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Many Pasts

This feature contains primary documents in text, image, and audio about the experiences of ordinary Americans throughout U.S. history. All of the documents have been screened by professional historians and are accompanied by annotations that address their larger historical significance and context. Browse the list of documents below (sorted by time period, beginning with the earliest). The full search feature allows you to quickly locate documents by topic, time period, or keyword.

There are 1017 matching records, sorted by time period. Displaying matches 1 through 30 .


many pasts
“All Over the Land Nothing Else Was Spoken Of ”: Cabeza de Vaca Takes Up Residence as a Medicine Man in the Southwest, 1530s
One of the earliest accounts of the European-Indian encounter in North America was of the ill-fated 1527 expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. After disembarking on the Florida coast near Tampa, the Spanish forces on land and sea became disastrously separated. Having overstayed their welcome and with local Indians in pursuit, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, second in command, set out with his men on rafts back to Cuba. Eighty survivors came through a hurricane to land near Galveston, Texas. Four years later, in 1536, when they were rescued in northern Mexico by Spanish slave traders, only four remained: Cabeza de Vaca, two other Spaniards, and an African named Estevan. In his epic Relacions (1542), Cabeza de Vaca recounted how he was frequently called upon to cure natives that they encountered, which led to the natives' adoration. Since the Indians left no written sources, what little we know about the coming of the European explorers and their early encounters with the Indians often comes from European accounts such as this.
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“We Took Great Store of Codfish and Called it Cape Cod:” Bartholomew Gosnold Sails Along Northeastern North America, 1602
Compared to the French, Spanish, and Dutch, the English were slow to develop an interest in North American colonization By the later part of the sixteenth century, however, a group of interested and well-connected Englishmen with experience in Irish colonization began to consider permanent settlements in North America. Bartholomew Gosnold undertook a small prospecting expedition on the vessel Concord in 1602, passing down the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts to explore the northern Virginia coast. Gosnold was the first European to see and set foot on Cape Cod—which received its name for its abundance of cod fish—and built a small fur trading station there. The successful voyage enticed English colonization efforts to turn toward this part of North America. Four years later, Gosnold commanded a voyage to bring the first colonists to Jamestown, Virginia. Several accounts of the 1602 prospecting expedition quickly appeared in print.; this complete one was first published by Samuel Purchas in 1625.
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“Carried Thence for Trafficke of the West Indies Five Hundred Negroes”: Job Hortop and the British Enter the Slave Trade, 1567
Great Britain recognized the lucrative possibilities of the Atlantic slave trade long before it permanently colonized North America. By the mid-sixteenth century, British ships followed Spanish and Portuguese vessels along the West African coast and familiarized themselves with the trade between the Portuguese and Africans. John Hawkins, an admiral with royal backing, inaugurated the British slave trade with three expeditions. On his 1562 voyage, he purchased slaves from the Portuguese in West Africa and sold them to the Spanish in Hispaniola at great profit, despite Spanish prohibitions. In 1567, he seized 500 Africans in Sierre Leone and set off across the ocean, but the Spanish fleet captured him in a Mexican port and destroyed many of his ships. Although he escaped, 100 of his men were left in the Bay of Mexico; only three eventually returned England. One of those was 17-year-old Job Hortop, who wrote this narrative after 23 years in Spanish captivity.
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“What Can You Get By Warre”: Powhatan Exchanges Views With Captain John Smith, 1608"
Captain John Smith was a soldier and adventurer in Europe and Asia before he became involved in the Virginia Company’s plan to establish a settlement in North America. He was aboard one of the three ships that reached Virginia in April 1607. The first settlers, ill prepared for life in the harsh environment, had few useful skills but great expectations of easy profits. They suffered from disease, malnutrition, and frequent attacks by Indians in the early years; over one half died the first winter. Smith took over Jamestown’s government amid this chaos and death; he explored the region and traded for desperately needed supplies with the Indians. Smith recognized the need to establish peaceful relations with the powerful Powhatan Indians of the coastal region, and he traded English manufactured goods for much needed Indian corn. Smith recounted this exchange with the Indian leader Powhatan in his 1624 Historyie.
