Since many North American indigenous societies also built and inhabited towns, America was not an entirely rural continent before the arrival of Europeans. Nevertheless, when Europeans set out to colonize their “wilderness,” they arrived with a practical and ideological commitment to recreating cities of the sort with which they were familiar on their home continent. The result of their ambitions was the rapid founding and development of European-style cities, the vast majority of which clustered on large bodies of water, either directly on the Atlantic Ocean or on the seas and river estuaries adjacent to it. The pace of city expansion was closely linked to the levels of support for cities among colonists and an economic environment that stimulated urban growth. Some cities grew faster than others, but by the middle of the 18th century even Virginia and Maryland, the most rural colonies, had towns that played a critical cultural, political, and economic role in society. By the revolutionary era, the centrality of North America’s seaports was cemented by their status as crucibles of the conflict. The issue of which seaport was the new United States’ premier city was contested, but the importance of cities to North American society was no longer debated.
James Taylor Carson
The European invasion of the continent to which we now refer as North America unfolded in several different ways, each with its own particular implications. Yet no matter their differences, each colonial effort drew upon the same moral, intellectual, and material premises necessary to justify and enact the dispossession of the land’s first peoples. From religious arguments about Christianity extirpating “savage devils” from New England or Jamestowners’ obsession with finding gold and precious minerals to the introduction of new species of plants and animals across the continent and imperial assertions of sovereignty, the European invasion of America touched every facet of the lives that had brought first peoples and colonizers together. Examining how first peoples represented their land and how European invaders and their later American successors countered such mapping practices with their own cartographical projections affords an important way to understand a centuries-long process of place-making and place-taking too often glossed as colonization.
Susanah Shaw Romney
On the mid-Atlantic coast between 1624 and 1664, the Dutch developed a successful and expansive colony, one that depended on particular interactions among women and men from American, European, and African backgrounds. Unlike some other colonial efforts, such as Jamestown, New Netherland had white women colonists from its inception. In contrast to Plymouth and other English settler colonies, a population of African men and women did the crucial work of establishing the colony’s initial infrastructure in its first years. What is more, a thriving cross-cultural trade between Netherlanders and Munsee, Mahican, and Mohawk residents of the region nurtured the development of the infant colony. Looking at the colony’s establishment and growth reveals that complex interactions among ethnically distinct families gave New Netherland its particular form and character. As European and African populations took root, many households engaged in the frontier trading economy, creating a web of connections reaching into multiple indigenous villages. Women and men cooperated to sustain this trade over long distances by relying on marriage and the economic unit of the household to organize production and exchange. In addition, the colonial government used these households to stake claims to the ground and to define Dutch jurisdiction, just as they recognized that residence by Indian or English households determined where Dutch power ended. Thus ethnic and gender relations shaped not only the colony’s internal hierarchies, but also its economy and its very boundaries.