During the Holocene, the present geological epoch, an increasing portion of humans began to manipulate the reproduction of plants and animals in a series of environmental practices known as agriculture. No other ecological relationship sustains as many humans as farming; no other has transformed the landscape to the same extent. The domestication of plants by American Indians followed the end of the last glacial maximum (the Ice Age). About eight thousand years ago, the first domesticated maize and squash arrived from central Mexico, spreading to every region and as far north as the subarctic boreal forest. The incursion of Europeans into North America set off widespread deforestation, soil depletion, and the spread of settlement, followed by the introduction of industrial machines and chemicals. A series of institutions sponsored publically funded research into fertilizers and insecticides. By the late 19th century, writers and activists criticized the technological transformation of farming as destructive to the environment and rural society. During the 20th century, wind erosion contributed to the depopulation of much of the Great Plains. Vast projects in environmental engineering transformed deserts into highly productive regions of intensive fruit and vegetable production. Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, access to land remained limited to whites, with American Indians, African Americans, Latinas/os, Chinese, and peoples of other ethnicities attempting to gain farms or hold on to the land they owned. Two broad periods describe the history of agriculture and the environment in that portion of North America that became the United States. In the first, the environment dominated, forcing humans to adapt during the end of thousands of years of extreme climate variability. In the second, institutional and technological change became more significant, though the environment remained a constant factor against which American agriculture took shape. A related historical pattern within this shift was the capitalist transformation of the United States. For thousands of years, households sustained themselves and exchanged some of what they produced for money. But during the 19th century among a majority of American farmers, commodities took over the entire purpose of agriculture, transforming environments to reflect commercial opportunity.
The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.
Slave law in early America may be found in the formal written laws created in metropolitan places such as Paris or Madrid as well as locally within English colonies such as Barbados or South Carolina. These written laws constitute only one portion of the known law governing slave behavior, for individual masters created their own rules to restrict enslaved persons. These master-made rules of conduct almost never appear in print and were conveyed most often through oral transmission. Such vernacular laws provide another element of the limitations all enslaved people experienced in the colonial period. Those without literacy, including Native Americans or illiterate settlers, nonetheless had rules to limit slave behavior, even if they remained unwritten. Customary law, Bible precepts, and Islamic law all provided bases for understanding the rules that bound unfree persons. Most colonial law mandated barbaric punishments for slave crime, though these were sometimes commuted to banishment. Spanish and French codes and local ordinances did not always agree on how slaves should be treated. The numerous laws found in English colonies, sometimes wrongly denominated as codes, spread widely as individuals migrated; the number and variety of such laws makes comprehensive transimperial comparisons challenging. Laws might occasionally ban keeping slaves or trading in them, but most such laws were ignored. Slave courts typically operated in arbitrary, capricious ways that assumed slave guilt and accepted weak evidence to prove it. Runaways might, if they joined strong maroon communities (bands of runaways living together), end up enforcing the laws against slave flight, much as slave catchers and slave patrols did. Laws to prevent manumission by a master frequently required the posting of bonds to prevent those freed from becoming a financial burden on their communities. Later manumission laws often mandated the physical departure of those freed, creating emotional turmoil for the newly emancipated.
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.
The story of the pre-Columbian Mississippi Period (1000 ce–1600 ce) of the American South and parts of the Midwest is the story of the rise of the ancient Mississippian towns and cities and the world they made, the history of that world, and its collapse with European contact. First, however, readers must become acquainted with the chiefdom concept as it applies to these ancient towns and cities in order to outline some of the basic organizing structures of Mississippian political units. The Mississippi Period began with the rise of the great Indian city of Cahokia and the long reach of its influence over a vast region, resulting in a new social, religious, and political ordering across the land and the formation of numerous polities that archaeologists call “chiefdoms” (the Early Mississippi Period 1000 ce–1300 ce). The fall of Cahokia around 1300 ce cleared the way for the elaboration of these early chiefdoms and the rise of others throughout the Mississippian world (the Middle Mississippi Period 1300–1475 ce). Many of these grand Middle Mississippi chiefdoms, in turn, collapsed around 1450 ce. In the wake of this collapse, people regrouped and built new chiefdoms throughout the American South (the Late Mississippi Period 1475–1600 ce). These are the people that the early Spanish explorers met in the 16th century. Encounters with the Spaniards set in motion a series of colonial disruptions of warfare, disease, and commercial slave raiding that resulted in another collapse of the Mississippian world, only this time never to rise again. However, the survivors of these fallen chiefdoms regrouped and restructured their lives and societies for living in a new world order—this one being a colonial world on the margins of an expanding European empire.