settlement at St. Augustine 1565

Sir Francis Drake claims central 1579 California coast for Elizabeth I

Champlain explores the New 1604– England coast 1607

The English settle Jamestown, the 1607 first permanent English settlement in the New World

Exploration and the Colonies 5

Perkins−Perkins: Selections from American Literature

Part Introduction Exploration and the Colonies

© The McGraw−Hill Companies, 2007

History Literature Henry Hudson discovers the 1609– Hudson River and Hudson Bay 1610

1613 Samuel de Champlain The Voyages of 1604–1607

The first step toward slavery in the 1619 future United States occurs when twenty Africans arrive in Jamestown

The Pilgrims (Puritan Separatists) 1620 establish a settlement in Plymouth on the coast of present-day southeastern Massachusetts

Dutch settle Manhattan 1624 John Smith The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles

Massachusetts Bay Colony founded 1630 William Bradford by non-Separatist Puritans Of Plymouth Plantation, Book I

John Winthrop A Model of Christian Charity

Harvard College founded 1636


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