Sunday, July 18, 2010

Week 3 of Colonial Month

This week I tried just going through the volume of Annals of America. It's full of short pieces, so I got several read even though I didn't spend much time on it.

On the Value of Colonies to England is a tract published anonymously (probably in 1607), listing reasons to establish colonies and proposing that public companies be created to sponsor colonizing groups. Much of it boils down to "everyone else is doing it and we've got to keep up."

Starving Time in Virginia is a selection from John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia. Parts are reports from various people, and parts are from Smith himself--though apparently he was not always strictly truthful. It starts with the 'starving time' in 1607 and continues through 1614. This account is where we get the story of Pocahontas saving Smith's life.

A Sermon Encouraging Prospective Colonists by William Symonds. This sermon justifies England's colonial ambitions. (1609)

Another piece from John Smith, describing the colonies as a profitable choice, where a colonist may earn a comfortable living if he works at it. (1616)

The Mayflower Compact (1620). Only a few paragraphs long, this compact was supposed to serve as an interim arrangement whereby the Puritans agreed to govern themselves until a charter could be drawn up. The charter never materialized and the Compact remained in force until the Plymouth colony was folded into the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1691.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Week 2 of Colonial Month

So here we are starting a second week. I didn't get as much done this time, but I did go over to my Annals of America set and start reading the first volume. I got the set from the library donation table a couple of years ago, and it had clearly spent some serious time in a basement, but the price was right! Here's what I read:

Christopher Columbus' description of his "Discovery of the New World" (this is a letter to Lord Rapheel Sanchez, a patron, dated March 1493). He describes finding several islands, which he named San Salvador, Ferdinanda, Isabella, Juana (now Cuba), and Hispaniola, and expresses confidence that Cathay is right next door. He also describes the people and the lay of the land, and claims that most of them continue to think that he is a god.

It never ceases to amaze me that the explorers felt so entitled to lay claim to all the lands they saw. "Nice country--we'll take it." Sure, there were people living there, who clearly had a society going on, but no worries. And he thought he was taking over bits of China, which was an empire itself. It's just strange to me.

The First Charter of Virginia, from King James I to the London and Plymouth Companies, 1606. This charter lays out how much land the companies may have, how they will govern it, and what they may do.

I also read the first half of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which is quite an enjoyable read, so I recommend it--Franklin had a sharp sense of humor.

And I finished the sermon from last week--I'm glad I did, the last bit was more interesting than the rest and I kind of enjoyed it.

What have you been reading?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Kick-off time! July is Colonial History Month.

Happy 4th of July! And it's time to start reading. This is going to be week 1, and as you read some things you can post here about them. I thought I'd better get a little head-start, so here's what I've been reading this week:

Some speeches by Native American leaders. Oratory was naturally very important in Native American cultures, and important speeches were memorized and handed down. The Dover Thrift book Great Speeches by Native Americans collects some of these and they are really enjoyable reading. I read about five from the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest in the collection was given by Acuera, of the Timucua people, and was addressed to Hernando de Soto:

Others of your accursed race have, in years past, poisoned our peaceful shores. They have taught me what you are. What is your employment? To wander about like vagabonds from land to land, to rob the poor, to betray the confiding, to murder in cold blood the defenseless. No! With such a people I want no peace--no friendship. War, never ending War, exterminating War, is all the boon I ask.

You boast yourself valiant, and so you may be; but my faithful warriors are not less brave, and this too you shall one day prove; for I have sworn to maintain an unsparing conflict while one white man remains in my borders--not only in battle, though even thus we fear not to meet you, but by strategem, ambush, and midnight surprisal.

I am lord in my own land, and will never become a slave of a mortal like myself. Vile and coward is he who will submit to the yoke of another when he may be free. As for me and my people, we choose death--yes! a hundred deaths--before the loss of our liberty and the subjegation of our country.

Keep on, robbers and traitors: in Acuera and Apalachee we will treat you as you deserve. Every captive will we quarter and hang up to the highest tree along the road.

Acuera of the Timucua people c. 1540

A few letters from the Puritans. I read a 1630 letter from John Winthrop to his wife Margaret, who was still in England, telling her how the Massachusetts Bay Colony was getting along in its first weeks. It was quite nice to see that they had agreed to "seek spiritual communion" with each other on Mondays and Wednesdays.

I read an interesting letter from Roger Williams, an exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who established Rhode Island as a religiously tolerant society. He wrote to the town of Providence in 1655, giving his views on the subject--evidently not everyone agreed with his radical idea.

There was also a rather awful 1692 letter from Cotton Mather to his uncle, discussing some local witch trials and an earthquake in Jamaica.

I've also been trying to read one of the earliest recorded sermons from Plimouth colony, given by one Robert Cushman in 1621. The introduction is quite interesting, talking about the situation in America and expressing some intriguing ideas about the future of Christianity in the new country. The actual sermon, though, is quite long and dull, and a powerful reminder of the fact that Puritans habitually heard preaching for hours at a time on Sundays. I don't know if I'll manage to finish it.

Several people have told me that they don't know where to start in order to find primary sources to read. My first suggestion is to ask at your friendly neighborhood public library! The librarian will be more than happy to show you what's there, and any library will be sure to have something. You can also look at the links to online collections I have put up at the top right corner; there is a vast amount there and it's fairly easy to navigate.

Here are some book titles with relevant content you may be able to find at your library:

The Annals of America is a huge collection of primary sources in American history, arranged chronologically--it's published by the Britannica folks. Just grab a volume and page through it!

Letters of a Nation is a collection of American letters, arranged by topic and chronologically.

The Great Speeches of Native Americans I mentioned above is a great resource.

The Library of America collection is a great resource, but doesn't really get started until the Revolutionary era. American Sermons contains several important colonial texts, though.

I hope those titles will be helpful.