3d ser., 74, no. 2 April 2017
Many of the best recent works in early American history investigate the lives of specific people in particular places, reconstructing the past “on the ground” and connecting this local analysis with larger geographic or conceptual spaces. These are neither macrohistories that descend to the ground only for illustrative anecdotes nor microhistories that merely make big gestures to give their small stories broader relevance. The four exemplary world-and-ground essays in this Forum take us to the native Southwest in the centuries before and after European arrival; watch the English, Spanish, and French as they mark the North American landscape for Christ; look over the shoulder of a merchant in eighteenth-century Philadelphia; and follow enslaved Africans as they endure the passage from the slave ship’s hull through the port of Charleston, South Carolina. The authors ask us to rethink Indian “prehistory,” European Christianization, Atlantic commerce, and the slave trade. The essays move between world and ground—between the Atlantic world, the continent, or the hemisphere and the lives of particular early American people and places—to interrogate the connections, and the disconnections, between these different levels of historical experience and change.
By Juliana Barr
Caddo and Pueblo responses first to the rise and fall of Cahokia and Chaco and then to Spanish colonialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reveal how the centuries of history generated by these Native places and people must be reckoned with in order to understand the historical trajectories that they set in motion and that still reverberated in 1492 . . . and 1592, and 1692. Such a project involves putting potsherds and oral traditions on an equal playing field with archival documents. And, more critically, it involves a question of time. The key here is to see “colonial America” as one point, a late point, along a much longer continuum of North American history. If we place colonialism within the greater timescale of indigenous history, we may avoid the confines of a history that all too often casts the post-1492 trajectory of American Indians as one defined by decimation and declension. A longer time depth allows us to put both destruction and regeneration in context, and it reminds us that the heritage of colonialism that reaches into our present is paralleled—and shaped—by the heritage of indigenous history.
From a world of confessional rivalry and religious war, the cross—a contested symbol in post-Reformation Europe—was brought to North America by English adventurers (Protestant and Catholic) and planted in new ground. How did an object saturated with centuries of Christian theological and liturgical controversy function in a land filled with its own spiritual presences? What meanings did crosses convey to the earliest colonists and the native peoples they encountered? Beginning with an exploration of the politics of the cross in England from the Reformation to the Republic, this article surveys the archival and archaeological record of the exploration and colonization of English America to track the cross’s presence in North America. Crosses appear in a variety of sources, sometimes as targets of iconoclastic violence, sometimes as agents of conversion, and sometimes as treasured objects of devotion. As a public monument to England’s Christian heritage, the cross did the work of empire much as it did in New Spain and New France; but as an unwelcome reminder of England’s own religious battles, the cross was a destabilizing figure for natives and newcomers alike.
By Gregory E. O’Malley
The importance of slavery to colonial South Carolina’s economy and society is well-known, but the central place of the slave trade in colonial Charleston’s economy and society is less well understood. Nearly half of the enslaved African people forcibly settled in what became the United States landed in Charleston, and the significance of the town’s role as a slave trade hub extends well beyond the numbers. If enslaved people were the muscle building the region’s economy, the slave trade was the system’s lifeblood, and the coursing of it through Charleston mattered deeply. There are four primary reasons to see the town’s commerce in human beings as central to life in the Lowcountry, beyond the obvious fact that enslaved captives passed through Charleston on their way to bondage on plantations: slave sales functioned as trade fairs that drew people from a vast hinterland to the city, catalyzing economic life; merchants throughout the British Empire exploited Charleston’s slave trade to facilitate other commerce; captives experienced moving through Charleston as a brutal induction or initiation into American slavery; and, finally, Charleston held ongoing importance for the enslaved of the region as a remembered site from their arrival.
Compelling portraits of merchant networks that knit together far-flung parts of the Atlantic world tell us only part of the story about the central role of commerce in the early modern era. It is also imperative for historians to explore how the far-reaching communications and markets that merchants knit together depended on the local material economies of port cities—the daily, personal, and local exchanges taking place at all social and occupational levels. This article looks at how one merchant in Philadelphia made myriad pragmatic choices that became essential for his rise from a young clerk to a successful merchant. It situates him among the dozens of counting rooms and retail shops nested in the dense crush of properties along the city’s waterfront, where face-to-face negotiations of payments due, orders of goods, and deliveries of ship stores provided the sinews connecting merchants to Atlantic peoples near and far. In the intimate local surroundings of Philadelphia, city merchants procured marine insurance, created markets for bills of exchange, shared knowledge about prices and consumer preferences, built ships and outfitted them for distant voyages—in short, their great transatlantic networks of commerce depended on endless acts of pragmatic local negotiation.