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Whether they came as servants, slaves, free farmers, religious refugees, or powerful planters, the men and women of the American colonies created new worlds. Native Americans saw fledgling settlements turned into unstoppable beachheads of vast new populations that increasingly monopolized resources and remade the land into something else entirely. Meanwhile, as colonial societies developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fluid labor arrangements and racial categories solidified into the race-based, chattel slavery that increasingly defined the economy of the British Empire. The North American mainland originally occupied a small and marginal place in that broad empire, as even the output of its most prosperous colonies paled before the tremendous wealth of Caribbean sugar islands. And yet the colonial backwaters on the North American mainland, ignored by many imperial officials, were nevertheless deeply tied into these larger Atlantic networks. The Atlantic World connected the continents of Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
Events across the ocean continued to influence the lives of American colonists. Civil war, religious conflict, and nation building wracked seventeenth-century Britain and remade societies on both sides of the ocean. And at the same time, colonial settlements grew and matured and developed into powerful societies capable of warring against Native Americans and subduing internal upheaval. Patterns established during the colonial era would echo for centuries. And none, perhaps, would be so brutal and so destructive as American slavery.
II. Slavery and the Making of Race
Arriving in Charles Town, Carolina in 1706, Reverend Francis Le Jau was horrified almost immediately. He met enslaved Africans ravaged by the Middle Passage, Indians traveling south to enslave enemy villages, and colonists terrified of invasions from French Louisiana and Spanish Florida. Slavery and death surrounded him.
Still, Le Jau’s stiffest complaints were reserved for his own countrymen, the English. White servants lazed about, “good for nothing at all.” Elites were no better, unwilling to concede “that Negroes and Indians are otherwise than Beasts.” Although the minister thought otherwise and baptized several hundred slaves after teaching them to read, his angst was revealing.
The 1660s marked a turning point for black men and women in southern colonies like Virginia. New laws created the expectation that African-descended peoples would remain enslaved for life. The permanent deprivation of freedom facilitated the maintenance of strict racial barriers. Skin color became more than superficial difference; it became the marker of a transcendent, all-encompassing division between two distinct peoples, two races, white and black.
Racial prejudice against African-descended peoples co-evolved with Anglo-American slavery, but blacks were certainly not the only slaves, nor whites the only slaveholders. For most of the seventeenth century, as it had been for many thousands of years, Native Americans controlled almost the entire North American continent. Only after more than a century of Anglo-American contact and observations of so many Indians decimated by diseases did settlers come to see themselves as somehow more naturally “American” than the continent’s first human occupiers.
All seventeenth-century racial thought did not point directly toward modern classifications of racial hierarchy. Captain Thomas Phillips, master of a slave ship in 1694, did not justify his work with any such creed: “I can’t think there is any intrinsic value in one color more than another, nor that white is better than black, only we think it so because we are so.” For Phillips, the profitability of slavery was the only justification he needed.
British colonists in the Caribbean made extensive use of Indian slaves as well as imported Africans. Before the intrusion of colonists, warring indigenous societies might take prisoners of war from enemy tribes to be ceremonially killed, traded to allied Indian groups as gifts, or incorporated into the societies of their captors. Throughout the colonial period, Europeans exploited these systems of indigenous captivity in many parts of the Americas. Colonists purchased captives from Indian traders with guns, knives, alcohol, or other manufactured goods. Colonists turned the purchased Indian captives into slaves who served on plantations in diverse functions: as fishermen, hunters, field laborers, domestic workers, and concubines. As the Indian slave trade became more valuable, illegal raids, rather than purchases, became more common. Courts might also punish convicted Indians by selling them into slavery.
Wars offered the most common means for colonists to acquire Native American slaves. Seventeenth-century European legal thought held that enslaving prisoners of war was not only legal, but more merciful than killing the captives outright. After the Pequot War (1636-1637), Massachusetts Bay colonists sold hundreds of North American Indians to the West Indies. A few years later, Dutch colonists in New Netherland (New York and New Jersey) enslaved Algonquian Indians during both Governor Kiefts War (1641-1645) and the two Eposus Wars (1659-1664). The Dutch similarly sent these Indians to English-settled Bermuda as well as Curaçao, a Dutch plantation-colony in the southern Caribbean. An even larger number of Indian slaves were captured during King Phillip’s War from 1675-1678, a pan-Indian rebellion against the encroachments of the New England colonies. Hundreds of defeated Indians were bound and shipped into slavery. The New England colonists also tried to send Indian slaves to Barbados, but the Barbados Assembly refused to import the New England Indians for fear they would encourage rebellion.
In the eighteenth century, wars in Florida, South Carolina, and the Mississippi Valley produced even more Indian slaves. Some wars emerged from contests between Indians and colonists for land, while others were manufactured as pretenses for acquiring captives. Some were not wars at all, but merely illegal raids performed by slave traders. Historians estimate that between 24,000 and 51,000 Native Americans were enslaved throughout the South between 1670 and 1715. While some Indians stayed in the southern colonies, many were exported through Charlestown, South Carolina, to other ports in the British Atlantic, most likely to Barbados, Jamaica, and Bermuda. Slave raids and Indian slavery threatened the many settlers who wished to claim land in frontier territories. By the eighteenth century, colonial governments often discouraged the practice, although it never ceased entirely as long as slavery was, in general, a legal institution.
