Author Archives: bgwright

F17 – 13 The Sectional Crisis

John Steuart Curry, Tragic Prelude, 1938-1940, Kansas State Capitol

This mural, created over eighty years after Brown’s death, captures the violence and religious fervor of the man and his era. John Steuart Curry, Tragic Prelude, 1938-1940, Kansas State Capitol.

*The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

Slavery’s western expansion created problems for the United States from the very start. Battles emerged over the westward expansion of slavery and over the role of the federal government in protecting the interests of slaveholders. Northern workers felt that slavery suppressed wages and stole land that could have been used by poor white Americans to achieve economic independence. Southerners feared that without slavery’s expansion, the abolitionist faction would come to dominate national politics and an increasingly dense population of slaves would lead to bloody insurrection and race war. Constant resistance from enslaved men and women required a strong proslavery government to maintain order. As the North gradually abolished human bondage, enslaved men and women headed North on an underground railroad of hideaways and safe houses. Northerners and Southerners came to disagree sharply on the role of the federal government in capturing and returning these freedom seekers. While Northerners appealed to their states’ rights to refuse capturing runaway slaves, Southerners demanded a national commitment to slavery. Enslaved laborers meanwhile remained vitally important to the nation’s economy, fueling not only the southern plantation economy but also providing raw materials for the industrial North. Differences over the fate of slavery remained at the heart of American politics, especially as the United States expanded. After decades of conflict, Americans north and south began to fear that the opposite section of the country had seized control of the government. By November 1860, an opponent of slavery’s expansion arose from within the Republican Party. During the secession crisis that followed, fears, nearly a century in the making, at last devolved into bloody war.


II. Sectionalism in the Early Republic

This map, published by the US Coast Guard, shows the percentage of slaves in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in 1860. The highest percentages lie along the Mississippi River, in the “Black Belt” of Alabama, and coastal South Carolina, all of which were centers of agricultural production (cotton and rice) in the United States. E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver), Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860, c. 1861. Wikimedia,

This map, published by the US Coast Guard, shows the percentage of slaves in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in 1860. The highest percentages lie along the Mississippi River, in the “Black Belt” of Alabama, and coastal South Carolina, all of which were centers of agricultural production (cotton and rice) in the United States.
E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver), Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860, c. 1861. Wikimedia

Slavery’s history stretched back to antiquity. Prior to the American Revolution, nearly everyone in the world accepted it as a natural part of life.1 English colonies north and south relied on enslaved workers who grew tobacco, harvested indigo and sugar, and worked in ports. They generated tremendous wealth for the British crown. That wealth and luxury fostered seemingly limitless opportunities, and inspired seemingly boundless imaginations. Enslaved workers also helped give rise to revolutionary new ideals, ideals that in time became the ideological foundations of the sectional crisis. English political theorists, in particular, began to re-think natural law justifications for slavery. They rejected the longstanding idea that slavery was a condition that naturally suited some people. A new transatlantic antislavery movement began to argue that freedom was the natural condition of man.2

Revolutionaries seized onto these ideas to stunning effect in the late eighteenth century. In the United States, France, and Haiti, revolutionaries began the work of splintering the old order. Each revolution seemed to radicalize the next. Bolder and more expansive declarations of equality and freedom followed one after the other. Revolutionaries in the United States declared, “All men are created equal,” in the 1770s. French visionaries issued the “Declaration of Rights and Man and Citizen” by 1789.  But the most startling development came in 1803. A revolution led by the island’s rebellious slaves turned France’s most valuable sugar colony into an independent country administered by the formerly enslaved.

The Haitian Revolution marked an early origin of the sectional crisis. It helped splinter the Atlantic basin into clear zones of freedom and un-freedom, shattering the longstanding assumption that African-descended slaves could not also be rulers. Despite the clear limitations of the American Revolution in attacking slavery, the era marked a powerful break in slavery’s history. Military service on behalf of both the English and the American army freed thousands of slaves. Many others simply used the turmoil of war to make their escape. As a result, free black communities emerged—communities that would continually reignite the antislavery struggle. For nearly a century, most white Americans were content to compromise over the issue of slavery, but the constant agitation of black Americans, both enslaved and free, kept the issue alive.3

The national breakdown over slavery occurred over a long timeline and across a broad geography. Debates over slavery in the American West proved especially important. As the United States pressed westward, new questions arose as to whether those lands ought to be slave or free. The framers of the Constitution did a little, but not much, to help resolve these early questions. Article VI of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance banned slavery north and west of the Ohio River.4 Many took it to mean that the founders intended for slavery to die out, as why else would they prohibit its spread across such a huge swath of territory?

Questions over the framer’s intentions often led to confusion and bitter debate, but the actions of the new government left better clues as to what the new nation intended for slavery. Congress authorized the admission of Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792), with Vermont coming into the Union as a free state, and Kentucky coming in as a slave state. Though Americans at the time made relatively little of the balancing act suggested by the admission of a slave state and a free state, the pattern became increasingly important. By 1820, preserving the balance of free states and slave states would be seen as an issue of national security.

New pressures challenging the delicate balance again arose in the West.  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 more than doubled the size of the United States. Questions immediately arose as to whether these lands would be made slave or free. Complicating matters further was the rapid expansion of plantation slavery fueled by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Yet even with the booming cotton economy, many Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that slavery was a temporary institution and would soon die out. Tensions rose with the Louisiana Purchase, but a truly sectional national debate remained mostly dormant.

That debate, however, came quickly. Sectional differences tied to the expansion of plantation slavery in the West were especially important after 1803. The Ohio River Valley became an early fault line in the coming sectional struggle. Kentucky and Tennessee emerged as slave states, while free states Ohio, Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818) gained admission along the river’s northern banks. Borderland negotiations and accommodations along the Ohio River fostered a distinctive kind of white supremacy, as laws tried to keep blacks out of the West entirely. Ohio’s so-called “Black Laws,” of 1803 foreshadowed the exclusionary cultures of Indiana, Illinois, and several subsequent states of the Old Northwest and later, the Far West.5 These laws often banned African American voting, denied black Americans access to public schools, and made it impossible for non-whites to serve on juries and in local militias, among a host of other restrictions and obstacles.

The Missouri Territory, by far the largest section of the Louisiana Territory, marked a turning point in the sectional crisis. Saint Louis, a bustling Mississippi River town filled with powerful slave owners, loomed large as an important trade headquarters for networks in the northern Mississippi Valley and the Greater West. In 1817, eager to put questions of whether this territory would be slave or free to rest, Congress opened its debate over Missouri’s admission to the Union. Congressman James Tallmadge of New York proposed laws that would gradually abolish slavery in the new state. Southern states responded with unanimous outrage, and the nation shuddered at an undeniable sectional controversy.6

Congress reached a “compromise” on Missouri’s admission, largely through the work of Kentuckian Henry Clay. Maine would be admitted to the Union as a free state. In exchange, Missouri would come into the Union as a slave state. Legislators sought to prevent future conflicts by making Missouri’s southern border at 36° 30′ the new dividing line between slavery and freedom in the Louisiana Purchase lands. South of that line, running east from Missouri to the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase lands (near the present-day Texas panhandle) slavery could expand. North of it, encompassing what in 1820 was still “unorganized territory,” there would be no slavery.7

The Missouri Compromise marked a major turning point in America’s sectional crisis because it exposed to the public just how divisive the slavery issue had grown. The debate filled newspapers, speeches, and Congressional records. Antislavery and pro-slavery positions from that point forward repeatedly returned to points made during the Missouri debates. Legislators battled for weeks over whether the Constitutional framers intended slavery’s expansion or not, and these contests left deep scars. Even seemingly simple and straightforward phrases like “All Men Are Created Equal” were hotly contested all over again. Questions over the expansion of slavery remained open, but nearly all Americans concluded that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed.

Southerners were not yet advancing arguments that said slavery was a positive good, but they did insist during the Missouri Debate that the framers supported slavery and wanted to see it expand. In Article 1, Section 2, for example, the Constitution enabled representation in the South to be based on rules defining enslaved people as 3/5 of a voter, meaning southern white men would be overrepresented in Congress. The Constitution also stipulated that Congress could not interfere with the slave trade before 1808, and enabled Congress to draft fugitive slave laws.

Antislavery participants in the Missouri debate argued that the framers never intended slavery to survive the Revolution and in fact hoped it would disappear through peaceful means. The framers of the Constitution never used the word “slave.” Slaves were referred to as “persons held in service,” perhaps referring to English common law precedents that questioned the legitimacy of “property in man.” Antislavery activists also pointed out that while the Congress could not pass a law limiting the slave trade by 1808, the framers had also recognized the flip side of the debate and had thus opened the door to legislating the slave trade’s end once the deadline arrived. Language in the Tenth Amendment, they claimed, also said slavery could be banned in the territories. Finally, they pointed to the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which said that property could be seized through appropriate legislation.8 The bruising Missouri debates ultimately transcended arguments about the Constitution. They became an all-encompassing referendum on the American past, present, and future.

Despite the furor, the Missouri Crisis did not yet inspire hardened defenses of either slave or free labor as positive good. Those would come in the coming decades. In the meantime, the uneasy consensus forged by the Missouri Debate managed to bring a measure of calm.

The Missouri debate had also deeply troubled the nation’s African Americans and Native Americans. By the time of the Missouri compromise debate, both groups saw that whites never intended them to be citizens of the United States. In fact, the debates over Missouri’s admission had offered the first sustained debate on the question of black citizenship, as Missouri’s State Constitution wanted to impose a hard ban on any future black migrants. Legislators ultimately agreed that this hard ban violated the Constitution, but reaffirmed Missouri’s ability to deny citizenship to African Americans. Americans by 1820 had endured a broad challenge, not only to their cherished ideals but also more fundamentally to their conceptions of self.


III. The Crisis Joined

Missouri’s admission to the Union in 1821 exposed deep fault lines in American society. But the Compromise created a new sectional consensus that most white Americans, at least, hoped would ensure a lasting peace. Through sustained debates and arguments, white Americans agreed that the Constitution could do little about slavery where it already existed and that slavery, with the State of Missouri as the key exception, would never expand north of the 36°30′ line.

Once again westward expansion challenged this consensus, and this time the results proved even more damaging. Tellingly, enslaved southerners were among the first to signal their discontent. A rebellion led by Denmark Vesey in 1822 threatened lives and property throughout the Carolinas. The nation’s religious leaders also expressed a rising discontent with the new status quo.9 The Second Great Awakening further sharpened political differences by promoting schisms within the major Protestant churches, schisms that also became increasingly sectional in nature. Between 1820 and 1846, sectionalism drew on new political parties, new religious organizations, and new reform movements.

As politics grew more democratic, leaders attacked old inequalities of wealth and power, but in doing so many pandered to a unity under white supremacy. Slavery briefly receded from the nation’s attention in the early 1820s, but that would change quickly. By the last half of the decade, slavery was back, and this time it appeared even more threatening.

Inspired by the social change of Jacksonian democracy, white men regardless of status would gain not only land and jobs, but also the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to attend public schools, and the right to serve in the militia and armed forces. In this post-Missouri context, leaders arose to push the country’s new expansionist desires in aggressive new directions. As they did so, however, the sectional crisis again deepened.

The Democratic Party initially seemed to offer a compelling answer to the problems of sectionalism by promising benefits to white working men of the North, South, and West, while also uniting rural, small town, and urban residents. Indeed, huge numbers of western, southern, and northern workingmen rallied during the 1828 Presidential election behind Andrew Jackson. The Democratic Party tried to avoid the issue of slavery and instead sought to unite Americans around shared commitments to white supremacy and desires to expand the nation.

Democrats were not without their critics. Northerners seen as especially friendly to the South had become known as “Doughfaces” during the Missouri debates, and as the 1830s wore on, more and more Doughfaced Democrats became vulnerable to the charge that they served the Southern slave oligarchs better than they served their own northern communities. Whites discontented with the direction of the country used the slur and other critiques to help chip away at Democratic Party majorities. The accusation that northern Democrats were lap dogs for southern slaveholders had real power.10

The Whigs offered an organized major party challenge to the Democrats. Whig strongholds often mirrored the patterns of westward migrations out of New England. Whigs drew from an odd coalition of wealthy merchants, middle and upper class farmers, planters in the Upland South, and settlers in the Great Lakes. Because of this motley coalition, the party struggled to bring a cohesive message to voters in the 1830s. Their strongest support came from places like Ohio’s Western Reserve, the rural and Protestant-dominated areas of Michigan, and similar parts of Protestant and small-town Illinois, particularly the fast-growing towns and cities of the state’s northern half.11

Whig leaders stressed Protestant culture, federal-sponsored internal improvements, and courted the support of a variety of reform movements, including temperance, nativism, and even antislavery, though few Whigs believed in racial equality. These positions attracted a wide range of figures, including a young convert to politics named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln admired Whig leader Henry Clay of Kentucky, and by the early 1830s, Lincoln certainly fit the image of developing Whig. A veteran of the Black Hawk War, Lincoln had re-located to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked a variety of odd jobs, living a life of thrift, self-discipline, and sobriety as he educated himself in preparation for a professional life in law and politics.

The Whig Party blamed Democrats for defending slavery at the expense of the American people, but antislavery was never a core component of the Whig platform. Several abolitionists grew so disgusted with the Whigs that they formed their own party, a true antislavery party.  Activists in Warsaw, New York organized the antislavery Liberty Party in 1839. Liberty leaders demanded the end of slavery in the District of Columbia, the end of the interstate slave trade, and the prohibition of slavery’s expansion into the West. But the Liberty Party also shunned women’s participation in the movement and distanced themselves from visions of true racial egalitarianism. Few Americans voted for the party. The Democrats and Whigs continued to dominate American politics.

Democrats and Whigs fostered a moment of relative calm on the slavery debate, partially aided by gag rules prohibiting discussion of antislavery petitions. Arkansas (1836) and Michigan (1837) became the newest states admitted to the Union, with Arkansas coming in as a slave state, and Michigan coming in as a free state. Michigan gained admission through provisions established in the Northwest Ordinance, while Arkansas came in under the Missouri Compromise. Since its lands were below the line at 36° 30′ the admission of Arkansas did not threaten the Missouri consensus. The balancing act between slavery and freedom continued.

Events in Texas would shatter the balance. Independent Texas soon gained recognition from a supportive Andrew Jackson administration in 1837. But Jackson’s successor, President Martin Van Buren, also a Democrat, soon had reasons to worry about the Republic of Texas. Texas struggled with ongoing conflicts with Mexico and Indian raids from the powerful Comanche. The 1844 democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk sought to bridge the sectional divide by promising new lands to whites north and south. Polk cited the annexation of Texas and the Oregon Territory as campaign cornerstones.12 Yet as Polk championed the acquisition of these vast new lands, northern Democrats grew annoyed by their southern colleagues, especially when it came to Texas.

For many observers, the debates over Texas statehood illustrated that the federal government was clearly pro-slavery. Texas President Sam Houston managed to secure a deal with Polk, and gained admission to the Union for Texas in 1845. Antislavery northerners also worried about the admission of Florida, which entered the Union as a slave state in 1845. The year 1845 became a pivotal year in the memory of antislavery leaders. As Americans embraced calls to pursue their “Manifest Destiny,” antislavery voices looked at developments in Florida and Texas as signs that the sectional crisis had taken an ominous and perhaps irredeemable turn.

The 1840s opened with a number of disturbing developments for antislavery leaders. The 1842 Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania ruled that the federal government’s Fugitive Slave Act trumped Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law.13 Antislavery activists believed that the federal government only served southern slaveholders and were trouncing the states’ rights of the North. A number of northern states reacted by passing new personal liberty laws in protest in 1843.

The rising controversy over the status of fugitive slaves swelled partly through the influence of escaped former slaves, including Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s entrance into northern politics marked an important new development in the nation’s coming sectional crisis. Born into slavery in 1818 at Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass grew up, like many enslaved people, barely having known his own mother or date of birth. And yet because of a range of unique privileges afforded him by the circumstances of his upbringing, as well as his own genius and determination, Douglass managed to learn how to read and write. He used these skills to escape from slavery in 1837, when he was just nineteen. By 1845, Douglass put the finishing touches on his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.14 The book launched his life-long career as an advocate for the enslaved and helped further raise the visibility of black politics. Other former slaves, including Sojourner Truth, joined Douglass in rousing support for antislavery, as did free black Americans like Maria Stewart, James McCune Smith, Martin Delaney and numerous others.15 But black activists did more than deliver speeches. They also attacked fugitive slave laws by helping thousands to escape. The incredible career of Harriet Tubman is one of the more dramatic examples. But the forces of slavery had powerful allies at every level of government.

The year 1846 signaled new reversals to the antislavery cause, and the beginnings of a dark new era in American politics. President Polk and his Democratic allies were eager to see western lands brought into the Union and were especially anxious to see the borders of the nation extended to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Critics of the administration blasted these efforts as little more than land-grabs on behalf of slaveholders. Events in early 1846 seemed to justify antislavery complaints. Since Mexico had never recognized independent Texas, it continued to lay claim to its lands, even after the United States admitted it to the Union. In January 1846, Polk ordered troops to Texas to enforce claims stemming from its border dispute along the Rio Grande. Polk asked for war on May 11, 1846, and by September 1847, the United States had invaded Mexico City. Whigs, like Abraham Lincoln, found their protests sidelined, but antislavery voices were becoming more vocal and more powerful.

After 1846, the sectional crisis raged throughout North America. Debates swirled over whether the new lands would be slave or free. The South began defending slavery as a positive good. At the same time, Congressman David Wilmot submitted his “Wilmot Proviso” late in 1846, banning the expansion of slavery into the territories won from Mexico. The Proviso gained widespread northern support and even passed the House with bipartisan support, but it failed in the Senate.


IV. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men

The conclusion of the Mexican War gave rise to the 1848 Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo. The treaty infuriated antislavery leaders in the United States. The spoils gained from the Mexican War were impressive, and it was clear they would help expand slavery. The United States required Mexican officials to cede the California and New Mexico Territories for $15 million dollars. With American soldiers occupying their capital, Mexican leaders had no choice but sign or continue fighting a war they could not win. The new American territory included lands that would become the future states of California, Utah, Nevada, most of Arizona, and well as parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.

Questions about the balance of free and slave states in the Union became even more fierce after the US acquired these territories from Mexico by the 1848 in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Map of the Mexican Cession. WIkimedia,

Questions about the balance of free and slave states in the Union became even more fierce after the US acquired these territories from Mexico by the 1848 in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Map of the Mexican Cession. Wikimedia.

The acquisition of so much land made it imperative to antislavery leaders that these lands not be opened to slavery. But knowing that the Liberty Party was not likely to provide a home to many moderate voters, leaders instead hoped to foster a new and more competitive party, which they called the Free Soil Party. Antislavery leaders entered the 1848 election hoping that their vision of a federal government divorced from slavery might be heard. But both the Whigs and the Democrats, nominated pro-slavery southerners. Left unrepresented, antislavery Free Soil leaders swung into action.

Demanding an alternative to the pro-slavery status quo, Free Soil leaders assembled so-called “Conscience Whigs.” The new coalition called for a national convention in August 1848 at Buffalo, New York. A number of ex-Democrats committed to the party right away, including an important group of New Yorkers loyal to Martin Van Buren. The Free Soil Party’s platform bridged the eastern and the western leadership together and called for an end to slavery in Washington DC and a halt on slavery’s expansion in the territories.16 The Free Soil movement hardly made a dent in the 1848 Presidential election, but it drew more than four times the popular vote won by the Liberty Party earlier. It was a promising start. In 1848, Free Soil leaders claimed just 10% of the popular vote, but won over a dozen House seats, and even managed to win one Senate seat in Ohio, which went to Salmon P. Chase.17 In Congress, Free Soil members had enough votes to swing power to either the Whigs or the Democrats.

The admission of Wisconsin as a free state in May 1848 helped cool tensions after the Texas and Florida admissions. But news from a number of failed revolutions in Europe alarmed American reformers. As exiled radicals filtered out of Europe and into the United States, a women’s rights movement also got underway at Seneca Falls, New York. Representing the first of such meetings ever held in United States history, it was led by figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, women with deep ties to the abolitionist cause. Frederick Douglass also appeared at the convention and took part in the proceedings, where participants debated the Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances and Resolutions.18 By August 1848, it seemed plausible that the Free Soil Movement might tap into these reforms and build a broader coalition. In some ways that is precisely what it did. But come November, the spirit of reform failed to yield much at the polls. Whig candidate Zachary Taylor bested Democrat Lewis Cass of Michigan.

The upheavals signaled by 1848 came to a quick end. Taylor remained in office only a brief time until his unexpected death from a stomach ailment in 1850. During Taylor’s brief time in office, the fruits of the Mexican War began to spoil. While he was alive, Taylor and his administration struggled to find a good remedy. Increased clamoring for the admission of California, New Mexico, and Utah pushed the country closer to the edge. Gold had been discovered in California, and as thousands continued to pour onto the West Coast and through the trans-Mississippi West, the admission of new states loomed. In Utah, Mormons were also making claims to an independent state they called Deseret. By 1850, California wanted admission as a free state. With so many competing dynamics underway, and with the President dead and replaced by Whig Millard Fillmore, the 1850s were off to a troubling start.

Congressional leaders like Henry Clay and newer legislators like Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois were asked to broker a compromise, but this time it was clear no compromise could bridge all the diverging interests at play in the country. Clay eventually left Washington disheartened by affairs. It fell to young Stephen Douglas, then, to shepherd the bills through the Congress, which he in fact did. Legislators rallied behind the “Compromise of 1850,” an assemblage of bills passed late in 1850, which managed to keep the promises of the Missouri Compromise alive.

Henry Clay (“The Great Compromiser”) addresses the U.S. Senate during the debates over the Compromise of 1850. The print shows a number of incendiary personalities, like John C. Calhoun, whose increasingly sectional beliefs were pacified for a time by the Compromise. P. F. Rothermel (artist), c. 1855. Wikimedia,

Henry Clay (“The Great Compromiser”) addresses the U.S. Senate during the debates over the Compromise of 1850. The print shows a number of incendiary personalities, like John C. Calhoun, whose increasingly sectional beliefs were pacified for a time by the Compromise. P. F. Rothermel (artist), c. 1855. Wikimedia.

The Compromise of 1850 tried to offer something to everyone, but in the end it only worsened the sectional crisis. For southerners, the package offered a tough new fugitive slave law that empowered the federal government to deputize regular citizens in arresting runaways. The New Mexico territory and the Utah Territory, would be allowed to determine their own fates as slave or free states based on popular sovereignty. The Compromise also allowed territories to submit suits directly to the Supreme Court over the status of fugitive slaves within its bounds.

The admission of California as the newest free state in the Union cheered many northerners, but even the admission of a vast new state full of resources and rich agricultural lands was not enough. In addition to California, northerners also gained a ban on the slave trade in Washington, D.C., but not the full emancipation abolitionists had long advocated. Texas, which had already come into the Union as a slave state, was asked to give some of its land to New Mexico in return for the federal government absorbing some of the former republic’s debt. But the Compromise debates soon grew ugly.

After the Compromise of 1850, antislavery critics became increasingly certain that slaveholders had co-opted the federal government, and that a southern “Slave Power” secretly held sway in Washington, where it hoped to make slavery a national institution. These northern complaints pointed back to how the 3/5 compromise of the Constitution gave southerners more representatives in Congress. In the 1850s, antislavery leaders increasingly argued that Washington worked on behalf of slaveholders while ignoring the interests of white working men.

None of the individual 1850 Compromise measures proved more troubling to national and international observers than the Fugitive Slave Act. In a clear bid to extend slavery’s influence throughout the country, the act created special federal commissioners to determine the fate of alleged fugitives without benefit of a jury trial or even court testimony. Under its provisions, local authorities in the North could not interfere with the capture of fugitives. Northern citizens, moreover, had to assist in the arrest of fugitive slaves when called upon by federal agents. The Fugitive Slave Act created the foundation for a massive expansion of federal power, including an alarming increase in the nation’s policing powers. Many northerners were also troubled by the way the bill undermined local and state laws. The law itself fostered corruption and the enslavement of free black northerners. The federal commissioners who heard these cases were paid $10 if they determined that the defendant was a slave and only $5 if they determined he or she was free.19 Many black northerners responded to the new law by heading further north to Canada.

The 1852 Presidential election gave the Whigs their most stunning defeat and effectively ended their existence as a national political party. Whigs captured just 42 of the 254 electoral votes needed to win. With the Compromise of 1850 and plenty of new lands, peaceful consensus seemed on the horizon. Antislavery feelings continued to run deep, however, and their depth revealed that with a Democratic Party misstep, a coalition united against the Democrats might yet emerge and bring them to defeat. One measure of the popularity of antislavery ideas came in 1852 when Harriet Beecher Stowe published her bestselling antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ((Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: 1852).)) Sales for Uncle Tom’s Cabin were astronomical, eclipsed only by sales of the Bible.20 The book became a sensation and helped move antislavery into everyday conversation for many northerners. Despite the powerful antislavery message, Stowe’s book also reinforced many racist stereotypes. Even abolitionists struggled with the deeply ingrained racism that plagued American society. While the major success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin bolstered the abolitionist cause, the terms outlined by the Compromise of 1850 appeared strong enough to keep the peace.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin intensified an already hot debate over slavery throughout the United States. The book revolves around Eliza (the woman holding the young boy) and Tom (standing with his wife Chloe), each of whom takes a very different path: Eliza escapes slavery using her own two feet, but Tom endures his chains only to die by the whip of a brutish master. The horrific violence that both endured melted the hearts of many northerners and pressed some to join in the fight against slavery. Full-page illustration by Hammatt Billings for Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852. Wikimedia,

Uncle Tom’s Cabin intensified an already hot debate over slavery throughout the United States. The book revolves around Eliza (the woman holding the young boy) and Tom (standing with his wife Chloe), each of whom takes a very different path: Eliza escapes slavery using her own two feet, but Tom endures his chains only to die by the whip of a brutish master. The horrific violence that both endured melted the hearts of many northerners and pressed some to join in the fight against slavery. Full-page illustration by Hammatt Billings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852. Wikimedia.