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Metacom Relates Indian Complaints about the English Settlers, 1675
Metacom or King Philip, leader of the Wampanoags near Plymouth colony, led many other Indians into a widespread revolt against the colonists of southern New England in 1675. The conflict had been brewing for some time over a set of longstanding grievances between Europeans and Indians. In that tense atmosphere, John Easton, Attorney General of the Rhode Island colony, met Philip in June of 1675 in an effort to negotiate a settlement. Easton recorded Philip’s complaints, including the steady loss of Wampanoag land to the Europeans; the English colonists’ growing herds of cattle and their destruction of Indian crops; and the unequal justice Indians received in the English courts. This meeting between Easton and Metacom proved futile, however, and the war (which became the bloodiest in U.S. history relative to the size of the population) began late that month.
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“The Starving Time”: John Smith Recounts the Early History of Jamestown, 1609
The organizers of the first English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 had visions of easy wealth and abundant plunder. The colonists, a group with little agricultural experience and weighted with gentry, instead found a swampy and disease-ridden site. The local Indians were unwilling to labor for them. Few survived the first difficult winters. Captain John Smith had been a soldier, explorer, and adventurer. With the colony in near chaos, he took over the government of the colony in 1608 and instituted a policy of rigid discipline and agricultural cultivation. When a gunpowder accident forced his return to England in 1608, the colonists faced a disastrous winter known as “starving time.”
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“The Iroquois were much astonished that two men should have been killed so quickly”: Samuel de Champlain Introduces Firearms to Native Warfare, 1609
Samuel de Champlain was a trader, soldier, explorer, diplomat, and author. The critical figure in French efforts to establish the colony of New France along the St. Lawrence river, he set up a small trading post at Quebec, the capital of the colony, in 1608. Given the small numbers of French colonists and their primary interest in the fur trade, Champlain recognized that success depended on alliances with the native peoples of the northern region. In June 1609, Champlain and nine French soldiers joined a war party of Montganais, Algonkaian, and Hurons to fight their enemies, the Iroquois. They met their foe, probably about 200 Mohawks, along the lake later named Lake Champlain. The French firearms caused death and consternation among the Indians and introduced such weapons to native conflicts. Over the next decades, Champlain chronicled his explorations and observations of New France in several volumes, providing important information on life and warfare in seventeenth-century North America.
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The Great Awakening Comes to Weathersfield, Connecticut: Nathan Cole’s Spiritual Travels
In the 1730s and 1740s many rural folk rejected the enlightened and rational religion that came from the cosmopolitan pulpits and port cities of British North America. Instead, they were attracted to the evangelical religious movement that became known as the Great Awakening. The English Methodist George Whitefield and other itinerant ministers ignited this popular movement with their speaking tours of the colonies. In this account farmer Nathan Cole described hearing the news of Whitefield’s approach to his Connecticut town, as fields emptied and the populace converged: “I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone. ” Like many others during the Great Awakening, Cole achieved an eventual conversation by focusing not on intellectual issues but on emotional experience. Cole took away an egalitarian message about the spiritual equality of all before God, a message that confronted established authorities.
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“Work and labor in this new and wild land are very hard”: A German Migrant in Philadelphia, 1750
Gottlieb Mittelberger.
William Penn’s colony of Pennsylvania, founded in 1681, attracted many poor European migrants. Many colonists financed their migration by arriving as indentured servants. Indentured servants were an important source of labor in the colonies; those arriving in the 17th century usually signed contracts (known as indentures) for a fixed term and upon completion received their freedom and a suit of clothes, a similar practice to apprenticeship. However, the Germans whom Gottlieb Mittelberger observed in the mid-18th century had no formal contracts; instead they were auctioned off to he highest bidder upon arrival, a practice that Mittleberger labeled as barbaric, and “a sale in human beings.” Mittelberger, an organist and schoolmaster, found much in North America not to his taste, and returned to Germany in a few years where he wrote a book warning Germans of the dangers of emigration to the New World.
