2001, Books, Non-Fiction

American Colonies (2001) by Alan Taylor

This is an excellent and compelling history of the European colonization of what became the United States up until the mid 18th century (i.e. right before the War of Independence). It is refreshingly unlike any other history of the US I’ve ever read and so I can definitely say I learned a lot. (How much of it I knew in the past but had forgotten, I can’t quite say, but I suspect I learned more new stuff.) I highly recommend it.

I grew up on US history, because of my American father. But most of it was military and basically all of it was Great Man history of a catalogue of events. For reasons I couldn’t quite tell you, one of my prized books in high school was a history of the North American portion of the Seven Years War (i.e. The French and Indian War), which was also a catalogue of events. I did read a history of the US in my twenties, that I believe was published in the ’90s, which was a little more interested in the how and why over the what and when, but I don’t think that book was anything like this, in part because it was actually a history of “Americans” rather than the US.

This book beats all the broad American history books I’ve read even though it doesn’t even deal with the founding of the United States. It does so for a number of reasons: it focuses on the peoples involved more than it does on events; it focuses on the environment and economics more than events; it goes into far more detail about “prehistory”; it treats the natives like equal protagonists at times. (One note about the treatment of the natives: I will say that it is very annoying that Taylor calls them “Indians.” However, he does briefly acknowledge it’s stupid. I suspect he does this in part because, in the US, the term is still common and, if I’m not mistaken, some natives have come to claim the term. It’s still utterly bizarre we use this term in the 21st century but what are you going to do?)

Taylor relies on more recent archaeological and anthropological evidence to give a much more detailed portrait of North American before the Europeans came. But he also uses this evidence to give a much more informed portrait of what the later Europeans (English, French) were encountering when they showed up, which was really new to me.

Taylor expands the story of the US to (briefly) included Mexico, the Caribbean (Barbados and Jamaica) and Canada and for good reason. Chunks of what became the US were actually colonized by Europeans coming from other colonies, and that story is fascinating.

Treating the natives as people equally worth of study is perhaps the most valuable part of the book. Every history of the US I’ve ever read treats the Europeans as the sole protagonists. This book doesn’t go the complete opposite direction (though I’m sure there are many books that do) but it tries to incorporate the side of the people who were already here as much as possible. There’s far more nuance in this portrait, and feels much closer to reality.

On the whole, I found it enlightening, compelling and readable. Sometimes it felt like I was learning something new on nearly every page. And this is coming from someone who knows the history of the US pretty well.

I only really have one gripe: it does feel like Taylor wrote these chapters independently of each other, perhaps even adapting them from scholarly articles he’s published in the past (that’s just a guess, I didn’t Google him). That leads to a few moments of repetition and it also leads to a lack of overall narrative flow. The most hilarious moment of this is the end of the book, which is just a few paragraphs summing up European colonization in the Pacific, and nothing more. (There is another book, of course, and I guess Taylor expects you to read it.)

But this is a minor gripe and this is otherwise the best history of pre-Independence “America” as I think I’ll likely read.


Read the reviews of the sequels:

American Revolutions

American Republics

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