Early centuries

The people of north America: 1500 BC - 1500 AD

The original people of north America live in a wide range of environments. On the east side of the continent there are woodlands, where they kill elk and deer. On the grass plains of the midwest they hunt to extinction several American species, including the camel, mammoth and horse. In the desert regions of the southwest human subsistence depends on smaller animals and gathered seeds. In the Arctic north, where there is very much more hunting than gathering, fish and seals are plentiful.

The first trace of settled village life is in the southwest, where by the 2nd millennium BC gourds, squash and corn (or maize) are cultivated (see Hunter-gatherers).

The natives of this region derive their Crops from the more advanced civilization to the south, in Mexico. The same cultural influence brings a custom eventually shared by many of the tribes, that of Mound building. From about 1000 BC great burial mounds begin to be constructed around tomb chambers of log or wood.

The earliest burial mounds in north America are those of the Adena culture of the Ohio valley, closely followed by nearby Hopewell tribes. The period of greatest activity is from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD, by which time a vast number of mounds have been built throughout north America.

During and after this period two regions of North America develop quite advanced farming societies - the Mississipi valley and the southwest. Farming, accompanied by village life, spreads up the east coast, where fields are cleared from the woodlands for the planting of maize. But in most parts of the continent the tribes continue to live a semi-nomadic existence, in the traditional manner of Hunter-gatherers, even though they lack the one animal which makes movement on the plains easy.

Hunted to extinction in America, this useful creature will only become available again to the Indians through the event which destroys their way of life. The Spaniards arrive with horses.

During and after this period two regions of North America develop quite advanced farming societies - the Mississipi valley and the southwest. Farming, accompanied by village life, spreads up the east coast, where fields are cleared from the woodlands for the planting of maize. But in most parts of the continent the tribes continue to live a semi-nomadic existence, in the traditional manner of Hunter-gatherers, even though they lack the one animal which makes movement on the plains easy.

Hunted to extinction in America, this useful creature will only become available again to the Indians through the event which destroys their way of life. The Spaniards arrive with horses. But they are not the first Europeans to reach this continent.

Greenland: from the 10th century AD

From high ground in western Iceland the peaks of Greenland are sometimes visible, across 175 miles of water. In about981 the distant sight attracts a Viking adventurer, Eric Thorvaldsson, also known as Eric the Red. He has a reason for leaving Iceland. He has been exiled for three years as a punishment for manslaughter.

Eric puts his family in a longship, together with their retainers and their livestock, and they sail towards the distinct peaks. They land in the southern tip of the island, near what is now Julianehaab, where they survive the necessary three years.

At the end of his exile Eric returns to Iceland to persuade more settlers to join him. With a better sense of public relations than of accuracy, he gives his territory the attractive name of Greenland. He sets off again with twenty-five longships, of which fourteen complete the journey (some turn back). About 350 people land with their animals. The colony survives four centuries in this inhospitable climate; eventually Greenland is abandoned in the early 15th century.

Meanwhile, in the very earliest years of Greenland, an outpost settlement is briefly established in north America.

Vinland: AD c.1000 - 1013

Icelandic Sagas of the 13th century give various versions of how Leif, a son of Eric the Red, comes to spend a winter at a place west of Greenland which he names Vinland (the root vin in old Norse could imply either that grape vines or flat grassland characterized the place). In some accounts Leif loses his way when returning from Norway, in others he is following up reports made fifteen years earlier by Bjarni Herjolfsson, another Viking blown off course.

Either way it seems likely that in about the year 1000 Leif Ericsson lands at three successive spots in north America which he calls Helluland, Markland and Vinland. There is no way of identifying them, but it is possible that they fall somewhere on the coasts of Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland, as Leif makes his way southward.

Leif returns in the following year to Greenland, but the Sagas state that a few years later an Icelandic expedition - led by Thorfinn Karlsefni - establishes a new settlement at Vinland. The settlers survive only three winters, before being discouraged by the hostility of the native Americans - called in the Sagas Skraelings, or 'savages'.

Archaeology proves that Vikings did indeed settle, however briefly, in north America. A site at L'Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, has a longhouse with a great hall in Viking style. It has also yielded artefacts of a kind used in Iceland - including a soapstone spindle, suggesting that women were among the settlers. The famous Vinland map, however, has been proved a forgery.

Pre-Columbian Indians: before AD 1492

The arrival of Columbus in 1492 is a disaster for the original inhabitants of the American continent. The chief agent of their downfall is disease. With no resistance to new germs, tribes rapidly succumb to unfamiliar illnesses on their first brief contact with Europeans - in many cases vastly reducing the number of the Americans without anyone even firing a shot.

Where the tribes develop a closer relationship with the new arrivals, they are frequently tricked, tormented and massacred by their visitors. Two elements make the Europeans both strong and ruthless - their possession of guns, and an unshakable conviction in the rightness of their Christian cause.

The event of 1492, the biggest turning point in the history of America, has had the Eurocentric effect of defining that history in terms of this one moment. Historians describe the previous American cultures as pre-Columbian. And the original people of the continent become known as Indians, simply because Columbus is under the illusion that he has reached the Indies.

In recent years 'native Americans' has come into use as an alternative name. But it is a misleading phrase - meaning, but failing to say, aboriginal or indigenous Americans. In spite of its quirky origins, American Indians remains the more direct and simple term.

16th - 17th century

Post-Columbian Indians: after AD 1492

The fate of the American Indians varies greatly in different parts of the continent. The regions of the great American civilizations, in central America and down the western coastal strip of south America, are densely populated when the Spanish arrive. Moreover the Spaniards are mainly interested in extracting the wealth of these regions and taking it back to Europe.

