The Barbarous Years
December 20, 2014 9:45 AM   Subscribe

The Shocking Savagery of America's Early History, a look at historian Bernard Bailyn has not painted a pretty picture. Little wonder he calls it The Barbarous Years and spares us no details of the terror, desperation, degradation and widespread torture—do you really know what being “flayed alive” means? (The skin is torn from the face and head and the prisoner is disemboweled while still alive.) And yet somehow amid the merciless massacres were elements that gave birth to the rudiments of civilization—or in Bailyn’s evocative phrase, the fragile “integument of civility”—that would evolve 100 years later into a virtual Renaissance culture, a bustling string of self-governing, self-sufficient, defiantly expansionist colonies alive with an increasingly sophisticated and literate political and intellectual culture that would coalesce into the rationale for the birth of American independence. All the while shaping, and sometimes misshaping, the American character. It’s a grand drama in which the glimmers of enlightenment barely survive the savagery, what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide,” the brutal establishment of slavery, the race wars with the original inhabitants that Bailyn is not afraid to call “genocidal,” the full, horrifying details of which have virtually been erased.

Also reviewed in
Harvard Magazine (one of the new histories), The New Republic, and by Charles C. Mann in The New York Times:
Now comes “The Barbarous Years,” the next installment. It circles back to a period that most Americans don’t hear much about in school: the chaotic decades from the establishment of Jamestown (England’s first permanent colony in the Americas) in 1607 up to King Philip’s War (the vicious conflict that effectively expelled Indians from New England) in 1675-76. Bailyn’s goal is to show how a jumble of migrants, “low and high born,” sought “to recreate, if not to improve, in this remote and, to them, barbarous environment, the life they had known before.” As the title indicates, the story is as grim as it is fascinating: a group portrait in tones of greed, desperation and brutality. In recent years conservative writers dismayed by historical revisionism have flooded stores with books extolling the character and sagacity of America’s founders. “The Barbarous Years” is not one of them.
posted by the man of twists and turns (42 comments total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great post. Thanks.
posted by blucevalo at 10:02 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Interesting. This sounds like a good counterpart for Laures Martines' Furies, talking about the savagery of total warfare in the same era (1450-1700) in Europe itself.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:04 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]




Thanks for the post. I read this book a few months ago. There's nothing like reading history that doesn't whitewash reality.
posted by Melismata at 10:39 AM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Loved this:

"That’s why they hated [Roger Williams] ...he was complicated. He was well educated, he was a gentleman—but he was a nut case! They didn’t know what to do with him. Among his views, first of all, was that you do not seize Indian land. You don’t own it, you don’t take it. And you treat people civilly and there is no purity in any stage of Christianity, hence toleration.”

“What’s nutty about that?” I asked.

“You don’t live in the 17th century.”

posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 10:43 AM on December 20, 2014 [27 favorites]


I useful reminder that there really wasn't ever a peaceful halcyon "good old days" in American history, we've been butchers and warmongers since day one.

Sure, at some times we've been worse than others, but it has always been there, often hidden under a history we want to pretend didn't happen, that this nation was born in blood and has lived off of it ever since, and the life those of us who live here enjoy, comes at the expense of millions who died horribly so that we could do so.
posted by quin at 11:20 AM on December 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


Extraordinary post.
"They're little shells". Reminds me of a great teacher I had when it came a teaching methodology.
posted by clavdivs at 11:21 AM on December 20, 2014


This is not news to me. But then, I encountered The Shady Side of America when I was just a young teen...although it spans a large period of time (and isn't a large book to begin with) and therefore must be brief, it was a great overview of un-whitewashed American history (up to just before the Kennedy years, anyway). It's well-written, engaging, and a quick read. Definitely worth looking it up.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:35 AM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


Ooh thank you Greg_Ace, that looks like a great book!
posted by Melismata at 11:58 AM on December 20, 2014


That's why they wanted those religious lunatics out of England in the first place. They got a nice taste under Cromwell and mainstream English religion has remained steadfastly moderate ever since.
posted by fshgrl at 12:00 PM on December 20, 2014 [10 favorites]


Oh, fantastic! This hits on two of my keenest interests: America and Brutality. Thanks for posting this!
posted by Greg Nog at 12:21 PM on December 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


This looks like a fantastic read. Thanks!
posted by Busithoth at 12:52 PM on December 20, 2014


do you really know what being “flayed alive” means? (The skin is torn from the face and head and the prisoner is disemboweled while still alive.)

For a moment there I thought this was a reference to (noted Canadian and Roman Catholic writer) Brian Moore's portrayal of the Iroquois in Black Robe.
posted by Nevin at 1:24 PM on December 20, 2014


fshgrl: "That's why they wanted those religious lunatics out of England in the first place. They got a nice taste under Cromwell and mainstream English religion has remained steadfastly moderate ever since."

Send your lunatics to America and your criminals to Australia and LOOK HOW IT ALL TURNS OUT, ENGLAND.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:26 PM on December 20, 2014 [20 favorites]


Oh, fantastic! This hits on two of my keenest interests: America and Brutality. Thanks for posting this!

