Penguin History of the United States of America (2 page)

For permission to reproduce we are grateful to the following: for loosely based adaptation of map on endpaper of text of R. A. Billington,
Westward Expansion
, published by Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. 1949; for map loosely based on maps from A. M. Josephy,
The Indian Heritage of America
, published by Jonathan Cape Ltd 1973.

Dedicated to All My Pupils

1. The United States of America: State Captials and Principal Cities

The Settlement

As in the Arts and Sciences the first foundation is of more consequence than all the improvements afterwards, so in kingdoms, the first foundation or plantation is of more dignity and merit than all that followeth.

Francis Bacon

1 Prelude c. 30,000 BC – c. AD 1600

Karlsefni and his men sailed into the estuary and named the place
(Tidal Lake). Here they found wild wheat growing in fields on all the low ground and grape vines on all the higher ground. Every stream was teeming with fish. They dug trenches at the high-water mark, and when the tide went out there were halibut trapped in the trenches. In the woods there was a great number of animals of all kinds.

Eirik’s Saga

Human history has been largely the story of migrations. The first crossings to the American continents seem to have taken place towards the end of the last Ice Age. So much water had gone to the making of the great northern ice-cap that the oceans receded from the shallow Bering Straits, and proto-Mongolians, it is thought, moved across the land-bridge thus formed. Then they gradually found their way, as generation followed generation, southwards down ice-free valleys. Their driftings went on for thousands of years. The Bering traverse may have begun before 30,000 BC. Patagonia, the extreme southern tip of South America, was reached by 9000 BC. Man established himself in all parts of the two continents and in the related islands of the Caribbean. His cultures grew to be many, varied and fascinating. None of them advanced to the use of iron or to complete literacy; by other measures of human progress the achievements were striking, especially those of the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations of Central and South America. But by
1492 the New World, in its isolation, lagged substantially, in culture, behind the Old.

The trans-Bering migration probably ceased when the Ice Age ended and the sea rose, so that the straits appeared again, making any large movement of population impossible. Then civilization began to develop in
the great river-plains of China, India and the Middle East. That process too went on for thousands of years. Cities were founded and destroyed and re-founded, empires rose and fell, nomad hordes attacked, conquered and were absorbed into more stable population groups; the stock of human knowledge slowly increased. At length one fruit of that knowledge, the perfected Scandinavian long-ship, gave such impetus to one particular migratory group that it could dare to achieve the conquest of the ocean. About
800 the Vikings reached the Faeroe Islands; in 870 they landed in Iceland, and by the beginning of the eleventh century Leif the Lucky had discovered Vinland the Good, part of the continent of North America. Vinland was given its name and its epithet because it was far better suited to human habitation than Greenland (settled in 981-2), or even Iceland, but the Vikings were unable to settle it. The inhabitants, whom they called Skraelings (roughly, ‘wretches’), were numerous and soon became hostile; the Vikings possessed no weapons that could compensate sufficiently for their numerical inferiority. The distances to Greenland, Iceland and Europe were too great to be conveniently and regularly crossed, even by long-ships. So Vinland was never colonized, though knowledge of it and of the regions to its north, Markland and Helluland – even a certain measure of intercourse – persisted in the Norse lands for centuries, as is shown by, among other things, the survival in Greenland of chests made apparently of larch wood from North America.

In the end worsening climatic conditions destroyed even the Greenland settlements. The Viking migrations led to nothing, unless (as is just possible) Christopher Columbus learned of the Vinland tradition.

Europe had other dreams of the West. Islands lying far out towards or beyond the sunset – the Islands of the Blest, the Garden of the Hesperides, Hy-Brasil, Atlantis, Tir-na-Og, Estotiland, the Seven Cities of Antillia – are omnipresent in legend. The Irish had traditions that St Brendan and others of his kidney, travelling in leather boats, found peaceful retreats for prayer across the seas (Irish monks do indeed seem to have got to Iceland before the Vikings, though not necessarily any further). The Welsh at some stage invented the saga of Prince Madoc, who sailed into the West, and, they eventually alleged, there became either the ancestor of the Indians or the begetter of their language (the quest for Welsh-speaking Indians was to last into the nineteenth century). From time to time significant objects were washed onto the coasts of the Old World: bodies of strange men, wood carvings, branches of unknown trees. But these clues, like Vinland, led to nothing: they were displayed to a world which for long had no particular reason to bother about them.

The rediscovery of Vinland came about through coarser circumstances. By the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese were alarming their neighbours by their success as navigators and ocean-travellers. They had powerful motives: slaves, ivory and gold could be got from Africa, and they hoped to gain a share in the lucrative spice-trade, monopolized until then
by the Venetians and the Turks. They succeeded in finding new routes to the Indies, by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Others determined to emulate them. In 1492 Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Spain, sent out a Genoese sailor of eccentric genius to find a westward route to the Indies, as he was sure he could. Instead he found the islands of the Caribbean. He made four voyages in all, on the last two of which, in 1498 and 1502, he discovered the mainland. Columbus called the Skraelings ‘Indians’ and supposed that the lands he had found were part of Asia; but at least he recognized the scope of his discoveries and prophesied their importance.