The result is that the Europeans in Latin america remain a relatively small upper class governing a population of Indian peasants. From Mexico and central America, down through Ecuador and Colombia to Peru and Bolivia, Indians survive in large numbers through the colonial centuries and retain even today much of their own culture.

North America, by contrast, is less populated and less developed when the Europeans arrive. No part of the continent north of Mexico has reached a stage which could be defined as Civilization. The breadth of the continent offers a wide range of environments in which tribes live as hunter-gatherers, or as settled neolithic farmers, or - most often - in any appropriate combination of the two.

In another significant contrast, the Europeans arriving in these regions (the French, the British, the Dutch) are primarily interested in settling. Much more than the Spanish, they want to develop this place as their own home. Their interests directly clash with those of the resident population.

When Europeans begin to settle in north America, in the 17th century, the tribes are spread thinly over the continent and they speak hundreds of different languages. The names by which the tribes are now known are those of their language families.

Each group of Indian tribes becomes prominent in the story of north America as the Europeans spread westwards and compete with them for land. The first to be confronted by the challenge from Europe are the Pueblo of the southwest, reached by Spaniards exploring north from Mexico; and two large tribal groups in the eastern part of the continent, the Algonquians and the Iroquois, whose lands are threatened by English and French colonists.

Cartier and the Northwest Passage: AD 1534-1542

The two northern Atlantic kingdoms, France and England, look enviously at the wealth which Portugal derives from trade with the spice islands of the east. France is the first to seek a western route to the same pot of gold.

In 1534 the French king, Francis I, sends Jacques Cartier - with two ships and sixty-one men - to look for a northwest passage linking the Atlantic, above the continent of America, with the Pacific. Cartier discovers the great inlet of the St Lawrence river, which he hopes will prove to be the mouth of a channel through the continent. He postpones the exploration until the next summer and returns to France. Meanwhile he claims the whole region for his king, under the title New France.

In 1535 Cartier sails and rows his longboats up the St Lawrence as far as an island occupied by Huron Indians. They make him welcome and take him to the highest point on their island. He names it Mont Réal, or Mount Royal.

Cartier returns for a third visit in 1541-2. An attempt to found a colony comes to nothing. But his discoveries prompt the interest of French fur traders in these regions. In 1611 Samuel de Champlain establishes the beginning of a settlement on the same Huron island, today the site of Montreal. Three years earlier Champlain has formed a settlement at Quebec. Thus Cartier's search for a way through to the east lays the foundation, unwittingly, for the French empire in the west.

The Atlantic cod trade: AD 1497-1583

The voyage of John Cabot in 1497 directs European attention to the rich stocks of fish in the waters around Newfoundland. Soon fishing fleets from the Atlantic nations of Europe are making annual visits to catch cod. They bring with them large supplies of salt. Summer settlements are established, on the coasts of Newfoundland, to process the fish before it is transported back to European markets in the autumn.

England plays a leading role in the trade, and in 1583 Humphrey Gilbert formally annexes Newfoundland on behalf of the English queen. It is a claim which does not go undisputed - particularly by France, whose fleets are the main Rivals of the English in these waters.

Secotan and the English: AD 1584-1586

The Indians with whom the English first make contact in America are from the Algonquian group of tribes. The first encounter is friendly. Two ships sent by Raleigh on reconnaissance reach Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, in 1584. The local Secotan Indians welcome an opportunity for trade.

The Secotan offer leather goods, coral and a mouth-watering profusion of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. What they want in return is metal implements, for they have no source of iron. Hatchets and axes are handed over by the English. Swords, even more desirable, are withheld. The visitors set sail that autumn for England, taking back to Raleigh a good report of the area for a likely settlement.

This first encounter reveals very clearly the interests of the two sides, mutual at first but leading easily to conflict once the Europeans attempt to settle. Many of the Indian tribes are friendly and welcoming by nature, but they also have a passionate desire for the material goods of the west - including, eventually, horses and guns.

The settlers at first need the help of the Indians in the difficult matter of surviving. Yet the newcomers are also a nervous minority in a strange place, armed with deadly weapons. In any crisis there is the likelihood that the Europeans will react with sudden and extreme violence.

Moreover there is a clash of attitudes in relation to land. The English settlers arrive with the firm intention of owning land. But the Indians of eastern America are semi-nomadic. During the spring and summer they live in villages to grow their crops. In the winter they hunt in the thick forests. Land, in the Indian view, is a communal space, impossible to own. The question of land leads eventually to appalling conflicts, with the Indians the inevitable losers.

By a happy chance we can glimpse an Indian community before these conflicts develop. When a second English expedition sent out by Raleigh reaches Roanoke Island in 1585, a member of the party is a talented painter, John White.

White's drawings give an enchanting picture of the Secotan Indians in their everyday lives. They are seen in their villages, fishing, cooking, eating, dancing. Beautifully engraved by Theodore de Bry, and published in 1590 in four languages (the English title is A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia), these illustrations rapidly provide Europe with an enduring image of the American Indian.

Unfortunately, owing to the effect on the Indians of the disease, alcohol, brutality and treachery associated with European expansion in America, the image lasts rather longer than the reality.

Meanwhile the first attempts at English colonization in America also end badly. The 1585 settlers in Roanoke Island initially enjoy good relations with the Indians, but by the following spring they are on the verge of war. The English strike first, employing the ancient technique of treachery. On June 1, 1586, the Indian chief Pemisapan and other tribal leaders are invited to a council on the shore of the Croatan Sound. As they approach, they are shot.