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“Packed Densely, Like Herrings”: Gottlieb Mittelberger Warns His Countryman of the Perils of Emigration, 1750
In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many colonists arrived as indentured servants or bondsmen who served a term of service before receiving their freedom. This practice meant that impoverished Germans and other Europeans financed their passage across the Atlantic. Between 1749 and 1754 more than 30,000 Germans came to Pennsylvania, and by mid-century they constituted about one third of the colony’s population. Gottlieb Mittelberger arrived in Philadelphia in late 1750 aboard the Osgood, along with 500 of his fellow countrymen. With fortunes better than most, he settled as an organist and schoolmaster in New Providence, a German farming community outside Philadelphia. He found much distasteful about his new home and returned in 1754 to write an expose warning Germans about fraudulent accounts of ideal conditions in America.
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A Letter Home From Massachusetts Bay in 1631
Over 20,000 migrants from England crossed the Atlantic to the new colony of Massachusetts Bay in the decade of the 1630s. This sudden influx of settlers became known to historians as the “Great Migration.” Once in New England, they quickly dispersed to various towns. About forty families followed Sir Richard Saltonstall and the Reverend George Phillips four miles up the Charles River to found the community of Watertown in July 1630. Many had relocated from the East Anglian region of England, where William Pond, the correspondent’s father, lived. These families attempted to set up a familiar farm economy based on grain and livestock, but early dreams of an easy trade with the Indians proved elusive. Their concerns focused on feeding themselves and achieving economic sufficiency.
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“A Severe and Proud Dame She Was”: Mary Rowlandson Lives Among the Indians, 1675
Mary Rowlandson.
Metacom, or King Philip as he was called by the English, led a confederation of Indian groups in 1675 in a military effort to roll back the encroaching English settlements of southern New England. For several months the Indians led raids and secured victories against the English, who found it difficult to combat the Indian style of warfare. Mary Rowlandson, a minister’s wife, was captured along with several of her children in one of those raids on the frontier outpost of Lancaster, Massachusetts. For eleven weeks she traveled with the Wampanoags and Nipmucs in central Massachusetts. Her account provided great insight into the relationship of English and Indian cultures at this critical point. While Rowlandson relied heavily upon her faith to see her through her troubles, she also came to understand some of the workings of Indian society, as in her account of Weetamoo. Mary was ransomed in 1676, the same year that the English, with their greater numbers and the support of their Indian allies, achieved Philip’s defeat and the scattering of the region’s remaining Indian settlements.
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“We Unfortunate English People Suffer Here”: An English Servant Writes Home
Elizabeth Sprigs.
While some planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake began to build spacious mansions and rely on the labor of increasing numbers of white and black dependents, most white southerners lived in far humbler circumstances. In Maryland most small farmers were tenants, renting their land from larger landowners. Landless men and women worked as agricultural tenants, laborers, or domestic servants. Elizabeth Sprigs, a servant in a Maryland household, financed her passage from England in exchange for a term as an indentured servant (a frequent practice in the seventeenth century but more rare by the eighteenth). She wrote to her father in 1756 and complained bitterly of the brutal treatment by her master and the harsh privations of daily life, begging him to send clothing.
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“Thus This Poore People Populate This Howling Desart”: Edward Johnson Describes the Founding of the Town of Concord in Massachusetts Bay, 1635
Edward Johnson.
After their arrival, the Puritan migrants to Massachusetts Bay quickly dispersed into a series of settlements around Boston and then moved inland. Colonists formed clustered towns where they could secure land for their families and churches for their worship. One such community was Concord, Massachusetts, founded by Simon Willard, a fur trader with the local Indians. In his history of New England, entitled The Wonder-Working Providence, woodworker and local historian Edward Johnson recorded an account “of the manner how they placed downe their dwellings in this Desart Wildernesse.” Johnson emphasized the providential (God-given) nature of the Puritan mission, one that saw the eastern woodlands, a region that the English and Indians shared in the first decades of settlement, as a wilderness.
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Bacon’s Rebellion: The Declaration (1676)
Nathaniel Bacon.
Economic and social power became concentrated in late seventeenth-century Virginia, leaving laborers and servants with restricted economic independence. Governor William Berkeley feared rebellion: “six parts of Seven at least are Poore, Indebted, Discontented and Armed.” Planter Nathaniel Bacon focused inland colonists’ anger at local Indians, who they felt were holding back settlement, and at a distant government unwilling to aid them. In the summer and fall of 1676, Bacon and his supporters rose up and plundered the elite’s estates and slaughtered nearby Indians. Bacon’s Declaration challenged the economic and political privileges of the governor’s circle of favorites, while announcing the principle of the consent of the people. Bacon’s death and the arrival of a British fleet quelled this rebellion, but Virginia’s planters long remembered the spectacle of white and black acting together to challenge authority.