Democrats by 1853 were badly splintered along sectional lines over slavery, but they also had reasons to act with confidence. Voters had returned them to office in 1852 following the bitter fights over the Compromise of 1850. Emboldened, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas introduced a set of additional amendments to a bill drafted in late 1853 to help organize the Nebraska Territory, the last of the Louisiana Purchase lands. In 1853, the Nebraska Territory was huge, extending from the northern end of Texas to the Canadian Border. Altogether, it encompassed present-day Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado and Montana. Douglas’s efforts to amend and introduce the bill in 1854 opened dynamics that would break the Democratic Party in two and, in the process, rip the country apart.

Douglas proposed a bold plan in 1854 to cut off a large southern chunk of Nebraska and create it separately as the Kansas Territory. Douglas had a number of goals in mind. The expansionist Democrat from Illinois wanted to organize the territory to facilitate the completion of a national railroad that would flow through Chicago. But before he had even finished introducing the bill, opposition had already mobilized. Salmon P. Chase drafted a response in northern newspapers that exposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill as a measure to overturn the Missouri Compromise and open western lands for slavery. Kansas-Nebraska protests emerged in 1854 throughout the North, with key meetings in Wisconsin and Michigan. Kansas would become slave or free depending on the result of local elections, elections that would be greatly influenced by migrants flooding to the state to either protect or stop the spread of slavery.

Ordinary Americans in the North increasingly resisted what they believed to be a pro-slavery federal government on their own terms. The rescues and arrests of fugitive slaves Anthony Burns in Boston and Joshua Glover in Milwaukee, for example, both signaled the rising vehemence of resistance to the nation’s 1850 fugitive slave law. The case of Anthony Burns illustrates how the Fugitive Slave Law radicalized many northerners.  On May 24, 1854, 20-year-old Burns, a preacher who worked in a Boston clothing shop, was clubbed and dragged to jail. One year earlier, Burns had escaped slavery in Virginia, and a group of slave catchers had come to return him to Richmond. Word of Burns’ capture spread rapidly through Boston, and a mob gathered outside of the courthouse demanding Burns’ release. Two days after the arrest, the crowd stormed the courthouse and shot a Deputy U.S. Marshall to death. News reached Washington, and the federal government sent soldiers. Boston was placed under Martial Law. Federal troops lined the streets of Boston as Burns was marched to a ship where he was sent back to slavery in Virginia. After spending over $40,000, the United States Government had successfully reenslaved Anthony Burns.21 A short time later, Burns was redeemed by abolitionists who paid $1,300 to return him to freedom, but the outrage among Bostonians only grew. And Anthony Burns was only one of hundreds of highly publicized episodes of the federal governments imposing the Fugitive Slave Law on rebellious northern populations. In the words of Amos Adams Lawrence, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs & woke up stark mad Abolitionists.”22

Anthony Burns, the fugitive slave, appears in a portrait at the center of this 1855. Burns’ arrest and trial, possible because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, became a rallying cry. As a symbol of the injustice of the slave system, Burns’ treatment spurred riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854. John Andrews (engraver), “Anthony Burns,” c. 1855. Library of Congress,

Anthony Burns, the fugitive slave, appears in a portrait at the center of this 1855. Burns’ arrest and trial, possible because of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, became a rallying cry. As a symbol of the injustice of the slave system, Burns’ treatment spurred riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in the spring of 1854. John Andrews (engraver), “Anthony Burns,” c. 1855. Library of Congress.

As northerners radicalized, organizations like the New England Emigrant Aid Society provided guns and other goods for pioneers willing to go to Kansas and establish the territory as antislavery through popular sovereignty. On all sides of the slavery issue, politics became increasingly militarized.

The year 1855 nearly derailed the northern antislavery coalition. A resurgent anti-immigrant movement briefly took advantage of the Whig collapse, and nearly stole the energy of the anti-administration forces by channeling its frustrations into fights against the large number of mostly Catholic German and Irish immigrants in American cities. Calling themselves “Know-Nothings,” on account of their tendency to pretend ignorance when asked about their activities, the Know-Nothing or American Party made impressive gains in 1854 and 1855, particularly in New England and the Middle Atlantic. But the anti-immigrant movement simply could not capture the nation’s attention in ways the antislavery movement already had.23

The antislavery political movements that started in 1854 coalesced as the coming Presidential election of 1856 accelerated the formation of a new political party. Harkening back to the founding fathers, this new party called itself the Republican Party. Republicans moved into a highly charged summer expecting great things for their cause. Following an explosive speech before Congress on May 19-20, Charles Sumner was beaten by congressional representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina right on the floor of the Senate chamber. Among other accusations, Sumner accused Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina of defending slavery so he could have sexual access to black women.24 Butler’s cousin, representative Brooks felt that he had to defend his relative’s honor, and nearly killed Sumner as a result.

The Caning of Charles Sumner, 1856. Wikimedia,

The Caning of Charles Sumner, 1856. Wikimedia.

The violence in Washington pales before the many murders occurring in Kansas. Proslavery raiders attacked Lawrence, Kansas. Radical abolitionist John Brown retaliated, murdering several pro-slavery Kansans in retribution. As all of this played out, the House failed to expel Brooks. Brooks resigned his seat anyway, only to be re-elected by his constituents later in the year. He received new canes emblazoned with the words “Hit him again!”25

With sectional tensions at a breaking point, both parties readied for the coming Presidential election. In June 1856, the newly named Republican Party held its nominating convention at Philadelphia, and selected Californian John Charles Frémont. Frémont’s antislavery credentials may not have pleased many abolitionists, but his dynamic and talented wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, appealed to more radical members of the coalition. The Kansas-Nebraska Debate, the organization of the Republican Party, and the 1856 Presidential Campaign all energized a new generation of political leaders, including Abraham Lincoln. Beginning with his speech at Peoria, Illinois, in 1854, Lincoln carved out a message that encapsulated better than anyone else the main ideas and visions of the Republican Party.26 Lincoln himself was slow to join the coalition, yet by the summer of 1856, Lincoln had fully committed to the Frémont campaign.

Frémont lost, but Republicans celebrated that he won 11 of the 16 free states. This showing, they urged, was truly impressive for any party making its first run at the Presidency. Yet northern Democrats in crucial swing states remained unmoved by the Republican Party’s appeals. Ulysses S. Grant of Missouri, for example, worried that Frémont and Republicans signaled trouble for the Union itself. Grant voted for the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, believing a Republican victory might bring about disunion. In abolitionist and especially black American circles, Frémont’s defeat was more than a disappointment. Believing their fate had been sealed as permanent non-citizens, some African Americans would consider foreign emigration and colonization. Others began to explore the option of more radical and direct action against the Slave Power.


V. From Sectional Crisis to National Crisis

White antislavery leaders hailed Frémont’s defeat as a “glorious” one and looked ahead to the party’s future successes. For those still in slavery, or hoping to see loved ones freed, the news was of course much harder to take. The Republican Party had promised the rise of an antislavery coalition, but voters rebuked it. The lessons seemed clear enough.

Kansas loomed large over the 1856 election, darkening the national mood. The story of voter fraud in Kansas had begun years before in 1854, when nearby Missourians first started crossing the border to tamper with the Kansas elections. Noting this, critics at the time attacked the Pierce administration for not living up to the ideals of popular sovereignty by ensuring fair elections. From there, the crisis only deepened. Kansas voted to come into the Union as a free state, but the federal government refused to recognize their votes and instead recognized a sham pro-slavery legislature.

The sectional crisis had at last become a national crisis. “Bleeding Kansas” was the first place to demonstrate that the sectional crisis could easily, and in fact already was, exploding into a full-blown national crisis. As the national mood grew increasingly grim, Kansas attracted militants representing the extreme sides of the slavery debate.

In the days after the 1856 Presidential election, Buchanan made his plans for his time in office clear. He talked with Chief Justice Roger Taney on inauguration day about a court decision he hoped to see handled during his time in office. Indeed, not long after the inauguration, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that would come to define Buchanan’s Presidency. The Dred Scott decision, Scott v. Sandford, ruled that black Americans could not be citizens of the United States.27 This gave the Buchanan administration and its southern allies a direct repudiation of the Missouri Compromise. The court ruled that Scott, a Missouri slave, had no right to sue in United States courts. The Dred Scott decision signaled that the federal government was now fully committed to extending slavery as far and as wide as it might want.

Dred Scott’s Supreme Court case made clear that the federal government was no longer able or willing to ignore the issue of slavery. More than that, all black Americans, Justice Taney declared, could never be citizens of the United States. Though seemingly a disastrous decision for abolitionists, this controversial ruling actually increased the ranks of the abolitionist movement. Photograph of Dred Scott, 1857. Wikimedia,

Dred Scott’s Supreme Court case made clear that the federal government was no longer able or willing to ignore the issue of slavery. More than that, all black Americans, Justice Taney declared, could never be citizens of the United States. Though seemingly a disastrous decision for abolitionists, this controversial ruling actually increased the ranks of the abolitionist movement. Photograph of Dred Scott, 1857. Wikimedia.

The Dred Scott decision seemed to settle the sectional crisis by making slavery fully national, but in reality it just exacerbated sectional tensions further. In 1857, Buchanan sent U.S. military forces to Utah, hoping to subdue Utah’s Mormon communities. This action, however, led to renewed charges, many of them leveled from within his own party, that the administration was abusing its powers. Far more important than the Utah invasion, however, was the ongoing events in Kansas. It was Kansas that at last proved to many northerners that the sectional crisis would not go away unless slavery also went away.

The Illinois Senate race in 1858 put the scope of the sectional crisis on full display. Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln challenged the greatly influential Democrat Stephen Douglas. Pandering to appeals to white supremacy, Douglas hammered the Republican opposition as a “Black Republican” party bent on racial equality.28 The Republicans, including Lincoln, were thrown on the defensive. Democrats hung on as best they could, but the Republicans won the House of Representatives and picked up seats in the Senate. Lincoln actually lost his contest with Stephen Douglas, but in the process firmly established himself as a leading national Republican. After the 1858 elections, all eyes turned to 1860. Given the Republican Party’s successes since 1854, it was expected that the 1860 Presidential election might produce the nation’s first antislavery president.

In the troubled decades since the Missouri Compromise, the nation slowly tore itself apart. Congressman clubbed each other nearly to death on the floor of the Congress, and by the middle of the 1850s Americans were already at war on the Kansas and Missouri plains. Across the country, cities and towns were in various stages of revolt against federal authority. Fighting spread even further against Indians in the Far West and against Mormons in Utah. The nation’s militants anticipated a coming breakdown, and worked to exploit it. John Brown, fresh from his actions in Kansas, moved east and planned more violence. Assembling a team from across the West, including black radicals from Oberlin, Ohio, and throughout communities in Canada West, Brown hatched a plan to attack Harper’s Ferry, a federal weapon’s arsenal in Virginia (now West Virginia). He would use the weapons to lead a slave revolt. Brown approached Frederick Douglass, though Douglass refused to join.

Brown’s raid embarked on October 16. By October 18, a command under Robert E. Lee had crushed the revolt. Many of Brown’s men, including his own sons, were killed, but Brown himself lived and was imprisoned. Brown prophesied while in prison that the nation’s crimes would only be purged with blood. He went to the gallows in December 1859. Northerners made a stunning display of sympathy on the day of his execution. Southerners took their reactions to mean that the coming 1860 election would be, in many ways, a referendum on secession and disunion.

The execution of John Brown made him a martyr in abolitionist circles and a confirmed traitor in southern crowds. Both of these images continued to pervade public memory after the Civil War, but in the North especially (where so many soldiers had died to help end slavery) his name was admired. Over two decades after Brown’s death, Thomas Hovenden portrayed Brown as a saint. As he is lead to his execution for attempting to destroy slavery, Brown poignantly leans over a rail to kiss a black baby. Thomas Hovenden, The Last Moments of John Brown, c. 1882-1884. Wikimedia,,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Thomas_Hovenden.jpg.

The execution of John Brown made him a martyr in abolitionist circles and a confirmed traitor in southern crowds. Both of these images continued to pervade public memory after the Civil War, but in the North especially (where so many soldiers had died to help end slavery) his name was admired. Over two decades after Brown’s death, Thomas Hovenden portrayed Brown as a saint. As he is lead to his execution for attempting to destroy slavery, Brown poignantly leans over a rail to kiss a black baby. Thomas Hovenden, The Last Moments of John Brown, c. 1882-1884. Wikimedia.

Republicans wanted little to do with Brown and instead tried to portray themselves as moderates opposed to both abolitionists and proslavery expansionists. In this climate, the parties opened their contest for the 1860 Presidential election. The Democratic Party fared poorly as its southern delegates bolted its national convention at Charleston and ran their own candidate, Vice President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky. Hoping to field a candidate who might nonetheless manage to bridge the broken party’s factions, the Democrats decided to meet again at Baltimore, and nominated Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

The Republicans, meanwhile, held their boisterous convention in Chicago. The Republican platform made the party’s antislavery commitments clear, also making wide promises to its white constituents, particularly westerners, with the promise of new land, transcontinental railroads, and broad support of public schools.29 Abraham Lincoln, a candidate few outside of Illinois truly expected to win, nonetheless proved far less polarizing than the other names on the ballot. Lincoln won the nomination, and with the Democrats in disarray, Republicans knew their candidate Lincoln had a good chance of winning.

In this political cartoon, Abraham Lincoln uncomfortably straddles a rail supported by a black man and Horace Greeley (editor of the New York “Tribune”). The wood board is a dual reference to the antislavery plank of the 1860 Republican platform -- which Lincoln seemed to uneasily defend -- and Lincoln’s backwoods origins. Louis Maurer, “The Rail Candidate,” Currier & Ives, c. 1860. Library of Congress,

In this political cartoon, Abraham Lincoln uncomfortably straddles a rail supported by a black man and Horace Greeley (editor of the New York “Tribune”). The wood board is a dual reference to the antislavery plank of the 1860 Republican platform — which Lincoln seemed to uneasily defend — and Lincoln’s backwoods origins. Louis Maurer, “The Rail Candidate,” Currier & Ives, c. 1860. Library of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 contest on November 6, gaining just 40% of the popular vote and not a single southern vote in the Electoral College. Within days, southern states were organizing secession conventions. John J. Crittenden of Kentucky proposed a series of compromises, but a clear pro-southern bias meant they had little chance of gaining Republican acceptance. Crittenden’s plan promised renewed enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and offered a plan to keep slavery in the nation’s capital.30 Republicans by late 1860 knew that the voters who had just placed them in power did not want them to cave on these points, and southern states proceed with their plans to leave the Union. On December 20, South Carolina voted to secede, and issued its “Declaration of the Immediate Causes.”31 The Declaration highlighted failure of the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act over competing personal liberty laws in northern states. After the war many southerners claimed that secession was primarily motivated by a concern to preserve states’ rights, but the primary complaint of the very first ordinance of secession, listed the federal government’s failure to exert its authority over the northern states.

The year 1861, then, saw the culmination of the secession crisis. Before he left for Washington, Lincoln told those who had gathered in Springfield to wish him well and that he faced a “task greater than Washington’s” in the years to come. Southerners were also learning the challenges of forming a new nation. The seceded states grappled with internal divisions right away, as states with slaveholders sometimes did not support the newly seceded states. In January, for example, Delaware rejected secession. But states in the lower south adopted a different course. The State of Mississippi seceded. Later in the month, the states of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana also all left the Union. By early February, Texas had also joined the newly seceded states. In February, southerners drafted a constitution protecting slavery and named a westerner, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, as their President. When Abraham Lincoln acted upon his constitutional mandate as Commander in Chief following his inauguration on March 4, rebels calling themselves members of the Confederate States of America opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Within days, Abraham Lincoln would demand 75,000 volunteers from the North to crush the rebellion, and the American Civil War began.


VI. Conclusion

Slavery had long divided the politics of the United States. In time, these divisions became both sectional and irreconcilable. The first and most ominous sign of a coming sectional storm occurred over debates surrounding the admission of the State of Missouri in 1821. As westward expansion continued, these fault lines grew even more ominous, particularly as the United States managed to seize even more lands from its war with Mexico. The country seemed to teeter ever closer to a full-throated endorsement of slavery. But an antislavery coalition arose in the middle 1850s calling itself the Republican Party. Eager to cordon off slavery and confine it to where it already existed, the Republicans won the presidential election of 1860 and threw the nation on the path to war.

Throughout this period, the mainstream of the antislavery movement remained committed to a peaceful resolution of the slavery issue through efforts understood to foster the “ultimate extinction” of slavery in due time. But as the secession crisis revealed, the South could not tolerate a federal government working against the interests of slavery’s expansion and decided to take a gamble on war with the United States. Secession, in the end, raised the possibility of emancipation through war, a possibility most Republicans knew, of course, had always been an option, but one they nonetheless hoped would never be necessary. By 1861 all bets were off, and the fate of slavery, and of the nation, depended upon war.


VII. Reference Material

This chapter was edited by Jesse Gant, with content contributions by Jeffrey Bain-Conkin, Matthew A. Byron, Christopher Childers, Jesse Gant, Christopher Null, Ryan Poe, Michael Robinson, Nicholas Wood, Michael Woods, and Ben Wright.

Recommended citation: Jeffrey Bain-Conkin et al., “The Sectional Crisis,” Jesse Gant, ed., in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016,


Recommended Reading

  • Bacon, Margaret Hope. But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis. Albany: SUNY Press, 2012. 
  • Baker, Jean H. Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-nineteenth Century. New York: Fordham University Press, 1983.
  • Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Bracey, Christopher Alan, Paul Finkelman, and David Thomas Konig, eds. The Dred Scott Case: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race and Law. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010.
  • Cutter, Barbara. Domestic Devils, Battlefield Angels: The Radicalization of American Womanhood, 1830-1865.. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003.
  • Engs, Robert F. and Randall M. Miller, eds. The Birth of the Grand Old Party: The Republicans’ First Generation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
  • Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
  • Flexnor, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
  • Grant, Susan-Mary. North Over South: Northern Nationalism and American Identity in the Antebellum Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.
  • Holt, Michael. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Howe, Daniel Walker. The Political Culture of the American Whigs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Jeffrey, Julie R. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1998.
  • Jones, Martha S. All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Kantrowitz, Stephen. More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. New York: Penguin Press, 2012.
  • McDaniel, Caleb. The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.
  • Oakes, James. The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: HarperCollins, 1976.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • Robertson, Stacey. Hearts Beating for Liberty: Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Sinha, Manisha. The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • Smith, Kimberly K. The Dominion of Voice: Riot, Reason and Romance in Antebellum American Political Thought. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.
  • Varon, Elizabeth. Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • Zaeske, Susan. Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, & Women’s Political Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.



  1. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966). []
  2. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 164-212. []
  3. see “Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic” a digital exhibit from the Library Company of Philadelphia, available online at []
  4. Northwest Ordinance; July 13, 1787, Charles C. Tansill, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1927), House Document No. 398. Available online at: []
  5. Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005). []
  6. Lawrence Wilson, ed., The National Register: A weekly paper, containing a series of the important public documents, and the proceedings of Congress…Volume VII (Washington City: 1819), 125. []
  7. Conference committee report on the Missouri Compromise, March 1, 1820; Joint Committee of Conference on the Missouri Bill, 03/01/1820-03/06/1820; Record Group 128l; Records of Joint Committees of Congress, 1789-1989; National Archives. Available online at: []
  8. William M. Wiecek, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760-1848 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977). []
  9. Richard Furman, Rev. Dr. Richard Furman’s Exposition of the Views of the Baptists, relative to the colored population of the United States (Charleston, S.C.: A.E. Miller, 1923), p. 1. []
  10. Nicholas Wood, ““A Sacrifice on the Altar of Slavery”: Doughface Politics and Black Disenfranchisement in Pennsylvania, 1837–1838,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 75-106. []
  11. Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). []
  12. James K. Polk: “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1845. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. []
  13. Richard Peters, Report of the Case of Edward Prigg against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania… (Philadelphia: 1842). []
  14. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston: 1845). []
  15. See Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Olive Gilbert ed. (Boston: 1850),; Maria Stewart, Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer, Marilyn Richardson, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); James McCune Smith, The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, John Stauffer, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Frank A. Rollin, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delaney (Boston: 1868), esp p. 313-367, []
  16. Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). []
  17. Joseph Rayback, Free Soil: The Election of 1848 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2014). []
  18. Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848 (Rochester, 1848). []
  19. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, Race, Law and American Society, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2013), 56. []
  20. Michael Winship, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: History of the Book in the 19th-Century United States” (University of Virginia, 2007). Accessed August 1, 2015: []
  21. Charles Harold Nichols, Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-slaves’ Account of Their Bondage and Freedom (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1963), 156. []
  22. Amos A. Lawrence to Giles Richards, June 1, 1854, quoted in Jane J. & William H. Pease, eds., The Fugitive Slave Law and Anthony Burns: A Problem in Law Enforcement (Philadelphia: 1975), p. 43. []
  23. Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850′s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). []
  24. Charles Sumner, The Crime Against Kansas, Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner in the Senate of the United States (Boston: 1856). Available online at: []
  25. Williamjames Hull Hoffer, The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 92. []
  26. Abraham Lincoln, “Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854” in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 247-283. Available online at: []
  27. Judgment in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sanford, March 6, 1857; Case Files 1792-1995; Record Group 267; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States; National Archives. Accessed August 1, 2015: []
  28. Rodney O. Davis, Douglas L. Wilson, eds., The Lincoln Douglas Debates (Knox College, 2008), 68. []
  29. Republican Party Platforms: “Republican Party Platform of 1860,” May 17, 1860. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. []
  30. Horace Greeley, The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-1864, Volume 1 (Hartford: 1864), 366-367. []
  31. “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School. Accessed August 1, 2015: []

F16 – 11. The Cotton Revolution

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, 1861, via University of Virginia, The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas.

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia, 1861, via University of Virginia, The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas.

*The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the Southern states experienced extraordinary change that would define the region and its role in American history for decades, even centuries, to come. Between the 1830s and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the American South expanded its wealth and population and became an integral part of an increasingly global economy. It did not, as previous generations of histories have told, sit back on its cultural and social traditions and insulate itself from an expanding system of communication, trade, and production that connected Europe and Asia to the Americas. Quite the opposite, the South actively engaged new technologies and trade routes while also seeking to assimilate and upgrade its most “traditional” and culturally engrained practices—such as slavery and agricultural production—within a modernizing world.

Beginning in the 1830s, merchants from the Northeast, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flocked to Southern cities, setting up trading firms, warehouses, ports, and markets. As a result, these cities—like Richmond, Charleston, St. Louis, Mobile, Savannah, and New Orleans, to name a few—doubled, and even tripled, in size and global importance. Populations became more cosmopolitan, more educated, and wealthier. Systems of class—lower-, middle-, and upper-class communities—developed where they had never clearly existed. Ports that had once focused entirely on the importation of slaves, and shipped only regionally, became homes to daily and weekly shipping lines to New York City, Liverpool, Manchester, Le Havre, and Lisbon. The world was, slowly but surely, coming closer together; and the South was right in the middle.


II. The Importance of Cotton

In November of 1785, the Liverpool firm of Peel, Yates, & Co. imported the first seven bales of American cotton ever to arrive in Europe. Prior to this unscheduled, and frankly unwanted, delivery, European merchants saw cotton as a product of the colonial Caribbean islands of Barbados, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Martinique, Cuba, and Jamaica. The American South, though relatively wide and expansive, was the go-to source for rice and, most importantly, tobacco.

Few knew that the seven bales sitting in Liverpool that winter of 1785 would change the world. But they did. By the early 1800s, the American South had developed a niche in the European market for “luxurious” long-staple cotton grown exclusively on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina.1 But this was only the beginning of a massive flood to come, and the foundation of the South’s astronomical rise to global prominence. Before long, botanists, merchants, and planters alike set out to develop strains of cotton seed that would grow further west on the Southern mainland, especially in the new lands opened up by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803—an area that stretched from New Orleans in South to what is today Minnesota, parts of the Dakotas, and Montana.

The discovery of Gossypium barbadense—often called “Petit Gulf” cotton—near Rodney, Mississippi, in 1820 changed the American and global cotton markets forever.2 “Petit Gulf,” it was said, slid through the cotton gin—a machine developed by Eli Whitney in 1794 for deseeding cotton—more easily than any other strain. It also grew tightly, producing more usable cotton than anyone had imagined to that point. Perhaps most importantly, though, it came up at a time when land in the Southwest—southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana—became readily available for anyone with a few dollars and big dreams. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, the federal government implemented several forced migrations of Native Americans, establishing a system of reservations west of the Mississippi River upon which all eastern peoples were required to relocate and settle. This, enacted through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, allowed the federal government to survey, divide, and auction off millions of acres of land for however much bidders were willing to pay. Suddenly, farmers with dreams of owning a large plantation could purchase dozens, even hundreds, of acres in the fertile Mississippi River Delta for cents on the dollar. Pieces of land that in other, more developed places would cost thousands of dollars sold in the 1830s for several hundred, at prices as low as 40¢ per acre.3

Pair with 19th-century cotton gin

Eli Whitney’s mechanical cotton gin revolutionized cotton production and expanded and strengthened slavery throughout the South. Eli Whitney’s Patent for the Cotton gin, March 14, 1794; Records of the Patent and Trademark Office; Record Group 241. Wikimedia.

Pair with Eli Whitney's Patent

A 19th-century cotton gin on display at the Eli Whitney Museum. Wikimedia.

Thousands of people, each one with his or her own dream of massive and immediate success, rushed to the area quickly becoming known as the “Cotton Belt.” Joseph Holt Ingraham, a writer and traveler from Maine, called it “mania.”4 William Henry Sparks, a lawyer living in Natchez, Mississippi, remembered it as “a new El Dorado” in which “fortunes were made in a day, without enterprise or work.” The change was astonishing. “Where yesterday the wilderness darkened over the land with her wild forests,” he recalled, “to-day the cotton plantations whitened the earth.”5 Money flowed from banks, many newly formed, on promises of “other-worldly” profits and overnight returns. Banks in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even London offered lines of credit to anyone looking to buy land in the Southwest. Some even sent their own agents to purchase cheap land at auction for the express purpose of selling it, sometimes the very next day, at double and triple the original value—a process known as “speculation.”