Ten days later Francis Drake arrives, on his way home from preying on Spanish ships in the Caribbean. The settlers by now think it wise to abandon their new settlement and return with him to England. But in spite of these experiences, a third group of settlers, this time including women and children, reaches Roanoke Island in 1587. But when the next English ship arrives, in 1590 (the threat of the Armada has altered English priorities in the intervening years), there is no remaining trace either of the settlers or their settlement.

17th century

Virginia: AD 1607-1644

In 1606 James I supports new English efforts (the first since Raleigh) to establish colonies along the coast of America, north of the Spanish-held territory in Florida. A charter for the southern section is given to a company of London merchants (called the London Company, until its successful colony causes it be known as the Virginia Company). A company based in Plymouth is granted a similar charter for the northern part of this long coastline, which as yet has no European settlers.

The Plymouth Company achieves little (and has no connection with the Pilgrim fathers who establish a new Plymouth in America in 1620). The London Company succeeds in planting the first permanent English settlement overseas - but only after the most appalling difficulties.

In April 1607 three ships sent out by the London Company sail into Chesapeake Bay. They continue up a broad waterway, which they name the James river in honour of their king, and a few weeks later they select an island to settle on. They call their settlement Jamestown. But to the territory itself they give a more romantic name, honouring England's late Virgin queen - Virginia.

More than 100 English settlers attempt to make their home in 1607 on the island of Jamestown. A year later disease, privation, hunger and Attacks by local Indians have reduced their number to less than forty. But the hardship has produced the first notable leader in British colonial history.

John Smith is one of seven men appointed by the London company to serve on the colony's council. His energy, his resourcefulness and his skill in negotiating with the Indians soon establish him as the leader of the community.

Smith soon becomes involved in a famously romantic scene (or so he claims many years later, in a book of 1624). He is captured by Indians and is about to be executed when Pocahontas, the 13-year-old daughter of the tribal chieftain, throws herself between victim and executioner (or so Smith maintains). Smith is initiated into the tribe and returns to Jamestown - where Pocahontas becomes a frequent visitor, often bringing valuable information about the Indians' intentions.

Four more ships reach Jamestown in 1609. The number of settlers is up to 500 when Smith is injured, later that year, and has to sail home to England. During the next winter, in his absence, there is appalling famine - the 500 are reduced to 60. They are joined by another group (survivors of a shipwreck in Bermuda), but only after further reinforcements arrive, in 1610, is it finally decided to persevere with this difficult attempt at colonization.

The town of Williamsburg, first called Middle Plantation, is founded in 1633. By mid-century (in spite of an Indian attack in 1644 which kills 500 colonists) Virginia is at last secure. Ten or more counties, on the English pattern, have their own sheriff, constable and justices.

Pilgrim Fathers: AD 1620-1621

The most famous boatload of immigrants in north American history leaves Plymouth in September 1620. Thirty-five of about 102 passengers in the Mayflower have sailed once before from England to live according to their Christian consciences in a freer land. They were part of a Puritan group which moved in 1608 from Boston in Lincolnshire to Holland, famous at the time for religious toleration. Now, in spite of the dangers involved, they want to be even more free in a place of their own.

Their sights are set on New England, the coast of which has been explored in 1614 by John smith, the leader of the Jamestown settlers. His book A Description of New England, naming and describing the region, has been published in 1616.

The journey lasts eight weeks before they make their first landfall, on the tip of Cape Cod. It is not until mid-December that the little group selects a coastal site suitable for their village. They name it Plymouth, echoing their port of departure from the old world. To their surprise there appear to be no Indians in the vicinity.

New England winters are notoriously severe and the pilgrims have, in a phrase of the time, 'all things to doe, as in the beginning of the world'. Only half the group survive that first winter and spring. Of eighteen married women, just five are alive when the first harvest is reaped in 1621.

The survivors thank the Lord for nature's bounty in the ceremony of Thanksgiving, with the local Indians sharing in this first annual celebration. A large indigenous fowl, the Turkey, makes an admirable centrepiece. The settlers have found it living wild in the forests of New England.

These pioneering families become known to their contemporaries as the Old Comers (they are first referred to as Pilgrim Fathers in 1799, and are more often known now in the USA simply as the Pilgrims). The ritual of Thanksgiving is not the only great tradition which the pilgrims bequeath to modern America. Their example of self-reliance becomes a central strand in the American ideal. It will be fully maintained by other English communities establishing themselves, just ten years later, further north in Massachusetts.

Massachussetts and New England: AD 1629-1691

The success of the Plymouth settlers soon causes other Puritans to follow their example. The situation at home adds a further incentive. England is undergoing a recession; and William Laud (bishop of London from 1628, archbishop of Canterbury from 1633) is trying to impose the episcopalian form of Christianity on the country by force. Economics and conscience pull in the same direction. America beckons.

In 1629 a Puritan group secures from the king a charter to trade with America, as the Massachusetts Bay Company. Led by John Winthrop, a fleet of eleven vessels sets sail for Massachusetts in 1630. The ships carry 700 settlers, 240 cows and 60 horses.

Winthrop also has on board the royal charter of the company. The enterprise is to be based in the new world rather than in London. This device is used to justify a claim later passionately maintained by the new colony - that it is an independent political entity, entirely responsible for its own affairs.In 1630 Winthrop selects Boston as the site of the first settement, and two years later the town is formally declared to be the capital of the colony.

This concept chimes well with the settlers' religious attitudes. They are Congregationalists, committed to the notion that the members of each church are a self-governing body. The towns of Massachusetts become like tiny City-states - each with a church at its centre, and with the church members as the governors.

