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Ideas of Race in Early America  

Sean P. Harvey

“Race,” as a concept denoting a fundamental division of humanity and usually encompassing cultural as well as physical traits, was crucial in early America. It provided the foundation for the colonization of Native land, the enslavement of American Indians and Africans, and a common identity among socially unequal and ethnically diverse Europeans. Longstanding ideas and prejudices merged with aims to control land and labor, a dynamic reinforced by ongoing observation and theorization of non-European peoples. Although before colonization, neither American Indians, nor Africans, nor Europeans considered themselves unified “races,” Europeans endowed racial distinctions with legal force and philosophical and scientific legitimacy, while Natives appropriated categories of “red” and “Indian,” and slaves and freed people embraced those of “African” and “colored,” to imagine more expansive identities and mobilize more successful resistance to Euro-American societies. The origin, scope, and significance of “racial” difference were questions of considerable transatlantic debate in the age of Enlightenment and they acquired particular political importance in the newly independent United States. Since the beginning of European exploration in the 15th century, voyagers called attention to the peoples they encountered, but European, American Indian, and African “races” did not exist before colonization of the so-called New World. Categories of “Christian” and “heathen” were initially most prominent, though observations also encompassed appearance, gender roles, strength, material culture, subsistence, and language. As economic interests deepened and colonies grew more powerful, classifications distinguished Europeans from “Negroes” or “Indians,” but at no point in the history of early America was there a consensus that “race” denoted bodily traits only. Rather, it was a heterogeneous compound of physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics passed on from one generation to another. While Europeans assigned blackness and African descent priority in codifying slavery, skin color was secondary to broad dismissals of the value of “savage” societies, beliefs, and behaviors in providing a legal foundation for dispossession. “Race” originally denoted a lineage, such as a noble family or a domesticated breed, and concerns over purity of blood persisted as 18th-century Europeans applied the term—which dodged the controversial issue of whether different human groups constituted “varieties” or “species”—to describe a roughly continental distribution of peoples. Drawing upon the frameworks of scripture, natural and moral philosophy, and natural history, scholars endlessly debated whether different races shared a common ancestry, whether traits were fixed or susceptible to environmentally produced change, and whether languages or the body provided the best means to trace descent. Racial theorization boomed in the U.S. early republic, as some citizens found dispossession and slavery incompatible with natural-rights ideals, while others reconciled any potential contradictions through assurances that “race” was rooted in nature.

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Labor in the Spanish and Early US–Mexican Borderlands (1540–1848)  

Eric V. Meeks

The forced, coerced, and voluntary labor systems of the Spanish and early US–Mexico borderlands were as diverse as the territories where they predominated, and they evolved substantially over the course of three centuries. Spanish borderlands refers to an immense region that encompassed New Spain’s northern “interior provinces.” They were mostly inhabited and controlled by Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, these provinces would become the modern border states and territories of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas to the north; and Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south. Thousands of Indigenous, Black, mulatto, and mestizo people worked in coerced and unfree labor systems that ranged from outright slavery to encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage. New labor forms emerged with expanding global trade, economic reform, and industrialization in Europe and the United States. Compensated labor coexisted alongside forced labor in the colonial period, until it came to rival and, in some cases, replace involuntary labor by the early 19th century. Yet debt peonage and chattel slavery grew in importance during the same period. Workers themselves struggled to maintain autonomy and resisted through means that ranged from flight, malingering, and migration to outright rebellion.

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Loyalists and the American Revolution  

Rebecca Brannon

Loyalists supported the British cause and loyalty to the British sovereign during the American War for Independence. Their motivations were quite varied. A few enunciated a clear and sophisticated Loyalist ideology that privileged stability, constitutional restraint, and the benefits of membership in an empire. Others simply valued loyalty, while others chose the side they saw as more trustworthy or even the side they thought could best protect them in a raging civil war. Loyalists included white men and women of all ranks and occupations as well as Native Americans who allied with the British and enslaved Africans who resented their owners and saw the British as true, or at least possible, supporters of freedom and liberty. Their support helped Britain’s war effort considerably. But Britain never trusted or fully used its Loyalist allies, and after the war, Britain offered Loyalists only limited financial support. The majority reintegrated into the new United States, promising to be good citizens and to support the national project they had opposed. An unhappy minority became refugees who spread out across the world.

Article

Motherhood in Early America  

Nora Doyle

Women’s lives in British North America and the early United States were fundamentally shaped by the experiences of childbearing and childrearing and by the ideologies of motherhood that emerged from a range of cultural contexts. Most women in this period became mothers, either through choice or coercion, but their experiences of childbearing and motherhood differed sharply depending on their cultural background, social status, and experience of freedom or bondage. The history of motherhood was marked by significant continuities as well as change over time. For most women, motherhood was fundamentally defined by the physical rigors of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, and these experiences remained central across generations. Motherhood comprised a range of roles, activities, and areas of expertise, and as a result many women enjoyed considerable authority as mothers within their families and communities; this too remained constant. Changes to childbearing, motherhood, and maternal ideology occurred gradually and unevenly and affected women from different backgrounds in distinct ways. The incursions of European settler colonialism and the later expansion of the new United States, for instance, brought growing instability to Native American communities and threatened to undermine Native women’s power as mothers, though they formulated strategic responses to preserve their authority. The second half of the 18th century saw changes to women’s experiences and to feminine ideology in Anglo-American society. Middle-class and elite White women precipitated a fertility revolution that resulted in steadily declining family size; in contrast, enslaved women of African descent generally experienced increasing rates of fertility in the 18th century, and their childbearing experiences were shaped by the commodification of their reproductive labor. At the same time, a gradual transition began in the realm of childbirth as some middle-class and elite white women called on male physicians to manage their births. Meanwhile, this same era also saw a significant ideological shift as motherhood gained new significance in Anglo-American culture, making the image of the ideal white mother the most potent symbol of feminine virtue and influence.