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“They Live Well in the Time of their Service”: George Alsop Writes of Servants in Maryland, 1663
Lord Baltimore established the colony of Maryland in the upper part of Chesapeake Bay in the early 1630s as a refuge for his fellow Catholics. Baltimore’s plans for a feudal system with labor performed by tenant farmers, along with many of the colonists' other high expectations, proved impossible to establish. The tobacco boom and offers of free land to Protestant and Catholic alike drew thousands of English immigrants to Virginia and Maryland. Over three quarters of the migrants to the seventeenth-century Chesapeake arrived as indentured servants, financing their passage by signing indentures, or contracts, for four to seven years labor. Most had agricultural backgrounds and were also fleeing poverty and unemployment in England. George Alsop was one such indentured servant, probably with experience as an artisan or mechanic. He offered an account that boasted of the favorable situation for servants, especially women, to counter other writers who compared conditions in the Chesapeake to slavery.
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“A Most Awkward, Ridiculous Appearance”: Benjamin Franklin Enters Philadelphia
When Boston native Benjamin Franklin entered Philadelphia in 1723, he had few coins in his pocket and scarce entrepreneurial skills. However, Franklin did have valuable training as a printer, and he came armed with some significant introductions to local printers. Printers and other craftsmen relied upon a network of masters, journeymen, and patrons to learn the craft and support themselves. Colonial printers needed expensive imported equipment, yet they had to make do with a limited market for their services—perhaps publishing a newspaper, an occasional pamphlet, or government publication. Franklin wrote his autobiography, from which this account is excerpted, many years after his career as an active printer had ended and his renown as a statesmen, scientist, and moral philosopher had spread.
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“Your People Live Only Upon Cod”: An Algonquian Response to European Claims of Cultural Superiority
From the start of colonization, Indians and Europeans viewed each other across a wide cultural gulf. Sure about the superiority of their civilization, European missionaries and teachers tried to convert Indians to Christianity and the European way of life. Some Indians did adopt new ways after disease and violence had decimated their communities; others rejected the European entreaties and pointed out the arrogance of these claims of cultural superiority. French priest Chrestian LeClerq traveled among the eastern Algonquian people who lived in what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada. He recorded a Micmac leader’s eloquent response to these attempts at “reform” that pointed out how difficult Europeans found it to live in Indian country. If France was such a terrestrial paradise, he asked, why were colonists making their way across the Atlantic to live in the forests of North America?
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The Dutch Arrive on Manhattan Island: An Indian Perspective
Henry Hudson, employed by the Dutch India Company, anchored off of Manhattan in 1609 and traded with local Indians. Hudson then headed up the river (later named the Hudson River) seeking Northwest Passage to Asia. Other Dutch settlers soon followed. Delawares and Mahicans, who had been living along the coast of New Jersey and up the Hudson River when the Dutch arrived, were driven westward by expanding European settlements. The Reverend John Heckwelder, a Moravian missionary in the Ohio Valley, took down this particular narrative in the 1760s “as it was related to me by aged and respected” Delawares and Mahicans. Indian stories of the first encounters between Indians and Europeans often depicted the Europeans as “the great Mannitoo” or Supreme Being. This account went on to describe the trading and hospitality that followed the first encounter and the Europeans’ eventual desire for land above all else.
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“Such Was the Tumultation These Women Made”: The Women of Marblehead Wreak Revenge Upon Indian Captors, 1677
The Wampanoag Indians of New England began Metacom’s War (also known as King Philip’s War) in 1675 in an attempt to expel the English from the region. Metacom, leader of the Wampanoag, fashioned an alliance of many different groups, but Christian Indians and Iroquois who allied with the English proved to be a significant factor in the eventual colonial victory. In August 1676 colonial troops captured and killed Metacom, ending hostilities in southern New England. However, other Indians continued their attacks for another two years along the northern New England coast. In particular, they targeted fishing ketches operated out of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Mariner Robert Roules narrated one such incident in July 1677 when his boat was captured by Indians, then recaptured by the settlers. When the settlers sailed Roules’ boat into Marblehead harbor, the women of Marblehead took bloody revenge upon the Indian captives.
