Bernard Bailyn is one of the giants of early American historical scholarship. In recent years he has been engaged in a project “to give an account of the peopling of British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” Barbarous Years is the most recently released product of that effort. As we have come to expect from Bailyn, it is a magisterial work, which, for any reader interested in this period, more than repays the serious attention it requires. (The book is over 500 pages and dense in detail.)

Barbarous Years covers the period from the first permanent English settlements on the continent through King Phillip’s War. Besides discussing the English in the Chesapeake area and New England, this work also considers the Swedish and Dutch settlements along the Delaware and Hudson rivers. (South Carolina, founded in 1670, is left out.) Throughout this period the European toehold on the edge of the North American continent was precarious, and it was the sense of fragility, as well as the mutual incomprehension between the Europeans and Indians, that, Bailyn contends, made these years “barbarous.” Everything was uncertain in the new world being created by this clash of cultures. The constant threat felt to the very existence not just of oneself but of one’s whole community led to desperately brutal acts on the part of natives and newcomers alike.

Bailyn sets the background for his main narrative with a chapter describing the character of the native world before the arrival of the Europeans. Warfare in the world of the eastern forest Indians was frequent but often engaged in more like a sport than a life-and-death struggle. Although the Indians practiced agriculture, “cultivation of the fields did not bind one to the land” since farming was slash-and-burn rather than involving careful management of fixed plots. Thus, land ownership was not a relevant concept for the Indians, a fact that would lead to innumerable conflicts with the Europeans, as each side failed to comprehend the other’s ways of land use.

Especially fascinating is Bailyn’s description of the importance of dreams for the Indians. Rightly interpreted, dreams were guides to the best course of action: “A dream might oblige one to find sexual gratification with two married women; to sacrifice ten dogs; to burn down one’s cabin; even to cut off one’s own finger with a seashell.” But most importantly, he describes how the Indian’s world “was multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient, and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories, and purposes, that surrounded them, instructed them.” These spirits demanded that things be maintained in a certain balance, a balance the arrival of Europeans would often disrupt, which the spirits might require the natives to redress.

Bailyn begins his story of European migration with the Chesapeake area, and there with Jamestown. The early years of that colony were so grim that he names the chapter describing them “Death on a Coastal Fringe.” There was great confusion of purpose: the colony’s sponsors wanted colonists to find the fabled Northwest Passage, or gold, or the lost colony of Roanoke, or establish English sovereignty over the whole area, while a few of the practically minded settlers actually sought to build viable settlements and establish relations with the natives. Working at cross-purposes, faced with a novel and hostile climate ridden with strange diseases, the early settlers’ death rate was appalling. By 1611, over 1,500 people had immigrated to the colony, but the population stood at only 450.

Conflict with the natives was part of this grim picture. If you want to disabuse yourself of any notion that colonial American history consists entirely of peaceful Indians being exterminated by ruthless colonists, then you need only read Bailyn’s account of the Virginia massacre of 1622. Acting on Chief Opechancanough’s plan, the Indians wandered unarmed into English settlements and offered trades or even sat down to breakfast with their English hosts. (For the Indians to share meals with the English, or even sleep over at their houses, was apparently very common before the massacre.) At a certain moment, the Indians grabbed whatever weapon was at hand—“axes, hammers, shovels, tools, and knives”—and slaughtered their hosts, killing over 300 English men, women, and children. They mutilated the corpses, burned down farms, and killed or dispersed the farm animals. The attackers apparently singled out as targets the settlers who had been friendliest towards them, “as if the acculturation they had sought, with its assumption of divine sanction, was a special danger that had to be utterly obliterated.”

The English, of course, were not blameless, and they had been very careless about encroaching upon Indian lands with their plantations. But one can see why their view of the Indians was a little less accommodative after this event. In any case, they would conduct plenty of massacres of their own in the years to come, some of them equally brutal.

It took decades for the population in the Chesapeake to begin replacing itself, but by the close of the period covered here, it had reached almost 40,000, and the English hold on the area was secure. In the intervening decades, the English settlers had found in tobacco a way to make their outpost self-sustaining and increasingly prosperous, and thus laid the foundations for the plantation-and-slave culture of the Virginia of Washington, Madison, and Jefferson. Meanwhile, in 1634, a rival English colony, Catholic-tolerant Maryland, was formed on the northern shores of the Chesapeake, an episode to which Bailyn devotes a chapter. One point that becomes clear in his analysis of the relationships between these various colonies is that it is far too simple to see the military conflict of this period as simply between Europeans and Indians, as different European groups and different Indian groups often aligned with each other to fight mutual enemies.

Bailyn next takes up the story of New Netherlands and the nearby, but largely forgotten, New Sweden. New Netherlands was a tiny outpost of the worldwide Dutch trading empire of the 1600s and was never densely settled. The prosperous Dutch were themselves usually more interested in international trade than in farming in the wilderness, so they recruited settlers from across Europe: the colony of 6,000 (at the date of English conquest in 1664) contained Germans, French, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Poles, and blacks.

