Popular History - Early American History books
A reading guide
I'm passionate about history. I didn't used to be, at school I dropped it as a subject when I was 14, and only discovered how great it was years later after university. I now read all sorts of history, but it was early American history which got me into it, and I'm not even American! Being British, I guess part of the appeal was the story of British (not that such a term existed then) settlers making the long journey to America to start a new life. More than that though, it was the adventure, the journey of discovery, the frontier, the chance to start over, all those things were part of the appeal.
So here is my suggested reading guide for anyone wanting to read about early American history, these are the best American history books I've come across. I'm going to talk about books I've read and enjoyed in more detail, but I'll also mention books which I've not yet had chance to read, books which I've been recommended by others. There will probably be a slightly biased slant to this reading list, being British and not American I'm more likely to have come across books that have had a print run over this side of the pond, but hopefully it won't be too noticeable. For the most part, these books will take you to somewhere between the American Revolution and the Civil war, that's as far as I'm up to so far!
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Before the Beginning...
Start at the beginning is usually sensible advice, but in this instance, I'm going to start before the beginning. The first American history book I'm going to recommend is:
'1491: New Revolutions of the Americas before Columbus' by Charles C. Mann
I found this to be a fascinating book all about the Americas (both North and South) before Columbus landed in 1492, based archeological and historical study. If you think Native Americans were all similar, this book will certainly prove otherwise. It covers all the different regions of North America, as well as South America, the Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Olmecs and many more. It also discusses the various theories of how these civilisations and cultures arose. This is not an overly easy book, it jumps about quite a bit and is not quite the narrative history that most of the other books on the list are, but it is extremely interesting and full of good stories.
The next book is fast forwarding to the late 1500s. The Spanish are already in South America, the French are making forays into Canada, and Sir Walter Raleigh is planning an English colony in the newly named region of Virginia (named after his patron, Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen). The book is 'Big Chief Elizabeth' by Giles Milton. This is true narrative history, it reads just like a novel and covers the founding of the ill-fated 'Roanoake' colony. A really interesting, easy read, and probably the best place to start the American history journey.
Finally, there is: 'A New World: England's First View of America' by Kim Sloane. This is about John White, one of the leaders of the Roanoake colony. He was an artist who sketched and painted many pictures of Native Americans in their own villages and homes, as well as native flora and fauna. This is almost the only view of an untouched Native America that we have. The book's main feature is the many beautiful full colour reproductions of the paintings and sketches, but also tells the story of the artist John White, and something of the Roanoake colony. A book to dip in and out of.
The First Colonies
Colonial American history is a big area, covering 1607 (or before) to 1776. The first successful English colony in America was Jamestown in Virginia, so it seems only right to start with that. I would recommend the excellent 'Savage Kingdom' by Benjamin Woolley. It is the story of that first settlement, from the years of planning before the first settlers arrived in 1607 to the 1620s when the English settlers became firmly established, supplanting the Natives in the area. It really is a great book, quite easy to read with a good narrative thread, but not dumbing down events. Read about Captain John Smith, Pocohontas and John Rolfe.
After Jamestown, the next colony was Plymouth, Massachussetts, settled by the 'Pilgrim Fathers' in 1620. As the gripping book 'Mayflower' by Nathaniel Philbrick shows though, it wasn't just Pilgrim separatists, but other more materialistic settlers who went across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. The book details the real events behind the myths of the first thanksgiving, Plymouth Rock and relationships with the natives. The first half of the book is all about founding the colony, the second half covers war with the natives. If you want a first hand account of what life was like in the Plymouth colony though, you should check out 'Of Plymouth Plantation' by William Bradford, the original leader of the colony.
Still on the Plymouth colony, the little known and crudely titled 'Mayflower Bastard' by David Lindsay. It is the story of one of his ancestors, a boy who travelled over on the Mayflower. The boy, Richard More, was something of a rebel and had a long and eventful life, living to see the Salem Witch trials, 70 years after landing in Plymouth. While it doesn't seek to tell the who story of those decades in Massachusetts, it is well researched and gives a good flavour of how the colony and life in it changed over many decades. A very good read.
Now it is time to move on, this time to New York and another of my favourite books: 'The Island at the Centre of the World' by Russell Shorto. This book is the story of the founding of New York, or New Amsterdam as it was originally known. This book is somewhat different to the others mentioned so far, having a distinctly Dutch flavour. Events start in Holland as the scene is set, with the story of the Dutch East India Company, Henry Hudson and the founding of the small settlement on the banks of the Hudson River. The story continues throughout the decades of Dutch rule, and until it is taken over by the English. Along the way you discover quite a lot about New York - such as why Broadway is so named, and many other interesting stories like where coleslaw originated from! The book is based on recently translated records of the Dutch colony; it is a work of scholarship and at the same time a gripping page turner.
A few more books to consider
There are many more great books on early American history, so before I finish, here are a few more to consider.
This book is about a single pivotal year in the American Revolution. It was the year America declared Independance, and English and colonial forces started the long fight for control of the American colonies. The book tells the story of the war primarily from the perspective of ordinary people while not losing track of the narrative. A great book, I just wish the author had written sequels for each year of the war!
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