In this provocative account of colonial America, William R. Polk explores the key events, individuals, and themes of this critical period. With vivid descriptions of the societies that people from Europe came from and with an emphasis on what they believed they were going to, Polk introduces the native Indians encountered in the New World and the black Africans who were brought across the Atlantic. With insightful analysis, he also discusses the dual truths of colonial societies' "growing up" and "growing apart." As John Adams would point out to Thomas Jefferson, the long years that witnessed the formation of our national character and the growth of our spirit of independence were indeed the real revolution. That story forms the basis of The Birth of America. In addition to its discussion of the influence the British had on the colonies, The Birth of America covers the pivotal roles played by the Spanish, French, and Dutch in early America. From the fearful crossing of the stormy Atlantic to the growth of the early settlements, to the French and Indian War and the unrest of the 1760s, William Polk brilliantly traces the progress of the colonies to the point where it was no longer possible to recapture the past and the break with England was inevitable.
Although Polk's book contains little new information about early American history, he synthesizes a dazzling social history of early America. Polk reveals an evolving land at the mercies of various foreign governments, each with startlingly different visions of how to use the New World. The Spanish, for example, were less concerned with grabbing land than the British; Spanish explorers conquered small parts of America in order to establish sugar plantations worked by the enslaved native inhabitants. Polk paints the diversity of life among precolonial Native Americans as well as the African roots of black slaves; these cultural specifics give his history a human touch. His gripping account of the dangers of the transatlantic crossing-darkness between decks, filth, vermin-reminds us forcefully of the fears and risks that accompanied the hope of starting over in a new world. He likens the colonies to a daughter growing up and growing apart from her mother during the later 17th century as the colonies developed their own governments, industries and militias. Polk, an independent historian (The Elusive Peace), is a masterful storyteller who takes us into a strange world and helps us to understand it. 11 b&w illus., 6 maps. (Apr. 7) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 31, 2006
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Excerpt from The Birth of America by William R. Polk
The Native Americans
Who were the Native Americans? The Spanish, French, and English explorers were perplexed by that question. Their first assumption that the natives were Chinese was soon abandoned; the natives obviously were not European and did not seem to be African either. The explorers could not think of any other possibilities. William Strachey spoke for them in 1612 in his Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania: "It were not perhappes too curyous a thing to demaund, how these people might come first, and from whome, and whence, having no entercourse with Africa, Asia nor Europe, and considering the whole world, so many years, by all knowledg receaved, was supposed to be only conteyned and circumscrybed in the discovered and travelled Bowndes of those three."
The Indian societies he saw, Strachey would have been astonished to learn, were formed by thousands of years of migration, splitting apart, rejoining, exchanging mates, settling, and adapting?essentially the same process that shaped European lives and culture. Just as Europeans were products of the migrations of western Asians, so the Native Americans were descendants of migrants from eastern Asia. And just as the Europeans' languages give a view of their history, so American Indians' languages illustrate their background.
The first Indians the Spaniards encountered in what they named La Florida spoke dialects of a language known as Muskhogean. It was one of 583 languages that have so far been identified as spoken by natives in North and South America. Linguists trace it back to a tongue they call Amerind. Linguistic evidence points toward northeastern Asia as their "origin." What the spread of language indicates has now been confirmed by genetic studies. Together they suggest that ancestors of the American Indians probably began crossing to North America roughly 30,000 years ago. Climatologists now believe that from about 60,000 years ago, Asia and North America were joined at what is now the Bering Strait and archaeologists have found evidence of human settlements in northeastern Siberia from about 40,000 years ago. So it was possible for humans and animals to walk across a land bridge, which geologists call Beringia. They began to do so because, although much of North America was covered by huge glaciers and sheets of ice, parts of Alaska enjoyed a relatively mild climate. Even in the coldest times, there was a corridor of relatively open countryside that channeled movement of animals and men to the south. Then, about 10,000 years ago, with the coming of what geologists term the Holocene, a warmer epoch, so much ice melted that the sea rose as much as 120 meters and submerged the land bridge. Those people who had already made the passage from Asia profited from the melting of the vast sheets of ice to move inland and further south. By about 14,000 years ago, some had reached Patagonia and others had spread over both continents.