This is pretty much exactly how I reacted as well
posted by clockzero at 1:31 PM on December 20, 2014


On a more serious note, a quick flip through the legal code of any of the early American colonies will give you a taste of this brutality. The punishment for pretty much everything was ... death. They didn't really have the resources to imprison people for any period of time (and thereby not have the extra help in the ferocious labor of early settlement), and because the communities were so small and mutually-reliant for survival, any breaking of trust (such as, say, adultery) could be catastrophic.

This does have the interesting effect that a lot of crimes went unpunished, if the community felt like it could live with the crime in order to keep the perp's labor, or if the crime was petty, or if they liked the criminal's family, or felt bad for his kids, or whatever -- since the only available punishment was death, people had a lot of incentive to excuse things unless they were fairly major (or they really didn't like the criminal or his family).

But yeah, in the really religious colonies the penalties for even the pettiest crimes are death, death, death, and shunning, and in the less religious colonies it's death, death, death, and death. Not until survival of the colony stops dancing on the knife's edge of famine does criminal law get a little less death-y.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:37 PM on December 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


A lot of life boat captains around in those days.
posted by wuwei at 1:59 PM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I am always surprised when people talk about the "white washing" of American history. My entire K-12 education was spent in typical suburban public schools and we were always taught about the brutality and genocide. Are there really educated people out there that don't know this stuff?
posted by vorpal bunny at 2:43 PM on December 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


Yes (for certain values of "educated").
posted by scatter gather at 3:02 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am always surprised when people talk about the "white washing" of American history. My entire K-12 education was spent in typical suburban public schools and we were always taught about the brutality and genocide. Are there really educated people out there that don't know this stuff?

Maybe your history teachers weren't big on textbooks, or good at teaching not just within the framework of the textbook teachers guide? Because the influence of the Texas Board of Education as a gatekeeper to keep controversial material or less patriotic interpretations of American History out of standard texts is pretty well documented.
posted by deludingmyself at 3:08 PM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


Are there really educated people out there that don't know this stuff?

Not only that, but there are people who object to this stuff being taught, because it contradicts the national mythologies that they hold dear. It's an attack on their identity. Sometimes the reaction is racial; it's seen as an attack on whiteness.

How much students learn about this stuff can really depend on the individual political ideologies of the people in charge of the curriculums in their school district/school. Some students get a far more balanced view than others.

Personally, almost everything I know that's interesting and tragic and terrible about American history, I learned outside of school.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:09 PM on December 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


You won't believe what happened next!
posted by srboisvert at 3:23 PM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Between this, the English Civil War, and the Thirty Years War, there was really no safe place to be in the Western world in the 1600's.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:27 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Send your lunatics to America and your criminals to Australia and LOOK HOW IT ALL TURNS OUT, ENGLAND.

Oh my god what have we done.

We're very sorry.

You can, however, keep the lunatics and criminals, we don't want them back!

(Great post by the way)
posted by BigCalm at 3:32 PM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


The original inhabitants were no slouches on the brutality front themselves, as a brisk turn around 1491, or War Before Civilization shows.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:38 PM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


My 9th or 10th great grandparents survived the Raid on Deerfield Connecticut in 1704. She was pregnant and gave birth on the forced march to Canada.

Whenever I share family history I try to de-romanticize it. This is going to help!
posted by vitabellosi at 4:07 PM on December 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Excellent post, the man of twists and turns. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 4:40 PM on December 20, 2014


The original inhabitants were no slouches on the brutality front themselves

As the good professor himself notes, which is terribly old fashioned of him. I would note that the early Puritans were not sent, they left of their own accord. As to the criminals, we're more often in Jean Valjean territory than Hannibal Lecter.

As to the country being nothing but butchers and war mongers, that's a pretty broad brush and something of a slap against, say, the good Quaker people of Pennsylvania, a healthy sector of early Americans. Indeed, there's an equally played down history of antiwar activism in this country that is rather hopeful. Our current war has plenty of opponents, LBJ won his election by portraying Goldwater as a menace (and found himself on the outs when he proved to be one himself), WWII had its share of types, Wilson was elected on the He Kept Us Out of the War ticket, the Spanish-American war was unpopular with people we know and admire, the Peace Now party gave Lincoln a run for his money in '64, men like U.S. Grant and others viewed the Mexican War as a shameful land grab.

Sure, opinions get changed, but it's not as if the people of this country are always spoiling for a fight. It generally takes a pretty serious kick in the pants, real or manufactured, to get us into one and once in one, we tend to get sick of it pretty quickly.

Peace on earth, seasons greetings.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:47 PM on December 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


I had not heard about this book and it's absolutely on my wish list now.
posted by immlass at 5:42 PM on December 20, 2014


Another great book covering the early colonies is American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

The idea that the 13 colonies were unanimous in their reasons for fighting for independence is a pretty nice lie that we tell ourselves. They were founded for very different reasons by different groups, and we're STILL dealing with the fallout from those original cultures.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:23 PM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


@fshgrl: That's why they wanted those religious lunatics out of England in the first place.