This is Oligarchy rather than democracy, but it is an Oligarchy based on perceived virtue rather than wealth or birth. All male church members have a vote. But a man may only become a church member on the invitation of those already enjoying this exalted status. Since God's approval is not to be devalued, his elect remain a minority in each community.

The Massachusetts system proves an extremely efficient way of settling new territory. A community, granted a tract of land by Winthrop and his governing body in Boston, immediately becomes responsible for making a success of the new enterprise - building a church and houses while bringing the surrounding land into cultivation.

Standards of education and literacy are high in the colony (the university of Harvard is founded as early as 1636). The appeal of Massachusetts proves so great that in the first eleven years, to 1640, some 20,000 settlers arrive from England.

In subsequent decades, as the population grows and colonization extends further afield, regions evolve into separate colonies. Connecticut emerges in 1662, and New Hampshire in 1679. In a reverse process, the original settlement of Plymouth becomes absorbed within Massachusetts in 1691. (Vermont and Maine remain part of Massachusetts until 1791 and 1820 respectively).

Rhode Island is an exception within New England, going its own way very early (from 1636) because of the religious intolerance in self-righteous Massachusetts. It is founded by Roger Williams, a clergyman banished by the Boston authorities for his radical views.

Williams establishes the town of Providence on land which he buys from the Indians (itself a novelty among English settlers). He welcomes persecuted sects, such as Plymouth and Pennsylvania, and turns Rhode Island into a haven of tolerance. In this respect the small colony prefigures Anabaptists. But meanwhile New England's immediate neighbour to the south and west attracts English attention. This region is being colonized by the Dutch.

Dutch in America: AD 1624-1664

In 1621 the States General in the Netherlands grant a charter to the Dutch West India Company, giving it a monopoly to trade and found colonies along the entire length of the American coast. The area of the Hudson river, explored by Hudson for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, has already been designated New Netherland. Now, in 1624, a party of thirty families is sent out to establish a colony. They make their first permanent settlement at Albany, calling it Fort Orange.

In 1626 Peter Minuit is appointed governor of the small colony. He purchases the island of Manhattan from Indian chiefs, and builds a fort at its lower end. He names the place New Amsterdam.

The Dutch company finds it easier to make money by piracy than by the efforts of colonists (the capture of the Spanish silver fleet off Cuba in 1628 yields vast profits), but the town of New Amsterdam thrives as an exceptionally well placed seaport - even though administered in a harshly authoritarian manner by a succession of Dutch governors.

The only weakness of New Amsterdam is that it is surrounded by English colonies to the north and south of it. This place seems to the English both an anomaly and an extremely desirable possession. Both themes are reflected in the blithe grant by Charles II in 1664 to his brother, the duke of York, of the entire coastline between the Connecticut and Delaware rivers.

New Amsterdam, and behind it New Netherland, lie exactly in the middle of this stretch. When an English fleet arrives in 1664, the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant accepts the reality of the situation and surrenders the territory without a shot being fired. New Amsterdam is transformed without upheaval into New York.

This reduces the Dutch presence in the new world to the region of Guiana, in south America, where the first settlements are established before 1616. Taken over by the company from 1621, they survive on sugar grown with slave labour. Frequently disputed between Dutch, French and English interests, the Dutch section of the Guiana coast eventually becomes Surinam.

New Amsterdam, and in its hinterland New Netherland, lie exactly in the middle of this stretch. When an English fleet arrives in 1664, the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant accepts the reality of the situation and surrenders the territory without a shot being fired. Thus New Amsterdam becomes British and two years later, at the end of hostilities between Britain and the Netherlands, is renamed New York. The town has at the time about 1500 inhabitants, with a total population of perhaps 7000 Europeans in the whole region of New Netherland - which now becomes the British colony of New York.

The Dutch have recently begun to settle the coastal regions further south, which the British now also appropriate as falling within the region given by Charles II to the duke of York. It becomes the colony of New Jersey.

New France: AD 1608-1671

The founder of Quebec in 1608, Samuel de Champlain, works ceaselessly to explore the region and to build up the French fur trade with the help of the Huron Indians. But progress is slow. By the time of Champlain's death, in 1635, the settlers in Quebec number fewer than 100. And this is in spite of the personal involvement of Richelieu.

Richelieu forms in 1627 the Company of New France, consisting of One Hundred Associates (of whom Champlain is one). The Associates pledge themselves to transport at least 200 settlers to the colony each year, but this target is never reached. By 1660 New France still has only about 2300 European inhabitants (Boston at the time has a larger population).

In these circumstances the French fur traders find it very hard to get their wares to the St Lawrence, particularly after the friendly Huron have been driven west by the Iroquois in 1648-50. In 1660 the settlers appeal to Louis XIV for help. He responds by turning New France into a royal province.

It will henceforth be ruled by a governor, with military, religous and educational support supplied by France. The new resolution is accompanied by a rapid increase in settlement. During the 1660s more than 3000 colonists are sent out, including a due proportion of girls of marriageable age.

The decade proves a turning point for New France. The level of population reaches a point where it is able to increase by natural growth (most of the inhabitants of the thriving French colony in the next century descend from this first major influx of settlers), and explorers now begin the process of pressing west and south from the Great Lakes.

In 1668 a Jesuit mission is established at the junction of the three western Great Lakes, in a settlement which the missionaries name Sault Sainte Marie. This pivotal point is selected in 1671 as an appropriate place from which to claim the entire interior of the American continent for the king of France.