Native American slaves died quickly, mostly from disease, but others were murdered or died from starvation. The demands of colonial plantation economies required a more reliable labor force, and the transatlantic slave trade met the demand. European slavers transported millions of Africans across the ocean in a horrific journey known as the Middle Passage. Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Olaudah Equiano recalled the fearsomeness of the crew, the filth and gloom of the hold, the inadequate provisions allotted for the captives, and the desperation that drove some slaves to suicide. Equiano claimed to have been born in Igboland (in modern-day Nigeria), but he may have been born in colonial South Carolina and collected memories of the Middle Passage from African-born slaves. In the same time period, Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon, described the sufferings of slaves from shipboard infections and close quarters in the hold. Dysentery, known as “the bloody flux,” left captives lying in pools of excrement. Chained in small spaces in the hold, slaves could lose so much skin and flesh from chafing against metal and timber that their bones protruded. Other sources detailed rapes, whippings, and diseases like smallpox and conjunctivitis aboard slave ships.
“Middle” had various meanings in the Atlantic slave trade. For the captains and crews of slave ships, the Middle Passage was one leg in the maritime trade in sugar and other semi-finished American goods, manufactured European goods, and African slaves. For the enslaved Africans, the Middle Passage was the middle leg of three distinct journeys from Africa to the Americas. First was an overland journey to a coastal slave-trading factory, often a trek of hundreds of miles. Second—and middle—was an oceanic trip lasting from one to six months in a slaver. Third was acculturation (known as “seasoning”) and transportation to the mine, plantation, or other location where new slaves were forced into labor.
Recent estimates count between 11 and 12 million Africans forced across the Atlantic, with about 2 million deaths at sea as well as an additional several million dying in the trade’s overland African leg or during seasoning. Conditions in all three legs of the slave trade were horrible, but the first abolitionists focused especially on the abuses of the Middle Passage.
Europeans made the first steps toward an Atlantic slave trade in the 1440s, when Portuguese sailors landed in West Africa in search of gold, spices, and allies against the Muslims who dominated Mediterranean trade. Beginning in the 1440s, ship captains carried African slaves to Portugal. These Africans were valued only as domestic servants given Western Europe’s surplus of peasant labor. European expansion into the Americas introduced both settlers and European authorities to a new situation—an abundance of land and a scarcity of labor. Portuguese, Dutch, and English ships became the conduits for Africans forced to America. The western coast of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, and the west central coast were sources of African captives. Wars of expansion and raiding parties produced captives who could be sold in coastal factories. African slave traders bartered for European finished goods such as beads, cloth, rum, firearms, and metal wares.
Slavers often landed in the British West Indies, where slaves were seasoned in places like Barbados. Charleston, South Carolina, became the leading entry point for the slave trade on the mainland. Sugar and tobacco boomed in Europe in the early colonial period, but rice, indigo, and rum were also profitable plantation exports. In the middle of the eighteenth century, after trade wars with the Dutch, English slavers became the most active carriers of Africans across the Atlantic. Brazil was the most common destination for slaves—more than four million slaves ended up in Brazil. English slavers, however, brought approximately two million slaves to the British West Indies. About 450,000 Africans landed in British North America, seemingly a small portion of the 11 to 12 million victims of the trade. Females were more likely to be found in North America than in other slave populations. These enslaved African women bore more children than their counterparts in the Caribbean or South America. A 1662 Virginia law stated that an enslaved woman’s children inherited the “condition” of their mother. This meant that all children born to slave women would be slaves for life, whether the father was white or black, enslaved or free.
American culture contains many resonances of the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade. Many foods associated with Africans, such as cassava, were imported to West Africa as part of the slave trade, then adopted by African cooks before being brought to the Americas, where they are still consumed. West African rhythms and melodies live in new forms today in music as varied as religious spirituals and synthesized drumbeats. African influences appear in the basket making and language of the Gullah people on the Carolina Coastal Islands.
Most fundamentally, the modern notion of race emerged as a result of the slave trade. Before the Atlantic slave trade, neither Europeans nor West Africans had a strong notion of race. Indeed, African slave traders lacked a firm category of race that might have led them to think that they were selling their own people. Similarly, most English citizens felt no racial identification with the Irish or the even the Welsh. Modern notions of race emerged only after Africans of different ethnic groups were mixed together in the slave trade and as Europeans began enslaving Africans and Native Americans exclusively.
In the early years of slavery, especially in the South, the distinction between indentured servants and slaves was, at first, unclear. In 1643, a law was passed in Virginia that made African women “tithable.” This, in effect, associated African women’s work with hard, agricultural labor. There was no similar tax levied on white women. This law was an attempt to disassociate white and African women. The English ideal was to have enough hired hands and servants working on a farm so that wives and daughters did not have to partake in manual labor. Instead, white women were expected to labor in dairy sheds, small gardens, and kitchens. Of course, due to the labor shortage in early America, white women did participate in field labor. But this idealized gendered division of labor contributed to the English conceiving of themselves as better than other groups who did not divide labor in this fashion, including the West Africans arriving in slave ships to the colonies. For white colonists, the association of a gendered division of labor with Englishness was a key formulation in determining that Africans would be enslaved and subordinate to whites.