Now greed spurred on the Europeans to subdue the Americans. Even if gold and silver had not been discovered in Mexico and Peru, the quest for these metals or for a sea-route to Asia, or for such other wealth as America contained, would have drawn the white man into the New World, once he knew of its existence; but as it was, the resplendent civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas were staggeringly effective advertisements for the enterprise. Total lack of scruple where heathen savages were concerned made the work of despoliation morally easy as well as agreeable, and conquest could further be justified by the universally accepted necessity of preaching the Christian God’s word throughout the world. European diseases destroyed the American population more effectively than any weapons and demoralized the survivors by their scale: perhaps 90 per cent of the Indians died of these infections – smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever – in the first century after the discoveries. Lastly, European technology had advanced greatly since the Viking era. The Spaniards and Portuguese (who divided the western and eastern hemispheres between them) had guns, swords, armour, horses, improved sailing vessels and improved navigation. They also had first-rate military and political organization, perfected in the struggle against the Moors, and easy access to America along the Trade Wind latitudes. They could go where they wanted and do as they liked. By the middle of the sixteenth century they had effectively asserted their rule over most of Central and Southern America, and the Spaniards had also acquired, and were very slowly beginning to realize, claims to the dark continent north of Mexico.

But from the beginning, and even at the height of her power, imperial Spain faced competition, especially in the North. To understand why requires an awareness of many factors.

First must be mentioned the new European state system, with its built-in tendency to conflict.

The Renaissance state resulted from the complex interplay of many powerful forces, the relative strength of which varied from one country to another. Nevertheless it is clear that it existed primarily to protect its members from violence, above all from foreign and civil war, as was demonstrated in the brilliant writings of Niccolô Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. So long as the threat of war was real and pressing, and so long as a state could do its job by averting that threat, so long could it count on
its subjects’ support, although that support was severely qualified by a dislike of taxation so intense as to lead, frequently, to rebellion. But if the threat of war receded too completely the necessity of the state, at least in the highly centralized, oppressive, hierarchical form that it wore in the sixteenth century, would be questioned. Consequently, all those who had a stake in its continuance – kings, military aristocracies, bureaucrats and mercenary soldiers – had a vested interest, whether they admitted it or not, in perpetuating the evil that the state existed to correct. This paradox could only be resolved by an ethos which made permanent inter-state competition acceptable, if not to the poor peasants of Europe, at least to the consciences of their masters. That ethos was not lacking.

The history of each of the European states had been, during the period of its rise, a history of territorial extension. There seemed to be no reason why, in the Age of Monarchy, in the time of its maturity, a state should abandon the policy of aggrandizement. Reigning dynasties found it necessary to claim outlying provinces, ostensibly in order to maintain their legal rights and to increase the power, wealth and security of their states. Individual kings welcomed battles for new possessions, since they felt it was inglorious not to have fought valiantly in war. The aristocracy had for centuries been imbued with the idea of honour, and identified it with military virtues, which of course needed war for their display. Inferiors, ever prone to take their fashions from above, approved, or at least for the most part accepted, all these attitudes. It would have been difficult not to do so, since they were of very long standing and permeated the whole social structure. War thus seemed easy and natural to everybody.

So when Spain rose to her height as a result of the Columbian discoveries and the matrimonial expansionism of the Habsburg dynasty, all the other Old World states combined against her. In a world of inevitable war, her strength was too great to be tolerated safely. Nor did Spain do anything to conceal it, or to make it acceptable, for she too lived by the rules of the Renaissance game. And since men strike at their enemies wherever a blow is effective, Spain was challenged as much in the New World as in the Old. Her rivals hoped to win the treasure and trade of the Americas for themselves.

The English, led by another Italian, John Cabot, made the first anti-Spanish probes: they landed in Newfoundland in 1497 and discovered the great cod-fisheries, a treasure almost as precious as gold for medieval Europe, which suffered from a shortage of protein and, being Roman Catholic, needed fish to eat on Fridays and in Lent.

England laid claim to Newfoundland, but was at first too weak to make her claim good. French and Portuguese fishermen predominated on the Grand Bank.
The French made the first effective challenge to Spain. The pirates of François I were let loose in the Caribbean half a century before Hawkins and Drake. In 1524 François employed yet another Italian, Giovanni
Verrazano, to explore the Atlantic coasts of North America: this led to the discovery of Manhattan Island and the great harbour at the mouth of the Hudson river. The French had resumed the quest for the route to the Indies, and although the voyages of Verrazano and Cartier failed to find it, or to establish a French colony in the New World (attempts to wrest Florida from Spain also failed), they did lead to the thorough exploration of the north-east coast, especially of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Then the religious wars broke out, and French initiatives largely ceased.

The English returned to North America as sea-dogs, in the reign of Elizabeth I, as soon as that Queen felt it safe to challenge Spain. Their leader was Walter Ralegh. From his half-brother, Humphrey Gilbert, Ralegh had taken the notion that the region was one of the ‘rich and unknown lands, fatally and it seemeth by God’s providence, reserved for England’. Besides, the rich commerce and cities of New Spain were tempting prizes for piratical Englishmen: hence the exploits of Francis Drake in the Caribbean. On their side, the Spaniards planned to injure England by stirring up rebellion in Ireland. In revenge, Ralegh decided to establish a colony in what, in honour of the Virgin Queen, he called ‘Virginia’: that is, most of the eastern seaboard north of Florida and south of ‘Norumbega’ (the future New England). Such a colony, lying on the flank of Spain’s communications with Europe, could with luck prey successfully on the Spanish treasure-fleets as they made their way home. He did not go to Virginia himself, but with the support of his Queen he placed settlers on Roanoke Island, on the coast of what is now North Carolina, in 1585; but at their own request Sir Francis Drake carried them home in the following year. The next attempt, in 1587, was even less successful. Neglected by the home government because of the Armada crisis, the little colony, or rather the colonists, had vanished by the time that Ralegh’s ships next visited Roanoke. The only legacy of these efforts was the name, Virginia; some remarkable paintings of the natives and their villages; and a residual English interest in the area which bore fruit twenty years later.

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