history US slavery indigenous

Vast early America

There is no American history without the histories of Indigenous and enslaved peoples. And this past has consequences today Karin Wulf


This perspective – seeing the Atlantic as both a venue and a connector – has fuelled new work on older subjects, such as the Puritan migration to New England in the early 17th century and making American exceptionalism look more like modest American iterations. Newer work from an Atlantic perspective has emphasised how indebted New England Puritanism was to an ongoing exchange between ministers and lay people on either side of the ocean. Far from developing a specific and isolated form of their Protestantism, the Puritans who had left England to settle in Massachusetts and then Connecticut and beyond continued to be influenced by critical political and religious developments in their original home country. This was as true for their intellectual lives generally as their theologies. As Sarah Rivett has written, for example, in The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (2011), prominent New England Puritans participated in lively networks of exchange with English and European scientists.

Just as an Atlantic perspective is offering ways to see connections across the ocean among phenomena once viewed as geographically contained, there are also new ways to see subjects and people that had always been understood as inherently Atlantic, particularly the slave trade, slavery and enslaved people. Scholars engaging these vitally important subjects involving violence inflicted on millions of people have innovated both new methods and new resources. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, for example, began to be shared with libraries and scholars all over the world in the late 1990s as a CD-ROM. Now Slave Voyages, a website containing information from that database, holds information on more than 36,000 individual slaving expeditions conducted between the early 1500s and the mid-1800s, as well as in addition thousands of trips in the intra-American slave trade.

While the website allows for visualisation, mapping and research in the database, the database itself has become a crucial piece of research infrastructure for early American history, as well as the related histories of South America, Africa and the Caribbean. Part of the power of the database is showing just how related those histories are, by illustrating the extent and reach of the slave trade across and around the Atlantic at both a macro level (the overall trade) and a micro level (the individual voyages and even personnel on those ships). The lives of more than 11 million people are documented in the database, which can be searched for specific years and locations to make ever more concrete the horrors of the slave trade: pages and pages of ships that landed in Virginia in the decades before the American Revolution, for example.

If the power of the database of voyages is in illustrating the extent of the trade, showing just how powerfully it was shaping the Atlantic economy and the politics of empire, scholars are also returning to look at the Atlantic itself – on board those ships, in transit as a commodity – as a critical site of the experience of enslaved people. As the historian Stephanie Smallwood at the University of Washington wrote in 2008, ‘considering the “saltwater” dimension of slaves’ lives allows us to piece together a picture of a place, a time, and an experience that does not otherwise figure in the archival record.’ The historian Sowande’ Mustakeem at Washington University in St Louis, recalling the extensive literature on plantation slavery, noted in 2016 that this focus on the Middle Passage showed how a ‘violently unregulated process … interlinked slaving voyages and plantation societies’.

Another geographical reorientation is ‘Borderlands’ history, which focuses primarily on the American southwest and its early American history, is primarily focused on Native Americans and the Spanish empire, with some attention to the eventual encroachment of Anglo and then American settlements. The late historian David J Weber and other Borderlands scholars have shown the relative weakness of the Spanish compared with the Indigenous people of the southwest. In 1680, for example, after a century of missions, settlement and violence, the Pueblo drove thousands of settlers out of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México and killed hundreds more. These were peoples who had lived in their lands for centuries, even after the arrival of Europeans in the Western hemisphere, and only in the 19th century did ‘Mexico’ and ‘the United States’ take shape around them.

Research is showing just how deeply embedded slavery was in early New England

The persistence of Indian power from the vantage of Indian country has now captured the attention of a new generation of historians. This is a change from scholarship looking to understand how colonial officials and settlers had wrested control of North American spaces – or perhaps shared control. Richard White’s influential book The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991) showed how, in an entire part of North America, neither Europeans nor Native Americans ever won sovereign authority. Rather, through a complex series of informal and formal negotiations, including purposeful misunderstandings that facilitated peace, they held a ‘middle ground’, living with one another for more than a century and a half. In The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (2006), Kathleen DuVal wrote about how, in the central Arkansas River Valley, ‘Indians … called the shots’. The Quapaw had controlled their territory for hundreds of years by the mid-18th century, largely through skilled diplomacy. The Osages preferred military power but to the same end of effective territorial control. Alongside the Choctaw, Chickasaw and others, it was Native Americans who managed access to land and resources, and Europeans, whether French, Spanish or, less regularly, English, who were firmly on the back foot.

The geographical expansion of ‘early America’ is just one aspect of how the research field has changed. Scholars are also breaking other boundaries, revealing the essential connections among events and phenomena long treated as distinct, including new analyses of Native American and Indigenous history, and of slavery and the enslaved that show even the classic region of early American scholarship, 17th-century New England, in new light. In Our Beloved Kin (2018), Lisa Brooks offered a ‘new history of King Philip’s War’ – a late 17th-century conflict between colonists and Native Americans long understood through the prism of the violence wrought on settler as well as Native communities, and thought to be the final blow to Native claims to sovereignty and power in the region. Working from a Native perspective, Brooks revealed the importance of Weetamoo, a female sachem and a critical leader in the conflict overlooked in previous accounts that relied on settler narratives – including a classic of American literature, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs Mary Rowlandson (1682).

…”Research is also showing just how deeply embedded slavery was in early New England. Households from Puritan Boston to Connecticut River Valley towns to the Patriot strongholds enslaved African-descended people. The Atlantic slave trade was massive in scale: many millions of African-descended people were enslaved, and so many people were directly involved in the trade as buyers and sellers of human beings that it is hard to overstate the extent to which slavery pervaded the political economy of early America. What people ate, what they wore, where they lived and how they worked were, in most cases, all touched by the effects of the slave trade and the labour of enslaved people.

New histories of Native Americans and slavery have come together, too, in New England and elsewhere, to illuminate the pervasive impact of the slave trade. The slave trade reshaped Native warfare and captive-taking, such that Native Americans were enslaved and traded away out of North America, just as Africans were brought on to the continent. In the aftermath of King Philip’s war, for example, hundreds of Native Americans who surrendered to the English colonists were sold to the Caribbean as slaves. In the upper Midwest and French Canada in the same period, Native warfare ended up providing captives to the Europeans eager to buy, trade and sell Native people into slavery. In short, the enslavement of Native Americans was responding to the plantation economy fuelled by the enslavement of Africans. In short, there is no early American history without Native American and Indigenous perspectives, without the history of slavery and the enslaved, and increasingly, without an understanding of the interconnectedness of these histories.