Ideas about the rule of the household were informed by legal understandings of marriage and the home in England. A man was expected to hold “paternal dominion” over his household, which included his wife, children, servants, and slaves. White men could expect to rule over their subordinates. In contrast, slaves were not legally seen as masters of a household, and were therefore subject to the authority of the white master. Slave marriages were not legally recognized. Some enslaved men and women married “abroad”; that is, they married individuals who were not owned by the same master and did not live on the same plantation. These husbands and wives had to travel miles at a time, typically only once a week on Sundays, to visit their spouses. Legal or religious authority did not protect these marriages, and masters could refuse to let their slaves visit a spouse, or even sell a slave to a new master hundreds of miles away from their spouse and children. In addition to distance that might have separated family members, the work of keeping children fed and clothed often fell to enslaved women. They performed essential work during the hours that they were not expected to work for the master. They produced clothing and food for their husbands and children and often provided religious and educational instruction.
III. Turmoil in Britain
Religious violence plagued sixteenth-century England. While Spain plundered the New World and built an empire, England struggled as Catholic and Protestant monarchs vied for supremacy and attacked their opponents as heretics. Queen Elizabeth cemented Protestantism as the official religion of the realm, but questions endured as to what kind of Protestantism would hold sway. Many Puritans looked to the New World as an opportunity to create a beacon of Calvinist Christianity, while others continued the struggle in England. By the 1640s, political conflicts between Parliament and the Crown merged with long-simmering religious tensions. The result was a bloody civil war. Colonists reacted in a variety of ways as England waged war on itself, but all were affected by these decades of turmoil.
The outbreak of civil war between the King and Parliament in 1642 opened an opportunity for the English state to consolidate its hold over the American colonies. The conflict erupted as Charles I called a parliament in 1640 to assist him in suppressing a rebellion in Scotland. The Irish rebelled the following year, and by 1642 strained relations between Charles and Parliament produced a civil war in England. Parliament won, Charles I was executed, and England transformed into a republic and protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. These changes redefined England’s relationship with its American colonies.
In 1642, no permanent British North American colony was more than 35 years old. The crown and various proprietors controlled most of the colonies, but settlers from Barbados to Maine enjoyed a great deal of independence. This was especially true in Massachusetts Bay, where Puritan settlers governed themselves according to the colony’s 1629 charter. Trade in tobacco and naval stores tied the colonies to England economically, as did religion and political culture, but in general the English left the colonies to their own devices.
The English civil war forced settlers in America to reconsider their place within the empire. Older colonies like Virginia and proprietary colonies like Maryland sympathized with the crown. Newer colonies like Massachusetts Bay, populated by religious dissenters taking part in the Great Migration of the 1630s, tended to favor Parliament. Yet during the war the colonies remained neutral, fearing that support for either side could involve them in war. Even Massachusetts Bay, which nurtured ties to radical Protestants in Parliament, remained neutral.
Charles’s execution in 1649 altered that neutrality. Six colonies, including Virginia and Barbados, declared open allegiance to the dead monarch’s son, Charles II. Parliament responded with an Act in 1650 that leveled an economic embargo on the rebelling colonies, forcing them to accept Parliament’s authority. Parliament argued in the Act that America had been “planted at the Cost, and settled” by the English nation, and that it, as the embodiment of that commonwealth, possessed ultimate jurisdiction over the colonies. It followed up the embargo with the Navigation Act of 1651, which compelled merchants in every colony to ship goods directly to England in English ships. Parliament sought to bind the colonies more closely to England, and deny other European nations, especially the Dutch, from interfering with its American possessions.
Over the next few years colonists’ unease about Parliament’s actions reinforced their own sense of English identity, one that was predicated on notions of rights and liberties. When the colonists declared allegiance to Charles II after the Parliamentarian state collapsed in 1659 and England became a monarchy the following year, however, the new king dashed any hopes that he would reverse Parliament’s consolidation efforts. The revolution that had killed his father enabled Charles II to begin the next phase of empire building in English America.
Charles II ruled effectively, but his successor, James II, made several crucial mistakes. Eventually, Parliament again overthrew the authority of their king, this time turning to the Dutch Prince William of Holland and his English bride, Mary, the daughter of James II. This relatively peaceful coup was called the Glorious Revolution. English colonists in the era of the Glorious Revolution experienced religious and political conflict that reflected transformations in Europe. It was a time of great anxiety for the colonists. In the 1670s, King Charles II tightened English control over America, creating the royal colony of New Hampshire in 1678, and transforming Bermuda into a crown colony in 1684. The King’s death in 1685 and subsequent rebellions in England and Scotland against the new Catholic monarch, James II, threw Bermuda into crisis. Irregular reports made it unclear who was winning or who would protect their island. Bermudians were not alone in their wish for greater protection. On the mainland, Native Americans led by Metacom—or as the English called him, King Philip—devastated New England between 1675 and 1678 while Indian conflicts helped trigger Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676. Equally troubling, New France loomed, and many remained wary of Catholics in Maryland. In the colonists’ view, Catholics and Indians sought to destroy English America.
