The history essay: America – Brave new world or accident?

Far from being a bold project to create a nation, early settlers to the US wanted nothing more than to survive – and to recreate England, according to Malcolm Gaskill...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

AYX15G Burning of Deerfield Massachusetts during an attack by Native Americans 1704

Just before dawn on 29 February 1704, the Reverend John Williams was awoken by the sound of splintering wood and smashing glass. He was barely out of bed when 20 Native American warriors with painted faces and tomahawks appeared in his house. Williams aimed his pistol at the leading intruder, but it misfired and he was apprehended. The raid, a joint Franco-Native Indian operation, left 56 residents of Deerfield, a small township in north-western Massachusetts, dead in the snow. Among them were two of Williams’s eight children. Five of the others (one was away at school), together with Williams and his wife, were gathered into a group of more than 100 people and marched off into the freezing wastes, heading for Canada.

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Fear and privation, courage and fortitude framed lives and shaped identity on the New England frontier. Queen Anne’s War, a European conflict fought between France and England and transposed to North America, had been raging since 1702; it had been preceded by King William’s War in the 1690s and, 20 years earlier, Metacom’s War, which had threatened to wipe New England off the map.

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Queen Anne’s War (1702–13) saw French and Native American fighters pitted against English settlers and their native allies. (© Bridgeman Art Library)

Captives, taken by the Native Americans to be enslaved or ransomed, survived almost unbelievable ordeals. John Williams’s wife was killed (for stumbling on the march), but he and his children were finally freed in November 1706 – though his 10-year-old daughter Eunice was forced to remain as the surrogate child of a Mohawk family. The following year, Williams published a book, The Redeemed Captive, one of numerous such accounts that made captivity a familiar trope in colonial history.

This story, and others like it, is well known. But we might ask a question that seems obvious but too often goes unasked: who were these frontiers folk, and what on Earth were they were doing there? How was their identity shaped and defined?

At one level, the answer is simple: they were English migrants, and the children and grandchildren of English migrants. Yet theirs is an amazing story. Some 350,000 English people emigrated in the 17th century, making the most lasting contribution to white culture in North America before 1700. It was no easy transition. Behind every departure lay an extraordinary tale of logistical difficulty and emotional upheaval, often ending in homesickness and hardship or premature death. Many arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s, part of the so-called ‘great migration’, among them John Williams’s father, aged six, whose family had momentously decided to forsake Norwich for an uncertain existence outside Boston.

What did people expect to gain from their sacrifice? Most were fleeing political, religious and economic problems. Many felt England had hit the skids. After the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), the Old World was painted as a redundant ancien régime where corrupt kings, bishops and aristocrats denied honest labourers land and rights.

If one accepts this view, it’s natural to assume that migrants craved transformation. In 1782 a French settler defined the ‘American’ as one who “leaving behind all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced”. ‘Exceptionalism’ – the sense that America is special – has coloured modern memory, too. The 20th-century historian Daniel Boorstin encouraged the notion that, from the start, colonisation forged a unique civilisation. Colonists had turned their backs on England, a place distant in space and time that, in histories of the US at least, provided at best a sketchy backstory of little relevance and less interest.

But this is a story that needs to be told forwards from the past, not backwards from the present – and from England, then the world’s most powerful country, looking towards a colonial America as yet unborn. Emigrants did not, for the most part, want to reinvent themselves: they were desperate to stay the same, and merely craved a better environment in which to defend fortune and freedom.

Many, of course, never intended to stay; many who did ended up returning home anyway. Expectations were diverse – personal and national, religious and commercial – but all colonists wanted to inspire and revitalise England, or to restore their own sense of themselves as English. Their aims were nostalgic, founded on the hope of recreating a social world that was vanishing, or recovering a better one from the past. Accordingly, the founding generations remained essentially English – indeed, they called themselves ‘the English’ – and they remained tied to memories of the motherland and to their relatives at home.

Colonial history, then, is prone to distortions and false perspectives. Puritans dominate the memory of New England, even though covenanted church members were the minority, and New England dominates the memory of 17th-century America even though this was the destination for only 21,000 (6 per cent) of the 350,000. Far more English migrants went to Chesapeake Bay, and most went to the West Indies. A vision of the Pilgrim Fathers disembarking from the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620 may be more appealing than one of godless tobacco farmers or slave-owning sugar barons. Yet emphasis on the Pilgrims – not least with the annual celebration of the first Thanksgiving – is misleading. They believed they were propelled and preserved by God’s providence: new Israelites seeking Canaan in the wilderness. But they did not resemble the typical English migrant, who was probably an adolescent apprentice on an insalubrious plantation in Virginia or Barbados. And there was nothing divinely inexorable about the progress of colonies or their inhabitants.

The English were not natural colonisers. Queen Elizabeth showed little interest – at least, in terms of financial support – despite the efforts of Richard Hakluyt, whose Discourse Concerning Western Planting was written for her in 1584. In that year, the queen granted Sir Walter Ralegh a charter to colonise ‘Virginia’, the idea being not planting per se but rather the creation of a base from which to loot Spanish fleets. However, the experimental Roanoke Colony soon came to a sticky end. Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I, was similarly non-committal, but peace with Spain removed the need for piratical outposts, while arguments for extracting commodities to reduce imports, and for creating colonial markets to increase exports, became more compelling.