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“A Devil to Tempt and a Corrupt Heart to Deceive,” John Dane Battles Life’s Temptations, ca. 1670s.
John Dane, a tailor, was born in Berkhampstead, England, around 1612. In the late 1630s, which he recollects here as a period of “a great coming to New England,” he and his family emigrated to Ipswich, Massachusetts. He died in Ipswich in 1684. Dane’s parents, like many Puritan parents, raised their children to carry what historian Philip Greven calls an “inner disciplinarian” within their own consciences at all times. Dane’s mother reminded him: “Go where you will, God will find you out.” In this narrative, Dane, who always remembered her warning, related the temptations he faced over the course of his life—to steal, to accept the advances of women, to avoid church—and the prices he negotiated with an all-seeing God. (The spelling of this selection has been regularized to make it easier to read.)
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“So Must We Be One..., Otherwise We Shall Be All Gone Shortly”: Narragansett Chief Miantonomi Tries to Form an Alliance Against Settlers in New England and Long Island, 1640s.
Lion Gardener, author of this 1660 narrative, was an English military engineer who came to Connecticut in 1635 to oversee the construction of the fort and town of Saybrook. Thus he was present for the Pequot War of 1637, in which Connecticut settlers massacred the Pequot Indians. Gardener, who had advised against engaging with the Pequots, left Connecticut in 1639 and settled in Long Island. There he lived on Gardener’s Island, which he bought from Wyandanch, the sachem (chief) of the Montaukett tribe, with whom he had friendly relations. In the early 1640s, Miantonomi, the sachem of the Narragansetts, a rival of the Montauketts, came to Long Island to create an alliance with the Montauketts and other local tribes against the English. Gardener and Wyandanch succeeded in contacting the leaders of nearby Connecticut for help, the plan was stopped, and Miantomi was captured and executed the following year.
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One Year in the Life of Thomas Minor, Connecticut Farmer, 1668.
Thomas Minor was born in England and came to New England in 1630. By 1668, when this selection from his journal was written, Minor, his wife Grace, and their children were living in what is now Stonington, a town on the Connecticut coast. Indians lived nearby, and the journal shows Minor and his family interacting with them. Minor was a farmer, and he also had a number of public responsibilities. These included town treasurer, leader of the militia, selectman, and brander of horses. He also participated in church and in town meetings. This selection records one year in Minor’s life. He began the year in March, as people in England and New England did until the mid-eighteenth century. While his spelling is idiosyncratic and therefore difficult to read, the journal is a valuable record of how written English looked at that time—and probably also of how Minor pronounced his words.
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“Their Extraordinary Great Labor”: Roger Williams Observes Indian Customs and Language, 1643
European observers generally commented critically upon the leading role of Indian women in work. Roger Williams proved an exception. The minister, once head of the Salem church, was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1635 for questioning the Puritan leadership. He helped found the colony of Rhode Island around Narragansett Bay on land purchased from the Narragansett people to the south, with whom he and the colony maintained generally good relations. He spent much of his life trying to understand the Indians 'customs and language, and published some of his sympathetic observations in his 1643 book Key into the Language of America where he offered a glossary of Algonquian words that revealed much about Indian life. Williams also criticized certain colonial practices, such as the occupation of Indian lands by Europeans, and advocated the separation of church and state and individual freedom in other writings.
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“Our Plantation Is Very Weak”: The Experiences of an Indentured Servant in Virginia, 1623
Planters in early seventeenth-century Virginia had bountiful amounts of land and a profitable crop in tobacco, but they needed labor to till their fields. They faced resistance from the local Indian people and were unable to enslave them, so they recruited poor English adults as servants. These young men and women signed indentures, or contracts, for four to seven year terms of work in exchange for their passage to North America. Richard Frethorne came to Jamestown colony in 1623 as an indentured servant. In this letter dated March 20, 1623, written just three months after his entry into the colony, he described the death and disease all around him. Two thirds of his fellow shipmates had died since their arrival. Those without capital suffered particularly precarious situations with the lack of supplies and loss of leaders. Frethorne pleaded with his parents to redeem (buy out) his indenture.