James II worked to place the colonies on firmer defensive footing by creating the Dominion of New England in 1686. Colonists had accepted him as king despite his religion but began to suspect him of possessing absolutist ambitions. The Dominion consolidated the New England colonies plus New York and New Jersey into one administrative unit to counter French Canada, but colonists decried the loss of their individual provinces. The Dominion’s governor, Sir Edmund Andros, did little to assuage fears of arbitrary power when he impressed colonists into military service for a campaign against Maine Indians in early 1687.
In England, James’s push for religious toleration brought him into conflict with Parliament and the Anglican establishment. Fearing that James meant to destroy Protestantism, a group of bishops and Parliamentarians asked William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch Stadtholder, and James’s son-in-law, to invade the country in 1688. When the king fled to France in December, Parliament invited William and Mary to take the throne, and colonists in America declared allegiance to the new monarchs. They did so in part to maintain order in their respective colonies. As one Virginia official explained, if there was “no King in England, there was no Government here.” A declaration of allegiance was therefore a means toward stability.
More importantly, colonists declared for William and Mary because they believed their ascension marked the rejection of absolutism and confirmed the centrality of Protestantism in English life. Settlers joined in the revolution by overthrowing the Dominion government, restoring the provinces to their previous status, and forcing out the Catholic-dominated Maryland government. They launched several assaults against French Canada as part of “King William’s War,” and rejoiced in Parliament’s 1689 passage of a Bill of Rights, which curtailed the power of the monarchy and cemented Protestantism in England. For English colonists, it was indeed a “glorious” revolution as it united them in a Protestant empire that stood counter to Catholic tyranny, absolutism, and French power.
IV. New Colonies
Despite the turmoil in Britain, colonial settlement grew considerably throughout the seventeenth century, and several new settlements joined the two original colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts.
In 1632, Charles I set a tract of about 12 million acres of land at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay aside for a second colony in America. Named for the new monarch’s queen, Maryland was granted to Charles’s friend and political ally, Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. Calvert hoped to gain additional wealth from the colony, as well as create a haven for fellow Catholics. In England, many of that faith found themselves harassed by the Protestant majority and more than a few considered migrating to America. Charles I, a Catholic sympathizer, was in favor of Lord Baltimore’s plan to create a colony that would demonstrate that Catholics and Protestants could live together peacefully.
In late 1633, both Protestant and Catholic settlers left England for the Chesapeake, arriving in Maryland in March 1634. Men of middling means found greater opportunities in Maryland, which prospered as a tobacco colony without the growing pains suffered by Virginia.
Unfortunately, Lord Baltimore’s hopes of a diverse Christian colony were dashed. Most colonists were Protestants relocating from Virginia. These Protestants were radical Quakers and Puritans who were tired of Virginia’s efforts to force adherence to the Anglican faith. In 1650, Puritans revolted, setting up a new government that prohibited both Catholicism and Anglicanism. Governor William Stone attempted to put down the revolt in 1655, but would not be successful until 1658. Two years after the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689), the Calverts lost control of Maryland and the colony became a royal colony.
Religion was implicated in the creation of several other colonies as well, including the New England colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island. The settlements that would eventually comprise Connecticut grew out of settlements in Saybrook and New Haven. Thomas Hooker and his congregation left Massachusetts for Connecticut because the area around Boston was becoming increasingly crowded. The Connecticut River Valley was large enough for more cattle and agriculture. In June 1636, Hooker led one hundred people and a variety of livestock in settling an area they called Newtown (later Hartford).
New Haven Colony had a more directly religious origin. The founders attempted a new experiment in Puritanism. In 1638, John Davenport, Theophilus Eaton, and other supporters of the Puritan faith settled in the Quinnipiac (New Haven) area of the Connecticut River Valley. In 1643, New Haven Colony was officially organized, with Eaton named governor. In the early 1660s, three men who had signed the death warrant for Charles I were concealed in New Haven. This did not win the colony any favors, and it became increasingly poorer and weaker. In 1665, New Haven was absorbed into Connecticut, but its singular religious tradition endured with the creation of Yale College.
Religious rogues similarly founded Rhode Island. Roger After his exile from Massachusetts, Roger Williams created a settlement called Providence in 1636. He negotiated for the land with the local Narragansett sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi. Williams and his fellow settlers agreed on an egalitarian constitution and established religious and political freedom in the colony. The following year, another Massachusetts castoff, Anne Hutchinson, and her followers settled near Providence. Soon, others followed, and were granted a charter by the Long Parliament in 1644. Persistently independent, the settlers refused a governor and instead elected a president and council. These separate plantations passed laws abolishing witchcraft trials, imprisonment for debt and, in 1652, chattel slavery. Because of the colony’s policy of toleration, it became a haven for Quakers, Jews, and other persecuted religious groups. In 1663, Charles II granted the colony a royal charter establishing the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
Until the middle of the seventeenth century, the English neglected the settlement of the area between Virginia and New England despite obvious environmental advantages. The climate was healthier than the Chesapeake and more temperate than New England. The mid-Atlantic had three highly navigable rivers: the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Hudson. Because the English failed to colonize the area, the Swedes and Dutch established their own colonies: New Sweden in the Delaware Valley and New Netherland in the Hudson Valley.