The explosion of available land in the fertile cotton belt brought new life to the South. By the end of the 1830s, “Petit Gulf” cotton had been perfected, distributed, and planted throughout the region. Advances in steam power and water travel revolutionized Southern farmers’ and planters’ ability to deseed, bundle, and move their products to ports popping up along the Atlantic seaboard. Indeed, by the end of the 1830s, cotton had become the primary crop not only of the Southwestern states, but of the entire nation.

The numbers were staggering. In 1793, just a few years after the first, albeit unintentional, shipment of American cotton to Europe, the South produced around five million pounds of cotton, again almost exclusively the product of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. Seven years later, in 1800, South Carolina remained the primary cotton producer in the South, sending 6.5 million pounds of the luxurious long-staple blend to markets in Charleston, Liverpool, London, and New York.6 But as the tighter, more abundant and vibrant “Petit Gulf” strain moved west with the dreamers, schemers, and speculators, the American South quickly became the world’s leading cotton producer. By 1835, the five main cotton-growing states—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—produced more than 500 million pounds of “Petit Gulf” for a global market stretching from New Orleans to New York to London, Liverpool, Paris and beyond. That 500 million pounds of cotton made up nearly 55 percent of the entire United States export market, a trend that continued nearly every year until the outbreak of the Civil War. Indeed, the two billion pounds of cotton produced in 1860 alone amounted to more than 60 percent of the United States’ total exports for that year.7

The astronomical rise of American cotton production came at the cost of the South’s first staple crop—tobacco. Perfected in Virginia, but grown and sold in nearly every Southern territory and state, tobacco served as the South’s main economic commodity for more than a century. But tobacco was a rough crop. It treated the land poorly, sucking up nutrients at a rate with which the soil could not compete. Tobacco fields did not last forever. In fact, fields rarely survived more than four or five cycles of growth, which left them dried and barren, incapable of growing much more than patches of grass. Of course, tobacco is, and was, an addictive substance; but because of its violent pattern of growth, farmers had to move around, purchasing new lands, developing new methods of production, and even creating new fields through deforestation and westward expansion. Tobacco, then, was expensive to produce—and not only because of the ubiquitous use of slave labor. It required massive, temporary fields, large numbers of slaves and laborers, and constant movement.

Cotton was different, and it arrived at a time best suited for its success. “Petit Gulf” cotton, in particular, grew relatively quickly on cheap, widely available land. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and the emergence of steam power three decades later, cotton became the average man’s commodity, the product with which the United States could expand westward, producing and reproducing Thomas Jefferson’s idyllic yeoman republic—a nation in control of its land, reaping the benefits of honest, free, and self-reliant work, a nation of families and farmers, expansion and settlement. But this all came at a violent cost. With the democratization of land ownership through Indian Removal, federal auctions, readily available credit, and the seemingly universal dream of cotton’s immediate profit, one of the South’s lasting “traditions” became normalized and engrained. And by the 1860s, that very “tradition,” seen as the backbone of Southern society and culture, would split the nation in two. The heyday of American slavery had arrived.

This map, published by the US Coast Guard, shows the percentage of slaves in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in 1860. The highest percentages lie along the Mississippi River, in the “Black Belt” of Alabama, and coastal South Carolina, all of which were centers of agricultural production (cotton and rice) in the United States. E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver), Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860, c. 1861. Wikimedia,

This map, published by the US Coast Guard, shows the percentage of slaves in the population in each county of the slave-holding states in 1860. The highest percentages lie along the Mississippi River, in the “Black Belt” of Alabama, and coastal South Carolina, all of which were centers of agricultural production (cotton and rice) in the United States.
E. Hergesheimer (cartographer), Th. Leonhardt (engraver), Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860, c. 1861. Wikimedia.


III. Cotton and Slavery

The rise of cotton, and the resulting upsurge in the United States’ global position, wed the South to slavery. Without slavery there could be no “Cotton Kingdom,” no massive production of raw materials stretching across thousands of acres worth millions of dollars, and employing, at different stages of the process, many hundreds of people. Indeed, cotton grew alongside slavery. The two moved hand-in-hand. The existence of slavery, and the absolute reliance the Southern economy came to have on the practice, became the defining factor in what would be known as the “Slave South.” Although slavery arrived in the Americas long before cotton became a profitable commodity, the use and purchase of slaves, the moralistic and economic justifications for the continuation of slavery, even the urgency to protect the practice from extinction before the Civil War all received new life from the rise of cotton and the economic, social, and cultural growth spurt that accompanied its success.

Slavery had existed in the South since at least 1619, when a group of Dutch traders arrived at Jamestown with 20 Africans. Although these Africans remained under the ambiguous legal status of “unfree,” rather than actual slaves, their arrival set in motion a practice that would stretch across the entire continent over the next two centuries. Slavery was everywhere by the time the American Revolution created the United States, although Northern states began a process of gradually abolishing the practice soon thereafter. In the more rural, agrarian South, slavery became a way of life, especially as farmers expanded their lands, planted more crops, and entered into the international trade market. By 1790, four years after the ratification of the Constitution, 654,121 slaves lived in the South—then just Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and the “Southwest Territory” (now Tennessee). Just twenty years later, in 1810, that number had increased to more than 1.1 million individuals in bondage.8

Pair with "Cotton picking house"

Though taken after the end of slavery, these stereographs show various stages of cotton production. The fluffy white staple fiber is first extracted from the boll (a prickly, sharp protective capsule), after which the seed is separated in the ginning and taken to a storehouse. Unknown, Picking cotton in a great plantation in North Carolina, U.S.A., c. 1865-1903. Wikimedia.

The massive change in the South’s enslaved population between 1790 and 1810 makes sense, though. During that time, the South went from a region of four states and one rather small territory to a region of six states (Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) and three rather large territories (Mississippi, Louisiana, and Orleans). The free population of the South also nearly doubled over that period—from around 1.3 million in 1790 to more than 2.3 million in 1810. It is important to note here that the enslaved population of the South did not increase at any rapid rate over the next two decades, until the cotton boom took hold in the mid-1830s. Indeed, following the constitutional ban on the international slave trade in 1808, the number of slaves in the South increased by just 750,000 in twenty years.

But then cotton came, and grew, and changed everything. Over the course of the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, slavery became so endemic to the “Cotton Belt” that travelers, writers, and statisticians began referring to the area as the “Black Belt,” not only to describe the color of the rich land, but also to describe the skin color of those forced to work its fields, line its docks, and move the products of others’ lands.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Southern slavery during this so-called “Cotton Revolution” was the value placed upon both the work and the body of the slaves themselves. Once the fever of the initial land rush subsided, land values grew more slowly, and credit flowed less freely. For Mississippi land that in 1835 cost no more than $600, a farmer or investor would have to shell out more than $3,000 in 1850. By 1860, that same land, depending on its record of production and location, could cost as much as $100,000.9 In many cases, cotton growers, especially planters with large lots and enslaved workforces, put up slaves as collateral for funds dedicated to buying more land. If that land, for one reason or another, be it weevils, a late freeze, or a simple lack of nutrients, did not produce a viable crop within a year, the planter would lose not only the new land, but also the slaves he or she put up as a guarantee of payment.

The slave markets of the South varied in size and style, but the St. Louis Exchange in New Orleans was so frequently described it became a kind of representation for all southern slave markets. Indeed, the St. Louis Hotel rotunda was cemented in the literary imagination of nineteenth-century Americans after Harriet Beecher Stowe chose it as the site for the sale of Uncle Tom in her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After the ruin of the St. Clare plantation, Tom and his fellow slaves were suddenly property that had to be liquidated. Brought to New Orleans to be sold to the highest bidder, Tom found himself “[b]eneath a splendid dome” where “men of all nations” scurried about. J. M. Starling (engraver), "Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the rotunda, New Orleans,” 1842. Wikimedia,

The slave markets of the South varied in size and style, but the St. Louis Exchange in New Orleans was so frequently described it became a kind of representation for all southern slave markets. Indeed, the St. Louis Hotel rotunda was cemented in the literary imagination of nineteenth-century Americans after Harriet Beecher Stowe chose it as the site for the sale of Uncle Tom in her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After the ruin of the St. Clare plantation, Tom and his fellow slaves were suddenly property that had to be liquidated. Brought to New Orleans to be sold to the highest bidder, Tom found himself “[b]eneath a splendid dome” where “men of all nations” scurried about. J. M. Starling (engraver), “Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the rotunda, New Orleans,” 1842. Wikimedia.

So much went into the production of cotton, the expansion of land, and maintenance of enslaved workforces that by the 1850s, nearly every ounce of credit offered by Southern, and even Northern, banks dealt directly with some aspect of the cotton market. And millions of dollars changed hands. Slaves, the literal and figurative backbones of the Southern cotton economy, served as the highest and most important expense for any successful cotton grower. Prices for slaves varied drastically, depending on skin color, sex, age, and location, both of purchase and birth. In Virginia in the 1820s, for example, a single female slave of childbearing years sold for an average of $300; an unskilled man above the age of 18 sold for around $450; and boys and girls below 13 years sold for between $100 and $150.10

By the 1840s, and into the 1850s, prices had nearly doubled—a result of both standard inflation and the increasing importance of enslaved laborers in the cotton market. In 1845, “plow boys” under the age of 18 sold for more than $600 in some areas, measured at “five or six dollars per pound.”11 “Prime field hands,” as they were called by merchants and traders, averaged $1,600 at market by 1850, a figure that fell in line with the rising prices of the cotton they picked. For example, when cotton sat at 7¢ per pound in 1838, the average “field hand” cost around $700. As the price of cotton increased to 9¢, 10¢, then 11¢ per pound over the next ten years, the average cost of an enslaved male laborer likewise rose to $775, $900, and then more than $1,600.12

The key is that cotton and slaves helped define each other, at least in the cotton South. By the 1850s, slavery and cotton had become so intertwined, that the very idea of change—be it crop diversity, anti-slavery ideologies, economic diversification, or the increasingly staggering cost of purchasing and maintaining slaves—became anathema to the Southern economic and cultural identity. Cotton had become the foundation of the Southern economy. Indeed, it was the only major product, besides perhaps sugar cane in Louisiana, that the South could effectively market internationally. As a result, Southern planters, politicians, merchants, and traders became more and more dedicated—some would say “obsessed”—to the means of its production: slaves and slavery.In 1834, Joseph Ingraham wrote that “to sell cotton in order to buy negroes—to make more cotton to buy more negroes, ‘ad infinitum,’ is the aim and direct tendency of all the operations of the thorough going cotton planter; his whole soul is wrapped up in the pursuit.”13 Twenty-three years later, such pursuit had taken on a seemingly religious character, as James Stirling, an Englishman traveling through the South, observed, “[slaves] and cotton—cotton and [slaves]; these are the law and the prophets to the men of the South.”14

The Cotton Revolution was a time of capitalism, panic, stress, and competition. Planters expanded their lands, purchased slaves, extended lines of credit, and went into massive amounts of debt because they were constantly working against the next guy, the newcomer, the social mover, the speculator, the trader. A single bad crop could cost even the most wealthy, landed planter his or her entire life, along with those of his or her slaves and their families. Although the cotton market was large and profitable, it was also fickle, risky, and cost intensive. The more wealth one gained, the more land he or she needed to procure, which led to more slaves, more credit, and more mouths to feed. The decades before the Civil War in the South, then, were not times of slow, simple tradition. They were times of high competition, high risk, and high reward, no matter where one stood in the social hierarchy. But the risk was not always economic in nature.

In southern cities like Norfolk, VA, markets sold not only vegetables, fruits, meats, and sundries, but also slaves. Enslaved men and women, like the two walking in the direct center, lived and labored next to free people, black and white. S. Weeks, “Market Square, Norfolk,” from Henry Howe's Historical Collections of Virginia, 1845. Wikimedia,,_Norfolk.jpg.

In southern cities like Norfolk, VA, markets sold not only vegetables, fruits, meats, and sundries, but also slaves. Enslaved men and women, like the two walking in the direct center, lived and labored next to free people, black and white. S. Weeks, “Market Square, Norfolk,” from Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Virginia, 1845. Wikimedia.

The most tragic, indeed horrifying, aspect of slavery was its inhumanity. All slaves had memories, emotions, experiences, and thoughts. They saw their experiences in full color, felt the pain of the lash, the heat of the sun, and the heartbreak of loss, whether through death, betrayal, or sale. Communities developed upon a shared sense of suffering, common work, and even family ties. Slaves communicated in the slave markets of the urban South, and worked together to help their families, ease their loads, or simply frustrate their owners. Simple actions of resistance, such as breaking a hoe, running a wagon off the road, causing a delay in production due to injury, running away, or even pregnancy, provided a language shared by nearly all slaves in the agricultural workforce, a sense of unity that remained unsaid, but was acted out daily.

Beyond the basic and confounding horror of it all, the problem of slavery in the cotton South was twofold. First, and most immediate, was the fear and risk of rebellion. With nearly four million individual slaves residing in the South in 1860, and nearly 2.5 million living in the “Cotton Belt” alone, the system of communication, resistance, and potential violence amongst slaves did not escape the minds of slaveholders across the region and nation as a whole. As early as 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that blacks and whites were “two warring nations” held at bay by the existence of slavery. If white slaveowners did not remain vigilant, Jefferson wrote, the presence of Africans in the Americas would “produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”15

Southern writers, planters, farmers, merchants, and politicians expressed the same fears more than a half century later. “The South cannot recede,” declared an anonymous writer in an 1852 issue of the New Orleans-based De Bow’s Review. “She must fight for her slaves or against them. Even cowardice would not save her.”16 To many slaveholders in the South, slavery was the saving grace not only of their own economic stability, but also the maintenance of peace and security in everyday life. Much of pro-slavery ideology rested upon the notion that slavery provided a sense of order, duty, and legitimacy to the lives of individual slaves, feelings that Africans and African Americans, it was said, could not otherwise experience. Without slavery, many thought, “blacks” (the word most often used for “slaves” in regular conversation) would become violent, aimless, and uncontrollable.

Some commentators recognized the problem in the 1850s, as the internal slave trade—the legal trade of slaves between states, along rivers, and along the Atlantic coastline—picked up in the decade before the Civil War. The problem was rather simple. The more slaves one owned, the more money is cost to a) maintain them, and b) extract product from their work. As planters and cotton growers expanded their lands and purchased more slaves, their expectations increased.

And productivity, in large part, did increase. But it came on the backs of slaves with heavier workloads, longer hours, and more intense punishments. “The great limitation to production is labor,” wrote one commentator in the American Cotton Planter in 1853. And many planters recognized this limitation, and worked night and day, sometimes literally, to find the furthest extent of that limit.17 According to some contemporary accounts, by the mid 1850s, the expected production of an individual slave in Mississippi’s Cotton Belt had increased from between four and five bales (weighing about 500 pounds each) per day to between eight and ten bales per day, on average.18 Other, perhaps more reliable sources, such as the account book of Buena Vista Plantation in Tensas Parish, Louisiana, list average daily production at between 300 and 500 pounds “per hand,” with weekly averages ranging from 1,700 to 2,100 pounds “per hand.” Cotton production “per hand” increased by 600 percent in Mississippi between 1820 and 1860.19 Each slave, then, was working longer, harder hours to keep up with his or her master’s expected yield.

Here was capitalism with its most colonial, violent, and exploitative face. Humanity became a commodity used and worked to produce profit for a select group of investors, regardless of its shortfalls, dangers, and immoralities. But slavery, profit, and cotton did not exist only in the rural South. The Cotton Revolution sparked the growth of an urban South, cities that served as Southern hubs of a global market, conduits through which the work of slaves and the profits of planters met and funded a wider world.

The slave trade sold bondspeople -- men, women, and children -- like mere pieces of property, as seen in the advertisements produced during the era. 1840 poster advertising slaves for sale in New Orleans. Wikimedia,

The slave trade sold bondspeople — men, women, and children — like mere pieces of property, as seen in the advertisements produced during the era. 1840 poster advertising slaves for sale in New Orleans. Wikimedia.


IV. The South and the City

Although much of the story of slavery and cotton lies in the rural areas where cotton actually grew, slaves worked in the fields, and planters and farmers held reign over their plantations and farms, the 1830s, 40s, and 50s saw an extraordinary spike in urban growth across the South. For nearly a half century after the Revolution, the South existed as a series of plantations, county seats, and small towns, some connected by roads, others connected only by rivers, streams, and lakes. Cities certainly existed, but they served more as local ports than regional, or national, commercial hubs. For example, New Orleans, then capital of Louisiana, which entered the union in 1812, was home to just over 27,000 people in 1820; and even with such a seemingly small population, it was the second largest city in the South—Baltimore had more than 62,000 people in 1820.20 Given the standard 19th-century measurement of an urban space (2,500+ people), the South had just ten in that year, one of which—Mobile, Alabama—contained only 2,672 individuals, nearly half of whom were enslaved.21

As late as the 1820s, Southern life was predicated upon a rural lifestyle—farming, laboring, acquiring land and slaves, and producing whatever that land and those slaves could produce. The market, often located in the nearest town or city, rarely stretched beyond state lines. Even in places like New Orleans, Charleston, and Norfolk, Va., which had active ports as early as the 1790s, shipments rarely, with some notable exceptions, left American waters or traveled further than the closest port down the coast. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, American involvement in international trade was largely confined to ports in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and, sometimes, Baltimore—which loosely falls under the demographic category of the South. Imports dwarfed exports. In 1807, U.S. imports outnumbered exports by nearly $100 million; and even as the Napoleonic Wars broke out in Europe, causing a drastic decrease in European production and trade, the United States still took in almost $50 million more than it sent out.22

Cotton changed much of this, at least with respect to the South. Before cotton, the South had few major ports, almost none of which actively maintained international trade routes or even domestic supply routes. Internal travel and supply was difficult, especially on the waters of the Mississippi River, the main artery of the North American continent, and the eventual goldmine of the South. With a strong current, deadly undertow, and constant sharp turns, sandbars, and subsystems, navigating the Mississippi was difficult and dangerous. It promised a revolution in trade, transportation, and commerce only if the technology existed to handle its impossible bends, and fight against its southbound current. By the 1820s, and into the 1830s, small ships could successfully navigate their ways to New Orleans from as far north as Memphis and even St. Louis, if they so dared. But the problem was getting back. Most often, traders and sailors scuttled their boats upon landing in New Orleans, selling the wood for a quick profit or a journey home on a wagon or caravan.

The rise of cotton benefitted from a change in transportation technology that aided and guided the growth of Southern cotton into one of the world’s leading commodities. In January 1812, a 371-ton ship called the New Orleans arrived at its namesake from the distant internal port of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was the first steamboat to navigate the internal waterways of the North American continent from one end to the other, and remain capable of returning home. The technology was far from perfect—the New Orleans sank two years later after hitting a submerged sandbar covered in driftwood—but its successful trial promised a bright, new future for river-based travel.

And that future was, indeed, bright. Just five years after the New Orleans arrived in its city, seventeen steamboats ran regular upriver lines. By the mid 1840s, more than 700 steamboats did the same. In 1860, the port of New Orleans received and unloaded 3,500 steamboats, all focused entirely upon internal trade. These boats carried around 160,000 tons of raw product that merchants, traders, and agents converted into nearly $220 million in trade, all in a single year.23 More than 80 percent of the yield was from cotton alone, the product of the same fields tilled, expanded, and sold over the preceding three decades. Only now, in the 1840s and 1850s, could those fields, plantations, and farms simply load their products onto a boat, and wait for the profit, credit, or supplies to return from “downriver.”

Gordon, the slave pictured here, endured terrible brutality from his master before escaping to Union Army lines in 1863. He would become a soldier and help fight to end the violent system that produced the horrendous scars on his back. Matthew Brady, Gordon, 1863. Wikimedia,,_scourged_back,_NPG,_1863.jpg.

Gordon, pictured here, endured terrible brutality from his master before escaping to Union Army lines in 1863. He would become a soldier and help fight to end the violent system that produced the horrendous scars on his back. Matthew Brady, Gordon, 1863. Wikimedia.

The explosion of steam power changed the face of the South, and indeed the nation as a whole. Everything that could be steam-powered was steam-powered, sometimes with very mixed results. Cotton gins, wagons, grinders, looms, and baths, among countless others, all fell under the net of this new technology. Most importantly, the South’s rivers, lakes, and bays were no longer barriers and hindrances to commerce. Quite the opposite, they had become the means by which commerce flowed, the roads of a modernizing society and region. And most importantly, the ability to use internal waterways connected the rural interior to increasingly urban ports, the sources of raw materials—i.e. cotton, tobacco, wheat, etc.—to an eager global market.

Coastal ports like New Orleans, Charleston, Norfolk, and even Richmond became targets of steamboats and coastal carriers. Merchants, traders, skilled laborers, and foreign speculators and agents flooded the towns. In fact, the South experienced a stronger trend in urbanization between 1820 and 1860 than the seemingly more industrial, urban-based North. Urbanization of the South simply looked different from that seen in the North and in Europe. Where most Northern and some European cities (most notably London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Paris) developed along the lines of industry, creating public spaces to boost the morale of wage laborers in factories, on the docks, and in storehouses, Southern cities developed within the cyclical logic of sustaining the trade in cotton that justified and paid for the maintenance of an enslaved labor force. The growth of Southern cities, then, allowed slavery to flourish and brought the South into a more modern world.

Between 1820 and 1860, quite a few Southern towns experienced dramatic population growth, which paralleled the increase in cotton production and international trade to and from the South. The 27,176 people New Orleans claimed in 1820 expanded to more than 168,000 by 1860. In fact, in New Orleans, the population nearly quadrupled from 1830 to 1840 as the Cotton Revolution hit full stride. At the same time, Charleston’s population doubled, from 24,780 to 40,522; Richmond expanded threefold, growing from a town of 12,067 to a capital city of 37,910; and St. Louis experienced the largest increase of any city in the nation, expanding from a frontier town of 10,049 to a booming Mississippi River metropolis of 160,773.24

The city and the field, the urban center and the rural space, were inextricably linked in the decades before the Civil War. And that relationship connected the region to a global market and community. As Southern cities grew, they became more cosmopolitan, attracting types of people either unsuited for, or uninterested in rural life. These people—merchants, skilled laborers, traders, sellers of all kinds and colors—brought rural goods to a market desperate for raw materials. Everyone, it seemed, had a place in the cotton trade. Agents, many of them transients from the North, and in some cases Europe, represented the interests of planters and cotton farmers in the cities, making connections with traders who in turn made deals with manufactories in the Northeast, Liverpool, and Paris.

Among the more important aspects of Southern urbanization is the development of a middle class in the urban centers, something that never fully developed in the more rural areas. In a very general sense, the rural South fell under a two-class system in which a landowning elite controlled the politics and most of the capital, and a working poor survived on subsistence farming or basic, unskilled labor funded by the elite. The development of large urban centers founded upon trade, and flush with transient populations of sailors, merchants, and travelers, gave rise to a large, highly developed middle class in the South. Predicated upon the idea of separation from those above and below them, middle class men and women in South thrived in the active, feverish rush of port city life.

Filled from the ranks of skilled craftsmen, merchants, traders, speculators, and storeowners, the Southern middle class took on a communal identity that embraced the urban lifestyle. Southern fashion paid less attention to practical function—such as broad brimmed hats to protect one from the sun, knee-high boots for horse riding, and linen shirts and trousers to fight the heat of an unrelenting sun. Silk, cotton, and bright colors came in vogue, especially in coastal cities like New Orleans and Charleston; cravats, golden broaches, diamonds, and “the best stylings of Europe” became the standards of urban middle-class life in the South.25 Neighbors, friends, and business partners formed and joined the same benevolent societies, dedicated, in a form of self-aggrandizing virtue, to aiding the less fortunate in society—the orphans, the impoverished, the destitute. But in many cases these benevolent societies simply served as a way to keep other people out of middle-class circles, sustaining both wealth and social prestige within an insular, well-regulated community. Members and partners married each others’ sisters, stood as godparents for each others’ children, and served, when the time came, as executors of fellow members’ wills.

The city bred exclusivity. That was part of the rush, part of fever of the time. Built upon the cotton trade, funded by European and Northeastern merchants, markets, and manufactories, Southern cities became headquarters of the nation’s largest and most profitable commodities—cotton and slaves. And they welcomed the world with open checkbooks and open arms.


V. Southern Cultures

Life, too, remained. The South, for all of its economic, agricultural, and technological growth, still housed many people, many cultures, and many individual lives. To understand the global and economic functions of the South, we also must understand the people who, just by living in the region, going to work each day, whether forced and voluntary, and participating the general dialogue of a community, made the whole thing work. The South, more than perhaps any other region in the United States, had a great diversity of cultures and situations. The South still relied on the existence of slavery; and as a result, it was home to nearly 4 million enslaved people by 1860, amounting to more than 45 percent of the entire Southern population.26 Naturally, these people, though fundamentally unfree in their movement, developed a culture all their own. They created kinship and family networks, systems of (often illicit) trade, linguistic codes, religious congregations, and even benevolent and social aid organizations—all this within the grip of slavery, a system dedicated to extraction rather than development, work and production rather than community and emotion.

The concept of family, more than anything else, played a crucial role in the daily lives of slaves. Family and kinship networks, and the benefits they carried, represented an institution through which slaves could piece together a sense of community, a sense of feeling and dedication, separate from the forced system of production that defined their daily lives. The creation of family units, distant relations, and communal traditions allowed slaves maintain religious beliefs, ancient ancestral traditions, and even names passed down from generation to generation in a way that challenged the ubiquitous nature of enslavement. Ideas passed between relatives on different plantations, names given to children in honor of the deceased, and the basic forms of love and devotion that bind closely-knit societies created a sense of individuality, an identity that assuaged the loneliness and desperation of enslaved life. Family defined how each plantation, each community, functioned, grew, and labored.

