In all societies there are off-casts; this impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers. . . . Thus are our first steps trodden, thus are our first trees felled, in general, by the most vicious of our people; and thus the path is opened for the arrival of a second and better class, the true American freeholders, the most respectable set of people in this part of the world: respectable for their industry, their happy independence, the great share of freedom they possess, [and] the good regulation of their families.
-- St. Hector John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer
Almost from the moment Columbus and his companions arrived in the New World in 1492 the figure of the colonist has been fraught with contradiction. Initially, the Spanish explorers were greeted by the inhabitants of Hispaniola as visitors from Heaven, and entertained with all the largesse and reverence that befitted their supposed status. But Columbus's men behaved so badly on the island that within a relatively short time they came to be regarded by the native population as devils rather than gods, and the inhabitants of subsequent Spanish possessions rapidly came to the same conclusion. If Heaven was populated with Spaniards, declared a Cuban cacique in Las Casas's famous anecdote, he would prefer to spend eternity in Hell. 1
The same radical disjunction is evident in English descriptions of the men who explored and settled North America. The tone of the earliest accounts of these intrepid spirits is suggested by the concluding stanza of a poem written by a certain Captain Bingham in commendation of Sir George Peckham's true Report.
Then launch, ye noble youths, into the main;
No lurking perils lie amid the way;