Compared to other Dutch colonies around the globe, the settlements on the Hudson River were relatively minor. The Dutch West India Company realized that in order to secure its fur trade in the area, it needed to establish a greater presence in the colony. Toward this end, the company formed New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island in 1625.
Although the Dutch extended religious tolerance to those who settled in New Netherland, the population remained small. This left the colony vulnerable to English attack during the 1650s and 1660s, resulting in the eventual hand-over of New Netherland to England in 1667. The new colony of New York was named for the proprietor, James, the Duke of York, brother to Charles I and funder of the expedition against the Dutch in 1664. The Dutch resisted assimilation into English culture well into the eighteenth century, prompting New York Anglicans to note that the colony was “rather like a conquered foreign province.”
After the acquisition of New Netherland, Charles I and the Duke of York wished to strengthen English control over the Atlantic seaboard. In theory, this was to better tax the colonies; in practice, the awarding of the new proprietary colonies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas was a payoff of debts and political favors.
In 1664, the Duke of York granted the area between the Hudson and Delaware rivers to two English noblemen. These lands were split into two distinct colonies, East Jersey and West Jersey. One of West Jersey’s proprietors included William Penn. The ambitious Penn wanted his own, larger colony, the lands for which would be granted by both Charles II and the Duke of York. Pennsylvania consisted of about 45,000 square miles west of the Delaware River and the former New Sweden. Penn was a Quaker, and he intended his colony to be a “colony of Heaven for the children of Light.” Like New England’s aspirations to be a City Upon a Hill, Pennsylvania was to be an example of godliness. But Penn’s dream was to create not a colony of unity, but rather a colony of harmony. He noted in 1685 that “the people are a collection of diverse nations in Europe, as French, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Scotch, and English….” Because Quakers in Pennsylvania extended to others in America the same rights they had demanded for themselves in England, the colony attracted a diverse collection of migrants. Slavery was particularly troublesome for the pacifist Quakers of Pennsylvania on the grounds that it required violence. In 1688, Quakers of the Germantown Meeting signed a petition protesting the institution of slavery.
The Pennsylvania soil did not lend itself to the slave-based agriculture of the Chesapeake, but other colonies would depend heavily on slavery from their very foundations. The creation of the colony of Carolina, later divided into North and South Carolina and Georgia, was part of Charles I’s scheme to strengthen the English hold on the eastern seaboard and pay off political and cash debts. The Lords Proprietor of Carolina—eight very powerful favorites of the king—used the model of the colonization of Barbados to settle the area. In 1670, three ships of colonists from Barbados arrived at the mouth of the Ashley River, where they founded Charles Town. This defiance of Spanish claim to the area signified England’s growing confidence as a colonial power.
To attract colonists, the Lords Proprietor offered alluring incentives: religious tolerance, political representation by assembly, exemption from quitrents, and large land grants. These incentives worked and Carolina grew quickly, attracting not only middling farmers and artisans but also wealthy planters. Settlers who could pay their own way to Carolina were granted 150 acres per family member. The Lords Proprietor allowed for slaves to be counted as members of the family. This encouraged the creation of large rice and indigo plantations along the coast of Carolina, which were more stable commodities than the deerskin and Indian slave trades. Because of the size of Carolina, the authority of the Lords Proprietor was especially weak in the northern reaches on the Albemarle Sound. This region had been settled by Virginians in the 1650s and was increasingly resistant to Carolina authority. As a result, the Lords Proprietor founded the separate province of North Carolina in 1691.
V. Riot, Rebellion, and Revolt
The seventeenth century saw the establishment and solidification of the British North American colonies, but this process did not occur peacefully. Explosions of violence rocked nearly all of the English settlements on the continent.
In May 1637, an armed contingent of English Puritans from Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut colonies trekked into the New England wilderness. Referring to themselves as the “Sword of the Lord,” this military force intended to attack “that insolent and barbarous Nation, called the Pequots.” In the resulting violence, Puritans put the Mystic community to the torch, beginning with the north and south ends of the town. As Pequot men, women, and children tried to escape the blaze, other soldiers waited with swords and guns. One commander estimated that of the “four hundred souls in this Fort…not above five of them escaped out of our hands,” although another counted near “six or seven hundred” dead. In a span of less than two months, the English Puritans boasted that the Pequot “were drove out of their country, and slain by the sword, to the number of fifteen hundred.”
The foundations of the war lay within the rivalry between the Pequot, the Narragansett and Mohegan, who battled for control of the fur and wampum trades. This rivalry eventually forced the English and Dutch to choose sides. The war remained a conflict of Native interests and initiative, especially as the Mohegan hedged their bets on the English and reaped the rewards that came with displacing the Pequot.
Victory over the Pequot not only provided security and stability for the English colonies, but also propelled the Mohegan to new heights of political and economic influence as the primary power in New England. Ironically, history seemingly repeated itself as the Mohegan, desperate for a remedy to their diminishing power, joined the Wampanoag war against the Puritans, which produced a more violent conflict in 1675 known as King Philip’s War, bringing a decisive end to “Indian Power” in New England.