Nothing under slavery lasted long, at least not in the same form. Slave families and networks were no exceptions to this rule. African-born slaves during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries engaged in marriages—sometimes polygamous—with those of the same ethnic groups whenever possible. This, most importantly, allowed for the maintenance of cultural traditions, such as language, religion, name practices, and even the rare practice of bodily scarring. In some parts of the South, such as Louisiana and coastal South Carolina, ethnic homogeneity thrived, and as a result, traditions and networks survived relatively unchanged for decades. As the number of slaves arriving in the United States increased, and generations of American-born slaves overtook the original African-born populations, the practice of marriage, especially among members of the same ethnic group, or even simply the same plantation, became vital to the continuation of aging traditions. Marriage served as the single most important aspect of cultural and identity formation, as it connected slaves to their own pasts, and gave some sense of protection for the future.27 By the start of the Civil War, approximately two-thirds of slaves were members of nuclear households, each household averaging six people—mother, father, children, and often a grandparent, elderly aunt or uncle, and even “in-laws.” Those not members of a marriage bond, or even a nuclear family, still maintained family ties, most often living with a single parent, brother, sister, or grandparent.28

Free people of color were present throughout the American South, particularly in urban areas like Charleston and New Orleans. Some were relatively well off, like this femme de couleur libre posed with her mixed race child in front of her New Orleans home, maintaining a middling position between free whites and slaves. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, free people of color lost their status and any rights they had as slavery expanded and strengthened. Free woman of color with quadroon daughter; late 18th century collage painting, New Orleans. Wikimedia,

Free people of color were present throughout the American South, particularly in urban areas like Charleston and New Orleans. Some were relatively well off, like this femme de couleur libre who posed with her mixed-race child in front of her New Orleans home, maintaining a middling position between free whites and unfree blacks. Free woman of color with quadroon daughter; late 18th century collage painting, New Orleans. Wikimedia

Many slave marriages endured for many years, as with all things under slavery, the threat of disruption, often through sale, always loomed. As the internal slave trade increased following the constitutional ban on slave importation in 1808 and the rise of cotton in the 1830s and 1840s, slave families, especially those established prior to the slaves’ arrival in the United States, came under increased threat. Hundreds of thousands of marriages, many with children, fell victim to sale “downriver”—a euphemism for the near constant flow of slave laborers down the Mississippi River to the developing cotton belt in the Southwest—as cheap land turned into cheap cotton.29 In fact, during the Cotton Revolution alone, between one-fifth and one-third of all slave marriages were broken up through sale or forced migration. But this was not the only threat. Planters, and slaveowners of all shapes and sizes, recognized that marriage was, in the most basic and tragic sense, a privilege granted and defined by them for their slaves. And as a result, many slaveholders used slaves’ marriages, or the threats thereto, to squeeze out more production, counteract disobedience, or simply make a gesture of power and superiority.

Threats to family networks, marriages, and household stability did not stop with the death of a master. A slave couple could live their entire lives together, even having been born, raised, and married on the slave plantation, and, following the death of their master, find themselves at opposite sides of the known world. It only took a single relative, executor, creditor, or friend of the deceased to make a claim against the estate to cause the sale and dispersal of an entire slave community.

Enslaved women were particularly vulnerable to the shifts of fate attached to slavery. In many cases, female slaves did the same work as men, spending the day—from sun up to sun down—in the fields picking and bundling cotton. In some rare cases, especially among the larger plantations, planters tended to use women as house servants more than men, but this was not universal. In both cases, however, females slaves’ experiences were different than their male counterparts, husbands, and neighbors. Sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, and constant childrearing while continuing to work the fields all made life as a female slave more prone to disruption and uncertainty. Harriet Jacobs, an enslaved woman from North Carolina, chronicled her master’s attempts to sexually abuse her in her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs suggested that her successful attempts to resist sexual assault and her determination to love whom she pleased was “something akin to freedom.”30 But this “freedom,” however empowering and contextual, did not cast a wide net. Many enslaved women had no choice concerning love, sex, and motherhood. On plantations, small farms, and even in cities, rape was ever-present. Like the splitting of families, slaveowners used sexual violence as a form of terrorism, a way to promote increased production, obedience, and power relations. And this was not restricted only to unmarried women. In numerous contemporary accounts, particularly violent slaveowners forced men to witness the rape of their wives, daughters, and relatives, often as punishment, but occasionally as a sadistic expression of power and dominance.31

The key is that, as property, enslaved women had no recourse, and society, by and large, did not see a crime in this type of violence. Racist pseudo-scientists claimed that whites could not physically rape Africans or African Americans, as the sexual organs of each were not compatible in that way. State law, in some cases, supported this view, claiming that rape could only occur between either two white people or a black man and a white woman. All other cases fell under a silent acceptance.32 The consequences of rape, too, fell to the victim in the case of slaves. Pregnancies that resulted from rape did not always lead to a lighter workload for the mother. And if a slave acted out against a rapist, whether that be her master, mistress, or any other white attacker, her actions were seen as crimes rather than desperate acts of survival. For example, a 19-year-old slave named Celia fell victim to repeated rape by her master in Callaway County, Missouri. Between 1850 and 1855, Robert Newsom raped Celia hundreds of times, producing two children and several miscarriages. Sick and desperate in the fall of 1855, Celia took a club and struck her master in the head, killing him. But instead of sympathy and aid, or even an honest attempt to understand and empathize, the community rallied around their dead friend, calling for the execution of Celia. On November 16, 1855, after a trial of ten days, Celia, the 19-year-old rape victim and slave, was hanged for her crimes against her master.33

This photograph is Selina Gray and two of her daughters. Gray was the enslaved housekeeper to Robert E. Lee. Via the National Park Service

This photograph is Selina Gray and two of her daughters. Gray was the enslaved housekeeper to Robert E. Lee. Via the National Park Service.

Gender inequality did not always fall along the same lines as racial inequality. Southern society, especially in the age of cotton, deferred to white men, under whom laws, social norms, and cultural practices were written, dictated, and maintained. White and free women of color lived in a society dominated, in nearly every aspect, by men. Denied voting rights, women, of all statuses and colors, had no direct representation in the creation and discussion of law. Husbands, it was said, represented their wives, as the public sphere was too violent, heated, and high-minded for the female intellectual and physical frame. Society expected women to represent the foundations of the republic, gaining respectability through their work at home, in support of their husbands and children, away from the rough and boisterous realm of masculinity. In many cases, too, law did not protect women the same way it protected men. In most states, marriage, an act expected of any self-respecting, reasonable woman of any class, effectively transferred all of a woman’s property to her husband, forever, regardless of claim or command. Divorce existed, but it hardly worked in a woman’s favor, and often, if successful, ruined the wife’s standing in society, and even led to well-known cases of suicide.34

Life on the ground in cotton South, like the cities, systems, and networks within which it rested, defied the standard narrative of the Old South. Slavery existed to dominate, yet slaves formed bonds, maintained traditions, and crafted new culture. They fell in love, had children, and protected one another using the privileges granted them by their captors, and the basic intellect allowed all human beings. They were resourceful, brilliant, and vibrant, and they created freedom where freedom seemingly could not exist. But threats remained for all people in the cotton South, especially those frowned upon by the patriarchal system upon which Southern society was built. And within those communities, resilience and dedication often led to cultural sustenance. Among the enslaved, women, and the impoverished-but-free, culture thrived in ways that are difficult to see through the bales of cotton and the stacks of money sitting on the docks and in the counting houses of the South’s urban centers. But religion, honor, and pride transcended material goods, especially among those who could not express themselves that way.

The issue of emigration elicited disparate reactions from African Americans. Tens of thousands left the United States for Liberia, a map of which is shown here, to pursue greater freedoms and prosperity. Most emigrants did not experience such success, but Liberia continued to attract black settlers for decades. J. Ashmun, Map of the West Coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas, including the colony of Liberia…, 1830. Library of Congress,

The issue of emigration elicited disparate reactions from African Americans. Tens of thousands left the United States for Liberia, a map of which is shown here, to pursue greater freedoms and prosperity. Most emigrants did not experience such success, but Liberia continued to attract black settlers for decades. J. Ashmun, Map of the West Coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas, including the colony of Liberia…, 1830. Library of Congress.


VI. Religion and Honor in the Slave South

Economic growth, violence, and exploitation coexisted and mutually reinforced evangelical Christianity in the South. The revivals of the Second Great Awakening established the region’s prevailing religious culture. Led by Methodists, Baptists, and to a lesser degree, Presbyterians, this intense period of religious regeneration swept the along southern backcountry. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the vast majority of southerners who affiliated with a religious denomination belonged to either the Baptist or Methodist faith.35 Both churches in the South briefly attacked slavery before transforming into some of the most vocal defenders of slavery and the southern social order.

Southern ministers contended that God himself had selected Africans for bondage but also considered the evangelization of slaves to be one of their greatest callings. Missionary efforts among southern slaves largely succeeded and Protestantism spread rapidly among African Americans, leading to a proliferation of biracial congregations and prominent independent black churches. Some black and white southerners forged positive and rewarding biracial connections; however, more often black and white southerners described strained or superficial religious relationships.

As the institution of slavery hardened racism in the South, relationships between missionaries and Native Americans transformed as well. Missionaries of all denominations were among the first to represent themselves as “pillars of white authority.” After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, plantation culture expanded into the Deep South, and mission work became a crucial element of Christian expansion. Frontier mission schools carried a continual flow of Christian influence into Native American communities. Some missionaries learned indigenous languages, but many more worked to prevent indigenous children from speaking their native tongues, insisting upon English for Christian understanding. By the Indian removals of 1835 and the Trail of Tears in 1838, missionaries in the South preached a proslavery theology that emphasized obedience to masters, the biblical basis of racial slavery via the curse of Ham, and the “civilizing” paternalism of slave-owners.

Slaves most commonly received Christian instruction from white preachers or masters, whose religious message typically stressed slave subservience. Anti-literacy laws ensured that most slaves would be unable to read the Bible in its entirety and thus could not acquaint themselves with such inspirational stories as Moses delivering the Israelites out of slavery. Contradictions between God’s Word and master and mistress cruelty did not pass unnoticed by many enslaved African Americans. As former slave William Wells Brown declared, “slaveholders hide themselves behind the Church,” adding that “a more praying, preaching, psalm-singing people cannot be found than the slaveholders of the South.”36

Many slaves chose to create and practice their own versions of Christianity, one that typically incorporated aspects of traditional African religions with limited input from the white community. Nat Turner, for example, found inspiration from religion early in life. Adopting an austere Christian lifestyle during his adolescence, Turner claimed to have been visited by “spirits” during his twenties, and considered himself something of a prophet. He claimed to have had visions, in which he was called upon to do the work of God, leading some contemporaries (as well as historians) to question his sanity.37

Inspired by his faith, Turner led the most deadly slave rebellion in the antebellum South. On the morning of August 22, 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner and six collaborators attempted to free the region’s enslaved population. Turner initiated the violence by killing his master with an axe blow to the head. By the end of the day, Turner and his band, which had grown to over fifty men, killed fifty-seven white men, women, and children on eleven farms. By the next day, the local militia and white residents had captured or killed all of the participants except Turner, who hid for a number of weeks in nearby woods before being captured and executed. The white terror that followed Nat Turner’s rebellion transformed southern religion, as anti-literacy laws increased and black-led churches were broken up and placed under the supervision of white ministers.

This woodcut captured the terror felt by white southerners in the aftermath of Nat Turner's rebellion. After the rebellion, fearful white reactionaries killed hundreds of enslaved people—most of whom were unconnected to the rebellion— and the state created stricter, more limiting laws concerning slavery. via African American Intellectual History Society.

This woodcut captured the terror felt by white southerners in the aftermath of Nat Turner’s rebellion. After the rebellion, fearful white reactionaries killed hundreds of enslaved people—most of whom were unconnected to the rebellion— and the state created stricter, more limiting laws concerning slavery. via the African American Intellectual History Society.

Evangelical religion also shaped understandings of what it meant to be a southern man or a southern woman. Southern manhood was largely shaped by an obsession with masculine honor, whereas southern womanhood centered on expectations of sexual virtue or purity. Honor prioritized the public recognition of white masculine claims to reputation and authority. Southern men developed a code to ritualize their interactions with each other and to perform their expectations of honor. This code structured language and behavior and was designed to minimize conflict. But when conflict did arise, the code also provided rituals that would reduce the resulting violence.

The formal duel exemplified the code in action. If two men could not settle a dispute through the arbitration of their friends, they would exchange pistol shots to prove their equal honor status. Duelists arranged a secluded meeting, chose from a set of deadly weapons and risked their lives as they clashed with swords or fired pistols at one another. Some of the most illustrious men in American history participated in a duel at some point during their lives, including President Andrew Jackson, Vice-President Aaron Burr, United States Senators Henry Clay, and Thomas Hart Benton. In all but Burr’s case, dueling assisted in elevating these men to prominence.

Violence amongst the lower classes, especially those in the backcountry, involved fistfights and shootouts. Tactics included the sharpening of fingernails and filing of teeth into razor sharp points, which would be used to gouge eyes and bite off ears and noses. In a duel, a gentleman achieved recognition by risking his life rather than killing his opponent, whereas those involved in rough-and-tumble fighting achieved victory through maiming their opponent.

The legal system was partially to blame for the prevalence of violence in the Old South. Although states and territories had laws against murder, rape, and various other forms of violence, including specific laws against dueling, upper-class southerners were rarely prosecuted and juries often acquitted the accused. Despite the fact that hundreds of duelists fought and killed one another, there is little evidence that many duelists faced prosecution, and only one, Timothy Bennett (Belleville, Illinois), was ever executed. By contrast, prosecutors routinely sought cases against lower-class southerners, who were found guilty in greater numbers than their wealthier counterparts.

The southern emphasis on honor affected women as well. While southern men worked to maintain their sense of masculinity, so too southern women cultivated a sense of femininity. Femininity in the South was intimately tied to the domestic sphere, even more so than for women in the North. The cult of domesticity strictly limited the ability of wealthy southern women to engage in public life. While northern women began to organize reform societies, southern women remained bound to the home where they were instructed to cultivate their families’ religious sensibility and manage their household. Managing the household was not easy work, however. For women on large plantations, managing the household would include directing a large bureaucracy of potentially rebellious slaves. For the vast majority of southern women who did not live on plantations, managing the household would include nearly constant work in keeping families clean, fed, and well-behaved. On top of these duties, many southern women would be required to assist with agricultural tasks.

Female labor was an important aspect of the southern economy, but the social position of women in southern culture was understood not through economic labor but rather through moral virtue. While men fought to get ahead in a turbulent world of cotton boom, women were instructed to offer a calming, moralizing influence on husbands and children. The home was to be a place of quiet respite and spiritual solace. Under the guidance of a virtuous woman, the southern home would foster the values required for economic success and cultural refinement. Female virtue came to be understood largely as a euphemism for sexual purity, and southern culture, southern law, and southern violence largely centered on protecting that virtue of sexual purity from any possible imagined threat. In a world saturated with the sexual exploitation of black women, southerners developed a paranoid obsession with protecting the sexual purity of white women. Black men were presented as an insatiable sexual threat. Racial systems of violence and domination were wielded with crushing intensity for generations, all in the name of keeping white womanhood as pure as the cotton that anchored southern society.


VII. Conclusion

Cotton created the antebellum South. The wildly profitable commodity opened a previously closed society to the grandeur, the profit, the exploitation, and the social dimensions of a larger, more connected, global community. In this way, the South, and the world, benefitted from the Cotton Revolution and the urban growth it sparked. But not all that glitters is gold. Slavery remained, and as a result of urbanization, the internal slave trade increased to untold heights as the 1860s approached. Politics, race relations, and the burden of slavery continued beneath the roar of steamboats, counting houses, and the exchange of goods. Underneath it all, many questions remained—chief among them, what to do if slavery somehow came under threat.


VIII. Reference Material

This chapter was edited by Andrew Wegmann, with content contributions by Ian Beamish, Amanda Bellows, Marjorie Brown, Matthew Byron, Steffi Cerato, Kristin Condotta, Mari Crabtree, Jeff Fortney, Robert Gudmestad, John Marks, Maria Montalvo, James Anthony Owen, Katherine Rohrer, Marie Stango, James Wellborn, Ben Wright, and Ashley Young.

Preferred Citation: Ian Beamish et al., “The Cotton Revolution,” Andrew Wegmann, ed., in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016,


Recommended Reading

  • Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
  • Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).
  • John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
  • Wilma A. Dunaway, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Beth English, A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2006).
  • Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).
  • Barbara Hahn, Making Tobacco Bright: Creating an American Commodity, 1617-1937 (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
  • Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
  • Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999).
  • Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013).
  • Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
  • Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).
  • Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
  • Scott P. Marler, The Merchants’ Capital: New Orleans and the Political Economy of the Nineteenth-Century South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  • Robin McDonald and Valerie Pope Burnes, Visions of the Black Belt: A Cultural Survey of the Heart of Alabama (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2015).
  • Maurie D. McInnis, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  • Dylan C. Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
  • Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).
  • Diane Miller Sommerville, Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  • Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1987).
  • Marie Tyler-McGraw, At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
  • Andrew N. Wegmann, “Skin Color and Social Practice: The Problem of Race and Class Among New Orleans Creoles and Across the South, 1718-1862” (Ph.D. diss.: Louisiana State University, 2015).
  • Jonathan Daniel Wells and Jennifer R. Green, eds., The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).
  • Emily West, Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
  • Betty Wood, The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997).



  1. See Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 103; and Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 148-151. []
  2. Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 151-152; and John Solomon Otto, The Southern Frontiers, 1607-1860: The Agricultural Evolution of the Colonial and Antebellum South (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989), 94-96. []
  3. Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 6-7; David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720-1835 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 30-36; and Scott Reynolds Nelson, A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America’s Financial Disasters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 115-118. []
  4. Joseph Holt Ingraham quoted in Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams, 5. []
  5. W. H. Sparks, Memories of Fifty Years (Philadelphia, PA: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1870), 364. []
  6. Beckert, Empire of Cotton, 102-103. []
  7. For more cotton statistics, see Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams, 3-5, 96-103; Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 254-260; Beckert, Empire of Cotton, 102-104; Avery Plaw, “Slavery,” in Cynthia Clark, ed., The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2011), 108-109, 787-798; William J. Phalen, The Consequences of Cotton in Antebellum America (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014), 110-114; and Gene Dattel, Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 370-371. []
  8. For a valuable and approachable rundown of American slavery statistics, see Jenny Bourne, “Slavery in the United States,” at For statistics earlier than 1790, see Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, appendix; and Kolchin, American Slavery, 252-257. All slavery statistics hereafter refer to Bourne’s “Slavery in the United States” unless otherwise noted. []
  9. On antebellum land prices, especially in the cotton belt, see Phalen, Consequences of Cotton, 157-160; Otto, The Southern Frontiers, 86-99; Beth English, A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2006), 40-44; and Harold D. Woodman, King Cotton and His Retainers: Financing and Marketing the Cotton Crop of the South, 1800-1925 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), chapter 11. []
  10. See Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 171-181. []
  11. See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 140-141; and John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escapes of John Brown, a Fugitive Now in England (London: L. A. Chamerovzow, 1855), 16-17. []
  12. James L. Huston, “The Pregnant Economies of the Border South, 1840-1860: Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Possibilities of Slave-Labor Expansion,” in L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, and Frank Towers, eds., The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 132-134. []
  13. See Joseph Holt Ingraham, The Southwest, By a Yankee (New York, 1835), II: 91, quoted in Woodman, King Cotton and His Retainers, 135. A similar quote, recorded in 1854 and attributed to Edward Russell, appears in Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 12. []
  14. James Stirling, Letters from the Slaves States (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1857), 179-180. []
  15. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston, MA: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 143-144. []
  16. See “Excessive Slave Population: The Remedy,” De Bow’s Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Feb. 1852): 184-185, also quoted in Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 13. []
  17. See Anonymous, “Cotton and Its Prospects,” American Cotton Planter, Vol. 1, No. 8 (August 1853): 226, also quoted in Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 246. []
  18. See Thomas Prentice Kettel, Southern Wealth and Northern Profits, as Exhibited in Statistical Facts and Official Figures (New York: George W. and John A. Wood, 1860), 23. []
  19. Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 247; 244. []
  20. On the populations of Southern cities, see Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 325-327. The top three Southern cities, in terms of population in 1820, were Baltimore (62,738), New Orleans (27,176), and Charleston (24,780). []
  21. See Wade, Slavery in the Cities, 326. []
  22. For American import-export statistics, see Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783-1812 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2014), 670-671; and, among others, J. Bradford De Long, “Trade Policy and America’s Standard of Living: A Historical Perspective,” in Susan M. Collins, ed., Exports, Imports, and the American Worker (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1998), 354-357. []
  23. See Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 6, 73-88; Paskoff, Troubled Waters, 13-19; and Gudmestad, Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom, chapter 1, 174-180. []
  24. See Scott P. Marler, The Merchants’ Capital: New Orleans and the Political Economy of the Nineteenth-Century South (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), part I; and Wade, Slavery in the Cities, 326-327. []
  25. On the fashion of the Southern middle class, see Wegmann, “Skin Color and Social Practice,” chapter 4; Wells, The Origins of the Southern Middle Class, 74-80; and John G. Deal, “Middle-Class Benevolent Societies in Antebellum Norfolk, Virginia,” in Jonathan Daniel Wells and Jennifer R. Green, eds., The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011), 92-95. []
  26. The enslaved population of the South in 1860 was 3,950,511 of a total Southern population of 8,289,782. For statistics on slavery, see Bourne, “Slavery in the United States,” at []
  27. See Stevenson, Life in Black and White, chapter 8, especially 231-238; and Emily West, Chains of Love: Slave Couples in Antebellum South Carolina (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), particularly 21-33. []
  28. See Stephen Crawford, “The Slave Family: A View from the Slave Narratives,” in Claudia Goldin and Hugh Rockoff, eds. Strategic Factors in Nineteenth Century American Economic History: A Volume to Honor Robert W. Fogel (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 331-350. []
  29. For a fascinating, visual treatment of “downriver” slave sales, see Maurie D. McInnis, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), chapter 3. More generally, see Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 144-147; and Kolchin, American Slavery, 95-98. []
  30. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Boston, 1861), 85. []
  31. Kevin Bales and Jody Sarich, “The Paradox of Women, Children, and Slavery,” in Benjamin N. Lawrence and Richard L. Roberts, eds., Trafficking in Slavery’s Wake: Law and the Experience of Women and Children in Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 241-243; Sommerville, Rape and Race, 44-48; and Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 35-38. []
  32. See Clarence Walker, Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 30-46; and, among others, Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 9-11, 75-82. []
  33. See Melton A. McLaurin, Celia, a Slave: A True Story of Violence and Retribution in Antebellum Missouri (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1991), chapters 2, 5, and 6. []
  34. On divorce, see Carol Lasser and Stacey Robertson, Antebellum Women: Private, Public, Partisan (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 5-8; Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship, 200-204; and David Silkenat, Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), chapter 4, particularly 77-88. []
  35. Samuel S. Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999), 33. []
  36. William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley, 1969), 56. []
  37. Nat Turner, Confessions of Nat Turner… (Baltimore: 1831), 9-11. []

F17 – 12 Manifest Destiny

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1862. Mural, United States Capitol

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1862. Mural, United States Capitol.

*The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

John Louis O’Sullivan, a popular editor and columnist, articulated the long-standing American belief in the God-given mission of the United States to lead the world in the peaceful transition to democracy. In a little-read essay printed in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, O’Sullivan outlined the importance of annexing Texas to the United States:

Why, were other reasoning wanting, in favor of now elevating this question of the reception of Texas into the Union, out of the lower region of our past party dissensions, up to its proper level of a high and broad nationality, it surely is to be found, found abundantly, in the manner in which other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves into it, between us and the proper parties to the case, in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions. John Louis O’Sullivan ((John O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17, no.1 (July-August 1845), 5-10.)) 

O’Sullivan and many others viewed expansion as necessary to achieve America’s destiny and to protect American interests. The quasi-religious call to spread democracy coupled with the reality of thousands of settlers pressing westward. Manifest destiny was grounded in the belief that a democratic, agrarian republic would save the world.

John O’Sullivan, shown here in a 1874 Harper’s Weekly sketch, coined the phrase “manifest destiny” in an 1845 newspaper article. Interestingly, he was not advocating using force to expand westward, arguing vehemently in those and later years against war in America and abroad. Wikimedia,

John O’Sullivan, shown here in a 1874 Harper’s Weekly sketch, coined the phrase “manifest destiny” in an 1845 newspaper article. Wikimedia.

Although called into name in 1845, manifest destiny was a widely held but vaguely defined belief that dated back to the founding of the nation. First, many Americans believed that the strength of American values and institutions justified moral claims to hemispheric leadership. Second, the lands on the North American continent west of the Mississippi River (and later into the Caribbean) were destined for American-led political and agricultural improvement. Third, God and the Constitution ordained an irrepressible destiny to accomplish redemption and democratization throughout the world. All three of these claims pushed many Americans, whether they uttered the words ‘manifest destiny’ or not, to actively seek the expansion the democracy. These beliefs and the resulting actions were often disastrous to anyone in the way of American expansion. The new religion of American democracy spread on the feet and in the wagons of those who moved west, imbued with the hope that their success would be the nation’s success.