Yet royal coffers remained closed. The Virginia Company, formed in 1606, was a consortium dependent on private investment – investment that proved hard to attract and upon which few dividends were paid. Jamestown, the first permanent settlement, became a byword for factional conflict, chaos and high mortality. Promoters spoke of “Earth’s only paradise”, but English paupers preferred to take their chances at home, and speculators looked elsewhere.

“It is a matter of great difficulty,” opined the Elizabethan historian William Camden, “by the expenses of a private man to plant a colony in far distant countries.” There was never enough money, in other words – nor enough willing migrants. “We are known too well to the world to love the smoke of our own chimneys so well,” a minister wrote, “that hopes of great advantages are not likely to draw many of us from home.” In contrast to providential or exceptionalist narratives, which somehow make the US seem inevitable, in 1600 the idea that even a single colony would survive seemed far-fetched. There was so much available land, and England had so little – but without workers it had no value.

The vexed beginnings of Jamestown taught that colonies needed not just labourers but also skilled tradesmen and political leaders. England’s social order, along with its laws and customs, had to be recreated on the other side of the Atlantic. The question was: how? The problem was compounded by scepticism that occupying foreign territory was even lawful.

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A 1609 pamphlet proclaims the merits of life in Virginia – a desperate attempt to promote a nascent colony struggling to attract settlers. (© Bridgeman)

In the reign of James I, pamphlets appealed to higher ideals and better natures using Roman law, classical history and biblical precept. Land was either empty – vacuum domicilium – or occupied by Native Americans and so ‘hitherto uncultivated’ (hacentus inculta). Either way, English imperialists had the right – indeed a sacred duty – to go forth. Did bees not swarm from the overflowing hive? Had the Romans not saved pagan Britain from savagery? The gospels, good Protestants knew, must be spread throughout the earth before Christ would return. If the land was perfectible as a ‘new’ England, then its peoples might yet be civilised and Christianised.

The most famous example was Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan chief Wahunsonacock, who in 1614 married a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe, and two years later attended the court of James I. She was an exemplar to colonial missionaries, but also a political pawn. Her death, as she prepared to return to Virginia, exacerbated deteriorating Anglo-Native American relations, culminating in the uprising of 1622 in which 347 English colonists perished. Noble aspirations did not die with them – charitable organisations funded missions throughout the 17th century – but now Englishmen felt less inhibited. Indeed, an opportunity for the guilt-free exploitation of native resources may have enhanced America’s appeal to adventurers, even as the Virginia Company fragmented and was taken over by the crown.

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Pocahontas is shown being visited by her brothers in this engraving of 1619, made two years after she died in England – an event that contributed to the 1622 uprising. Daughter of Chief Wahunsonacock, she married settler John Rolfe and changed her name to Rebecca. (© Bridgeman)

The Plymouth Pilgrims established a new type of colonial settlement, quite unlike the straggling tobacco farms along the James river: the communitarian godly commonwealth, independent of the Church of England. They also believed that Native Americans could be won for Christ. The migrants led by John Winthrop, a Suffolk gentleman, in the 1630s were not separatists – at least, not openly so – but they did seek to chasten England for losing its spiritual way. This was an ideal famously expressed in a sermon by Winthrop that elevated the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a city upon a hill” – an aspirational beacon to the Old World. The company seal depicted a near-naked Native American speaking the words: “Come over and help us.”

From the start, however, the wilderness got the upper hand – not so much the empty, uncultivated land nor its hostile inhabitants, but the wilderness the English brought with them: their own religious and political differences, and the strains imposed by economic habit. By 1650, Virginia and Massachusetts had become much more like England, but with new gains came old problems: boundary disputes, protests over customary rights, subordination and insubordination, resentment at taxation (without political representation), poverty and crime. The idea of the ‘new American man’ beloved of future generations was totally alien. Far from being dissolved in the melting pot, if anything regional differences between, say, a Londoner and a West Countryman were accentuated. Sometimes they fought. Native Americans were converted, but many more died in the Pequot War of 1637 and in subsequent conflicts.

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This 17th-century illustration shows New England’s colonial militia attacking a Native American village during the Pequot War. (© Alamy)

People in New England and old England felt sorry for each other, although the former had better reason to pity the latter once civil war broke out in 1642. Yet even then England managed to export its problems. Not only did hundreds of New Englanders return to fight, but the quarrels were also played out in America. Colonies attempted to appear neutral, but it was obvious that Massachusetts supported parliament and Virginia the king. There were confrontations in New Hampshire, and in 1652 Cromwell sent a fleet to Barbados to remove Lord Willoughby, who had claimed the island for the exiled Charles II. In Maryland, in 1655, the battle of the Severn saw Catholic royalists pitched against Protestant parliamentarians – arguably the last engagement of the Civil War.

