Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents

Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents

Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents

Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents


A comprehensive collection of primary documents for students of early American and Atlantic history, Colonial North America and the Atlantic World gives voice to the men and women (Amerindian, African, and European) who together forged a new world.These compelling narratives address the major themes of early modern colonialism from the perspective of the people who lived at the time: Spanish priests and English farmers, Indian diplomats and Dutch governors, French explorers and African abolitionists. Evoking the remarkable complexity created by the bridging of the Atlantic Ocean, Colonial North America and the Atlantic World suggests that the challenges of globalization- and the growing reality of American diversity- are among the most important legacies of the colonial world.


During the summer of 1793, Alexander Mackenzie led a small expedition of Indians and French Canadians westward up a rocky and rapid river into the Canadian Rockies. Mackenzie sought an overland route to the Pacific to benefit his Montreal-based fur trading company. But his expedition stalled as the mountains proved higher, wider, and more complex than he had guessed. Mackenzie became lost in a world familiar to the local Sekani people. Then he noticed that the Sekani had some metal tools of British origin. Reasoning that the natives had obtained the tools from maritime traders along the Pacific coast, Mackenzie pursued, in his words, “that chain of connexion by which these people obtain their ironwork.” The Pacific world of trade that was his goal also generated the tangible clues that drew his party to their destination. The eastward and overland passage of those goods revealed a long-standing web of intertribal connections otherwise invisible to the explorer. That web drew Mackenzie to the ocean along the shores of present-day British Columbia. A decade before the more famous Lewis and Clark expedition, Mackenzie was the first European to cross the continent—but he could not have done so without the combination of Indian guides and European trade.

In 1793, three centuries after Columbus, most of North America remained Indian country. European colonization had consolidated only in Mexico, along the Atlantic coast, and in pockets along the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers and the Rio Grande. Nonetheless, as Mackenzie noted, the European invasion of the continent had already affected almost every corner of that vast Indian America. In addition to trade goods, disease pathogens had passed far beyond European hands through Indian intermediaries. During that same summer along the Northwest coast, British sailors found the signs of a massive smallpox epidemic: shrunken villages, bleaching skeletons scattered on the beaches, and native survivors with pocked faces. Empires possessed an intrusive power that reshaped the continent—but in unpredictable ways affected by the ability of Indians to adapt. While enduring invasion and disease, they seized new opportunities as trading partners, military allies, and missionary converts.

Mackenzie’s story belongs to a new, more inclusive history of colonial America that embraces the entire continent. More than an English story confined to the fabled thirteen colonies of the Atlantic seaboard, the broader history of colonial America includes the Spanish heading north from Mexico and Cuba, the French probing the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, the Dutch trading along the Hudson, and even the Russians coming eastward from Siberia into Alaska. These empires brought thousands of Africans, whose labor and cultures helped to reshape the continent. And as Mackenzie knew well, the colonizers of every stripe dealt with persistent and highly adaptable native people. Through the eighteenth century, natives remained critical to the construction of empires—and to the limits put to them. Indians belong at the center of the colonial story, just as they were at the pivot of Mackenzie’s journey.

Teaching that story requires documents that introduce students to the broad array of peoples in colonial North America. As editors of this collection, Paul Mapp and Brett Rushforth have chosen and interpreted a lively array of revealing documents drawn from virtually every corner of the continent and across three centuries of time. Their selection and their interpretations provide a perfect complement to my own attempt to synthesize the continent’s history in American Colonies. As with those tools among the Sekani, these documents can lead students to . . .

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