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Colonial America

Town Meeting Arguments in Colonial America

If you have a certain picture of colonial America in your mind, forget it. There is no one colonial America, and colonists are definitely not in a "united state." Many are English, but colonists come from other European countries as well. Each group has its own traditions and beliefs. Some of the first English settlements were established in North America. Sir Humphrey Gilbert established the first English settlement in North America on the island of Newfoundland, and shortly afterward Roanoke Island became the site of the first English colony in what is now the US. Roanoke was not a success at first. After one year, the first inhabitants left after they ran out of supplies and were attacked by Indians. The settlers of a second colony, including the first child born to English parents in the present-day US, disappeared within three years. This did not prevent Walter Raleigh from establishing Virginia, named after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I.

Settled in various places, the colonists' ways of life and governments develop differently over time. The boundaries of the colonies keep changing. Even the names of the colonies change. When you think of colonial America, you may think of thirteen colonies fighting for independence from Great Britain in 1776. But Spain began colonizing North America almost three hundred years earlier. French explorers, missionaries, and fur trappers started traveling around the continent not long after that.

Eventually the term "New England" comes to mean the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Difficult conditions in the colonies last until about 1675. People who have lived in the colonies for many years still don't think of themselves as "Virginians" or "New Yorkers." They think of themselves as Europeans-Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Swedish, German, or Scotch-Irish. Different languages, money, religious beliefs, and attitudes among them, different colonies may seem like going through different countries.

Indentured servants promise to work for a set number of years in exchange for their passage to America. Once they have completed working for those years, they can leave their masters. After 1725 more than half of all colonists can say they were born in America. Colonists begin to identify less with Great Britain. The thirteen colonies that eventually fight for independence from Great Britain are established by 1732.

Disease preceded successful European colonization

In the summer of 1605 the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed along the coast of New England, looking for a likely spot to place a colony - a place more hospitable than the upper St. Lawrence River, which he had previously explored. Halfway down the Maine coast he began to find spots with good harbors, abundant supplies of freshwater, and big spreads of cleared land. The problem was that these parcels were already occupied. The peoples there were happy to barter with him and treat his sailors to fine dinners. But none were interested in providing free real estate. A skirmish in Nauset Bay, halfway down Cape Cod, convinced Champlain that he had no hope of starting a colony in this area. Too many people already lived there.

Fifteen years later, a band of English voyagers showed up in Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were everything that Champlain was not: inexperienced, poorly supplied, and lacking in basic survival skills. Arriving on the cusp of winter, they anchored offshore, planted their metaphorical flag on some choice land, and quickly set about the business of dying en masse. Surprisingly, the Pilgrims made it through the winter; within a few years, they were prospering. Why did the land's original inhabitants, so clear about their rejection of the French, allow the English company to stay?

Pilgrim writings provide the answer. Colonist William Bradford learned that three or four years before the Mayflower landed, shipwreckcd French seamen had set up shop on Cape Cod. Unwilling to countenance a long-term foreign presence, no matter how unintended, the Indians of Nauset, Bradford recounted, "never left watching & dogging them till they got advantage, and kild them all but 3. or 4." Even this limited mercy proved a mistake. One of the French carried a disease not known in the Americas. He bequeathed it to his captors, who passed it on to their friends and families. As the epidemic spread, the healthy fled from the sick, unwittingly carrying the disease with them to neighboring communities. All along the New England coast, the English poet-adventurer Thomas Morton reported, Indians "died in heapes, as they lay in their houses." So many perished so quickly that the living had no time to bury the dead. Morton, who settled in Massachusetts in 1624, found native skeletons still littering the woods The Pilgrims fared better than Champlain because they were moving into land that was now largely unoccupied.

Their story was no exception. Although Europeans had firearms, steel blades, and horses, none of which existed in the Americas, their biggest weapon was biological. By a quirk of evolutionary history, the Western Hemisphere had few epidemic diseases - no smallpox, influenza, measles, or malaria. When these illnesses hitchhiked to the Americas aboard European ships, somewhere between two- thirds and nine-tenths of the native population of the Americas died. Arguably, this is the single most powerful explanatory fact in the entire history of the Americas post-1492.

Consider the two assaults by Herman Cortes on Mexico's great Triple Alliance (many historians view the term 'Aztec" as a 19th-century invention). A brilliant commander who wielded the advantages of guns, swords, horses, and battalions of Alliance-hating indigenous soldiers, Cortes was able to occupy the capital of Tenochtitlan by seizing the empire's supreme military leader. The Alliance was as stunned as Spain would have been if an Indian force had abducted the king of Spain. Eventually there was a counterattack in which most of the Spaniards died, along with their horses. Cortes was reported to have sat weeping at the ruin of his hopes. With no other options, he readied a second assault, this one with far fewer horses, swords, and guns. But he had acquired an additional weapon: smallpox, which was apparently brought over by a Spanish slave. Packed into crowded cities and carrying no resistance, the people of central Mexico died in huge numbers, including most of the imperial court. Cortes's second assault, launched in the wake of the epidemic, was successful.