The Puritans might be likened to the Taliban of 1600s English Christianity. One of the great US founding myths is that they went to America to seek religious freedom. Quite the opposite: they went to found a nasty little enclave of their own monomaniac extremism.
posted by raygirvan at 7:31 PM on December 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


Fascinating article. And, as seems to be ever the case, don't read the comments following the article. Good gravy.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:21 PM on December 20, 2014


Thanks for this, tmotat. I hadn't seen this book. Now I'm looking forward to reading it.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:01 PM on December 20, 2014


in the really religious colonies the penalties for even the pettiest crimes are death, death, death, and shunning

Is "shunning" like exile, or simply giving them the silent treatment and not trading or aiding them in any way? Because in a small community in a larger wilderness with inhabitants that are already pissed off at the interlopers, that sounds like it would pretty much be death.

Also, I'd long since found out that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock had come to America not so much because they'd faced religious intolerance in England (what we'd been taught in school) but because the community in Leiden in the Netherlands, where they'd moved to, was too tolerant and their kids were in danger of being assimilated by the Dutch.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:43 PM on December 20, 2014


This article asserts that "the pumpkin pie eating Pilgrims" massacred the Pequot. This cannot be the case, as the 45 or so men from Plymouth colony (only some of whom were Mayflower passengers ) who volunteered to fight the Pequot did not do so until a month after the Mystic Massacre. Therefore, the English who committed the Mystic Massacre were from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony. There were also about 200 Narragansett present at Mystic. I doubt they stood around while the 70-odd English did all the massacring. In the end, the Plymouth Colony volunteers were never called up.
Plymouth Colony settlers exhibited plenty of their own brutality during King Phillip's War. I'm not trying to salvage their reputation. But it's lazy writing and bad history to blame "the Pilgrims" for everything.
On another note, in Plymouth the usual punishment was NOT death. They did excecute criminals for things like murder, rape and adultery, but they were really big on public shaming for other crimes. There's more info here.
posted by Biblio at 1:24 AM on December 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Between this, the English Civil War, and the Thirty Years War, there was really no safe place to be in the Western world in the 1600's.

The Netherlands was going through its Golden Age during the latter part of the century, but yeah, elsewhere things were none so good.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:29 AM on December 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had sent the levellers or diggers to the New World. There is an alternate history I'd like to read.
posted by longbaugh at 5:39 AM on December 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


that's a pretty broad brush and something of a slap against, say, the good Quaker people of Pennsylvania, a healthy sector of early Americans. Indeed, there's an equally played down history of antiwar activism in this country that is rather hopeful.

Ooh, this is a rare opportunity to reveal that I have something cool about me! I am directly related to Abraham
Op den Graeff; a Mennonite settler in Pennsylvania who, along with his brother and two other men signed the first known official document by a church towards the abolishment of slavery in 1688. (see The Settlement of Germantown. 27 - 30) Apparently they were also friends with William Penn Sr., but I don't have any online documentation to point to for that.

So yeah, they weren't all butchers, but they lived in a time where the law of the land allowed butchery and many if not most turned a blind eye.
posted by quin at 10:22 AM on December 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wait--our country was founded on avarice, theft and murder?

Why wasn't I told about this?
posted by mule98J at 10:22 AM on December 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Netherlands was going through its Golden Age during the latter part of the century, but yeah, elsewhere things were none so good.

Not least of all some of the places the Dutch East India company was going about its business.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:55 PM on December 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's strange that anyone would hesitate to use the term "genocide" in reference to the fate of the original inhabitants of the Americas. Of course it was genocide. I can't help but think of the line "Genocide is as human as art or prayer," from John Gray's Straw Dogs. Whether you agree or disagree with Gray's viewpoint, the book will certainly make one take stock of what it means to be human. Genocide has been practiced by humans throughout the world and at all times of history. And the 20th century proved that despite our ever advancing technology, we haven't changed much as a species. The technology was used to to facilitate genocide on a greater scale and in a much more efficient manner.

Good post, the man of twists and turns.
posted by cwest at 11:00 PM on December 21, 2014


"Is "shunning" like exile, or simply giving them the silent treatment and not trading or aiding them in any way? "

Shunning in the Anabaptist sense (Amish, Mennonites, Apostolic Christians, some Puritans) means the shunned continues to live and work among you but no one may speak to him. Food is prepared for him, but he isn't welcome at table and must eat separately. Basically he is given food and board, but otherwise utterly ignored. No one will make eye contact.

In the modern era it's typical for those being shunned to leave the community, or to partly leave it for looser-but-affiliated households on the periphery of the community until the shunning is lifted. But in the colonial era you'd be shunned, and keep living and working there, until you repented and could be un-shunned. It's very effective, particularly in closed communities ... But even in open ones.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:19 PM on December 21, 2014


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