The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

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

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)
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And so the legacy of the barbarous years continued beyond the white male liberation of the Revolution.

Bailyn is fascinating when he speaks of questions of value. The day we talked was the peak of the fevered notion that the American government should settle its national debt by minting a platinum coin arbitrarily given a “trillion dollar” valuation. And it made me think of wampum, the original inhabitants’ currency. I’d always wondered how you could found an entire centuries-long economics on beads and shells as these “Americans” did. And yet, isn’t that what we’ve done since, basing our economics on shiny metal objects that have a declared, consensus value unrelated to their worth as a metal?

So I asked Bailyn why wampum was accepted in exchange for an obviously more highly valuable commodity, such as furs.

Bailyn: “They’re little shells.”

Me: But why should people massacre each other over these little shells?

Bailyn: Because they had great value.

Me: Because of their beauty?

Bailyn: No, because they’re hard to make and they don’t exist everywhere. You ever see how this was done?

Me: No.

He picks up an imaginary shell from his desk and says:


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