Proprietary colonies: AD 1632-1732

The granting of New york and new jersey by Charles II to his brother, in 1664, is typical of the way British colonies are founded along the American coast south of New England. Whereas the New england colonies are in the hands of independent Puritan communities, creating their own future as small farmers in a relatively harsh environment, the southern colonies are given by the British monarch to powerful aristocrats under whose protection settlers are shipped across the Atlantic.

The first such grant is that of Maryland to Lord Baltimore in 1632. Baltimore's concern is to establish a haven for English Roman Catholics, of whom the first shipload arrives in the colony in 1634.

The next grant is that of Carolina, given to a consortium of eight proprietors in 1670. The two parts, north and south, develop rather differently. In the south, where rice proves a profitable crop, large plantations are established using African-American Slave labour. The north, relying more on tobacco grown in small holdings, is less prosperous. (The most famous product of the region, cotton, must await Eli Whitney's invention of the Cotton gin.) The north becomes a separate colony in 1712, introducing the lasting division between North and South Carolina.

The last of these proprietary colonies is Georgia, granted in 1732 to a group of British philanthropists. Their aim is to give a new start in life to debtors and to others with no means of support.

The philanthropic trustees impose various idealistic restrictions - no alcohol, no large estates, no slaves - which initially prevent Georgia from becoming as prosperous as its northern neighbours (though the new colony fulfils from the start a useful subsidiary role, as a buffer zone beween British America and the Spanish colony of Florida to the south).

While restrictive idealism holds Georgia back, a different sort of idealism has made the most interesting of the proprietary colonies extremely prosperous. Pennsylvania, granted to William Penn in 1681, is founded on the principle of freedom of conscience. Its capital, Philadelphia, soon becomes the leading city of British America.

Pennsylvania: AD 1681-1737

William Penn is a well-connected young man in England when he profoundly shocks his father, a friend of Charles II, by landing in gaol in 1667 for attending a Quaker meeting. In this radical Christian group the young Penn finds a lifelong commitment to the cause of religious liberty. He is able to turn his ideals into practice thanks to a loan of £16,000 which his father has made to the king. After the elder Penn's death, the son accepts the grant of a tract of land in America, in 1681, in discharge of the royal debt.

Penn names the new colony Pennsylvania (Penn's woodlands, in honour of his father) and sets about putting into effect what he calls a 'holy experiment'.

Colonists settling in Pennsylvania are expected to believe in one God, the creator of the universe, but that is the limit of religious conformity required. This is to be a community based on the gentle ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Its main city is named by Penn in accordance with this ideal; it is to be Philadelphia, Greek for 'brotherly love'.

Penn has travelled much in Europe, making contact with other persecuted Christian minorities - in particular Anabaptist groups in Germany. They too flock to his colony, forming a significant and early German presence in British America. They are the group known now as the Pennysylvania Dutch (from deutsch, meaning German).

Penn's profound tolerance and common sense is evident when a woman is brought before him in Philadelphia in 1682 on a charge of witchcraft. He asks her whether she has ridden through the air on a broomstick. There must have been a gasp in the court when she answers 'Yes'. Penn's reply is that if she is able to do this, he knows of no law against it. He recommends that she be set free. The jury agrees. No more is heard of witchcraft in Pennsylvania but ten years later, in 1692, some thirty people are executed in Salem on the same preposterous charge (see Witches of Salem).

Applying the same high but easy-going principles, Penn is the early colonial leader who has the greatest success in his relationship with the American Indians.

In a series of meetings with the local Lenape tribes, in 1682-4, Penn achieves mutual trust in agreements unrecorded in formal treaties. His meeting with the Indians at Shackamaxon (made famous by Benjamin West's painting of the Great Treaty) is pure legend but nevertheless contains the essence of a historical reality. This is true also of the treaty by which the Lenape (referrred to by Europeans at the time as Delaware Indians) cede to Penn as much land, between rivers west of a certain creek, as can be walked in a day and a half.

Penn never measures this distance, but his grasping successors do - half a century later - in a notorious example of British betrayal of the Indians.

In 1737 the colony of Pennsylvania decides to claim the full extent of this supposed agreement. Athletes are trained for the occasion; a path is cut through the scrub; on August 25-6 the quickest among them covers sixty-four miles in the day and a half, bringing some 1200 square miles of Indian territory securely into British hands.

There is a further irony attached to this loss by the Lenape. When they reject the so-called Walking Purchase, both sides agree to accept arbitration by the Iroquois League. This confederation of powerful Indian tribes gives judgement in favour of the British. Their cooperation is part of a long-standing alliance between the Iroquois and the colonists.

Ohio and Mississippi: AD 1669-1682

The great central valley of north America, watered by the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers, is first visited by Europeans during the late 1660s and 1670s. This development is the direct result of the growth of the colony of New france during the 1660s. As the French explore through and around the Great Lakes, they begin also to move down the rivers running south from this region.

The nearest large river to the eastern lakes, and the first to receive attention, is the Ohio. Robert de La Salle explores the Ohio valley during 1669, in a journey which provides the basis for the later French claim to this area.

Four years later a much more dramatic expedition is undertaken by a trader, Louis Jolliet, and a Jesuit priest, Jacques Marquette (founder in 1668 of the mission at Sault sainte marie). With five companions, in 1673, they make their way round Lake Michigan in two birch bark canoes. From Green Bay they paddle up the Fox river, before carrying their canoes overland to the Wisconsin and thus on to the Mississippi.

They travel down the Mississippi as far as its junction with the Arkansas river, by which time they are convinced that it must flow into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Pacific. With this information they make their way back to Lake Michigan.