The Young America movement, strongest among members of the Democratic Party but spanning the political spectrum, downplayed divisions over slavery and ethnicity by embracing national unity and emphasizing American exceptionalism, territorial expansion, democratic participation, and economic interdependence.1 Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the political outlook of this new generation in a speech he delivered in 1844 entitled “The Young American”:

In every age of the world, there has been a leading nation, one of a more generous sentiment, whose eminent citizens were willing to stand for the interests of general justice and humanity, at the risk of being called, by the men of the moment, chimerical and fantastic. Which should be that nation but these States? Which should lead that movement, if not New England? Who should lead the leaders, but the Young American? Ralph Waldo Emerson2

However, many Americans, including Emerson, disapproved of aggressive expansion. For opponents of manifest destiny, the lofty rhetoric of the Young Americans was nothing other than a kind of imperialism that the American Revolution was supposed to have repudiated.3 Many members of the Whig Party (and later the Republican Party) argued that the United States’ mission was to lead by example, not by conquest. Abraham Lincoln summed up this criticism with a fair amount of sarcasm during a speech in 1859:

He (the Young American) owns a large part of the world, by right of possessing it; and all the rest by right of wanting it, and intending to have it…Young America had “a pleasing hope — a fond desire — a longing after” territory. He has a great passion — a perfect rage — for the “new”; particularly new men for office, and the new earth mentioned in the revelations, in which, being no more sea, there must be about three times as much land as in the present. He is a great friend of humanity; and his desire for land is not selfish, but merely an impulse to extend the area of freedom. He is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land…As to those who have no land, and would be glad of help from any quarter, he considers they can afford to wait a few hundred years longer. In knowledge he is particularly rich. He knows all that can possibly be known; inclines to believe in spiritual trappings, and is the unquestioned inventor of “Manifest Destiny.” Abraham Lincoln4

But Lincoln and other anti-expansionists would struggle to win popular opinion. The nation, fueled by the principles of manifest destiny, would continue westward. Along the way, Americans battled both native peoples and foreign nations, claiming territory to the very edges of the continent. But westward expansion did not come without a cost. It exacerbated the slavery question, pushed Americans toward civil war, and, ultimately, threatened the very mission of American democracy it was designed to aid.

Although the original painting was only seen by a small number of Americans, the engraving was widely distributed, reinforcing and perhaps spreading the nationalistic ideals of the “Manifest Destiny” ideology. Columbia, the central female figure representing America, leads the Americans into the West and thus into the future by carrying the values of republicanism (as seen through her Roman garb) and progress (shown through the inclusion of technological innovations like the telegraph). In the process, Columbia clears the West of any possible hindrances to this progress, including the native peoples and animals pushed into the darkness. Engraving after John Gast, Manifest Destiny, 1872. Wikimedia,

Artistic propaganda like this promoted the national project of manifest destiny. Columbia, the female figure of America, leads Americans into the West and into the future by carrying the values of republicanism (as seen through her Roman garb) and progress (shown through the inclusion of technological innovations like the telegraph) and clearing native peoples and animals, seen being pushed into the darkness. John Gast, American Progress, 1872. Wikimedia.


II. Antebellum Western Migration and Indian Removal

After the War of 1812, Americans settled the Great Lakes region rapidly thanks in part to aggressive land sales by the federal government.5 Missouri’s admission as a slave state presented the first major crisis over westward migration and American expansion in the antebellum period. Farther north, lead and iron ore mining spurred development in Wisconsin.6 By the 1830s and 1840s, increasing numbers of German and Scandinavian immigrants joined easterners in settling the Upper Mississippi watershed.7 Little settlement occurred west of Missouri as migrants viewed the Great Plains as a barrier to farming. Further west, the Rocky Mountains loomed as undesirable to all but fur traders, and all American Indians west of the Mississippi appeared too powerful to allow for white expansion.

“Do not lounge in the cities!” commanded publisher Horace Greeley in 1841, “There is room and health in the country, away from the crowds of idlers and imbeciles. Go west, before you are fitted for no life but that of the factory.”8 The New York Tribune often argued that American exceptionalism required the United States to benevolently conquer the continent as the prime means of spreading American capitalism and American democracy. However, the vast west was not empty. American Indians controlled much of the land east of the Mississippi River and almost all the West. Expansion hinged on a federal policy of Indian removal.

The harassment and dispossession of American Indians – whether driven by official U.S. government policy or the actions of individual Americans and their communities – depended on the belief in manifest destiny. Of course, a fair bit of racism was part of the equation as well. The political and legal processes of expansion always hinged on the belief that white Americans could best use new lands and opportunities. This belief rested upon the belief that only Americans embodied the democratic ideals of yeoman agriculturalism extolled by Thomas Jefferson and expanded under Jacksonian democracy.

Florida was an early test case for the Americanization of new lands. The territory held strategic value for the young nation’s growing economic and military interests in the Caribbean. The most important factors that led to the annexation of Florida included anxieties over runaway slaves, Spanish neglect of the region, and the desired defeat of Native American tribes who controlled large portions of lucrative farm territory.

During the early 19th century, Spain wanted to increase productivity in Florida and encouraged migration of mostly Southern slave owners. By the second decade of the 1800s, Anglo settlers occupied plantations along the St. Johns River, from the border with Georgia to Lake George 100 miles upstream. Spain began to lose control as the area quickly became a haven for slave smugglers bringing illicit human cargo into the U.S. for lucrative sale to Georgia planters. Plantation owners grew apprehensive about the growing numbers of slaves running to the swamps and Indian-controlled areas of Florida. American slave owners pressured the U.S. government to confront the Spanish authorities. Southern slave owners refused to quietly accept the continued presence of armed black men in Florida. During the War of 1812, a ragtag assortment of Georgia slave owners joined by a plethora of armed opportunists raided Spanish and British-owned plantations along the St. Johns River. These private citizens received U.S. government help on July 27, 1816, when U.S. army regulars attacked the Negro Fort (established as an armed outpost during the war by the British and located about 60 miles south of the Georgia border). The raid killed 270 of the fort’s inhabitants as a result of a direct hit on the fort’s gun powder stores. This conflict set the stage for General Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Florida in 1817 and the beginning of the First Seminole War.9 

Americans also held that Creek and Seminole Indians, occupying the area from the Apalachicola River to the wet prairies and hammock islands of central Florida, were dangers in their own right. These tribes, known to the Americans collectively as “Seminoles,” migrated into the region over the course of the 18th century and established settlements, tilled fields, and tended herds of cattle in the rich floodplains and grasslands that dominated the northern third of the Florida peninsula. Envious eyes looked upon these lands. After bitter conflict that often pitted Americans against a collection of Native Americans and former slaves, Spain eventually agreed to transfer the territory to the U.S. The resulting Adams-Onís Treaty exchanged Florida for $5 million and other territorial concessions elsewhere. (Francis Newton Thorpe ed., The Federal and State Constitutions Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America Compiled and Edited Under the Act of Congress of June 30, 1906  (Washington, DC : Government Printing Office, 1909).))

After the purchase, planters from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia entered Florida. However, the influx of settlers into the Florida territory was temporarily halted in the mid-1830s by the outbreak of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Free black men and women and escaped slaves also occupied the Seminole district; a situation that deeply troubled slave owners. Indeed, General Thomas Sidney Jesup, U.S. commander during the early stages of the Second Seminole War, labeled that conflict “a negro, not an Indian War,” fearful as he was that if the revolt, “was not speedily put down, the South will feel the effect of it on their slave population before the end of the next season.”10 Florida became a state in 1845 and settlement expanded into the former Indian lands.

American action in Florida seized Indians’ eastern lands, reduced lands available for runaway slaves, and killed entirely or removed Indian peoples farther west. This became the template for future action. Presidents, since at least Thomas Jefferson, had long discussed removal, but President Andrew Jackson took the most dramatic action. Jackson believed, “It [speedy removal] will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.”11 Desires to remove American Indians from valuable farmland motivated state and federal governments to cease trying to assimilate Indians and instead plan for forced removal.

Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, thereby granting the president authority to begin treaty negotiations that would give American Indians land in the West in exchange for their lands east of the Mississippi. Many advocates of removal, including President Jackson, paternalistically claimed that it would protect Indian communities from outside influences that jeopardized their chances of becoming “civilized” farmers. Jackson emphasized this paternalism—the belief that the government was acting in the best interest of Native peoples— in his 1830 State of the Union Address. “It [removal] will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites…and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”12

The experience of the Cherokee was particularly brutal. Despite many tribal members adopting some Euro-American ways, including intensified agriculture, slave ownership, and Christianity; state and federal governments pressured the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee nations to sign treaties and surrender land. Many of these tribal nations used the law in hopes of protecting their lands. Most notable among these efforts was the Cherokee Nation’s attempt to sue the state of Georgia.

Beginning in 1826, Georgian officials asked the federal government to negotiate with the Cherokee to secure lucrative lands. The Adams’ administration resisted the state’s request, but harassment from local settlers against the Cherokee forced the Adams and then Jackson administrations to begin serious negotiations with the Cherokees. Georgia grew impatient with the process of negotiation and abolished existing state agreements with the Cherokee that had guaranteed rights of movement and jurisdiction of tribal law. Andrew Jackson penned a letter soon after taking office that encouraged the Cherokee, among others, to voluntarily relocate to the West. The discovery of gold in Georgia in the fall of 1829 further antagonized the situation.

The Cherokee defended themselves against Georgia’s laws by citing treaties signed with the United States that guaranteed the Cherokee nation both their land and independence. The Cherokee appealed to the Supreme Court against Georgia to prevent dispossession. The Court, while sympathizing with the Cherokees’ plight, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case (Cherokee Nation v. Georgia – 1831). In an associated case, Worcester v. Georgia 1832, The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia laws did not apply within Cherokee territory.13 Regardless of these rulings, the state government ignored the Supreme Court and did little to prevent conflict between settlers and the Cherokee.

Jackson wanted a solution that might preserve peace and his reputation. He sent Secretary of War Lewis Cass to offer title to western lands and the promise of tribal governance in exchange for relinquishing of the Cherokee’s eastern lands. These negotiations opened a rift within the Cherokee nation. Cherokee leader John Ridge believed removal was inevitable and pushed for a treaty that would give the best terms. Others, called nationalists and led by John Ross, refused to consider removal in negotiations. The Jackson administration refused any deal that fell short of large-scale removal of the Cherokee from Georgia, thereby fueling a devastating and violent intra-tribal battle between the two factions. Eventually tensions grew to the point that several treaty advocates were assassinated by members of the national faction.14 

In 1835, a portion of the Cherokee Nation led by John Ridge, hoping to prevent further tribal bloodshed signed the Treaty of New Echota. This treaty ceded lands in Georgia for five million dollars and, the signatories hoped, limiting future conflicts between the Cherokee and white settlers. However, most of the tribe refused to adhere to the terms, viewing the treaty as illegitimately negotiated. In response, John Ross pointed out the U.S. government’s hypocrisy. “You asked us to throw off the hunter and warrior state: We did so—you asked us to form a republican government: We did so. Adopting your own as our model. You asked us to cultivate the earth, and learn the mechanic arts. We did so. You asked us to learn to read. We did so. You asked us to cast away our idols and worship your god. We did so. Now you demand we cede to you our lands. That we will not do.”15

President Martin van Buren, in 1838, decided to press the issue beyond negotiation and court rulings and used the New Echota Treaty provisions to order the army to forcibly remove those Cherokee not obeying the Treaty’s cession of territory. Sixteen thousand Cherokee began the journey, but harsh weather, poor planning, and difficult travel resulted in an estimated 10,138 deaths on what became known as the Trail of Tears.16 Not every instance was as treacherous as the Cherokee example and some tribes resisted removal. But over 60,000 Indians were forced west by the opening of the Civil War.17 

The allure of manifest destiny encouraged expansion regardless of terrain or locale, and Indian removal also took place, to a lesser degree, in northern lands. In the Old Northwest, Odawa and Ojibwe communities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, resisted removal as many lived on land north of desirable farming land. Moreover, some Ojibwe and Odawa individuals purchased land independently. They formed successful alliances with missionaries to help advocate against removal, as well as some traders and merchants who depended on trade with Native peoples. Yet, Indian removal occurred in the North as well—the “Black Hawk War” in 1832, for instance, led to the removal of many Sauk to Kansas.18 

Despite the disaster of removal, tribal nations slowly rebuilt their cultures and in some cases even achieved prosperity in Indian Territory. Tribal nations blended traditional cultural practices, including common land systems, with western practices including constitutional governments, common school systems, and creating an elite slaveholding class.

Some Indian groups remained too powerful to remove. Beginning in the late eighteenth-century, the Comanche rose to power in the Southern Plains region of what is now the southwestern United States. By quickly adapting to the horse culture first introduced by the Spanish, the Comanche transitioned from a foraging economy into a mixed hunting and pastoral society. After 1821, the new Mexican nation-state claimed the region as part of the Northern Mexican frontier, but they had little control. Instead, the Comanche remained in power and controlled the economy of the Southern Plains. A flexible political structure allowed the Comanche to dominate other Indian groups as well as Mexican and American settlers.

In the 1830s, the Comanche launched raids into northern Mexico, ending what had been an unprofitable but peaceful diplomatic relationship with Mexico. At the same time, they forged new trading relationships with Anglo-American traders in Texas. Throughout this period, the Comanche and several other independent Native groups, particularly the Kiowa, Apache, and Navajo engaged in thousands of violent encounters with Northern Mexicans. Collectively, these encounters comprised an ongoing war during the 1830s and 1840s as tribal nations vied for power and wealth. By the 1840s, Comanche power peaked with an empire that controlled a vast territory in the trans-Mississippi west known as Comancheria. By trading in Texas and raiding in Northern Mexico, the Comanche controlled the flow of commodities, including captives, livestock, and trade goods. They practiced a fluid system of captivity and captive trading, rather than a rigid chattel system. The Comanche used captives for economic exploitation but also adopted captives into kinship networks. This allowed for the assimilation of diverse peoples in the region into the empire. The ongoing conflict in the region had sweeping consequences on both Mexican and American politics. The U.S.-Mexican War, beginning in 1846, can be seen as a culmination of this violence.19 

“Map of the Plains Indians,” undated. Smithsonian Institute,

“Map of the Plains Indians,” undated. Smithsonian Institute.

In the Great Basin region, Mexican Independence also escalated patterns of violence. This region, on the periphery of the Spanish empire, was nonetheless integrated in the vast commercial trading network of the West. Mexican officials and Anglo-American traders entered the region with their own imperial designs. New forms of violence spread into the homelands of the Paiute and Western Shoshone. Traders, settlers, and Mormon religious refugees, aided by U.S. officials and soldiers, committed daily acts of violence and laid the groundwork for violent conquest. This expansion of the American state into the Great Basin meant groups such as the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapahoe had to compete over land, resources, captives, and trade relations with Anglo-Americans. Eventually, white incursion and ongoing Indian Wars resulted in traumatic dispossession of land and the struggle for subsistence.

The federal government attempted more than relocation of Americans Indians. Policies to “civilize” Indians coexisted along with forced removal and served an important “Americanizing” vision of expansion that brought an ever-increasing population under the American flag and sought to balance aggression with the uplift of paternal care. Thomas L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian trade from 1816 to 1822 and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1824 to 1830, served as the main architect of the “civilization policy.” He asserted that American Indians were morally and intellectually equal to whites. He sought to establish of a national Indian school system.

Congress rejected McKenney’s plan but instead passed the Civilization Fund Act in 1819. This act offered a $10,000 annual annuity to be allocated towards societies that funded missionaries to establish schools among Indian tribes. However, providing schooling for American Indians under the auspices of the Civilization program also allowed the federal government to justify taking more land. Treaties, such as the 1820 Treaty of Doak’s Stand made with the Choctaw nation, often included land cessions as requirements for education provisions. Removal and Americanization reinforced Americans sense of cultural dominance.20 

After removal in the 1830s, the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw began to collaborate with missionaries to build school systems of their own. Leaders hoped education would help ensuing generations to protect political sovereignty. In 1841, the Cherokee Nation opened a public school system that within two years included eighteen schools. By 1852, the system expanded to twenty-one schools with a national enrollment of 1,100 pupils.21 Many of the students educated in these tribally controlled schools later served their nations as teachers, lawyers, physicians, bureaucrats, and politicians.


III. Life and Culture in the West

The dream of creating a democratic utopia in the West ultimately rested on those who picked up their possessions and their families and moved west. Western settlers usually migrated as families and settled along navigable and potable rivers. Settlements often coalesced around local traditions, especially religion, carried from eastern settlements. These shared understandings encouraged a strong sense of cooperation among western settlers that forged communities on the frontier.

Before the Mexican War, the West for most Americans still referred to the fertile area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River with a slight amount of overspill beyond its banks. With soil exhaustion and land competition increasing in the East, most early western migrants sought a greater measure of stability and self-sufficiency by engaging in small scale farming. Boosters of these new agricultural areas along with the U.S. government encouraged perceptions of the West as a land of hard-built opportunity that promised personal and national bounty.

Women migrants bore the unique double burden of travel while also being expected to conform to restrictive gender norms. The key virtues of femininity, according to the “cult of true womanhood,” included piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. The concept of “separate spheres” expected women to remain in the home. These values accompanied men and women as they traveled west to begin their new lives.

While many of these societal standards endured, there often existed an openness of frontier society that resulted in modestly more opportunities for women. Husbands needed partners in setting up a homestead and working in the field to provide food for the family. Suitable wives were often in short supply, enabling some to informally negotiate more power in their households.22 

Americans debated the role of government in westward expansion. This debate centered on the proper role of the U.S. government in paying for the internal improvements that soon became necessary to encourage and support economic development. Some saw frontier development as a self-driven undertaking that necessitated private risk and investment devoid of government interference. Others saw the federal government’s role as providing the infrastructural development needed to give migrants the push toward engagement with the larger national economy. In the end, federal aid proved essential for the conquest and settlement of the region.

American artist George Catlin traveled west to paint Native Americans. In 1832 he painted Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, wife of a Blackfoot leader. Via Smithsonian American Art Museum.

American artist George Catlin traveled west to paint Native Americans. In 1832 he painted Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, wife of a Blackfoot leader. Via Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Economic busts constantly threatened western farmers and communities. The economy worsened after the panic of 1819. Falling prices and depleted soil meant farmers were unable to make their loan payments. The dream of subsistence and stability abruptly ended as many migrants lost their land and felt the hand of the distant market economy forcing them even farther west to escape debt. As a result, the federal government consistently sought to increase access to land in the West, including efforts to lower the amount of land required for purchase. Smaller lots made it easier for more farmers to clear land and begin farming faster.23 

More than anything else, new roads and canals provided conduits for migration and settlement. Improvements in travel and exchange fueled economic growth in the 1820s and 1830s. Canal improvements expanded in the East, while road building prevailed in the West. Congress continued to allocate funds for internal improvements. Federal money pushed the National Road, begun in 1811, farther west every year. Laborers needed to construct these improvements increased employment opportunities and encouraged non-farmers to move to the West. Wealth promised by engagement with the new economy was hard to reject. However, roads were expensive to build and maintain and some Americans strongly opposed spending money on these improvements.

The use of steamboats grew quickly throughout the 1810s and into the 1820s. As water trade and travel grew in popularity, local and state, and federal funds helped connect rivers and streams. Hundreds of miles of new canals cut through the eastern landscape. The most notable of these early projects was the Erie Canal. That project, completed in 1825, linked the Great Lakes to New York City. The profitability of the canal helped New York outpace its east coast rivals to become the center for commercial import and export in the United States.24 

Early railroads like the Baltimore and Ohio line hoped to link mid-Atlantic cities with lucrative western trade routes. Railroad boosters encouraged the rapid growth of towns and cities along their routes. Not only did rail lines promise to move commerce faster, but the rails also encouraged the spreading of towns farther away from traditional waterway locations. Technological limitations, constant repairs, conflicts with American Indians, and political disagreements, all hampered railroading and kept canals and steamboats as integral parts of the transportation system. Nonetheless, this early establishment of railroads enabled a rapid expansion after the Civil War.

Economic chains of interdependence stretched over hundreds of miles of land and through thousands of contracts and remittances. America’s manifest destiny became wedded not only to territorial expansion, but also to economic development.25 


IV.  Texas, Mexico and America

The debate over slavery became one of the prime forces behind the Texas Revolution and the resulting republic’s annexation to the United States. After gaining its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico hoped to attract new settlers to its northern areas to create a buffer between it and the powerful Comanche. New immigrants, mostly from the southern United States, poured into Mexican Texas. Over the next twenty-five years, concerns over growing Anglo influence and possible American designs on the area produced great friction between Mexicans and the former Americans in the area. In 1829, Mexico, hoping to quell both anger and immigration, outlawed slavery and required all new immigrants to convert to Catholicism. American immigrants, eager to expand their agricultural fortunes, largely ignored these requirements. In response, Mexican authorities closed their territory to any new immigration in 1830 – a prohibition ignored by Americans who often squatted on public lands.26 

In 1834, an internal conflict between federalists and centralists in the Mexican government led to the political ascendency of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna, governing as a dictator, repudiated the federalist Constitution of 1824, pursued a policy of authoritarian central control, and crushed several revolts throughout Mexico. Anglo settlers in Mexican Texas, or Texians as they called themselves, opposed Santa Anna’s centralizing policies and met in November. They issued a statement of purpose that emphasized their commitment to the Constitution of 1824 and declared Texas to be a separate state within Mexico. After the Mexican government angrily rejected the offer, Texian leaders soon abandoned their fight for the Constitution of 1824 and declared independence on March 2, 1836.27 The Texas Revolution of 1835-1836 was a successful secessionist movement in the northern district of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas that resulted in an independent Republic of Texas.

At the Alamo and Goliad, Santa Anna crushed smaller rebel forces and massacred hundreds of Texian prisoners. The Mexican army pursued the retreating Texian army deep into East Texas, spurring a mass panic and evacuation by American civilians known as the “Runaway Scrape.” The confident Santa Anna consistently failed to make adequate defensive preparations; an oversight that eventually led to a surprise attack from the outnumbered Texian army led by Sam Houston on April 21, 1836. The battle of San Jacinto lasted only eighteen minutes and resulted in a decisive victory for the Texians, who retaliated for previous Mexican atrocities by killing fleeing and surrendering Mexican soldiers for hours after the initial assault. Santa Anna was captured in the aftermath and compelled to sign the Treaty of Velasco on May 14, 1836, by which he agreed to withdraw his army from Texas and acknowledged Texas independence. Although a new Mexican government never recognized the Republic of Texas, the United States and several other nations gave the new country diplomatic recognition.28 

Texas annexation had remained a political landmine since the Republic declared independence from Mexico in 1836. American politicians feared that adding Texas to the Union would provoke a war with Mexico and re-ignite sectional tensions by throwing off the balance between free and slave states. However, after his expulsion from the Whig party, President John Tyler saw Texas statehood as the key to saving his political career. In 1842, he began work on opening annexation to national debate. Harnessing public outcry over the issue, Democrat James K. Polk rose from virtual obscurity to win the presidential election of 1844. Polk and his party campaigned on promises of westward expansion, with eyes toward Texas, Oregon, and California.  In the final days of his presidency, Tyler at last extended an official offer to Texas on March 3, 1845. The republic accepted on July 4, becoming the twenty-eighth state.

Mexico denounced annexation as “an act of aggression, the most unjust which can be found recorded in the annals of modern history.”29 Beyond the anger produced by annexation, the two nations both laid claim over a narrow strip of land between two rivers. Mexico drew the southwestern border of Texas at the Nueces River, but Texans claimed that the border lay roughly 150 miles further west at the Rio Grande. Neither claim was realistic since the sparsely populated area, known as the Nueces strip, was in fact controlled by Native Americans.

In November of 1845, President Polk secretly dispatched John Slidell to Mexico City to purchase the Nueces strip along with large sections of New Mexico and California. The mission was an empty gesture, designed largely to pacify those in Washington who insisted on diplomacy before war. Predictably, officials in Mexico City refused to receive Slidell. In preparation for the assumed failure of the negotiations, Polk preemptively sent a 4,000 man army under General Zachary Taylor to Corpus Christi, Texas, just northeast of the Nueces River. Upon word of Slidell’s rebuff in January 1846, Polk ordered Taylor to cross into the disputed territory. The President hoped that this show of force would push the lands of California onto the bargaining table as well. Unfortunately, he badly misread the situation. After losing Texas, the Mexican public strongly opposed surrendering any more ground to the United States. Popular opinion left the shaky government in Mexico City without room to negotiate. On April 24, Mexican cavalrymen attacked a detachment of Taylor’s troops in the disputed territory just north of the Rio Grande, killing eleven U.S. soldiers.

It took two weeks for the news to reach Washington. Polk sent a message to Congress on May 11 that summed up the assumptions and intentions of the United States.

Instead of this, however, we have been exerting our best efforts to propitiate her good will. Upon the pretext that Texas, a nation as independent as herself, thought proper to unite its destinies with our own, she has affected to believe that we have severed her rightful territory, and in official proclamations and manifestoes has repeatedly threatened to make war upon us for the purpose of reconquering Texas. In the meantime we have tried every effort at reconciliation. The cup of forbearance had been exhausted even before the recent information from the frontier of the Del Norte. But now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. She has proclaimed that hostilities have commenced, and that the two nations are now at war. James Knox Polk ((James K. Polk, “President Polk’s Mexican War Message,” quoted in Statemen’s Manual: The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, Inaugural, Annual, and Special, from 1789 to 1846: With a Memoir of Each of the Presidents and a History of Their Administrations; Also the Constitution of the United States, and a Selection of Important Documents and Statistical Information, Volume 2, (New York: Edward Walker, 1847), 1489.))

The cagey Polk knew that since hostilities already existed, political dissent would be dangerous – a vote against war became a vote against supporting American soldiers under fire. Congress passed a declaration of war on May 13. Only a few members of both parties, notably John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, opposed the measure. Upon declaring war in 1846, Congress issued a call for 50,000 volunteer soldiers. Spurred by promises of adventure and conquest abroad, thousands of eager men flocked to assembly points across the country. However, opposition to “Mr. Polk’s War” soon grew.

In the early fall of 1846, the U.S. Army invaded Mexico on multiple fronts and within a year’s time General Winfield Scott’s men took control of Mexico City. However, the city’s fall did not bring an end to the war. Scott’s men occupied Mexico’s capital for over four months while the two countries negotiated. In the United States, the war had been controversial from the beginning. Embedded journalists sent back detailed reports from the front lines, and a divided press viciously debated the news. Volunteers found that war was not as they expected. Disease killed seven times as many American soldiers as combat.30 Harsh discipline, conflict within the ranks, and violent clashes with civilians led soldiers to desert in huge numbers. Peace finally came on February 2, 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Entrance into Mexico City

“General Scott’s entrance into Mexico.” Lithograph. 1851. Originally published in George Wilkins Kendall & Carl Nebel, The War between the United States and Mexico Illustrated, Embracing Pictorial Drawings of all the Principal Conflicts (New York: D. Appleton), 1851. Wikimedia Commons

The new American Southwest attracted a diverse group of entrepreneurs and settlers to the commercial towns of New Mexico, the fertile lands of eastern Texas, and the famed gold deposits of California, and the Rocky Mountains. This postwar migration built earlier paths dating back to the 1820s, when the lucrative Santa Fe trade enticed merchants to New Mexico and generous land grants brought numerous settlers to Texas. The Gadsden Purchase of 1854 further added to American gains north of Mexico.