The 1640s and 1650s brought protests in the name of liberty – appeals to a sense of Englishness raised above crown or parliament through vague yet potent claims to the ‘ancient constitution’. In his determination to subdue subjects abroad, Oliver Cromwell did not depart from the ways of Charles I; nor, later, did Charles II differ much from Cromwell. The ideological differences of the Civil War shifted towards more explicit conflict between colonies and crown – a crown that happened to offend Protestants in its absolutism and Catholicism, but might have been quite different in politics and religion and still caused friction in America. New England’s Puritans celebrated the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, but the monarchy’s imperialist character was here to stay. William III and II declined to repeal the hated Navigation Acts by which levies were charged on colonial trade, nor did the charter he restored to Massachusetts have the same strident spirit as that which John Winthrop had carried there in 1630.

Dissatisfaction magnified feelings dating back to the founding of Jamestown, namely that colonists were entitled to some self-government. Typically, the focus was local interpretation of English law, not independence. Settlers justified this in that they had surrendered home comforts, risked their lives, and alone understood the problems of governance several thousand miles from Westminster. Ironically, their claims, like all claims to the rights of freeborn Englishmen, were conservative in inception yet potentially radical. Nowhere was this attitude stronger than in Boston, whose laws followed Moses, not English statute. There money was illegally minted, regicides were kept from justice, and errant Englishmen – so petitioners complained to Charles II – assumed “the privilege of a free state”.

Had these exiled Englishmen, who clung to Englishness in the wilderness and loudly advertised English rights, somehow become ‘Americans’? They didn’t call themselves this, or if they did it was self-deprecating: they meant that cultural starvation had turned them into ‘Indians’. But there was truth in this false modesty. As New England expanded, so more colonists lived far from schools and churches, and became tough survivalists. To Puritan stalwarts in Boston, such people were ‘white Indians’. In the 1650s, a settler in Connecticut, who had been amazed to see natives converted, imagined a Judgment Day on which Native Americans were bathed in glory alongside Englishmen sunk in ‘Indian darkness’.

Less sensationally, every colonist of some years’ standing was changed – not into ‘Americans’ as such, but certainly a different kind of English person. New Englanders, at least, acquired a distinct and unsavoury character in old English eyes. In the 1690s, the journalist Ned Ward portrayed them as hypocrites in “puritanical postures”, yet fond of rum and “as subtle as serpents”.

By 1700, European America had a population of 300,000, two-fifths of New English descent. The New Englanders mocked by Ned Ward were mostly of the third generation, upon whom puritanism exerted less force than it had on their grandparents. Native Americans had been pushed to the margins of their ancestral lands – banished, diminished. If, as early explorers described, they had lived in a kind of paradise, this was their fall; songs of experience replaced songs of innocence. Robert Beverley, a Virginian planter, admitted in 1705 that Englishmen had taken everything from the Native Americans in exchange for “drunkenness and luxury… which have multiplied their wants, and put them upon desiring a thousand things they never dreamt of before”. As Eden receded, so did Canaan. America never fulfilled the utopian dreams upon which adventures were built, and worldly ideals took over.

We know of some English colonists who joined the Native Americans and were assimilated, including Joshua Tift, captured during King Philip’s War and executed as a traitor. Such complete conversions were few compared to the thousands who absorbed something of native America simply by living there. They did, however, prove the possibility of something unimaginable when Englishmen first travelled to save ‘savages’ from Satan. The most striking example of a colonist-turned-Native American was Eunice Williams, the child left in Quebec when her family was freed in 1706. Renamed Waongote, meaning ‘transplanted’, she married a Mohawk and resisted attempts by her father, John Williams, to redeem her. She even forgot how to speak English.

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This coloured engraving dating from the 16th century shows English settlers arriving in Virginia. A colonist to the area later  admitted that the actions of Englishmen had taken everything from the Native Americans in exchange for “drunkenness and luxury”. (© Bridgeman Art Library)

All English people who went to America were the transplanted, and over time this signified strength more than dislocation, pride more than unease, a singular loyalty not a divided one. To be an American was to be self-willed, resilient, and defiant – qualities tested in 1776 and not found wanting. Earlier events acquired exceptionalist significance. The contract signed on the Mayflower, an Old World business agreement deferential to law and custom, became a kind of proto-constitution. And Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” lost its reactionary colour to become an emblem of valour and idealism, evoked by US presidents as different as Kennedy, Reagan and Obama. Colonists were recruited from the past as progressive libertarians, even though Winthrop equated democracy with tyranny and defined liberty as freedom to abide by his interpretation of God’s will.

It may not matter to millions of Americans that the germ of their brave new world was formed in England by people trying to solve English problems, that their restless innovation grew out of English determination to resist change, not encourage it, nor that ‘manifest destiny’ was a self-justifying illusion concealing a less epic reality: an incoherent, faltering rag-bag of ill-conceived colonial adventures. But it should matter for the history of England because America reflected the nation’s tensions and anxieties in the 17th century, and its very English agonies of transformation.

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Malcolm Gaskill is professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia and author of Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans (Oxford University Press, 2014).