Inspired by their example, La Salle becomes determined to reach the mouth of the Mississippi. After two false starts, several disasters and a long struggle for funds, he finally achieves the task in 1682. At the mouth of the great river he claims possession for France of the entire region drained by the Mississippi and its many tributaries, naming it Louisiana - in honour of his monarch, Louis XIV.

It is some time before the southern region becomes a desirable colony, though there is a brief flurry of excitement with John Law's Mississippi scheme of 1717 and the founding of New Orleans in 1718. But the Ohio valley is a region of great significance in the 18th century, being hotly disputed between the French and the British.

Newfoundland and Nova Scotia: AD 1670-1745

During the 17th and early 18th century the main area of friction between France and Britain is in northern waters, on the approach to the St Lawrence seaway. This region has long been disputed for its valuable Cod fisheries. With the growth of imperial and trading interests on the mainland it also becomes of strategic importance.

The Cabot Strait, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is the only practical route to the territory of New france, strung out along the St Lawrence river and seaway. It is also the route to the Hudson Bay, where the British have fur-trading interests after the foundation of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670.

The land on the south side of the strait changes hands several times during the 17th century between the French (who call it Acadie, its American Indian name) and the British (who prefer Nova Scotia, 'New Scotland').

Similarly there are regular skirmishes in Newfoundland in the late 17th and early 18th century. The French attack British trading settlements on the coasts of Newfoundland during the European wars of The grand alliance and of The spanish succession. But the Treaty of utrecht, in 1713, brings considerable advantages to Britain in the region.

France accepts British sovereignty in Newfoundland (though retaining fishing rights) and on the shores of Hudson Bay. Moreover Nova Scotia is ceded to Britain, except for the island of Cape Breton at its northern and most strategic point.

On Cape Breton the French build the powerful fortress of Louisbourg, to protect their maritime interests. It proves, however, less impregnable than expected. It is even besieged and captured rather cheekily, in 1745, by a volunteer militia of colonists from New England during the War of the austrian succession.

18th century

Three slices of America: 18th century AD

The accidents of history and the facts of geography combine to form a precarious balance between English, French and Spanish interests in north America during the 18th century.

The quest for gold has brought the Spanish into Mexico from their first landfall in the Caribbean. The search for the northwest passage has sent the French up the St lawrence river to establish a vigorous royal province based largely on trade in furs, brought to the European market from the interior of the continent. Rather later a wish for overseas settlements prompts the English to found a string of Colonies down the eastern seaboard.

Geography plays a more rigid role in keeping the three national interests distinct and separate - at any rate at first, while there seems to be room for all.

The natural direction for Spanish expansion is northwards, to the west of the Rockies, into the regions which are now New Mexico, Arizona and California. The French, from their base around the Great Lakes, are drawn south along the rivers which drain into the Mississippi, and then on down the great river itself. The English enjoy a fertile coastal fringe, neatly confined to the west by the curving line of the Appalachian mountains.

Each of these three colonial groups must conduct its own argument with the existing occupants of the land, the American indians. But for the first two centuries of colonization the Europeans have little more than skirmishes with each other, and these occur mainly at sea.

The situation changes dramatically in the 18th century. The main clash is between the French and the English. The two nations are at war with each other in Europe almost constantly from 1689 (in the wars of the Grand Alliance, the Spanish Succession, the Austrian Succession). This is inevitably reflected in relationships between their neighbouring American Colonies.

But a more direct cause for conflict in north America derives from the interest of each colonial group in the Ohio valley. For the French this region is the first route southwards, running west of the Appalachians. For the British it is the first region available for expansion beyond the Appalachians. As such it is steadily encroached upon by English colonists, eager for new territory in which to trade and settle.

The sensitive nature of the Ohio valley becomes evident in 1749, when a French official is sent down the river to set into the landscape, at regular intervals, embossed lead plates stating the ownership of the land. They declare that it belongs to the king of France.

Washington in the Ohio valley: AD 1753-1755

It has been plain for some years that the Ohio valley is a dangerous area of friction between French and British colonists. Hostility turns to violence in 1752, when the French destroy a British trading centre at Pickawillany. They and their Indian allies then seize or evict every English-speaking trader in the vicinity of the upper Ohio.

The government of Virginia regards this as part of its territory and has been granting land in this region to colonists. Its response, in 1753, is to send an officer to warn the French of impending reprisals if they do not withdraw. The choice for this difficult mission falls on a 21-year-old, George Washington.

With a party of only six (including an interpreter and a guide), Washington sets out on 13 October 1753. A difficult winter journey brings them to a French fort, Le Boeuf, just south of Lake Erie. When Washington delivers his message to the officer in charge, he is politely but firmly told that the French intend to occupy the entire Ohio valley.

The return journey is even more unpleasant, including a ducking when crossing the freezing Allegheny river on a raft. On January 16 Washington and his party reach Williamsburg, where Washington rapidly writes up an account of his futile adventure. Sent to London and printed, it gives wide publicity to France's hostile intentions.

By April 1754 Washington is marching northwest again, this time with 160 soldiers. Virginians have begun building a fort at what is now Pittsburgh, with the intention of making the area safe for English trade. Washington's mission is to defend the young enterprise, but he finds that the French are ahead of him. They have already captured the British who are building the log palisade. And they have given the place a French name, Fort Duquesne.

Washington makes a surprise attack on a contingent of French troops, killing ten. It is the first blood in what will prove the conclusive war between French and British on American soil - the conflict known to English-language historians as the French and Indian War.

