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An etching of colonial Philadelphia’s waterfront (source: Penn State University Library)

By the end of the seventeenth-century and into the eighteenth-century, colonial societies in the Americas had developed large metropolitan centers. In British North America, cities like Philadelphia and Boston swelled, becoming centers of important merchant activity on the fringes of the British empire. In New Spain, Mexico City — already a major metropolis — experienced a similar expansion of its economic importance in the Spanish empire. As centers of economic development and trade, these colonial cities increasingly became a crucial part of the emerging modern Atlantic community in the eighteenth-century. The development of interconnected international economies challenges the static view…


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Map of colonialism in 1754. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

While histories of the colonial period tend to focus on political and economic developments, familial bonds represented a particularly important part of the social setting in colonial societies. The influx of European settlers — bringing in their own conceptions of the family — interacted with Native American societies, forming unique combinations of both indigenous and European family relations. The creation of these familial bonds suggests not simply a conquest of indigenous culture, but also a degree of cultural evolution and mixture. While indigenous influence existed however, European structures threatened the preservation of native culture, indicating conflict between European conquest and…


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The geographic/ecological layout of the Great Plains in the United States. The shade of green correlates to the height of grass in those areas, with the darkest green being the tallest. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In popular and academic history, colonial North America tends not to include developments in what is considered the Great Plains. However, interactions between indigenous and European groups occurred, and reflected larger colonial forces at play elsewhere on the continent. Great Plains indigenous groups in the Southern Plains — developed relationships with European colonists and other Native Americans on the fringes of Great Plains, for example creating sophisticated trading networks from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean.¹ Yet, Great Plains Native Americans also experienced the ravages of European colonialism, facing the often related forces of disease and enslavement. …


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A 2005 statue of Po’pay (Popé), leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt (source Wikimedia Commons)

In writings of colonial history, we often tend to see a narrative of oppressive invaders crushing any and all traces of indigenous cultural or political identities. This trend is especially true in understandings of North American colonial history, with emphasis placed on the impact of European colonists on Native American and African cultures. Yet, both cultural and martial resistance marked a large part of North American colonial history, reflecting a sense of defiance among these supposedly conquered groups. Cultural resistance — the preservation of indigenous, pre-contact customs — particularly represented an important challenge to European rule, which was often enforced…


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English colonies in North America, circa 1750 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The establishment of the English colonies in the New World invariably led to the demand for new sources of labor to make their imperial ventures profitable. Plantation crops, like tobacco and sugar, required large amounts of workers. Even the colonial elite demanded domestic workers to mirror their Old World counterparts. Yet, where would this labor come from and who would produce it? Similar to the Spanish and Portuguese before them, the English relied on Native American enslavement to drive economic production. While Native American labor satisfied English demand well into the late seventeenth-century, the English saw African slavery — introduced…


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John Smith’s map of Jamestown, 1612 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

“In sixteen hundred seven/We sail the open sea/For glory, God, and gold/And The Virginia Company!/For the New World is like heaven/And we’ll all be rich and free/Or so we have been told/By The Virginia Company!”

“The Virginia Company” from Disney’s Pocahontas¹

Historians are often puzzled where English colonization of the New World fits in the larger discussion on Early Modern colonialism. Reasons for this somewhat revolve around a simple fact: chronologically speaking, England was late to the colonial game.

Although English privateers had harassed the Spanish Main since the sixteenth-century, the English would not establish a permanent presence in the…


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Map of New France, drawn by Samuel de Champlain in 1632 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I tend to break down colonial North American history to something like this: the Spanish and English conquered; the Dutch and the French (and the Portuguese) traded. But of course — if I’ve learned nothing else in this class — its ahistorical and (mostly) incorrect to generalize. With regard to the French, popular history assumes that the fur trade dominated the French experience in North America. Moreover, there’s this image of French colonists operating relatively peacefully — at least compared to the Spanish and the English — with their Native American neighbors. However, the reality was much more complex.

Settlement…


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Height of Spanish Empire, reaching peak in 1790 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In popular history, the Spanish colonization of the Americas proved exceptionally gruesome and barbaric. In this mindset, blame for the atrocities against Native Americans (and in a similar vein, the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade) fall squarely on the Spanish Empire. Comparatively, other European colonial efforts do not seem that horrible. Or at least, they are not to the same scale as the Spanish.

However, this look at history simplifies a broader analysis of European presence in the Americas. …


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Map of the New World, circa 1595 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Recent study into North American colonial history has rejected traditional historiographical models, finding them based on generalizations of race, nationality, and gender.

In short, our history classes don’t always tell a complete story.

Thinking back on American history classes, colonial history tends to boil down to a few plot points: In 1492 Christopher Columbus braved the Atlantic for God and glory; then Spain conquered Mexico and Peru; then the French and Dutch expanded; then the Mayflower’s Pilgrims came; then that Tea Party; then 1776. …

Ben Ancharski

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