The U.S.-Mexican War had an enormous impact on both countries. The American victory helped set the United States on the path to becoming a world power. It elevated Zachary Taylor to the presidency and served as a training ground for many of the Civil War’s future commanders. Most significantly, however, Mexico lost roughly half of its territory. Yet, the United States’ victory was not without danger. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an outspoken critic, predicted ominously at the beginning of the conflict, “We will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic which will bring him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”31 Indeed, the conflict over whether or not to extend slavery into the newly won territory pushed the nation ever closer to disunion and civil war.


V. Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush

California, belonging to Mexico prior to the war, was at least three arduous months travel from the nearest American settlements. There was some sparse settlement in the Sacramento valley and missionaries made the trip occasionally. The fertile farmland of Oregon, like the black dirt lands of the Mississippi valley, attracted more settlers than California. Dramatized stories of Indian attacks filled migrants with a sense of foreboding, although the majority of settlers encountered no violence and often no Indians at all. The slow progress, disease, human and oxen starvation, poor trails, terrible geographic preparations, lack of guidebooks, threatening wildlife, vagaries of weather, and general confusion were all more formidable and frequent than Indian attacks. Despite the harshness of the journey, by 1848 there were approximated 20,000 Americans living west of the Rockies, with about three-fourths of that number in Oregon.

The great environmental and economic potential of the Oregon Territory led many to pack up their families and head west along the Oregon Trail. The Trail represented the hopes of many for a better life, represented and reinforced by images like Bierstadt’s idealistic Oregon Trail. In reality, the Trail was violent and dangerous, and many who attempted to cross never made it to the “Promised Land” of Oregon. Albert Bierstadt, Oregon Trail (Campfire), 1863. Wikimedia,

The great environmental and economic potential of the Oregon Territory led many to pack up their families and head west along the Oregon Trail. The Trail represented the hopes of many for a better life, represented and reinforced by images like Bierstadt’s idealistic Oregon Trail.  Albert Bierstadt, Oregon Trail (Campfire), 1863. Wikimedia.

Many who moved nurtured a romantic vision of life, attracting more Americans who sought more than agricultural life and familial responsibilities. The rugged individualism and military prowess of the West, encapsulated for some by service in the Mexican war, drew a growing new breed west of the Sierra Nevada to meet with the Californians already there; a breed of migrants different from the modest agricultural communities of the near-west.

If the great draw of the West served as manifest destiny’s kindling, then the discovery of gold in California was the spark that set the fire ablaze. The vast majority of western settlers sought land ownership, but the lure of getting rich quick drew younger single men (with some women) to gold towns throughout the West. These adventurers and fortune-seekers then served as magnets for the arrival of others providing services associated with the gold rush. Towns and cities grew rapidly throughout the West, notably San Francisco whose population grew from about 500 in 1848 to almost 50,000 by 1853. Lawlessness, predictable failure of most fortune seekers, racial conflicts, and the slavery question all threatened manifest destiny’s promises.

On January 24, 1848 James W. Marshall, a contractor hired by John Sutter, discovered gold on Sutter’s sawmill land in the Sacramento valley area of the California Territory. Throughout the 1850s, Californians beseeched Congress for a transcontinental railroad to provide service for both passengers and goods from the Midwest and the East Coast. The potential economic benefits for communities along proposed railroads made the debate over the route rancorous. Growing dissent over the slavery issue also heightened tensions.

The great influx of diverse people clashed in a combative and aggrandizing atmosphere of individualistic pursuit of fortune. Linguistic, cultural, economic, and racial conflict roiled both urban and rural areas. By the end of the 1850s, Chinese and Mexican immigrants made up 1/5th of the mining population in California. The ethnic patchwork of these frontier towns belied a clearly defined socio-economic arrangement that saw whites on top as landowners and managers with poor whites and ethnic minorities working the mines and assorted jobs. The competition for land, resources, and riches furthered individual and collective abuses particularly against Indians and older Mexican communities. California’s towns, as well as those dotting the landscape throughout the West, such as Coeur D’Alene in Idaho and Tombstone in Arizona, struggled to balance security with economic development and the protection of civil rights and liberties.

This cartoon depicts a highly racialized image of a Chinese immigrant and Irish immigrant “swallowing” the United States–in the form of Uncle Sam. Networks of railroads and the promise of American expansion can be seen in the background. “The great fear of the period That Uncle Sam may be swallowed by foreigners : The problem solved,” 1860-1869, Library of Congress.


VI. The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny.

The expansion of influence and territory off the continent became an important corollary to westward expansion. The U.S. government sought to keep European countries out of the western hemisphere and applied the principles of manifest destiny to the rest of the hemisphere. As Secretary of State for President James Monroe, John Quincy Adams held the responsibility for the satisfactory resolution of ongoing border disputes between the United States, England, Spain, and Russia. Adams’ view of American foreign policy was put into clearest practice in the Monroe Doctrine, which he had great influence in crafting.

Increasingly aggressive incursions from Russians in the Northwest, ongoing border disputes with the British in Canada, the remote possibility of Spanish reconquest of South America, and British abolitionism in the Caribbean all triggered an American response. In a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4th, 1821, Secretary of State Adams acknowledged the American need for a robust foreign policy that simultaneously protected and encouraged the nation’s growing and increasingly dynamic economy.

America…in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own…She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all…She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet on her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. . . . Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice. John Quincy Adams ((John Quincy Adams, “Mr. Adams Oration, July 21, 1821,” quoted in Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 20, (Baltimore: H. Niles, 1821), 332.))

Adams’ great fear was not territorial loss. He had no doubt that Russian and British interests in North America could be arrested. Adams held no reason to antagonize the Russians with grand pronouncements, nor was he generally called upon to do so. He enjoyed a good relationship with the Russian Ambassador and stewarded through Congress most-favored trade status for the Russians in 1824. Rather, Adams worried gravely about the ability of the United States to compete commercially with the British in Latin America and the Caribbean. This concern deepened with the valid concern that America’s chief Latin American trading partner, Cuba, dangled perilously close to outstretched British claws. Cabinet debates surrounding establishment of the Monroe Doctrine and geopolitical events in the Caribbean focused attention on that part of the world as key to the future defense of U.S. military and commercial interests; the main threat to those interests being the British. Expansion of economic opportunity and protection from foreign pressures became the overriding goals of U.S. foreign policy.32 But despite the philosophical confidence present in the Monroe administration’s decree, the reality of limited military power kept the Monroe Doctrine as an aspirational assertion. 

Bitter disagreements over the expansion of slavery into the new lands won from Mexico began even before the war ended. Many Northern businessmen and Southern slave owners supported the idea of expanding slavery into the Caribbean as a useful alternative to continental expansion, since slavery already existed in these areas. Some were critical of these attempts, seeing them as evidence of a growing slave-power conspiracy. Many others supported attempts at expansion, like those previously seen in East Florida, even if these attempts were not exactly legal. Filibustering, as it was called, involved privately financed schemes directed at capturing and occupying foreign territory without the approval of the U.S. government.

Filibustering took greatest hold in the imagination of Americans as they looked toward Cuba. Fears of racialized revolution in Cuba (as in Haiti and Florida before it) as well as the presence of an aggressive British abolitionist influence in the Caribbean energized the movement to annex Cuba and encouraged filibustering as expedient alternatives to lethargic official negotiations. Despite filibustering’s seemingly chaotic planning and destabilizing repercussions, those intellectually and economically guiding the effort imagined a willing and receptive Cuban population and expected an agreeable American business class. In Cuba, manifest destiny for the first time sought territory off the continent and hoped to put a unique spin on the story of success in Mexico. Yet, the annexation of Cuba, despite great popularity and some military attempts led by Narciso Lopez, a Cuban dissident, never succeeded.33           

Other filibustering expeditions were launched elsewhere, including two by William Walker, a former American soldier. Walker seized portions of the Baja peninsula in Mexico and then later took power and established a slaving regime in Nicaragua. Eventually Walker was executed in Honduras.34 These missions violated the laws of the United States, but wealthy Americans financed various filibusters and less-wealthy adventurers were all too happy to sign up. Filibustering enjoyed its brief popularity into the late 1850s, at which point slavery and concerns over session came to the fore. By the opening of the Civil War most saw these attempts as simply territorial theft.


VII. Conclusion

Debates over expansion, economics, diplomacy, and manifest destiny exposed some of the weaknesses of the American system. The chauvinism of policies like Native American removal, the Mexican War, and filibustering, existed alongside growing anxiety. Manifest destiny attempted to make a virtue of America’s lack of history and turn it into the very basis of nationhood. To locate such origins, John O’Sullivan and other champions of manifest destiny grafted biological and territorial imperatives – common among European definitions of nationalism – onto American political culture. The United States was the embodiment of the democratic ideal, they said. Democracy had to be timeless, boundless, and portable. New methods of transportation and communication, the rapidity of the railroad and the telegraph, the rise of the international market economy, and the growth of the American frontier provided shared platforms to help Americans think across local identities and reaffirm a national character.


VIII. Reference Material

This chapter was edited by Gregg Lightfoot, with content contributions by Ethan Bennett, Michelle Cassidy, Jonathan Grandage, Gregg Lightfoot, Jose Juan Perez Melendez, Jessica Moore, Nick Roland, Matthew K. Saionz, Rowan Steinecker, Patrick Troester, and Ben Wright.

Recommended citation: Ethan Bennett et al., “Manifest Destiny,” Gregg Lightfoot, ed., in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016,


Recommended Reading

  • Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Brooks, James F. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003.
  • Cusick, James G. The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007.
  • DeLay, Brian. War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Exley, Jo Ella Powell, Frontier Blood: The Saga of the Parker Family. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. 
  • Gómez, Laura E. Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race. New York: New York University Press, 2008.
  • Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001.
  • Greenberg, Amy S. Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Haas, Lisbeth. Conquest and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 
  • Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Holmes, Kenneth L. Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
  • Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Hyde, Anne F. Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
  • Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. 
  • Larson, John Lauritz. Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001.
  • Lazo, Rodrigo. Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.
  • May, Robert E. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2002.
  • Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.
  • Namias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 
  • Perdue, Theda. “Mixed Blood” Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. 
  • Peters, Virginia Pergman. Women of the Earth Lodges: Tribal Life on the Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. 
  • Peterson, Dawn. Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. 
  • Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Wilkins, David E. Hollow Justice: A History of Indigenous Claims in the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
  • Yarbrough, Faye, Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 



  1. Yonatan Eyal, The Young America Movement and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, 1828-1861 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). []
  2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Young American: A Lecture read before the Mercantile Library Association, Boston, February 7, 1844,” accessed May 18, 2015, []
  3. See Peter S. Onuf, “Imperialism and Nationalism in the Early American Republic,” in Empire’s Twin: U.S. Anti-imperialism from the Founding Era to the Age of Terrorism, Ian Tyrell and Jay Sexton, eds. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 21-40. []
  4. Abraham Lincoln, “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions: First Delivered April 6, 1858,” accessed May 18, 2015, []
  5. Edmund Jefferson Danziger, Great Lakes Indian Accommodation and Resistance During the Early Reservation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 11-13. []
  6. Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier, Third Edition: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 474-479. []
  7. Mark Wyman, Immigrants in the Valley: Irish, Germans, and Americans in the Upper Mississippi Country, 1830-1860 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), 128, 148-149. []
  8. Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, 1841. Although the phrase, “Go West, Young Man,” is often attributed to Greeley, the exhortation was most likely only popularized by the newspaper editor in numerous speeches, letters, and editorials and always in the larger context of the comparable and superior health, wealth, and advantages to be had in the West. []
  9. Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson: The Course of American Empire, 1767-1821 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977/1998), 344-355. []
  10. Thomas Sidney Jesup quoted in Kenneth Wiggins Porter, “Negroes and the Seminole War, 1835-1842,” The Journal of Southern History Vol. 30, No. 4 (November 1964), 427-450, quote on 427. []
  11. “President Andrew Jackson’s Message to Congress ‘On Indian Removal’ (1830),” accessed May 26, 2015, []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Tim A. Garrison, “Worcester v. Georgia (1832).” New Georgia Encyclopedia, available online at []
  14. Fay A. Yarbrough, Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 15-21. []
  15. John Ross quoted in Brian Hicks, Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011), 210. []
  16. Russell Thornton, The Cherokees: A Population History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 76. []
  17. Senate Document # 512, 23 Cong., 1 Sess. Vol. IV, p. x. Available online at,000+removal+indian&source=gbs_navlinks_s. []
  18. John P. Bowes, Land Too Good for Indians: Northern Indian Removal (Normal: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). []
  19. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). []
  20. Samuel J. Wells, “Federal Indian Policy: From Accommodation to Removal,” in Carolyn Reeves, ed., The Choctaw Before Removal (Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 1985), 181-211. []
  21. William C. Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians: History of Indian-White Relations, Vol. 4 (Smithsonian Institution, 1988), 289. []
  22. Adrienne Caughfield, True Women and Westward Expansion (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005). []
  23. Murray Newton Rothbard, Panic of 1819: Reactions and Policies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962). []
  24. Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996). []
  25. For more on the technology and transportation revolutions see Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). []
  26. David Reimers, Other Immigrants: The Global Origins of the American People (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 27. []
  27. H. P. N. Gammel, ed., The Laws of Texas, 1822-1897 Volume 1 (Austin: 1898), 1063. Available online at []
  28. Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989). []
  29. Quoted in, The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History and Politics of the Year 1846, Volume 88, (Washington: J.G. & F. Rivington, 1847), 377. []
  30. James M. Mccaffrey, Army of Manifest Destiny: The American Soldier in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 53. []
  31. Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted in James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 51. []
  32. Gretchen Murphy, Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of U.S. Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009). []
  33. Tom Chaffin, Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). []
  34. Anne F. Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 471. []

F17 – 3 British North America

Unidentified artist, “The Old Plantation,” ca. 1790-1800, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, via Wikimedia

*The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

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 grow 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. A new and increasingly complex 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 transformed seventeenth-century Britain and remade societies on both sides of the ocean. At the same time, colonial settlements grew and matured, developing into powerful societies capable of warring against Native Americans and subduing internal upheaval. Patterns and systems established during the colonial era would continue to shape American society for centuries. And none, perhaps, would be as brutal and destructive as the institution of slavery.


II. Slavery and the Making of Race

After his arrival as a missionary in Charles Town, Carolina, in 1706, Reverend Francis Le Jau quickly grew disillusioned by the horrors of American slavery. 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.

Le Jau’s strongest complaints were reserved for his own countrymen, the English. English traders encouraged wars with Indians in order to purchase and enslave captives, and planters justified the use of an enslaved workforce by claiming white servants were “good for nothing at all.” Although the minister thought otherwise and baptized and educated a substantial number of slaves, he was unable to overcome masters’ fear that Christian baptism would lead to slave emancipation.1

The 1660s marked a turning point for black men and women in English colonies like Virginia in North American and Barbados in the West Indies. New laws gave legal sanction to the enslavement of people of African descent for life. The permanent deprivation of freedom and the separate legal status of enslaved Africans 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.2 

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.”3 For Phillips, the profitability of slavery was the only justification he needed.

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 into slavery in the West Indies. A few years later, Dutch colonists in New Netherland (New York and New Jersey) enslaved Algonquian Indians during both Governor Kieft’s War (1641-1645) and the two Esopus Wars (1659-1663). The Dutch sent these war captives 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 (1675-1676), a pan-Indian uprising against the encroachments of the New England colonies. Hundreds of 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 forced into slavery throughout the southern colonies between 1670 and 1715.  ((Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670–1717 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 299.)) While some of the enslaved Indians remained in the region, many were exported through Charlestown, South Carolina, to other ports in the British Atlantic—most likely to Barbados, Jamaica, and Bermuda. Many of the English colonists who wished to claim land in frontier territories were threatened by the violence inherent in the Indian slave trade. 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 growing plantation economies required a more reliable labor force, and the transatlantic slave trade provided such a workforce. European slavers transported millions of Africans across the ocean in a terrifying 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, where he 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.4

“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 commodities, 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 in Africa 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 American mine, plantation, or other location where new slaves were forced to labor.

“Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788,” 1789, via Wikimedia. Slave ships transported 11-12 million Africans to destinations in North and South America, but it was not until the end of the 18th century that any regulation was introduced. The Brookes print dates to after the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788, but still shows enslaved Africans chained in rows using iron leg shackles. The slave ship Brookes was allowed to carry up to 454 slaves, allotting 6 feet (1.8 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each man; 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each women, and 5 feet (1.5 m) by 1 foot 2 inches (0.36 m) to each child, but one slave trader alleged that before 1788, the ship carried as many as 609 slaves.

“Slave ships transported 11-12 million Africans to destinations in North and South America, but it was not until the end of the 18th century that any regulation was introduced. The Brookes print dates to after the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788, but still shows enslaved Africans chained in rows using iron leg shackles. The slave ship Brookes was allowed to carry up to 454 slaves, allotting 6 feet (1.8 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each man; 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each women, and 5 feet (1.5 m) by 1 foot 2 inches (0.36 m) to each child, but one slave trader alleged that before 1788, the ship carried as many as 609 slaves.Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788,” 1789, via Wikimedia.

The impact of the Middle Passage on the cultures of the Americas remains evident today. Many foods associated with Africans, such as cassava, were originally imported to West Africa as part of the slave trade and were 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.

Recent estimates count between 11 and 12 million Africans forced across the Atlantic between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, 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.5 Conditions in all three legs of the slave trade were horrible, but the first abolitionists focused especially on the abuses of the Middle Passage.

Southern European trading empires like the Catalans and Aragonese were brought into contact with a Levantine commerce in sugar and slaves in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. 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 primarily as domestic servants, as peasants provided the primary agricultural labor force in Western Europe.6 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 the 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.

The first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea and the oldest European building southern of the Sahara,  Elmina Castle was established as a trade settlement by the Portuguese in the 15th century. The fort became one of the largest and most important markets for African slaves along the Atlantic slave trade. “View of the castle of Elmina on the north-west side, seen from the river. Located on the gold coast in Guinea,” in Atlas Blaeu van der Hem, c. 1665-1668. Wikimedia,

The first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea and the oldest European building southern of the Sahara, Elmina Castle was established as a trade settlement by the Portuguese in the 15th century. The fort became one of the largest and most important markets for African slaves along the Atlantic slave trade. “View of the castle of Elmina on the north-west side, seen from the river. Located on the gold coast in Guinea,” in Atlas Blaeu van der Hem, c. 1665-1668. Wikimedia.

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. The founding of Charleston (“Charles Town” until the 1780s) in 1670 was viewed as a serious threat by the Spanish in neighboring Florida, who began construction of Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine as a response. In 1693 the Spanish king issued the Decree of Sanctuary, which granted freedom to slaves fleeing the English colonies if they converted to Catholicism and swore an oath of loyalty to Spain.7 The presence of Africans who bore arms and served in the Spanish militia testifies to the different conceptions of race among the English and Spanish in America.

About 450,000 Africans landed in British North America, a relatively small portion of the 11 to 12 million victims of the trade.8 As a proportion of the enslaved population, there were more enslaved women in North America than in other colonial slave populations. Enslaved African women also bore more children than their counterparts in the Caribbean or South America, facilitating the natural reproduction of slaves on the North American continent.9 A 1662 Virginia law stated that an enslaved woman’s children inherited the “condition” of their mother; other colonies soon passed similar statutes.10 This economic strategy on the part of planters created a legal system in which all children born to slave women would be slaves for life, whether the father was white or black, enslaved or free.

Most fundamentally, the emergence of modern notions of race was closely related to the colonization of the Americas and the slave trade. African slave traders lacked a firm category of race that might have led them to think that they were selling their own people, in much the same way that Native Americans did not view other Indian groups as part of the same “race.” Similarly, most English citizens felt no racial identification with the Irish or the even the Welsh. The modern idea of race as an inherited physical difference (most often skin color) that is used to support systems of oppression was new in the early modern Atlantic world.

In the early years of slavery, especially in the South, the distinction between indentured servants and slaves was initially unclear. In 1643, however, a law was passed in Virginia that made African women “tithable.”11 This, in effect, associated African women’s work with difficult agricultural labor. There was no similar tax levied on white women; the law was an attempt to distinguish white from 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 many white colonists, the association of a gendered division of labor with Englishness provided a further justification for the enslavement and subordination of Africans.

Ideas about the rule of the household were informed by legal and customary 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. In contrast, slaves were not legally masters of a household, and were therefore subject to the authority of the white master. Slave marriages were not recognized in colonial law. 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. Within the patriarchal and exploitative colonial environment, enslaved men and women struggled to establish families and communities.


III. Turmoil in Britain

Religious conflict plagued sixteenth-century England. While Spain plundered the New World and built an empire, Catholic and Protestant English 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 radical Protestants (often called “Puritans” by their critics) 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 and economic conflicts between Parliament and the Crown merged with long-simmering religious tensions, made worse by a King who seemed sympathetic to Catholicism. 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.

Between 1629 and 1640 the absolute rule of Charles I caused considerable friction between the English Parliament and the King. Conflict erupted in 1640 when a parliament called by Charles refused to grant him subsidies to suppress a rebellion in Scotland. The Irish rebelled the following year, and by 1642 strained relations between Charles and Parliament led to civil war in England. In 1649 Parliament won, Charles I was executed, and England became a republic and protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. These changes redefined England’s relationship with its American colonies, as the new government under Cromwell attempted to consolidate its hold over its overseas territories.

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 government left the colonies to their own devices.

The English Revolution of the 1640s 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.

King Charles I, pictured with the blue sash of the Order of the Garter, listens to his commanders detail the strategy for what would be the first pitched battle of the First English Civil War. As all previous constitutional compromises between King Charles and Parliament had broken down, both sides raised large armies in the hopes of forcing the other side to concede their position. The Battle of Edgehill ended with no clear winner, leading to a prolonged war of over four years and an even longer series of wars (known generally as the English Civil War) that eventually established the Commonwealth of England in 1649. Charles Landseer, The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, 1845. Wikimedia,,_1642_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

King Charles I, pictured with the blue sash of the Order of the Garter, listens to his commanders detail the strategy for what would be the first pitched battle of the First English Civil War. As all previous constitutional compromises between King Charles and Parliament had broken down, both sides raised large armies in the hopes of forcing the other side to concede their position. The Battle of Edgehill ended with no clear winner, leading to a prolonged war of over four years and an even longer series of wars (known generally as the English Civil War) that eventually established the Commonwealth of England in 1649. Charles Landseer, The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, 1845. Wikimedia.

Charles’s execution in 1649 challenged American neutrality. Six colonies, including Virginia and Barbados, declared 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 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.12 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.

England found itself in crisis after the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, leading in time to the reestablishment of the monarchy. On his 30th birthday (May 29, 1660), Charles II sailed from the Netherlands to his restoration after nine years in exile. He was received in London to great acclaim, as depicted in his contemporary painting. Lieve Verschuler, The arrival of King Charles II of England in Rotterdam, 24 May 1660. c. 1660-1665. Wikimedia,,_may_24_1660_%28Lieve_Pietersz._Verschuier,_1665%29.jpg.

England found itself in crisis after the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, leading in time to the reestablishment of the monarchy. On his 30th birthday (May 29, 1660), Charles II sailed from the Netherlands to his restoration after nine years in exile. He was received in London to great acclaim, as depicted in his contemporary painting. Lieve Verschuler, The arrival of King Charles II of England in Rotterdam, 24 May 1660. c. 1660-1665. Wikimedia.

The monarchy was restored with Charles II, but popular suspicions of the Crown’s Catholic and French sympathies lingered. Charles II’s suppression of the religious and press freedoms that flourished during the civil war years demonstrated the Crown’s desire to re-impose order and royal rule. But it was the openly Catholic and pro-French policies of his successor, James II, that once again led to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1688. In that year a group of bishops and Parliamentarians offered the English throne 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.

In the decades before the Glorious Revolution English colonists experienced religious and political conflict that reflected transformations in Europe as well as distinctly colonial conditions. In the 1670s and early 1680s King Charles II tightened English control over North America and the West Indies through the creation of new colonies, the imposition of new Navigation Acts, and the establishment of a new executive Council called the Lords of Trade and Plantations.13 As imperial officials attempted to curb colonists’ autonomy, threats from Native Americans and New France on the continent led many colonists to believe Indians and Catholics sought to destroy English America. In New England an uprising beginning in 1675 led by the Wampanoag leader Metacom, or King Philip as the English called him, seemed to confirm these fears. Indian conflicts helped trigger the revolt against royal authorities known as Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia the following year.

James II worked to place the colonies on firmer administrative and defensive footing by creating the Dominion of New England in 1686. The Dominion consolidated the New England colonies, New York, and New Jersey into one administrative unit to counter French Canada, but colonists strongly resented the loss of their individual provinces. The Dominion’s governor, Sir Edmund Andros, did little to assuage fears of arbitrary power when he forced colonists into military service for a campaign against Maine Indians in early 1687. Impressment into military service was a longstanding grievance among English commoners that was transplanted to the colonies.

In England, James’s push for religious toleration of Catholics and Dissenters brought him into conflict with Parliament and the Anglican establishment in England. After the 1688 invasion by the Protestant William of Orange, James fled to France. When colonists learned imperial officials in Boston and New York City attempted to keep news of the Glorious Revolution secret, simmering hostilities toward provincial leaders burst into the open. In Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland colonists overthrew colonial governments as local social antagonisms fused with popular animosity towards imperial rule. Colonists in America quickly 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.”14 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 and liberty 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 to 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 thwarted. Most colonists were Protestants relocating from Virginia. Many of these Protestants were radical Quakers and Puritans who were frustrated with Virginia’s efforts to force adherence to the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England. 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 province became a royal colony. 