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"He Lov’d the English Extraordinary Well": Enoe Will Guides John Lawson Through the Carolina Interior, 1709
The entry of Europeans into the Indian’s world caused a series of dislocations through disease, trade, and warfare. Indian leaders, who encountered new diplomatic and trading partners, found themselves caught between a familiar old and an unsettling new world. John Lawson, employed by Carolina’s proprietor to explore the colony’s backcounry and aspiring to a career as a natural scientist, spent months traveling through the Carolina interior in the company of colonists and Indians. This excerpt from Lawson’s published account of the trip describes the final leg of the journey, when Lawson relied on Enoe Will, the chief of the Eno-Shakori. Will was a well known and trusted guide among colonial traders. He confided to Lawson that he feared he had alienated some of his own people, and now sought European protection. But Will remained close to his native religion and roundly rejected Lawson’s offer of conversion to Christianity.
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Indian Trader John Lawson’s Journal of Carolina, 1709
Tragically, contact between Indians and the Europeans extended beyond just trade goods; the invasion of foreign microbes devastated Indian communities well beyond the coastal region. When John Lawson visited the Carolina interior in the 1690s, he encountered the Congaree people, whose numbers and villages had been dramatically reduced by smallpox and other diseases. In 1660, Lawson, born into a London gentry family and aspiring to a career as a natural scientist, had set sail for the Carolina colony that was founded after the restoration of the British monarchy. He traveled more than a thousand miles as an employee of the colony’s proprietors, who were eager to attract additional colonists and foster economic development. Lawson’s keen eye for the native and non-native people, flora, and fauna of the region was evidenced in his journal A New Voyage to Carolina, published in 1709.
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Letters of Thomas Newe to His Father, from South Carolina (1682).
After the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, a group of proprietors received a royal grant to establish the colony of South Carolina. They envisioned an agricultural economy based on mixed farming, cattle raising, and trade in deerskins with the local Indians, diverging from the Chesapeake’s tobacco and slave economy to the north. The Carolina proprietors sought settlers from the Caribbean by offering inexpensive land for family farms. But conditions were harsh, work was heavy, and poor nutrition was common, as Oxford University-educated Thomas Newe made clear in this 1682 letter to his father. A small minority of wealthy colonists seized economic and political control of the colony. They concentrated in the town of Charleston, drove out the local Indians, and occupied huge tracts of land. Deviating from the society that had been planned, these planters established rice cultivation, thanks to the African slaves whose experience in West Africa formed the basis for the economy. By 1707 South Carolina had the first black majority population in North America. Thomas Newe died within a year of writing these letters, at the age of 28.
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“They That Are Born There Talk Good English”: Hugh Jones Describes Virginia’s Slave Society, 1724
Slavery and a society based on slave labor were well established in the Chesapeake region by the third decade of the 18th century. Hugh Jones described the beginnings of African-American culture as slavery spread in the Chesapeake. Virginia’s slave population grew from 3,000 in 1680 to 13,000 in 1700. It further expanded to 27,000 by 1720. Despite Jones’s rosy picture, he effectively depicted the enslaved population’s contact with whites, the growth of a smaller group that spoke English, and the emergence of strong kinship bonds facilitated by a naturally increasing population, a first in the New World. Hugh Jones arrived from England and served as a minister in Jamestown and professor of mathematics at William and Mary. He authored The Present State of Virginia (1724) where he described the distinctive form of society emerging in Virginia of large and small landowners, poor white laborers, and enslaved Africans.
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“The Pulpit Being My Great Design ”: A Minister in Early 18th-Century New England.
Eighteenth-century New Englanders increasingly found themselves living within the imperial context of the European wars and Enlightenment ideas that flowed across the Atlantic. John Barnard, the long-time minister of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was influenced by those ideas. He took the traditional path toward becoming a Congregational minister by attending an English school, grammar school, and then Harvard College, the main supplier of the region’s clergy and integral to its intellectual life. While Barnard held traditional providential beliefs in God’s responsibility for events, his life history also revealed an increasing layer of newer scientific beliefs and values. Less isolated than their 17th-century predecessors, the New England ministry at the turn of the 18th century traveled to Europe and took part in the increasing English book trade that brought European ideas to them, as seen in Barnard’s autobiography.
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