Disease preceded successful European colonization of the Americas in almost every instance. But it played a later role, too. Carried over in the bodies of colonists from the feverish fens of southwest England, malaria rapidly became endemic from Virginia to Florida. Killing or driving away natives and newcomers alike, it helped to create a labor shortage that fed the demand for African slaves. (Most West Africans are genetically immune to the type of malaria that was imported from England.) During the American Revolution, British general Charles Cornwallis occupied the Carolinas, hoping to inspire a loyalist rebellion - the "southern strategy" as it was known. Alas, the Carolinas were filled with rice paddies, a recent introduction. Mosquitoes thrived in this new environment, as did the malaria parasite inside them. With half his army sick, Cornwallis was ordered to retreat to Yorktown, Virginia, which he regarded as an "unhealthy swamp." (Correctly - malaria was probably introduced in nearby Jamestown.) There the rest of his army fell prey to the disease. His surrender soon followed, effectively ending the war.

George Washington's courage, tenacity, and political deftness were vital to the successful outcome of the American Revolution. No history would be complete without taking them into account. But equally vital was the grinding, constantly rising toll of mosquito-borne disease. Here, as in so many other instances, examination of the landmarks of human history reveals its inextricable entanglement with the nonhuman world.

The land in New England is not good for farming (the soil is not very fertile, and the growing season is short). The Atlantic coastline offers many fine harbors, however, and trees are abundant. Settlers use the plentiful lumber to build ships, and port towns quickly spring up around the shipbuilding industry. Many goods are shipped from England, colonists also export tobacco, furs, and other goods. The ongoing need for trade abroad means that port towns are central to life in the colonies. Merchants, artisans, fishers, and many others live in New England port towns. Local families live close enough to walk to the town center, meet once a week at a central market, and attend church together. They often meet people coming in on ships from Europe, so they are up to date on events there.

Many of the people in New England are English Puritans. Puritans were a group within England's official church, the Church of England. They believed the church had become impure and wanted to reform it. Persecuted in England for their beliefs, they came to New England seeking religious freedom. (Some of the people on the Mayflower were Puritans, too. But they believed the Church of England could not be reformed. Because they separated from the church instead of trying to reform it, they were called Separatists.)

The colonies of Virginia and Maryland lie in an area along Chesapeake Bay. Settlers can easily grow tobacco in the fertile soil here. Then they ship it to Europe, where it is sold. In the Chesapeake region, the colonists are mostly unmarried men. (Before 1680 there are six men for every woman.) Most are Anglican - meaning they belong to the Church of England. Unlike New Englanders, these bachelors desire wealth, not religious freedom. Most plan to return to England when their fortunes are made.

Farmers in the Chesapeake region run large farms called plantations. They rely on servants, slaves, and ex-convicts to do most of the work. Even small plantations use servants to help with fieldwork and household work. Plantations are like small towns. A plantation might have a blacksmith, a shoemaker, and many other kinds of workers. Plantation life is brutal. The hard work, combined with diseases such as malaria, makes for many early deaths in this region. Half of the children die before they turn twenty.

The middle colonies are New York, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Swedish, German, and Scotch-Irish people live here in addition to the English, French, and Dutch. Members of various religions each have their own communities. Anglicans, Quakers, Catholics, Mennonites, and a number of other Protestant groups are represented. European settlement keeps creeping inland. On the edge of the frontier, people hunt in the woods and fish in the streams in addition to growing food.

Work is at the heart of colonial America. Everyone pitches in to grow food, build houses and farm buildings, sew clothing, and make household tools. Idleness is considered a sin. Even small children are expected to work. They stay busy from the moment they wake up (which is at dawn, not noon) until bedtime. Most kids start gathering firewood, shucking corn, and other simple chores at age three. Older children have more responsibility. Before and after school, boys feed animals, gather vegetables, cut wood, make brooms, and perform other chores. Girls help prepare food, sew, iron, milk cows, weed the garden, and make candles and soap, among other tasks.

Colonial kids as young as eight are hunting with a gun without any adult supervision. Adults are too busy running the house and farm to carefully watch over each child. Children as young as six may become apprentices, or workers in training for a trade. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was apprenticed to a printer so he could learn the printing trade. Apprentices are like servants. They live in the master's home and work long hours in exchange for learning skills. The master has full power over the child, who may be beaten for breaking the master's rules.

Seating in church follows a set order. The order is determined by each person's "breeding" (family connections), age, wealth, length of residence, level of education, political influence, and other factors. Terms such as "Mr.," "Esquire," and "Gent." are used with great seriousness (and only by those specifically entitled to them). When college students are listed in their schools' catalogs, their names do not appear in alphabetical order but in an order determined by their social position.

Colonists rarely throw anything away. When they butcher a pig, they use everything "except the squeal." They make spoons out of clamshells and bowls out of gourds. If the hearth needs sweeping, they may grab a turkey wing to use as a brush. They wear every garment until it's falling apart and then make quilts from the scraps.