Religion was a motivating factor 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, as 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 radicals similarly founded Rhode Island. 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 exile, Anne Hutchinson, and her followers settled near Providence. Others soon arrived, and the colony was granted a charter by Parliament in 1644. Persistently independent and with republican sympathies, the settlers refused a governor and instead elected a president and council. These separate communities 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 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. The Swedes and Dutch established their own colonies in the region: 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 New Netherland. 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 hand-over of New Netherland to England in 1664. The new colony of New York was named for the proprietor, James, the Duke of York, brother to Charles II and funder of the expedition against the Dutch in 1664. New York was briefly reconquered by the Netherlands in 1667, and class and ethnic conflicts in New York City contributed to the rebellion against English authorities during the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Colonists of Dutch ancestry 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.”15

After the acquisition of New Netherland, Charles II 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 member of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, and he intended his colony to be a “colony of Heaven for the children of Light.”16 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; and of the last equal to all the rest.”17 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 some pacifist Quakers of Pennsylvania on the grounds that it required violence. In 1688, members of the Society of Friends in Germantown, outside of Philadelphia, signed a petition protesting the institution of slavery among fellow Quakers.

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 II’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 claims 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 fees, and large land grants. These incentives worked, and Carolina grew quickly, attracting not only middling farmers and artisans but also wealthy planters. Colonists 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 1691.18 

Henry Popple, “A map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish settlements adjacent thereto,” 1733 via Library of Congress.

Henry Popple, “A map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish settlements adjacent thereto,” 1733 via Library of Congress.


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. English settlements on the continent were rocked by explosions of violence, including the Pequot War, the Mystic massacre, King Philip’s War, the Susquehannock War, Bacon’s Rebellion, and the Pueblo Revolt.    

In May 1637, an armed contingent of English Puritans from Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut colonies trekked into Indian country in territory claimed by New England. 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.”19

The foundations of the war lay within the rivalry between the Pequot, the Narragansett, and the Mohegan, who battled for control of the fur and wampum trades in the northeast. 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 Pequots 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 later in the century as the Mohegan, desperate for a remedy to their diminishing strength, joined the Wampanoag war against the Puritans. This 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 offensive against the English. The three alleged killers appeared before the Plymouth court in June 1675. They 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 the 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 present-day 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 communities 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, 1,000 Englishmen put the main Narragansett village to the torch, gunning down as many as 1,000 Narragansett men, women, and children as they fled the maelstrom. The surviving Narragansetts joined the Indians already fighting the English. Between February and April 1676, Native 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, including Pequots and Mohegans, to find and fight the mobile warriors. Unable to plant crops and forced to live off the land, Indians’ will to continue the struggle waned as companies of English and Native allies pursued them. Growing numbers of fighters 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 1,000 English and at least 3,000 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.20 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. 

Sixteen years later, New England faced a new fear: the supernatural. Beginning in early 1692 and culminating in 1693, Salem Town, Salem Village, Ipswich, and Andover all tried women and men as witches. Paranoia swept through the region, and fourteen women and six men were executed. Five other individuals died in prison. The causes of the trials are numerous and include local rivalries, political turmoil, enduring trauma of war, faulty legal procedure where accusing others became a method of self-defense, or perhaps even low-level environmental contamination. Enduring tensions with Indians framed the events, however, and an Indian or African woman named Tituba enslaved by the local minister was at the center of the tragedy.21 

Native American communities in Virginia had already been decimated by wars in 1622 and 1644. But a new clash arose in Virginia the same year that New Englanders crushed Metacom’s forces. This conflict, known 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 denounced the government as a corrupt band of oligarchs more interested in lining their pockets than protecting the 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 the colonists’ 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. 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.22

In the early summer of 1676, Bacon’s neighbors elected him their burgess and sent him to Jamestown to confront Berkeley. Though the House of Burgesses enacted pro-rebel reforms like prohibiting the sale of arms to Indians and restoring suffrage rights to landless freemen, Bacon’s supporters remained unsatisfied. Berkeley soon had Bacon arrested and forced the rebel leader 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.”23 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 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.”24

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 1,000 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. Virginia legislators did recognize the extent of popular hostility towards colonial rule, however, and improved the social and political conditions of poor white Virginians in the years after the rebellion. During the same period, the increasing availability of enslaved workers through the Atlantic slave trade contributed to planters’ large-scale adoption of 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.

Built sometime between 1000 and 1450 AD, the Taos Pueblo located near modern-day Taos, New Mexico, functioned as a base for the leader Popé during the Pueblo Revolt. Luca Galuzzi (photographer), Taos Pueblo, 2007. Wikimedia,

Built sometime between 1000 and 1450 AD, the Taos Pueblo located near modern-day Taos, New Mexico, functioned as a base for the leader Popé during the Pueblo Revolt. Luca Galuzzi (photographer), Taos Pueblo, 2007. Wikimedia.

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,” Popé proclaimed, and the Pueblo resumed traditional spiritual practices.25 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 nearly destroyed it entirely. Writing from Carolina to London, the settler George Rodd believed the Yamasees wanted nothing less than “the whole continent and to kill us or chase us all out.”26 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 expanse 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 a colony existed where peace with Indians might continue, it would be Pennsylvania. At the colony’s founding William Penn created a Quaker religious imperative for the peaceful treatment of Indians. While Penn never doubted that the English would appropriate Native lands, he demanded his colonists obtain Indian territories through purchase rather than violence. Though Pennsylvanians maintained relatively peaceful relations with Native Americans, increased immigration and booming land speculation increased the demand for land. Coercive and fraudulent methods of negotiation became increasingly prominent. The Walking Purchase of 1737 was emblematic of both colonists’ 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 and longtime friend of the Penns 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 1,200 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.27 


VI. Conclusion

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 Native Americans, 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.


VII. Reference Material

This chapter was edited by Daniel Johnson, with content contributions by Gregory Ablavsky, James Ambuske, Carolyn Arena, L.D. Burnett, Lori Daggar, Daniel Johnson, 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.

Recommended citation: Gregory Ablavsky et al., “British North America,” Daniel Johnson, ed., in The American Yawp, Joseph Locke and Ben Wright, eds., last modified August 1, 2016,


Recommended Reading

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London and New York: Verso, 1997.
  • Braddick, Michael. God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars. New York: Penguin, 2008.
  • Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg, Va.: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Chaplin, Joyce. Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Donoghue, John. Fire Under the Ashes: An Atlantic History of the English Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  • Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Goodfriend, Joyce D. Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664-1730. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Landsman, Ned C. Crossroads of Empire: The Middle Colonies in British North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
  • Heywood, Linda M. and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2009.
  • Little, Ann M. Many Captives of Esther Wheelright. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
  • Mustakeem, Sowande’ M. Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
  • O’Malley, Gregory E. Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807. Williamsburg, Va.: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Merrell, James H. Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
  • Parent, Anthony S. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. Williamsburg, Va.: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Parrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Pestana, Carla Gardina. The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640–1661. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Pulsipher, Jenny Hale. Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
  • Roney, Jessica Choppin. Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
  • Ramsey, William L. The Yamasee War: A Study of Culture, Economy, and Conflict in the Colonial South. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
  • Rice, James D. Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Smallwood, Stephanie E. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Stanwood, Owen. The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Viking, 2002.
  • Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Norton, 1975.



  1. Edgar Legare Pennington, “The Reverend Francis Le Jau’s Work Among Indians and Negro Slaves,” Journal of Southern History, 1, no. 4 (November 1935): 442-458. []
  2. William Waller Hening, Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia (Richmond, Va, 1809-23), Vol. 11, pp. 170, 260, 266, 270. []
  3. Captain Thomas Phillips, “A Journal of a Voyage Made in the Hannibal of London, 16” in Elizabeth Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America: Volume 1, 1441-1700 (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), 403. []
  4. Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London: 1788). []
  5. Phillip Curtin estimated 9 million Africans were carried across the Atlantic. Joseph E. Inikori’s figure estimated 15 million, and Patrick Manning estimated 12 million transported with 10.5 million surviving the voyage. See. Phillip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969); Joseph E. Inikori, “Measuring the Atlantic slave trade: An assessment of Curtin and Anstey,” Journal of Africa, 17 (1976): 197-223; and Patrick Manning, “Historical datasets on Africa and the African Atlantic,” Journal of Comparative Economics, 40 (2012): 604–607. []
  6. Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983/2000), 36. []
  7. Jane Landers, “Slavery in the Lower South,” OAH Magazine of History, 17:3 (2003): 23-27. []
  8. Lynn Dumenil, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Social History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 512. []
  9. “Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery,” The Gilder Lerhman Institute of American History. Available online at []
  10. Willie Lee Nichols Rose, ed. A Documentary History of Slavery in North America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 19. []
  11. Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 63-64. []
  12. John H. Elliot, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 148-49. []
  13. Paul Kléber Monod, Imperial Island: A History of Britain and Its Empire, 1660-1837 (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 80. []
  14. Owen Stanwood, “Rumours and Rebellions in the English Atlantic World, 1688-9,” in Tim Harris and Steven Taylor, eds., The Final Crisis of the Stuart Monarchy: The Revolutions of 1688-91 in Their British, Atlantic and European Contexts (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013), 214. []
  15. Joyce D. Goodfriend, Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664-1730 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 54. []
  16. Quoted in David Hacket Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 459. []
  17. Albert Cook Myers, ed., Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey, and Delaware, 1630-1707 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 260. []
  18. Noeleen McIlvenna, A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). []
  19. John Mason, A Brief History of the Pequot War (1736), (Boston: 1736), available online through DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln: []
  20. James David Drake, King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 169. []
  21. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). For more on Tituba, see Elaine G. Breslaw, Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (New York: New York University Press, 1996). []
  22. Nathaniel Bacon, “Manifesto (1676),” in Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner, eds., The English Literatures of America: 1500-1800 (Routledge, 1996), 226. []
  23. Mary Newton Stanard, The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion (New York: 1907), 77-78. []
  24. Quoted in April Lee Hatfield, Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 286 n27. []
  25. Robert Silverberg, The Pueblo Revolt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 131. []
  26. Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, August 1714-December 1715 (London: Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1928), 168-69. []
  27. Steven Craig Harper, Promised Land: Penn’s Holy Experiment, The Walking Purchase, and the Dispossession of Delawares, 1600-1763 (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2006). []

F17 – 2 Colliding Cultures

Negotiating Peace With the Indians

Theodor de Bry, “Negotiating Peace With the Indians,” 1634, Virginia Historical Society.

*The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

The Columbian Exchange transformed both sides of the Atlantic, but with dramatically disparate outcomes. New diseases wiped out entire civilizations in the Americas, while newly imported nutrient-rich foodstuffs enabled a European population boom. Spain benefited most immediately as the wealth of the Aztec and Incan Empires strengthened the Spanish monarchy. Spain used its new riches to gain an advantage over other European nations, but this advantage was soon contested.

Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and England all raced to the New World, eager to match the gains of the Spanish. Native peoples greeted the new visitors with responses ranging from welcoming cooperation to aggressive violence, but the ravages of disease and the possibility of new trading relationships enabled Europeans to create settlements all along the western rim of the Atlantic world. New empires would emerge from these tenuous beginnings, and by the end of the seventeenth century, Spain would lose its privileged position to its rivals. An age of colonization had begun and, with it, a great collision of cultures commenced.


II. Spanish America

Spain extended its reach in the Americas after reaping the benefits of its colonies in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. Expeditions slowly began combing the continent and bringing Europeans into the modern-day United States in the hopes of establishing religious and economic dominance in a new territory.

Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in the area named “La Florida” in 1513. He found between 150,000 and 300,000 Native Americans. But then two-and-a-half centuries of contact with European and African peoples–whether through war, slave raids, or, most dramatically, foreign disease–decimated Florida’s indigenous population. European explorers, meanwhile, had hoped to find great wealth in Florida, but reality never aligned with their imaginations.

1513 Atlantic map from cartographer Martin Waldseemuller. Via Wikimedia.

1513 Atlantic map from cartographer Martin Waldseemuller. Via Wikimedia.

In the first half of the sixteenth century, Spanish colonizers fought frequently with Florida’s native peoples as well as with other Europeans. In the 1560s Spain expelled French Protestants, called Huguenots, from the area near modern-day Jacksonville in northeast Florida. In 1586 English privateer Sir Francis Drake burned the wooden settlement of St. Augustine. At the dawn of the seventeenth century, Spain’s reach in Florida extended from the mouth of the St. Johns River south to the environs of St. Augustine—an area of roughly 1,000 square miles. The Spaniards attempted to duplicate methods for establishing control used previously in Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Andes. The Crown granted missionaries the right to live among Timucua and Guale villagers in the late 1500s and early 1600s and encouraged settlement through the encomienda system (grants of Indian labor).1 

In the 1630s, the mission system extended into the Apalachee district in the Florida panhandle. The Apalachee, one of the most powerful tribes in Florida at the time of contact, claimed the territory from the modern Florida-Georgia border to the Gulf of Mexico. Apalachee farmers grew an abundance of corn and other crops. Indian traders carried surplus products east along the Camino Real (the royal road) that connected the western anchor of the mission system with St. Augustine. Spanish settlers drove cattle eastward across the St. Johns River and established ranches as far west as Apalachee. Still, Spain held Florida tenuously.

Further west, in 1598, Juan de Oñate led 400 settlers, soldiers, and missionaries from Mexico into New Mexico. The Spanish Southwest had brutal beginnings. When Oñate sacked the Pueblo city of Acoma, the “sky city,” the Spaniards slaughtered nearly half of its roughly 1,500 inhabitants, including women and children. Oñate ordered one foot cut off of every surviving male over 15 and he enslaved the remaining women and children.2

Santa Fe, the first permanent European settlement in the Southwest, was established in 1610. Few Spaniards relocated to the southwest due to the distance from Mexico City and the dry and hostile environment. Thus, the Spanish never achieved a commanding presence in the region. By 1680, only about 3,000 colonists called Spanish New Mexico home.3 There, they traded with and exploited the local Puebloan peoples. The region’s Puebloan population had plummeted from as many as 60,000 in 1600 to about 17,000 in 1680.4 

Spain shifted strategies after the military expeditions wove their way through the southern and western half of North America. Missions became the engine of colonization in North America. Missionaries, most of whom were members of the Franciscan religious order, provided Spain with an advance guard in North America. Catholicism had always justified Spanish conquest, and colonization always carried religious imperatives. By the early seventeenth century, Spanish friars established dozens of missions along the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, and in California.


III. Spain’s Rivals Emerge

The earliest plan of New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). 1660. Wikimedia.

The earliest plan of New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). 1660. Wikimedia.

While Spain plundered the New World, unrest plagued Europe. The Reformation threw England and France, the two European powers capable of contesting Spain, into turmoil. Long and expensive conflicts drained time, resources, and lives. Millions died from religious violence in France alone. As the violence diminished in Europe, however, religious and political rivalries continued in the New World.

The Spanish exploitation of New Spain’s riches inspired European monarchs to invest in exploration and conquest. Reports of Spanish atrocities spread throughout Europe and provided a humanitarian justification for European colonization. An English reprint of the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas bore the sensational title: “Popery Truly Display’d in its Bloody Colours: Or, a Faithful Narrative of the Horrid and Unexampled Massacres, Butcheries, and all manners of Cruelties that Hell and Malice could invent, committed by the Popish Spanish.” An English writer explained that the Indians “were simple and plain men, and lived without great labour,” but in their lust for gold the Spaniards “forced the people (that were not used to labour) to stand all the daie in the hot sun gathering gold in the sand of the rivers. By this means a great number of them (not used to such pains) died, and a great number of them (seeing themselves brought from so quiet a life to such misery and slavery) of desperation killed themselves. And many would not marry, because they would not have their children slaves to the Spaniards.”5 The Spanish accused their critics of fostering a “Black Legend.” The Black Legend drew on religious differences and political rivalries. Spain had successful conquests in France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands and left many in those nations yearning to break free from Spanish influence. English writers argued that Spanish barbarities were foiling a tremendous opportunity for the expansion of Christianity across the globe and that a benevolent conquest of the New World by non-Spanish monarchies offered the surest salvation of the New World’s pagan masses. With these religious justifications, and with obvious economic motives, Spain’s rivals arrived in the New World.


The French

The French crown subsidized exploration in the early sixteenth century. Early French explorers sought a fabled Northwest Passage, a mythical waterway passing through the North American continent to Asia. Despite the wealth of the New World, Asia’s riches still beckoned to Europeans. Canada’s Saint Lawrence River appeared to be such a passage, stretching deep into the continent and into the Great Lakes. French colonial possessions centered on these bodies of water (and, later, down the Mississippi River to the port of New Orleans).

French colonization developed through investment from private trading companies. Traders established Port-Royal in Acadia (Nova Scotia) in 1603 and launched trading expeditions that stretched down the Atlantic coast as far as Cape Cod. The needs of the fur trade set the future pattern of French colonization. Founded in 1608 under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, Quebec provided the foothold for what would become New France. French fur traders placed a higher value on cooperating with the Indians than on establishing a successful French colonial footprint. Asserting dominance in the region could have been to their own detriment, as it might have compromised their access to skilled Indian trappers, and therefore wealth. Few Frenchmen traveled to the New World to settle permanently. In fact, few traveled at all. Many persecuted French Protestants (Huguenots) sought to emigrate after France criminalized Protestantism in 1685, but all non-Catholics were forbidden in New France.6 

Jean-Pierre Lassus, “Veüe et Perspective de la Nouvelle Orleans,” 1726, Centre des archives d’outre-mer, France via Wikimedia. This depiction of New Orleans in 1726 when it was an 8-year-old French frontier settlement.

Jean-Pierre Lassus, “Veüe et Perspective de la Nouvelle Orleans,” 1726, Centre des archives d’outre-mer, France via Wikimedia. This depiction of New Orleans in 1726 when it was an 8-year-old French frontier settlement.

The French preference for trade over permanent settlement fostered more cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships with Native Americans than was typical among the Spanish and English. Perhaps eager to debunk the anti-Catholic elements of the Black Legend, the French worked to cultivate cooperation with Indians. Jesuit missionaries, for instance, adopted different conversion strategies than the Spanish Franciscans. Spanish missionaries brought Indians into enclosed missions, whereas Jesuits more often lived with or alongside Indian groups. Many French fur traders married Indian women.7 The offspring of Indian women and French men were so common in New France that the French developed a word for these children, Métis(sage). The Huron people developed a particularly close relationship with the French and many converted to Christianity and engaged in the fur trade. But close relationships with the French would come at a high cost. The Huron were decimated by the ravages of European disease, and entanglements in French and Dutch conflicts proved disastrous.8 Despite this, some native peoples maintained alliances with the French.

Pressure from the powerful Iroquois in the east pushed many Algonquian-speaking peoples toward French territory in the mid-seventeenth century and together they crafted what historians have called a “middle ground,” a kind of cross-cultural space that allowed for native and European interaction, negotiation, and accommodation. French traders adopted–sometimes clumsily–the gift-giving and mediation strategies expected of native leader. Natives similarly engaged the impersonal European market and adapted–often haphazardly–to European laws. The Great Lakes “middle ground” experienced tumultuous success throughout the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries until English colonial officials and American settlers swarmed the region. The pressures of European expansion strained even the closest bonds.9


The Dutch

The Netherlands, a small maritime nation with great wealth, achieved considerable colonial success. In 1581, the Netherlands had officially broken away from the Hapsburgs and won a reputation as the freest of the new European nations. Dutch women maintained separate legal identities from their husbands and could therefore hold property and inherit full estates.

Ravaged by the turmoil of the Reformation, the Dutch embraced greater religious tolerance and freedom of the press than other European nations.10 Radical Protestants, Catholics, and Jews flocked to the Netherlands. The English Pilgrims, for instance, fled first to the Netherlands before sailing to the New World years later. The Netherlands built its colonial empire through the work of experienced merchants and skilled sailors. The Dutch were the most advanced capitalists in the modern world and marshaled extensive financial resources by creating innovative financial organizations such as the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and the East India Company. Although the Dutch offered liberties, they offered very little democracy—power remained in the hands of only a few. And Dutch liberties certainly had their limits. The Dutch advanced the slave trade and brought African slaves with them to the New World. Slavery was an essential part of Dutch capitalist triumphs.

Sharing the European hunger for access to Asia, in 1609 the Dutch commissioned the Englishman Henry Hudson to discover the fabled Northwest Passage through North America. He failed, of course, but nevertheless found the Hudson River and claimed modern-day New York for the Dutch. There they established New Netherland, an essential part of the Dutch New World empire. The Netherlands chartered the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and established colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. The island of Manhattan provided a launching pad to support its Caribbean colonies and attack Spanish trade.

Spiteful of the Spanish and mindful of the “Black Legend,” the Dutch were determined not to repeat Spanish atrocities. They fashioned guidelines for New Netherlands that conformed to the ideas of Hugo Grotius, a legal philosopher who believed native peoples possessed the same natural rights as Europeans. Colony leaders insisted that land be purchased; in 1626 Peter Minuit therefore “bought” Manhattan from Munsee Indians.11 Despite the seemingly honorable intentions, it is very likely that the Dutch paid the wrong Indians for the land (either intentionally or unintentionally) or that the Munsee and the Dutch understood the transaction in very different terms. Transactions like these illustrated both the Dutch attempt to find a more peaceful process of colonization and the inconsistency between European and Native American understandings of property.

Like the French, the Dutch sought to profit, not to conquer. Trade with Native peoples became New Netherland’s central economic activity. Dutch traders carried wampum along pre-existing Native trade routes and exchanged it for beaver pelts. Wampum consisted of shell beads fashioned by Algonquian Indians on the southern New England coast and were valued as a ceremonial and diplomatic commodity among the Iroquois. Wampum became a currency that could buy anything from a loaf of bread to a plot of land.12 

In addition to developing these trading networks, the Dutch also established farms, settlements, and lumber camps. The West India Company directors implemented the patroon system to encourage colonization. The patroon system granted large estates to wealthy landlords, who subsequently paid passage for the tenants to work their land. Expanding Dutch settlements correlated with deteriorating relations with local Indians. In the interior of the continent, the Dutch retained valuable alliances with the Iroquois to maintain Beverwijck, modern-day Albany, as a hub for the fur trade.13 In the places where the Dutch built permanent settlements, the ideals of peaceful colonization succumbed to the settlers’ increasing demand for land. Armed conflicts erupted as colonial settlements encroached on Native villages and hunting lands. Profit and peace, it seemed, could not coexist.

Labor shortages, meanwhile, crippled Dutch colonization. The patroon system failed to bring enough tenants and the colony could not attract a sufficient number of indentured servants to satisfy the colony’s backers. In response, the colony imported 11 company-owned slaves in 1626, the same year that Minuit purchased Manhattan. Slaves were tasked with building New Amsterdam (modern-day New York City), including a defensive wall along the northern edge of the colony (the site of modern-day Wall Street). They created its roads and maintained its all-important port. Fears of racial mixing led the Dutch to import enslaved women, enabling the formation of African Dutch families. The colony’s first African marriage occurred in 1641, and by 1650 there were at least 500 African slaves in the colony. By 1660 New Amsterdam had the largest urban slave population on the continent.14 

As was typical of the practice of African slavery in much of the early seventeenth century, Dutch slavery in New Amsterdam was less comprehensively exploitative than later systems of American slavery. Some enslaved Africans, for instance, successfully sued for back wages. When several company-owned slaves fought for the colony against the Munsee Indians, they petitioned for their freedom and won a kind of “half freedom” that allowed them to work their own land in return for paying a large tithe, or tax, to their masters. The children of these “half-free” laborers remained held in bondage by the West India Company, however. The Dutch, who so proudly touted their liberties, grappled with the reality of African slavery, and some New Netherlanders protested the enslavement of Christianized Africans. The economic goals of the colony slowly crowded out these cultural and religious objections, and the much boasted liberties of the Dutch came to exist alongside increasingly brutal systems of slavery.


The Portuguese 

The Portuguese had been leaders in Atlantic navigation well ahead of Columbus’s voyage. But the incredible wealth flowing from New Spain piqued the rivalry between the two Iberian countries, and accelerated Portuguese colonization efforts. This rivalry created a crisis within the Catholic world as Spain and Portugal squared off in a battle for colonial supremacy. The Pope intervened and divided the New World with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Land east of the Tordesillas Meridian, an imaginary line dividing South America, would be given to Portugal, whereas land west of the line was reserved for Spanish conquest. In return for the license to conquer, both Portugal and Spain were instructed to treat the natives with Christian compassion and to bring them under the protection of the Church.

Lucrative colonies in Africa and India initially preoccupied Portugal, but by 1530 the Portuguese turned their attention to the land that would become Brazil, driving out French traders and establishing permanent settlements. Gold and silver mines dotted the interior of the colony, but two industries powered early colonial Brazil: sugar and the slave trade. In fact, over the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade, more Africans were enslaved in Brazil than any other colony in the Atlantic World. Gold mines emerged in greater number throughout the eighteenth century, but still never rivaled the profitability of sugar or slave-trading.

Jesuit missionaries succeeded in bringing Christianity to Brazil, but strong elements of African and native spirituality mixed with orthodox Catholicism to create a unique religious culture. This culture resulted from the demographics of Brazilian slavery. High mortality rates on sugar plantations required a steady influx of new slaves, thus perpetuating the cultural connection between Brazil and Africa. The reliance on new imports of slaves increased the likelihood of resistance, however, and escaped slaves managed to create several free settlements, called quilombos. These settlements drew from both African and Native slaves, and despite frequent attacks, several endured throughout the long history of Brazilian slavery.15 

Despite the arrival of these new Europeans, Spain continued to dominate the New World. The wealth flowing from the exploitation of the Aztec and Incan Empires greatly eclipsed the profits of other European nations. But this dominance would not last long. By the end of the sixteenth century, the powerful Spanish Armada would be destroyed, and the English would begin to rule the waves.


IV. English Colonization

Nicholas Hilliard, The Battle of Gravelines, 1588, via National Geographic España

Nicholas Hilliard, The Battle of Gravelines, 1588, via National Geographic España 

Spain had a one-hundred year head start on New World colonization and a jealous England eyed the enormous wealth that Spain gleaned. The Protestant Reformation had shaken England but Elizabeth I assumed the English crown in 1558. Elizabeth oversaw England’s so-called “golden age” that included both the expansion of trade and exploration and the literary achievements of Shakespeare and Marlowe. English mercantilism, a state-assisted manufacturing and trading system, created and maintained markets. The markets provided a steady supply of consumers and laborers, stimulated economic expansion, and increased English wealth.

