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The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

Bernard Bailyn, one of our greatest historians, shines his light on the nation’s Dark Ages

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He captures that sensibility as well as any attempt I’ve read: “Their world was multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories and purposes, that surround them, instructed them, impinged on their lives at every turn. No less real for being invisible...the whole of life was a spiritual enterprise...the universe in all its movements and animations and nature was suffused with spiritual potency.”

In person, Bailyn expresses an almost poetic admiration for this sort of spirituality.

“All the world was alive!” he exclaims. “And the wind is alive! The mountains are alive!”

Then, he adds: “But it’s not a terribly peaceful world. They were always involved in warfare, partly because life would become imbalanced in a way that needed justification and response and reprisal. And reprisals, within their lives, are very important. But partly the onus is on the threats that they’re under.”

“Would both civilizations have been better off had they not been forced into contact,” I ask, “or if all the colonies on the verge of failing had, in fact, failed and the two civilizations continued separately, merely as trading partners?”

“Well, the Indians were not genocidal on the whole. Their effort, even the 1622 massacre [which he calls “genocidal” in his book], was not to wipe the Europeans off the face of the map. It’s the English after the massacre who write these letters saying ‘wipe them off the map.’

“But the Indians had the view they wanted to use them [the Europeans]. They wanted the English there on the fringe so they would have the benefit of their treasure, their goods, even their advanced weapons. They wanted that, but under their control.” It didn’t exactly work out that way.

Bailyn does not let either of the two adversary cultures off the hook. He recounts little vignettes of the original inhabitants’ behavior such as this: Following the ambush of four Dutch traders, Bailyn quotes a report, one “had been eaten after having [been] well roasted. The [other two] they burnt. The Indians carried a leg and an arm home to be divided amongst their families.”

And, on the other side, consider that fixture of grade school Thanksgiving pageants, Miles Standish, an upstanding, godly Pilgrim stalwart who does not at all seem the sort of man who would have cut off the head of a chief and “brought it back to Plymouth in triumph [where] it was displayed on the blockhouse together with a flag made of a cloth soaked in the victim’s blood.” (Happy Thanksgiving!)

“What happened,” Bailyn continues, “is a legacy of brutality in intercultural relations developed through this period of which, of course, the overwhelming legacy was slavery.” Bailyn points out that although there were only “a few thousand” slaves in the colonies toward the end of King Philip’s War in the 1670s, when he concludes The Barbarous Years, “The rules for chattel slavery were set.”

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