The first newspaper in Boston in 1690 is halted by officials concerned about its content. Religious leaders and government officials stop the presses from printing displeasing news (mentions of witchcraft, for example). Around 1704, the Boston News-Letter is filled with news from Europe and records of ship arrivals and departures. These are of great interest to colonists, who are waiting for word from "home" and for European goods they've ordered. By the mid-1700s, a number of weekly publications-at least one in each of the leading colonies can be found, Pennsylvania has three newspapers written in German.

In town, to get rid of garbage, people feed it to livestock, throw it about the yard, or toss it into a nearby pit. This pit may contain anything from broken pottery to rotting vegetables to human waste. Hogs run wild through the streets, leaving deposits behind to add to the horse droppings that pile up. There are sounds too of clanking hammers, squealing animals, clattering carts and wagons, screaming children, and staggering drunks.

This is a tough life. Those who are ill, weak, or lazy have a rough time. Although some charity is available, people in need are often humiliated. In the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania, anyone receiving charity must wear a special badge at all times. The nearest market may be many miles away, and most people must walk. The number of products available is extremely small, and having more than one choice of a particular item is virtually unknown. A local may order a coat from London and think nothing of waiting a year to get it. You learn to wait, use something else, or do without.

Manners are taken quite seriously here. Adults give children etiquette books that list rules for proper behavior. Even in the poorest homes, children follow these rules carefully. The higher the social class, the more important proper behavior becomes. Children are often not allowed to sit at the table to eat. They generally stand at the side. In some families, children stand behind their parents and wait for food to be passed back to them. Sometimes children have a separate children's table where they can stand, going to the adult table to get more food. They are not allowed to ask for anything but must wait until it is offered. When children sit at the same table with adults, the adults sit at one end, and the children and servants sit at the other. The salt shaker is set in the center of the table, so sitting at the children's and servant's end is called sitting "below the salt." Adults and guests sit "above the salt." Spitting is allowed only in the corner of the room. Colonists eat with spoons and knives, but they do not use forks until after 1700. Colonists feel that "God would not have given us fingers if He had wished us to use such an instrument [a fork]."

Colonial communities are tightly knit. Neighbors happily give a hand without expecting repayment. Town residents are treated better than strangers in many other matters, too. For example, a town may not allow shopkeepers to sell things or rent to strangers. Or a shopkeeper might charge a stranger more for something than a resident.

In New England after 1700, con men known as "strollers" travel from town to town, cheating residents out of money. Some pretend to be cultured gentlemen and then swindle money from people. Others fake disabilities or poverty to get charity. If you show up in a community with no introduction (a letter from a well-known person), the sheriff may give you a "warning out." This means that if you cause trouble in town, town authorities can send you away with no feelings of guilt. You were warned. "Harboring a stranger" can anger people, so anyone who invites you to visit will most likely inform the authorities. That way, they'll know you are an expected, invited guest.

In most colonies, women are expected to run large households. Country women manage a garden, milk cows, churn butter, raise and butcher animals, prepare and preserve food, spin, and sew In some cases, particularly if times are tough, you will see women laboring in the fields alongside their husbands. Above all, colonial women are expected to bear children. Colonists need children to help run the house and farm, yet high numbers of children die as babies. For these reasons, women spend most of their childbearing years either pregnant or nursing an infant.

Thievery is uncommon in most areas. In New England cities, watchmen walk the streets at night, checking to be sure the lanterns are lit, watching for fires and thieves, and calling out the time and the weather. New York has ten watchmen by 1658. They rattle a "klopper" (bell) as they patrol to keep any thieves away.

Colonial America has jails, but they are mainly for people who owe money or who have nowhere else to go. Whippings are a more common punishment than a jail sentence. The criminal (male or female) is whipped on the bare back. The whip, or "cat-o'-nine tails," has a number of leather tails, each knotted at the end. At each stroke of this whip, the tails bite into the bare flesh. Twenty lashes to more than one hundred lashes may be given. Sentences of more than forty lashes can be fatal. The flesh on the back eventually falls away, causing extensive bleeding and exposing internal organs.

Punishments don't always seem fair. The common folk are routinely sentenced to public whippings. Wealthy gentlemen, however, are usually excused from such humiliations. An ordinary citizen must sit on the sharp edge of a board while in the stocks. A gentleman may stand.

Stocks (boards with holes to hold the criminal's ankles) or the pillory (boards with holes for the head and hands), locked into one of these restraining devices for a while may seem like a mild physical discomfort. The real discomfort is humiliation, since prisoners are set in a public place, and people throw eggs, rotten fruit, or tomatoes at them. Another punishment is to be "burned at the hand." The name of the crime is burned into the criminal's skin just below the thumb on the right hand as a permanent record of wrongdoing.

You can be fined and punished for such criminal acts as calling people names, making nasty faces, lying, or jeering. One Virginia man made "base and detracting" remarks about the governor. As punishment, his arms were broken and his tongue was punctured with an awl before he was fined and banished.

Charles C. Mann. A Pox On The New World. American Heritage. Winter 2010.
Nancy Day. Your Travel Guide to Colonial America (Passport to History) . Runestone Press. 2001.


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