In the winter of 1675, the body of John Sassamon, a Christian, Harvard-educated Wampanoag, was found under the ice of a nearby pond. A fellow Christian Indian informed English authorities that three warriors under the local sachem named Metacom, known to the English as King Philip, had killed Sassamon, who had previously accused Metacom of planning an insurrection against the English. The three alleged killers appeared before the Plymouth court in June 1675, were found guilty of murder, and executed. Several weeks later, a group of Wampanoags killed nine English colonists in the town of Swansea.
Metacom—like most other New England sachems—had entered into covenants of “submission” to various colonies, viewing the arrangements as relationships of protection and reciprocity rather than subjugation. Indians and English lived, traded, worshiped, and arbitrated disputes in close proximity before 1675, but the execution of three of Metacom’s men at the hands of Plymouth Colony epitomized what many Indians viewed as a growing inequality of that relationship. The Wampanoags who attacked Swansea may have sought to restore balance, or to retaliate for the recent executions. Neither they nor anyone else sought to engulf all of New England in war, but that is precisely what happened. Authorities in Plymouth sprung into action, enlisting help from the neighboring colonies of Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Metacom and his followers eluded colonial forces in the summer of 1675, striking more Plymouth towns as they moved northwest. Some groups joined his forces, while others remained neutral or supported the English. The war badly divided some Indian communities. Metacom himself had little control over events, as panic and violence spread throughout New England in the autumn of 1675. English mistrust of neutral Indians, sometimes accompanied by demands they surrender their weapons, pushed many into open war. By the end of 1675, most of the Indians of western and central Massachusetts had entered the war, laying waste to nearby English towns like Deerfield, Hadley, and Brookfield. Hapless colonial forces, spurning the military assistance of Indian allies such as the Mohegans, proved unable to locate more mobile native villages or intercept Indian attacks.
The English compounded their problems by attacking the powerful and neutral Narragansetts of Rhode Island in December 1675. In an action called the Great Swamp Fight, l000 Englishmen put the main Narragansett village to the torch, gunning down as many as 1000 Narragansett men, women, and children as they fled the maelstrom. The surviving Narragansetts joined the Indians already in rebellion against the English. Between February and April 1676, rebel forces devastated a succession of English towns closer and closer to Boston.
In the spring of 1676, the tide turned. The New England colonies took the advice of men like Benjamin Church, who urged the greater use of Native allies to find and fight the mobile rebels. Unable to plant crops and forced to live off the land, the rebels’ will to fight waned as companies of English and Native allies pursued them. Growing numbers of rebels fled the region, switched sides, or surrendered in the spring and summer. The English sold many of the latter group into slavery. Colonial forces finally caught up with Metacom in August 1676, and the sachem was slain by a Christian Indian fighting with the English.
The war permanently altered the political and demographic landscape of New England. Between 800 and 1000 English and at least 3000 Indians perished in the 14-month conflict. Thousands of other Indians fled the region or were sold into slavery. In 1670, Native Americans comprised roughly 25 percent of New England’s population; a decade later, they made up perhaps 10 percent. The war’s brutality also encouraged a growing hatred of all Indians among many New England colonists. Though the fighting ceased in 1676, the bitter legacy of King Philip’s War lived on.
Native American communities in Virginia had already been decimated by wars in 1622 and 1644. But in the same year that New Englanders crushed Metacom’s forces, a new clash arose in Virginia. This conflict, knows as Bacon’s Rebellion, grew out of tensions between Native Americans and English settlers as well as tensions between wealthy English landowners and the poor settlers who continually pushed west into Indian territory.
Bacon’s Rebellion began, appropriately enough, with an argument over a pig. In the summer of 1675, a group of Doeg Indians visited Thomas Mathew on his plantation in northern Virginia to collect a debt that he owed them. When Mathew refused to pay, they took some of his pigs to settle the debt. This “theft” sparked a series of raids and counter-raids. The Susquehannock Indians were caught in the crossfire when the militia mistook them for Doegs, leaving fourteen dead. A similar pattern of escalating violence then repeated: the Susquehannocks retaliated by killing colonists in Virginia and Maryland, and the English marshaled their forces and laid siege to the Susquehannocks. The conflict became uglier after the militia executed a delegation of Susquehannock ambassadors under a flag of truce. A few parties of warriors intent on revenge launched raids along the frontier and killed dozens of English colonists.
The sudden and unpredictable violence of the Susquehannock War triggered a political crisis in Virginia. Panicked colonists fled en masse from the vulnerable frontiers, flooding into coastal communities and begging the government for help. But the cautious governor, Sir William Berkeley, did not send an army after the Susquehannocks. He worried that a full-scale war would inevitably drag other Indians into the conflict, turning allies into deadly enemies. Berkeley therefore insisted on a defensive strategy centered around a string of new fortifications to protect the frontier and strict instructions not to antagonize friendly Indians. It was a sound military policy but a public relations disaster. Terrified colonists condemned Berkeley. Building contracts for the forts went to Berkeley’s wealthy friends, who conveniently decided that their own plantations were the most strategically vital. Colonists also condemned the government as a corrupt band of oligarchs more interested in lining their pockets than protecting their people.