As this potpourri spread out along the Hudson, we get another taste of the misunderstandings that generated so much racial conflict in this period:

Europeans continued to expand their settlements into Indian lands and to fence in their own fields while allowing their animals to forage in the Indians’ farmlands. The Indians continued to kill the roaming livestock as just retribution for damages done and to seek vengeance for sleights and injuries, some of which the Europeans were not aware of having inflicted.

Southwest of New Netherlands, along the Delaware, New Sweden had barely gotten going when it was conquered by the Dutch, and it might hardly be worth mention but for its one, somewhat surprising, impact on the future of America: the Finns. The Finnish settlements in New Sweden—Finland was part of Sweden at the time—although small in number, contributed an enduring image of colonial America. The Finns, from the frontier of Europe, lived in rough log cabins in New Sweden, and soon after settling there they could be found dressed in animal skins instead of European clothing and shod in deerskin moccasins. Bailyn claims the Finns had “a greater affinity to the culture of the native Americans then did any other Europeans in North America,” and it was the Finns who were initially responsible for what we think of as the American frontier style of life.

New Netherlands, the conqueror of New Sweden, became the conquered in turn, falling to the British as noted above. The result was a strange, multi-ethnic, multilingual, commercially driven society perched between the more homogeneously English New England and Chesapeake areas. New York seems to have never lost the imprint of its founding.

In contrast to these other colonies, New England was founded on more explicitly religious grounds. Yet from the beginning, the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth and the later Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay were divided over matters of faith. Firstly, the “true believers” had had to allow a fair number of religiously indifferent “tag-alongs” to join them in their “shining city on the hill” so that the colonies would have sufficient servants and tradesmen. Bringing such people into line with the founders’ desire for strict religious discipline would be a continual challenge. But perhaps even more divisive were relations among the believers. Roger Williams was a brilliant Puritan preacher, but he was eventually driven to form his own colony in Rhode Island due to his disagreements with the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts. The triumph of the Puritan cause in the English Civil War caused further consternation: what had been the point of the colonists removing themselves thousands of miles from their homeland only to see those who had been unwilling to take such a risk triumph in the mother country?

The case of the brilliant individualist Anne Hutchinson highlights the tensions inherent in the Protestant Reformation and by extension Puritan Massachusetts. How could a movement that upheld the primacy of the individual conscience over the hierarchy of the Catholic Church sustain any sort of hierarchical structure at all? On the other hand, what in the world would Protestantism mean if every individual had his or her own version of it? When faced with Hutchinson’s claims that she was the recipient of new revelations, the church denied that post-scriptural revelation was possible and declared that claiming such was “sinful”—itself a doctrine found nowhere in Scripture.

Another area of contention in early New England was the nature of landholding. Libertarians often tout property rights as a means of avoiding conflict. Of course, when property rights are agreed upon, there won’t be disputes—but that really says nothing more than that where there is agreement, there is no conflict. Yet questions of property rights are often the very source of disputes. Reading Bailyn’s account of the English settlement of Massachusetts drives that point home with great force. Conflict over the best assignment of property rights sometimes split apart entire communities; in particular, there was a grave conflict between those settlers who came from open-field, common-landholding communities in England and those who came from places where individual freeholding was more common. Both forms survived for a long time in New England: in fact, the New Haven Green today remains a vestige of the communal form of landholding. sep-issuethumb

Throughout Barbarous Years, Bailyn conveys a sense of the early years of European settlement in North America as a tragedy of mutual miscomprehensions. While cultural differences were great and important, another factor at play, highlighted by Bailyn, was how empty North America seemed to the English colonists versus how full it was for the native Indian inhabitants of the eastern forests. My rough estimate, from the figures that Bailyn provides, is that England in this period was populated at about 100 times the density of eastern North America. In 1600, London had a population roughly equal to all of the eastern woodlands. To English eyes, therefore, the Indians were barely using the land, and there was plenty of room for Englishmen to expand and establish plantations and towns. But the way of life that these eastern forest Indians had established in fact required 100 times the land per person that the English way of life did.

The above could be read in two different ways: the Indians were ecologically wise stewards of the land who respected its carrying capacity, or the English had much more efficient economic arrangements and could make use of land far more effectively than the Indians could.

Both views have some truth in them. There were so many English heading to North America precisely because they had exceeded the carrying capacity of their own island, given the technology of the time. But it is also true that, had the Indians adopted certain practices well known in Europe, such as techniques to replenish depleted farmland, they would have been able to expand their own population well beyond what it was in 1600 without severely damaging their environment.

What would have happened had each group been able to appreciate the viewpoint of the other, I know not. But it was not to be, and what actually happened, as Bailyn makes clear, was a tragedy. In any case, I have only been able to skim lightly over the wealth of fascinating material in this excellent work: if you have any interest in this period, do pick it up.

Gene Callahan teaches economics at SUNY Purchase and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.