When Washington meets the main French force, he is outnumbered and he surrenders. The French disarm his men, but allow them to march back to Virginia - on a promise that the Virginians will not attempt to build another fort on the Ohio for a year.

The expedition has been a failure, but it has important consequences.The government in London has been reluctant to renew formal hostilities with the French, so soon after the Peace of 1748. But it cannot allow American militiamen, or volunteers, to remain unsupported against French professional soldiers. In February 1755 Edward Braddock lands with a British army. Washington becomes his personal aide-de-camp.

Braddock and Washington head west through the Allegheny mountains from Fort Cumberland, with wagons for their baggage train supplied by settlers in the Conestoga valley (introducing a vehicle of great significance in American history). But the two generals are no more successful than Washington alone in recovering Fort Duquesne. Their army is ambushed by the French in July 1755 and Braddock is killed. For the third time in eighteen months Washington arrives back in Virginia after a failed mission.

But his courage and authority on the field of battle have not gone unnoticed. In August he is promoted to colonel and is appointed commander-in-chief of Virginia's troops. He is now twenty-three.

Montcalm: AD 1756-1758

The French success at Fort duquesne in 1755 is followed by two more years of striking victories over the British. The broad battlefield is the border territory between French and British America - east of Lake Ontario and north of Albany.

Here the French take several important British frontier posts, largely thanks to the skills of the marquis of Montcalm who arrives in the summer of 1756 to command the French armies in America. Montcalm captures Oswego on Lake Ontario in 1756, and Fort William Henry (to the north of Albany) in 1757.

Montcalm's greatest success is the defence of Fort Carillon in July 1758. In a strategically important position at Ticonderoga, between Lake George and Lake Champlain, he hold it against a much larger British force - with more than 2000 British casualties compared to only 372 in the French army.

By now the French threat to the British colonies seems overwhelming. The western regions of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are almost deserted as settlers flee to safety from marauding parties of the French or their Indian allies. But the tide is about to turn. The second half of 1758 brings British victories. By this time the conflict is part of the wider Seven Years' War.

Pitt and north America: AD 1758-1759

The changing fortunes of the British in north America in 1758-9 are largely due to the energy and skill of the man who in the summer of 1757 becomes secretary of state with responsibility for the war - William Pitt, known as Pitt the Elder (or, later, earl of Chatham). Pitt builds up Britain's navy and selects talented commanders on both sea and land.

His first success is an expedition sent out to capture the powerful fort at the eastern extremity of New France. Louisburg falls in July 1758 in an action in which a young officer, James Wolfe, distinguishes himself.

Four months later, in November 1758, there is a victory in the extreme west of the American war zone. The event is strategically less significant than the capture of Louisbourg, but symbolically it is most gratifying to the British.

The French capture of Fort duquesne in 1754 began the war in America. Now four years later, on the advance of a British army (once again with George Washington commanding a contingent), the French burn their wooden fort and abandon the site. The commander of the British army writes to inform Pitt that he is giving the place a new name - Pittsburgh, in the secretary of state's honour.

In 1759 the French fort at Niagara is taken (a strategically important site), followed shortly by another event of sweet revenge - the capture of Fort Carillon at Ticonderoga, the site of a costly and embarrassing failure in the previous year.

The stage is now set for a final assault on the very heart of New France, the original settlements of Montreal and Quebec.

Wolfe and Quebec: AD 1759

To command the expedition against Quebec, Pitt selects the young officer, James Wolfe, who has distinguished himself in the previous year's capture of Louisbourg. Wolfe's opponent in this crucial encounter will be the most successful French general in this war, the marquis de Montcalm.

Wolfe's army, numbering about 8500, is brought up the St Lawrence River in British ships in June. Montcalm is defending Quebec with some 15,000 troops. The citadel is protected by the river to the south and by high cliffs to the west. Montcalm's army is firmly entrenched to the east of the city, blocking the only easy approach.

Wolfe spends nearly three months bombarding the citadel from across the river. He also attempts various unsuccessful assaults. Montcalm sits tight. Then, during the night of September 12, Wolfe puts into effect a bold plan.

He is himself in a weak state, from tuberculosis, but in the darkness he leads his men across the river, in boats with muffled oars, to the foot of a steep wooded cliff west of the city. At the top, 300 feet above the level of the river, is a plateau - the Plains of Abraham - with open access to Quebec. By dawn the British army is on the plateau. Only in battle can the city be defended now.

The battle for Quebec lasts little more than an hour before the French flee. But that hour has been long enough to claim the lives of both commanders. Montcalm is severely injured and dies the next day. Wolfe, wounded twice in the thick of the fighting, receives a third and mortal blow just as the tide of battle turns finally in his favour. The death of the 32-year-old general, at his moment of victory, becomes an icon in British popular history.

It is a profoundly significant victory. Without Quebec, Montreal is isolated. Surrounded by British armies, the commander of the city surrenders in September 1760. The whole of French Canada is now in British hands - a state of affairs confirmed in the Paris peace treaty of 1763.

France cedes to Britain all the territory which it has previously claimed between the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, together with the original territories of New France along the St Lawrence. This brings to an end the French empire in continental America (only New Orleans and its district remain in French hands under the treaty). The British become unmistakably the dominant power in the northern half of the continent, in one of the major turning points of history.

The lands more notionally claimed by the French between the Mississippi and the Rockies are ceded to Spain. (They are later acquired by the USA, in 1803, in the Louisiana purchase.)

Pontiac: AD 1763-1766

The victory of the British in the French and indian war is followed by the departure of the French from all their forts. This leaves their Indian allies at the mercy of the British, whose interests are very different from those of the French.