By the spring of 1676, a small group of frontier colonists took matters into their own hands. Naming the charismatic young Nathaniel Bacon as their leader, these self-styled “volunteers” proclaimed that they took up arms in defense of their homes and families. They took pains to assure Berkeley that they intended no disloyalty, but Berkeley feared a coup and branded the volunteers as traitors. Berkeley finally mobilized an army—not to pursue Susquehannocks, but to crush their rebellion. His drastic response catapulted a small band of anti-Indian vigilantes into full-fledged rebels whose survival necessitated bringing down the colonial government.
Bacon and the rebels stalked the Susquehannock as well as friendly Indians like the Pamunkeys and the Occaneechis. The rebels became convinced that there was a massive Indian conspiracy to destroy the English and viewed themselves as heroes to frightened Virginians. Berkeley’s stubborn persistence in defending friendly Indians and destroying the Indian-fighting rebels led Bacon to accuse the governor of conspiring with a “powerful cabal” of elite planters and with “the protected and darling Indians” to slaughter his English enemies.
In the early summer of 1676, Bacon’s neighbors elected him their burgess and sent him to Jamestown to confront Berkeley. The governor promptly arrested him and forced him into the humiliating position of publicly begging forgiveness for his treason. Bacon swallowed this indignity, but turned the tables by gathering an army of followers and surrounding the State House, demanding that Berkeley name him the General of Virginia and bless his universal war against Indians. Instead, the 70-year old governor stepped onto the field in front of the crowd of angry men, unafraid, and called Bacon a traitor to his face. Then he tore open his shirt and dared Bacon to shoot him in the heart, if he was so intent on overthrowing his government. “Here!” he shouted before the crowd, “Shoot me, before God, it is a fair mark. Shoot!” When Bacon hesitated, Berkeley drew his sword and challenged the young man to a duel, knowing that Bacon could neither back down from a challenge without looking like a coward nor kill him without making himself into a villain. Instead, Bacon resorted to bluster and blasphemy. Threatening to slaughter the entire Assembly if necessary, he cursed, “God damn my blood, I came for a commission, and a commission I will have before I go.” Berkeley stood defiant, but the cowed burgesses finally prevailed upon him to grant Bacon’s request. Virginia had its general, and Bacon had his war.
After this dramatic showdown in Jamestown, Bacon’s Rebellion quickly spiraled out of control. Berkeley slowly rebuilt his loyalist army, forcing Bacon to divert his attention to the coasts and away from the Indians. But most rebels were more interested in defending their homes and families than in fighting other Englishmen, and deserted Bacon in droves at every rumor of Indian activity. In many places, the “rebellion” was less an organized military campaign than a collection of local grievances and personal rivalries. Both rebels and loyalists smelled the opportunities for plunder, seizing their rivals’ estates and confiscating their property.
For a small but vocal minority of rebels, however, the rebellion became an ideological revolution: Sarah Drummond, wife of rebel leader William Drummond, advocated independence from England and the formation of a Virginian Republic, declaring “I fear the power of England no more than a broken straw.” Others struggled for a different kind of independence: white servants and black slaves fought side by side in both armies after promises of freedom for military service. Everyone accused everyone else of treason, rebels and loyalists switched sides depending on which side was winning, and the whole Chesapeake disintegrated into a confused melee of secret plots and grandiose crusades, sordid vendettas and desperate gambits, with Indians and English alike struggling for supremacy and survival. One Virginian summed up the rebellion as “our time of anarchy.”
The rebels steadily lost ground and ultimately suffered a crushing defeat. Bacon died of typhus in the autumn of 1676, and his successors surrendered to Berkeley in January 1677. Berkeley summarily tried and executed the rebel leadership in a succession of kangaroo courts-martial. Before long, however, the royal fleet arrived, bearing over 1000 red-coated troops and a royal commission of investigation charged with restoring order to the colony. The commissioners replaced the governor and dispatched Berkeley to London, where he died in disgrace.
But the conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion was uncertain, and the maintenance of order remained precarious for years afterward. The garrison of royal troops discouraged both incursion by hostile Indians and insurrection by discontented colonists, allowing the king to continue profiting from tobacco revenues. The end of armed resistance did not mean a resolution to the underlying tensions destabilizing colonial society. Indians inside Virginia remained an embattled minority and Indians outside Virginia remained a terrifying threat. Elite planters continued to grow rich by exploiting their indentured servants and marginalizing small farmers. The vast majority of Virginians continued to resent their exploitation with a simmering fury and meaningful reform was nowhere on the horizon. Bacon’s Rebellion, in the words of one historian, was “a rebellion with abundant causes but without a cause,” and its legacy was little more than a return to the status quo. However, the conflict between poor farmers and wealthy planters may have persuaded a few leaders to look for a less volatile labor force. Indentured servants eventually became free farmers, competing for land and power, while African slaves did not. For this reason Bacon’s Rebellion further motivated the turn to slave labor in the Chesapeake.