However, wrenching social and economic changes unsettled the English population. The island’s population increased from fewer than three million in 1500 to over five million by the middle of the seventeenth century.16 The skyrocketing cost of land coincided with plummeting farming income. Rents and prices rose but wages stagnated. Moreover, movements to enclose public land–sparked by the transition of English landholders from agriculture to livestock-raising–evicted tenants from the land and created hordes of landless, jobless peasants that haunted the cities and countryside. One-quarter to one-half of the population lived in extreme poverty.17 

New World colonization won support in England amid a time of rising English fortunes among the wealthy, a tense Spanish rivalry, and mounting internal social unrest. But supporters of English colonization always touted more than economic gains and mere national self-interest. They claimed to be doing God’s work. Many claimed that colonization would glorify God, England, and Protestantism by Christianizing the New World’s pagan peoples. Advocates such as Richard Hakluyt the Younger and John Dee, for instance, drew upon The History of the Kings of Britain, written by the twelfth century monk Geoffrey of Monmouth, and its mythical account of King Arthur’s conquest and Christianization of pagan lands to justify American conquest.18 Moreover, promoters promised that the conversion of New World Indians would satisfy God and glorify England’s “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I, who was seen as nearly divine by some in England. The English—and other European Protestant colonizers—imagined themselves superior to the Spanish, who still bore the Black Legend of inhuman cruelty. English colonization, supporters argued, would prove that superiority.

In his 1584 “Discourse on Western Planting,” Richard Hakluyt amassed the supposed religious, moral, and exceptional economic benefits of colonization. He repeated the “Black Legend” of Spanish New World terrorism and attacked the sins of Catholic Spain. He promised that English colonization could strike a blow against Spanish heresy and bring Protestant religion to the New World. English interference, Hakluyt suggested, may provide the only salvation from Catholic rule in the New World. The New World, too, he said, offered obvious economic advantages. Trade and resource extraction would enrich the English treasury. England, for instance, could find plentiful materials to outfit a world-class navy. Moreover, he said, the New World could provide an escape for England’s vast armies of landless “vagabonds.” Expanded trade, he argued, would not only bring profit, but also provide work for England’s jobless poor. A Christian enterprise, a blow against Spain, an economic stimulus, and a social safety valve all beckoned the English toward a commitment to colonization.19

This noble rhetoric veiled the coarse economic motives that brought England to the New World. New economic structures and a new merchant class paved the way for colonization. England’s merchants lacked estates but they had new plans to build wealth. By collaborating with new government-sponsored trading monopolies and employing financial innovations such as joint-stock companies, England’s merchants sought to improve on the Dutch economic system. Spain was extracting enormous material wealth from the New World; why shouldn’t England? Joint-stock companies, the ancestors of the modern corporations, became the initial instruments of colonization. With government monopolies, shared profits, and managed risks, these money-making ventures could attract and manage the vast capital needed for colonization. In 1606 James I approved the formation of the Virginia Company (named after Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen”).

Rather than formal colonization, however, the most successful early English ventures in the New World were a form of state-sponsored piracy known as privateering. Queen Elizabeth sponsored sailors, or “Sea Dogges,” such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, to plunder Spanish ships and towns in the Americas. Privateers earned a substantial profit both for themselves and for the English crown. England practiced piracy on a scale, one historian wrote, “that transforms crime into politics.”20 Francis Drake harried Spanish ships throughout the Western Hemisphere and raided Spanish caravans as far away as the coast of Peru on the Pacific Ocean. In 1580 Elizabeth rewarded her skilled pirate with knighthood. But Elizabeth walked a fine line. With Protestant-Catholic tensions already running high, English privateering provoked Spain. Tensions worsened after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. In 1588, King Philip II of Spain unleashed the fabled Armada. With 130 Ships, 8,000 sailors, and 18,000 soldiers, Spain launched the largest invasion in history to destroy the British navy and depose Elizabeth. 

An island nation, England depended upon a robust navy for trade and territorial expansion. England had fewer ships than Spain but they were smaller and swifter. They successfully harassed the Armada, forcing it to retreat to the Netherlands for reinforcements. But then a fluke storm, celebrated in England as the “divine wind,” annihilated the remainder of the fleet.21 The destruction of the Armada changed the course of world history. It not only saved England and secured English Protestantism, but it also opened the seas to English expansion and paved the way for England’s colonial future. By 1600, England stood ready to embark upon its dominance over North America.

English colonization would look very different from Spanish or French colonization. England had long been trying to conquer Catholic Ireland. Rather than integrating with the Irish and trying to convert them to Protestantism, England more often simply seized land through violence and pushed out the former inhabitants, leaving them to move elsewhere or to die. These same tactics would later be deployed in North American invasions. 

English colonization, however, began haltingly. Sir Humphrey Gilbert labored throughout the late-sixteenth century to establish a colony in Newfoundland but failed. In 1587, with a predominantly male cohort of 150 English colonizers, John White reestablished an abandoned settlement on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island. Supply shortages prompted White to return to England for additional support but the Spanish Armada and the mobilization of British naval efforts stranded him in Britain for several years. When he finally returned to Roanoke, he found the colony abandoned. What befell the failed colony? White found the word “Croatan” carved into a tree or a post in the abandoned colony. Historians presume the colonists, short of food, may have fled for a nearby island of that name and encountered its settled native population. Others offer violence as an explanation. Regardless, the English colonists were never heard from again. When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, no Englishmen had yet established a permanent North American colony.

After King James made peace with Spain in 1604, privateering no longer held out the promise of cheap wealth. Colonization assumed a new urgency. The Virginia Company, established in 1606, drew inspiration from Cortes and the Spanish conquests. It hoped to find gold and silver as well as other valuable trading commodities in the New World: glass, iron, furs, pitch, tar, and anything else the country could supply. The Company planned to identify a navigable river with a deep harbor, away from the eyes of the Spanish. There they would find an Indian trading network and extract a fortune from the New World.


V. Jamestown

"Incolarum Virginiae piscandi ratio (The Method of Fishing of the Inhabitants of Virginia)," c1590, via the Encyclopedia Virginia.

“Incolarum Virginiae piscandi ratio (The Method of Fishing of the Inhabitants of Virginia),” c1590, via the Encyclopedia Virginia.

In April 1607 Englishmen aboard three ships—the Susan ConstantGodspeed, and Discovery—sailed forty miles up the James River (named for the English king) in present-day Virginia (Named for Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”) and settled upon just such a place. The uninhabited peninsula they selected was upriver and out of sight of Spanish patrols. It offered easy defense against ground assaults and was both uninhabited and located close enough to many Indian villages and their potentially lucrative trade networks. But the location was a disaster. Indians had ignored the peninsula for two reasons: Terrible soil hampered agriculture and brackish tidal water led to debilitating disease. Despite these setbacks, the English built Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the present-day United States.

The English had not entered a wilderness but had arrived amid a people they called the Powhatan Confederacy. Powhatan, or Wahunsenacawh, as he called himself, led nearly 10,000 Algonquian-speaking Indians in the Chesapeake. They burned vast acreage to clear brush and create sprawling artificial park-like grasslands so they could easily hunt deer, elk, and bison. The Powhatan raised corn, beans, squash, and possibly sunflowers, rotating acreage throughout the Chesapeake. Without plows, manure, or draft animals, the Powhatan achieved a remarkable number of calories cheaply and efficiently.

Jamestown was a profit-seeking venture backed by investors. The colonists were mostly gentlemen and proved entirely unprepared for the challenges ahead. They hoped for easy riches but found none. As John Smith later complained, they “Would rather starve than work.”22 And so they did. Disease and starvation ravaged the colonists, thanks in part to the peninsula’s unhealthy location and the fact that supplies from England arrived sporadically or spoiled. Fewer than half of the original colonists survived the first nine months.

John Smith, a yeoman’s son and capable leader, took command of the crippled colony and promised, “He that will not work shall not eat.” He navigated Indian diplomacy, claiming that he was captured and sentenced to death but Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, intervened to save his life. She would later marry another colonist, John Rolfe, and die in England.

Powhatan kept the English alive that first winter. The Powhatan had welcomed the English and placed a high value on metal axe-heads, kettles, tools, and guns and eagerly traded furs and other abundant goods for them. With 10,000 confederated natives and with food in abundance, the Indians had little to fear and much to gain from the isolated outpost of sick and dying Englishmen.

John White, “Village of the Secotan, 1585, via Wikimedia.

John White, “Village of the Secotan, 1585, via Wikimedia.

Despite reinforcements, the English continued to die. Four hundred settlers arrived in 1609, but the overwhelmed colony entered a desperate “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610. Supplies were lost at sea. Relations with the Indians deteriorated and the colonists fought a kind of slow-burning guerrilla war with the Powhatan. Disaster loomed for the colony. The settlers ate everything they could, roaming the woods for nuts and berries. They boiled leather. They dug up graves to eat the corpses of their former neighbors. One man was executed for killing and eating his wife. Some years later, George Percy recalled the colonists’ desperation during these years, when he served as the colony’s president: “Having fed upon our horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin as dogs, cats, rats and mice … as to eat boots shoes or any other leather … And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face, that nothing was spared to maintain life and to doe those things which seam incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.”23 Archaeological excavations in 2012 exhumed the bones of a fourteen-year-old girl that exhibited signs of cannibalism.24 All but 60 settlers would die by the summer of 1610.

Little improved over the next several years. By 1616, 80 percent of all English immigrants that arrived in Jamestown had perished. England’s first American colony was a catastrophe. The colony was reorganized, and in 1614 the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe eased relations with the Powhatan, though the colony still limped along as a starving, commercially disastrous tragedy. The colonists were unable to find any profitable commodities remained dependent upon the Indians and sporadic shipments from England for food. But then tobacco saved Jamestown.

By the time King James I described tobacco as a “noxious weed, … loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs,” it had already taken Europe by storm. In 1616 John Rolfe crossed tobacco strains from Trinidad and Guiana and planted Virginia’s first tobacco crop. In 1617 the colony sent its first cargo of tobacco back to England. The “noxious weed,” a native of the New World, fetched a high price in Europe and the tobacco boom began in Virginia and then later spread to Maryland. Within fifteen years American colonists were exporting over 500,000 pounds of tobacco per year. Within forty, they were exporting fifteen million.25 

Tobacco changed everything. It saved Virginia from ruin, incentivized further colonization, and laid the groundwork for what would become the United States. With a new market open, Virginia drew not only merchants and traders, but also settlers. Colonists came in droves. They were mostly young, mostly male, and mostly indentured servants who signed contracts called indentures that bonded them to employers for a period of years in return for passage across the ocean. But even the rough terms of servitude were no match for the promise of land and potential profits that beckoned English farmers. But still there were not enough of them. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop and ambitious planters, with seemingly limitless land before them, lacked only laborers to escalate their wealth and status. The colony’s great labor vacuum inspired the creation of the “headright policy” in 1618: any person who migrated to Virginia would automatically receive 50 acres of land and any immigrant whose passage they paid would entitle them to 50 acres more.

In 1619 the Virginia Company established the House of Burgesses, a limited representative body composed of white landowners that first met in Jamestown. That same year, a Dutch slave ship sold 20 Africans to the Virginia colonists. Southern slavery was born.

Soon the tobacco-growing colonists expanded beyond the bounds of Jamestown’s deadly peninsula. When it became clear that the English were not merely intent on maintaining a small trading post, but sought a permanent ever-expanding colony, conflict with the Powhatan Confederacy became almost inevitable. Powhatan died in 1622 and was succeeded by his brother, Opechancanough, who promised to drive the land-hungry colonists back into the sea. He launched a surprise attack and in a single day (March 22, 1622) killed 347 colonists, or one-fourth of all the colonists in Virginia. The colonists retaliated and revisited the massacres upon Indian settlements many times over. The massacre freed the colonists to drive the Indians off their land. The governor of Virginia declared it colonial policy to achieve the “expulsion of the savages to gain the free range of the country.”26 War and disease destroyed the remnants of the Chesapeake Indians and tilted the balance of power decisively toward the English colonizers.

English colonists brought to the New World particular visions of racial, cultural, and religious supremacy. Despite starving in the shadow of the Powhatan Confederacy, English colonists nevertheless judged themselves physically, spiritually, and technologically superior to native peoples in North America. Christianity, metallurgy, intensive agriculture, trans-Atlantic navigation, and even wheat all magnified the English sense of superiority. This sense of superiority, when coupled with outbreaks of violence, left the English feeling entitled to indigenous lands and resources.

Spanish conquerors established the framework for the Atlantic slave trade over a century before the first chained Africans arrived at Jamestown. Even Bartolomé de las Casas, celebrated for his pleas to save Native Americans from colonial butchery, for a time recommended that indigenous labor be replaced by importing Africans. Early English settlers from the Caribbean and Atlantic coast of North America mostly imitated European ideas of African inferiority. “Race” followed the expansion of slavery across the Atlantic world. Skin-color and race suddenly seemed fixed. Englishmen equated Africans with categorical blackness and blackness with Sin, “the handmaid and symbol of baseness.”27 An English essayist in 1695 wrote that “A negro will always be a negro, carry him to Greenland, feed him chalk, feed and manage him never so many ways.”28 More and more Europeans embraced the notions that Europeans and Africans were of distinct races. Others now preached that the Old Testament God cursed Ham, the son of Noah, and doomed black people to perpetual enslavement.

And yet in the early years of American slavery, ideas about race were not yet fixed and the practice of slavery was not yet codified. The first generations of Africans in English North America faced miserable conditions but, in contrast to later American history, their initial servitude was not necessarily permanent, heritable, or even particularly disgraceful. Africans were definitively set apart as fundamentally different from their white counterparts, and faced longer terms of service and harsher punishments, but, like the indentured white servants whisked away from English slums, these first Africans in North America could also work for only a set number of years before becoming free landowners themselves. The Angolan Anthony Johnson, for instance, was sold into servitude but fulfilled his indenture and became a prosperous tobacco planter himself.29 

In 1622, at the dawn of the tobacco boom, Jamestown had still seemed a failure. But the rise of tobacco and the destruction of the Powhatan turned the tide. Colonists escaped the deadly peninsula and immigrants poured into the colony to grow tobacco and turn a profit for the Crown.


VI. New England

Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, via The History Project (UC Davis).

The English colonies in New England established from 1620 onward were founded with loftier goals than those in Virginia. Although migrants to New England expected economic profit, religious motives directed the rhetoric and much of the reality of these colonies. Not every English person who moved to New England during the seventeenth century was a Puritan, but Puritans dominated the politics, religion, and culture of New England. Even after 1700, the region’s Puritan inheritance shaped many aspects of its history.

The term Puritan began as an insult, and its recipients usually referred to each other as “the godly” if they used a specific term at all. Puritans believed that the Church of England did not distance itself far enough from Catholicism after Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s. They largely agreed with European Calvinists—followers of theologian Jean Calvin—on matters of religious doctrine. Calvinists (and Puritans) believed that mankind was redeemed by God’s Grace alone, and that the fate of an individual’s immortal soul was predestined. The happy minority God had already chosen to save were known among English Puritans as the Elect. Calvinists also argued that the decoration or churches, reliance on ornate ceremony, and corrupt priesthood obscured God’s message. They believed that reading the Bible was the best way to understand God.

Puritans were stereotyped by their enemies as dour killjoys, and the exaggeration has endured. It is certainly true that the Puritans’ disdain for excess and opposition to many holidays popular in Europe (including Christmas, which, as Puritans never tired of reminding everyone, the Bible never told anyone to celebrate) lent themselves to caricature. But Puritans understood themselves as advocating a reasonable middle path in a corrupt world. It would never occur to a Puritan, for example, to abstain from alcohol or sex.

During the first century after the English Reformation (c.1530-1630) Puritans sought to “purify” the Church of England of all practices that smacked of Catholicism, advocating a simpler worship service, the abolition of ornate churches, and other reforms. They had some success in pushing the Church of England in a more Calvinist direction, but with the coronation of King Charles I (r. 1625-1649), the Puritans gained an implacable foe that cast English Puritans as excessive and dangerous. Facing growing persecution, the Puritans began the Great Migration, during which about 20,000 people traveled to New England between 1630 and 1640. The Puritans (unlike the small band of separatist “Pilgrims” who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620) remained committed to reforming the Church of England, but temporarily decamped to North America to accomplish this task. Leaders like John Winthrop insisted they were not separating from, or abandoning, England, but were rather forming a godly community in America, that would be a “City on a Hill” and an example for reformers back home.30 The Puritans did not seek to create a haven of religious toleration, a notion that they—along with nearly all European Christians—regarded as ridiculous at best, and dangerous at worst.

While the Puritans did not succeed in building a godly utopia in New England, a combination of Puritan traits with several external factors created colonies wildly different from any other region settled by English people. Unlike those heading to Virginia, colonists in New England (Plymouth [1620], Massachusetts Bay [1630], Connecticut [1636], and Rhode Island [1636]) generally arrived in family groups. The majority of New England immigrants were small landholders in England, a class contemporary English called the “middling sort.” When they arrived in New England they tended to replicate their home environments, founding towns comprised of independent landholders. The New England climate and soil made large-scale plantation agriculture impractical, so the system of large landholders using masses of slaves or indentured servants to grow labor-intensive crops never took hold.

There is no evidence that the New England Puritans would have opposed such a system were it possible; other Puritans made their fortunes on the Caribbean sugar islands, and New England merchants profited as suppliers of provisions and slaves to those colonies. By accident of geography as much as by design, New England society was much less stratified than any of Britain’s other seventeenth-century colonies.

Although New England colonies could boast wealthy landholding elites, the disparity of wealth in the region remained narrow compared to the Chesapeake, Carolina, or the Caribbean. Instead, seventeenth-century New England was characterized by a broadly-shared modest prosperity based on a mixed economy dependent on small farms, shops, fishing, lumber, shipbuilding, and trade with the Atlantic World.

A combination of environmental factors and the Puritan social ethos produced a region of remarkable health and stability during the seventeenth century. New England immigrants avoided most of the deadly outbreaks of tropical disease that turned Chesapeake colonies into graveyards. Disease, in fact, only aided English settlement and relations to Native Americans. In contrast to other English colonists who had to contend with powerful Native American neighbors, the Puritans confronted the stunned survivors of a biological catastrophe. A lethal pandemic of smallpox during the 1610s swept away as much as 90 percent of the region’s Native American population. Many survivors welcomed the English as potential allies against rival tribes who had escaped the catastrophe. The relatively healthy environment coupled with political stability and the predominance of family groups among early immigrants allowed the New England population to grow to 91,000 people by 1700 from only 21,000 immigrants. In contrast, 120,000 English went to the Chesapeake, and only 85,000 white colonists remained in 1700.31

The New England Puritans set out to build their utopia by creating communities of the godly. Groups of men, often from the same region of England, applied to the colony’s General Court for land grants.32 They generally divided part of the land for immediate use while keeping much of the rest as “commons” or undivided land for future generations. The town’s inhabitants collectively decided the size of each settler’s home lot based on their current wealth and status. Besides oversight of property, the town restricted membership, and new arrivals needed to apply for admission. Those who gained admittance could participate in town governments that, while not democratic by modern standards, nevertheless had broad popular involvement. All male property holders could vote in town meetings and choose the selectmen, assessors, constables, and other officials from among themselves to conduct the daily affairs of government. Upon their founding, towns wrote covenants, reflecting the Puritan belief in God’s covenant with His people. Towns sought to arbitrate disputes and contain strife, as did the church. Wayward or divergent individuals were persuaded, corrected, or coerced. Popular conceptions of Puritans as hardened authoritarians are exaggerated, but if persuasion and arbitration failed, people who did not conform to community norms were punished or removed. Massachusetts banished Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and other religious dissenters like the Quakers.

Although by many measures colonization in New England succeeded, its Puritan leaders failed in their own mission to create a utopian community that would inspire their fellows back in England. They tended to focus their disappointment on the younger generation. “But alas!” Increase Mather lamented, “That so many of the younger Generation have so early corrupted their [the founders’] doings!”33 The Jeremiad, a sermon lamenting the fallen state of New England due to its straying from its early virtuous path, became a staple of late seventeenth-century Puritan literature.

Yet the Jeremiads could not stop the effects of prosperity. The population spread and grew more diverse. Many, if not most, New Englanders retained strong ties to their Calvinist roots into the eighteenth century, but the Puritans (who became Congregationalists) struggled against a rising tide of religious pluralism. On December 25, 1727, Judge Samuel Sewell noted in his diary that a new Anglican minister “keeps the day in his new Church at Braintrey: people flock thither.” Previously forbidden holidays like Christmas were celebrated publicly in church and privately in homes. Puritan divine Cotton Mather discovered on the Christmas of 1711, “a number of young people of both sexes, belonging, many of them, to my flock, had…a Frolick, a reveling Feast, and a Ball, which discovers their Corruption.”34

Despite the lamentations of the Mathers and other Puritan leaders of their failure, they left an enduring mark on New England culture and society that endured long after the region’s residents ceased to be called “Puritan.”


VII. Conclusion

The fledgling settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts paled in importance when compared to the sugar colonies of the Caribbean. Valued more as marginal investments and social safety valves where the poor could be released, these colonies nonetheless created a foothold for Britain on a vast North American continent. And although the seventeenth century would be fraught for Britain–religious, social, and political upheavals would behead one king and force another to flee his throne–settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia were nonetheless tied together by the emerging Atlantic economy. While commodities such as tobacco and sugar fueled new markets in Europe, the economy grew increasingly dependent upon slave labor. Enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic would further complicate the collision of cultures in the Americas. The creation and maintenance of a slave system would spark new understandings of human difference and new modes of social control. The economic exchanges of the new Atlantic economy would not only generate great wealth and exploitation, they would also lead to new cultural systems and new identities for the inhabitants of at least four continents.


VIII. Reference Materials

This chapter was edited by Ben Wright and Joseph Locke, with content contributions by Erin Bonuso, L.D. Burnett, Jon Grandage, Joseph Locke, Lisa Mercer, Maria Montalvo, Ian Saxine, Jennifer Tellman, Luke Willert, and Ben Wright.

Recommended citation: Erin Bonuso et al, “Colliding Cultures,” Ben Wright and Joseph L. Locke, eds. The American Yawp, Joseph L. Locke and Ben Wright, ads., last modified August 1, 2016,


Recommended Reading

  • Armitage, David and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002.
  • Barr, Juliana. Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London and New York: Verso, 1997.
  • Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Puritan Conquistadors. Iberianizing the Atlantic , 1550-1700. Stanford University Press, 2006.
  • Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.
  • Daniels, Christine and Michael V. Kennedy, eds. Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the Americas, 1500-1820. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Dubcovsky, Alejandra. Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Elliot, John H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • Fuentes, Marisa J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
  • Goetz, Rebecca Anne. The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.  
  • Grandjean, Katherine. American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Gould, Eliga H. “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery.” American Historical Review 112, no. 3 (June 2007): 764-786.
  • Mancall, Peter C. Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.
  • Morgan, Jennifer. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
  • Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Socolow, Susan Migden. The Women of Colonial Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Snyder, Christina. Slavery In Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Stoler, Ann Laura. “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies.” Journal of American History 88: 3 (Dec. 2001): 829- 897.
  • Thorton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Warren, Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.
  • Weimer, Adrian. Martyrs’ Mirror: Persecution and Holiness in Early New England. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.



  1. Stanley L. Engerman, Robert E. Gallman, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Vol I The Colonial Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 21. []
  2. Andrew L. Knaut, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth Century New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), 46. []
  3. John E Kicza and Rebecca Horn, Resilient Cultures: America’s Native Peoples Confront European Colonization, 1500-1800 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 122. []
  4. Andrew L. Knaut, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 155. []
  5. John Ponet, A Short Treatise on Political Power: And of the true Obedience which Subjects owe to Kings, and other civil Governors (London: 1556), 43-44. []
  6. Alan Greer, The People of New France (Toronto: University of Tortonto Press, 1997). []
  7. Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001). []
  8. Carole Blackburn, Harvest of Souls: The Jesuit Missions and Colonialism in North America, 1632-1659 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), 116. []
  9. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 650-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). []
  10. Evan Haefeli, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 20-53. []
  11. Allen W. Trelease, Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: The Seventeenth Century (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1960/1997), 36. []
  12. Daniel K. Richter, Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 101. []
  13. Janny Venema, Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652-1664 (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003). []
  14. Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 21. []
  15. Alida C. Metcalf, Go-betweens and the Colonization of Brazil: 1500–1600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005). See also James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. []
  16. Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975), 30. []
  17. John Walter, Crowds and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 131-135. []
  18. Christopher Hodgkins, Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 15. []
  19. Richard Hakluyt, Discourse on Western Planting (1584). Available online from []
  20. Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. , 1975), 9. []
  21. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Spanish Armada: The Experience of War in 1588 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). []
  22. John Smith, Advertisements for the Inexperienced Planters 
of New England, or Anywhere 
The Pathway To Experience to Erect a Plantation (London: 1631), 16. []
  23. George Percy, “A True Relation of the Proceedings and Occurrents of Moment which Have Hap’ned in Virginia,” quoted in, Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, the First Decade, 1607–1617, Edward Wright Haile, ed. (Champlain, Va.: Round House, 1998), p. 505. []
  24. Eric A. Powell, “Chilling Discovery at Jamestown,” Archaeology (June 10, 2013). Available online at: []
  25. Dennis Montgomery, 1607: Jamestown and the New World (Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2007), 126. []
  26. Daniel K. Richter, Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 75. []
  27. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-12 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 7. []
  28. Ibid., 16. []
  29. T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980/2005). []
  30. John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity (1830), first published in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1838), 3rd series 7:31-48. Available online at Accessed July 1, 2015. []
  31. Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York, Penguin, 2001), 170. []
  32. Virginia DeJohn Anderson, New England’s Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 90-91. []
  33. Increase Mather, A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practised by Some in New-England (London: 1687). []
  34. Diary of Cotton Mather, 1709-724 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1912), 146. []