Warfare in 17th-Century North America

Wayne E. Lee

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Warfare in 17th-Century North America

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  • History of the Americas
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The exploratory, trading, colonial, and eventually imperial voyages and expeditions of European powers to North America inevitably generated conflict both among Europeans and with the indigenous inhabitants. There were many ways and processes in which all the players found paths to mutual profit, learned about each other, intermarried, and lived and played together, but the political imperatives of competition in Europe combined with increasingly ethnocentric perceptions of resource distribution, especially the control of land, brought frequent and bitter warfare. The sides were not always clearly drawn. Indians fought on all sides, pursuing interests, revenge, or merely survival. Europeans could become Indians, and Indians tried to become Europeans. Former subjects of Holland became effective soldiers in English expeditions against New France. Portuguese pilots guided English fleets in raids against a Spanish king who had also become the king of Portugal. Only since the 1990s have historians really begun to assess early North American warfare in a way that includes all these players to their full extent. To greatly simplify, the military history of the European expansion into North America has passed through three phases. Late-19th- and early-20th-century writers tended to focus on reconstructing campaign narratives of either the imperial conflicts (England versus France or Spain) or the localist experience of wars against “savages,” primarily in New England. Beginning in the 1960s historians and ethnohistorians increasingly turned their attention to the colonial experience as understood by the Indians: how did they perceive their interests, and what cultural structures determined their involvement in conflicts with each other and with Europeans? These historians more or less took for granted the European experience and expectations of war, believing that the military history from that angle was “done.” Furthermore, the historians reacted against the savage stereotype of the previous era and sought to shift the blame for what were undeniably vicious wars more squarely to the greed and duplicity of the Europeans. Since the 1980s, however, historians of the “Atlantic” variety deeply invested in the ethnohistoric scholarship, while reevaluating many aspects of the European experience, began to generate a more integrated story. In this new narrative Indians became key players and partners in what eventually becomes European expansion and domination. Indians, however, managed and manipulated their own destiny, even in the face of what we now know were truly devastating plagues. For the students of war, this new narrative has encouraged a reexamination of the nature of violence and of the effect of military changes in the Old World on imperial expansion and on colonial military institutions in the New World. This bibliography is not entirely restricted to the 17th century. It also encompasses the “precontact” problem, examining the military experience of Europeans and Indians prior to their contacting each other as well as the few 16th-century experiences in North America. North America is here defined to include what is now the United States and Canada but not the Caribbean or Central America. Historical trajectory and an Anglophone emphasis also mean a weighting herein toward the English colonies. Finally, the artificial time marker 1700 actually has some value. The first of the so-called imperial wars began in 1689 and is covered here briefly, but it makes sense to stop at that point, because the historiography of the imperial wars of the 18th century has a different focus and emphasis.

Article.  11965 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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