Just a few years after Bacon’s Rebellion, the Spanish experienced their own tumult in the area of contemporary New Mexico. The Spanish had been maintaining control partly by suppressing Native American beliefs. Friars aggressively enforced Catholic practice, burning native idols and masks and other sacred objects and banishing traditional spiritual practices. In 1680 the Pueblo religious leader Popé, who had been arrested and whipped for “sorcery” five years earlier, led various Puebloan groups in rebellion. Several thousand Pueblo warriors razed the Spanish countryside and besieged Santa Fe. They killed 400, including 21 Franciscan priests, and allowed 2,000 other Spaniards and Christian Pueblos to flee. It was perhaps the greatest act of Indian resistance in North American history.
In New Mexico, the Pueblos eradicated all traces of Spanish rule. They destroyed churches and threw themselves into rivers to wash away their Christian baptisms. “The God of the Christians is dead,” they proclaimed, before reassuming traditional spiritual practices. The Spanish were exiled for twelve years. They returned in 1692, weakened, to reconquer New Mexico.
The late seventeenth century was a time of great violence and turmoil. Bacon’s Rebellion turned white Virginians against one another, King Philip’s War shattered Indian resistance in New England, and the Pueblo Revolt struck a major blow to Spanish power. It would take several more decades before similar patterns erupted in Carolina and Pennsylvania, but the constant advance of European settlements provoked conflict in these areas as well.
In 1715, The Yamasees, Carolina’s closest allies and most lucrative trading partners, turned against the colony and very nearly destroyed it all. Writing from Carolina to London, the settler George Rodd believed they wanted nothing less than “the whole continent and to kill us or chase us all out.” Yamasees would eventually advance within miles of Charles Town.
The Yamasee War’s first victims were traders. The governor had dispatched two of the colony’s most prominent men to visit and pacify a Yamasee council following rumors of native unrest. Yamasees quickly proved the fears well founded by killing the emissaries and every English trader they could corral.
Yamasees, like many other Indians, had come to depend on English courts as much as the flintlock rifles and ammunition traders offered them for slaves and animal skins. Feuds between English agents in Indian country had crippled the court of trade and shut down all diplomacy, provoking the violent Yamasee reprisal. Most Indian villages in the southeast sent at least a few warriors to join what quickly became a pan-Indian cause against the colony.
Yet Charles Town ultimately survived the onslaught by preserving one crucial alliance with the Cherokees. By 1717, the conflict had largely dried up, and the only remaining menace was roaming Yamasee bands operating from Spanish Florida. Most Indian villages returned to terms with Carolina and resumed trading. The lucrative trade in Indian slaves, however, which had consumed 50,000 souls in five decades, largely dwindled after the war. The danger was too high for traders, and the colonies discovered even greater profits by importing Africans to work new rice plantations. Herein lies the birth of the “Old South,” that hoard of plantations that created untold wealth and misery. Indians retained the strongest militaries in the region, but they never again threatened the survival of English colonies.
If there were a colony where peace with Indians might continue, it would be in Pennsylvania, where William Penn created a religious imperative for the peaceful treatment of Indians. His successors, sons John, Thomas, and Richard, continued the practice but increased immigration, and booming land speculation increased the demand for land. The Walking Purchase of 1737, a deal made between Delaware Indians and the proprietary government in an effort to secure a large tract of land for the colony north of Philadelphia in the Delaware and Lehigh River valleys, became emblematic of both colonials’ desire for cheap land and the changing relationship between Pennsylvanians and their Native neighbors.
Through treaty negotiation in 1737, native Delaware leaders agreed to sell Pennsylvania all of the land that a man could walk in a day and a half, a common measurement utilized by Delawares in evaluating distances. John and Thomas Penn, joined by the land speculator James Logan, hired a team of skilled runners to complete the “walk” on a prepared trail. The runners traveled from Wrightstown to present-day Jim Thorpe and proprietary officials then drew the new boundary line perpendicular to the runners’ route, extending northeast to the Delaware River. The colonial government thus measured out a tract much larger than Delawares had originally intended to sell, roughly 1200 square miles. As a result, Delaware-proprietary relations suffered. Many Delawares left the lands in question and migrated westward to join Shawnees and other Delawares already living in the Ohio Valley. There, they established diplomatic and trade relationships with the French. Memories of the suspect purchase endured into the 1750s and became a chief point of contention between the Pennsylvanian government and Delawares during the upcoming Seven Years War.
The seventeenth century saw the creation and maturation of Britain’s North American colonies. Colonists endured a century of struggle against unforgiving climates, hostile natives, and imperial intrigue. They did so largely through ruthless expressions of power. Colonists conquered Indians, attacked European rivals, and joined a highly lucrative transatlantic economy rooted in slavery. After surviving a century of desperation and war, British North American colonists fashioned increasingly complex societies with unique religious cultures, economic ties, and political traditions. These societies would come to shape not only North America, but soon the entirety of the Atlantic World.
This chapter was edited by Ben Wright, with content contributions by Gregory Ablavsky, James Ambuske, Carolyn Arena, L.D. Burnett, Lori Daggar, Hendrick Isom, D. Andrew Johnson, Matthew Kruer, Joseph Locke, Samantha Miller, Melissa Morris, Bryan Rindfleisch, Emily Romeo, John Saillant, Ian Saxine, Marie Stango, Luke Willert, and Ben Wright.