Colonial History Buff

Sorry for the long delay between posts; I was traveling throughout the Midwest this past week(end).  I have now added Indiana to my list of “visited United States states.”  I still have about 25 to go, though.

I’ve been reading a lot about colonial America lately, both in book and audio formats.  The book I’m reading is The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto, which could easily be subtitled: Why the Dutch are Awesome.  It tells the previously unheralded tale of the Dutch colony in Manhattan, Long Island, and Staten Island, and it is fascinating.  Shorto’s been able to access newly translated documents that are housed in the State Library of New York, where fortunately a gentleman reads old Dutch and has enthusiastically been making his way through something like 16,000 documents about the colony from the late 1600s.  The book’s thesis rests on the tolerant worldview of the Dutch (then, as now), a theme echoed in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir Infidel, although she finds multiculturalism to be more pernicious than vaunted.  Anyway, Shorto argues that the Dutch accepted religious freedom and some level of municipal government, and these values are as much a part of the American political and cultural fabric as our Anglo customs.

What makes the book stand out is that it’s not a dry telling of colonial Dutch farmers and merchants — the people come alive through their letters, and as you might expect of people who leave comfortable, civilized Amsterdam for the wilderness of the New World, there are some pretty wild folks.  One married woman is remembered for drunkenly pulling at the fronts of several men’s breeches one night, and a chapter is memorably titled “The King, the Surgeon, the Turk, and the Whore.”  (The Turk and the Whore get married!)  Shorto has a good sense of humor, offering a sly take that Puritanism was valuable in part as a lifestyle because of the cool hats. 

The Native Americans of the area, such as the Mohawks and the Mahicans, come across as agents of their own destiny.  Manhattan was infamously purchased for $24 worth of goods, a myth that Shorto debunks.  (For starters, the purchase price was relative to $24 in the mid-nineteenth century, and furthermore, it was accompanied by the Native Americans’ continued use of the land.)  There are alliances with the French, with the English, and with the Dutch, and the various native tribes seemed to have held on to much of their original land, at least as of the late 1600s.  To be sure, there were massacres and travesties, but it’s a much more complex tale than that of Indians and Pilgrims feasting at Thanksgiving together.

I like learning more about the founding of America because when you delve into the details, it’s far more interesting — and full of human detail — than what I learned in school.  I feared that American history would be rather dull, but it’s not.  Moreover, I appreciate the way that Shorto incorporates the context of European wars and treaties, so that Manhattan’s development isn’t presented in a vacuum.

Now, let’s fast-forward about a hundred years, to 1776, by my favorite historian, David McCullough.  I’m on disc four of five, and the Continental Army is not looking good right now.  George Washington has had some sneaky successes, like building an overnight fort on Dorchester Heights in Boston (forgive me for being vague — I’m listening in the car), but he also has a smelly, ill-clothed and ill-shod batch of farmers fighting for him.  Ooh, the stench!  I actually love details like that, because it situates the living conditions in a real way and makes me so grateful for indoor plumbing.

I visited Mount Vernon in summer 2008, which is Washington’s palatial estate in what used to be rural Virginia.  It’s beautifully maintained and preserved; in 1776, Washington was still having the chimneys put up and the roof finished.  Being able to capture the contemporaneous moments of his life, and to have experienced the finished result, is a remarkable way to experience American history.

I’m not to the end of either of these books, but I have a pretty good idea of how things turned out.  First, the British kicked out the Dutch, and then the Americans kicked out the British.  Today, we have the European Union, the “special relationship” between the UK and the US, and Broadway.  Crazy world.


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