The French colonists, consisting mainly of soldiers and traders, have established an easy relationship with the tribes. There is no direct rivalry, and both sides benefit from the trade in fur. Indians have traditionally been welcome in French forts and have been given presents, including even guns and ammunition. By contrast the British, interested in settled agriculture, are a direct threat to the Indians' territory.

Pontiac, a chief of the Ottawa Indians, responds to the new situation by planning an uprising of the Indian tribes. Skilfully synchronized to begin in May 1763, with each tribe attacking a different fort, the campaign has an early and devastating success. Many garrisons are overwhelmed and massacred, in an attempt to drive the British back east of the Appalachians. But a ferocious counter-offensive is launched by the governor-general, Jeffrey Amherst.

Amherst lacks any form of moral scruple in his treatment of tribes whom he regards as contemptible savages. He even suggests spreading smallpox by gifts of infected blankets (and Indians given blankets by the British, in a peace conference at Pittsburgh in 1764, do develop the disease).

In the first flush of Pontiac's success, in 1763, the British government is so alarmed that a royal proclamation is issued; all land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi is to be reserved as hunting grounds for the Indians. But two years later the British army regains control of the situation. Pontiac makes formal peace in 1766, whereupon the royal proclamation is soon forgotten.

Settlers press west in increasing numbers into the Ohio valley. With the threat from both French and Indians removed in the recent wars, the colonists are now in buoyant mood. Soon they even feel sufficiently confident to confront the British crown.


A mood of rebellion: AD 1763-1770

During the years after the end of the French and Indian War there is mounting tension between Britain and her American colonies. The contentious issues are British taxes and the presence of British troops on American soil. Unrest centres particularly on the most radical of the colonial cities, Boston.

In 1770 there is an incident in Boston of a kind familiar in northern Ireland two centuries later. An unruly crowd throws stones at the much resented troops. The soldiers open fire, killing five. The event becomes famous in folk history as the Boston Massacre. Even more famous, three years later, is Boston's response to cargoes of tea which are subject to the most resented of British taxes.

Boston Tea Party: AD 1773

Early in December 1773 three East india company ships are in Boston harbour, waiting for their cargo of tea to be unloaded. No one will take it off the ship, because it will pay British duty as soon as it is transferred to American soil. However, if it is still in the harbour on December 17, the cargo can be legally seized by the British customs and sold.

At a mass meeting in Boston on the evening of December 16 the question is pointedly raised: 'Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?' Soon some Bostonians appear, roughly disguised as Indians. With the 'Indians' in the lead, the crowd marches to the harbour, boards the ships, and throws some 350 chests of tea into the water.

The night ends with a triumphal march through Boston to the accompaniment of fife and drum. The exciting news spreads rapidly through the colonies, but it takes more than a month for details to reach London of this direct act of defiance. The response of the prime minister, Lord North, is that the time for conciliation has passed. As an example to the other colonies, Boston must be brought to heel.

A succession of acts are passed in London during the summer of 1774. Known officially as the Coercive Acts (but in America as the Intolerable Acts), their purpose is to punish Boston - at the very least until compensation for the tea is paid to the East india company.

The first of these parliamentary acts closes Boston's port. Subsequent ones place the city under the military command of General Thomas Gage and provide new arrangements for the quartering of troops. It is a policy which can only inflame the situation.

In colony after colony during 1774 provincial assemblies voice their support for Boston, bringing them into direct conflict with their own British governors - who in some cases use their powers to dissolve the assemblies. As a result a new idea gains rapid and excited support. Each colony is invited to send delegates to a congress in Philadelphia in September. Only Georgia hangs back from this next act of defiance.

First Continental Congress: AD 1774

Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies convene in Philadelphia. They are leaders of their own communities (George Washington is here for Virginia). Their voices will carry weight, and the message that they send to Britain is uncompromising.

They state that the recent measures passed into law at Westminster violate natural rights (a theme developed two years later in the Declaration of independence) and that as such they are unconstitutional. They declare their united support for Massachusetts. In more practical terms they announce a joint boycott, from December, of all imported goods from Britain and the British West Indies. It is to be followed nine months later by a similar block on exports to those markets from America.

The delegates agree to reconvene in May 1775, but it is clear that the Congress has made war probable. This is welcome news to half the American colonists, who become known as the Patriots. Those who still hope to find an accomodation with Britain (perhaps 25% of the population) acquire the name of Loyalists.

The Patriots spend the winter in preparation, and events soon prove they are right to do so. An exasperated parliament in London decides that more forceful measures are needed. General Gage, commanding the redcoats in Boston, is sent an order to employ his troops more forcefully. He decides to make a surprise raid on the Patriots' stock of military supplies in Massachusetts.

Lexington and Concord: AD 1775

The target of General Gage's supposedly secret foray is a store of weapons held at Concord, twenty miles northwest of Boston. But the secret leaks out. When a force of 700 redcoats moves from the city, a horseman gallops from Boston to warn the local Patriots of their approach.

Popular tradition has long identified the horseman as the distinguished Huguenot silversmith Paul Revere. The tradition may well be correct. Revere, one of the 'Indians' taking part in the Tea Party of 1773, often rides with urgent messages from Boston's Committee of Public Safety.

On April 19 the redcoats reach Lexington, on the road to Concord. They find some seventy-five minutemen (the local name for volunteers ready to mobilize at a moment's notice) waiting to oppose their passage. It is not known who fires the first shot - later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson as 'the shot heard round the world'. But after a brief engagement eight minutemen are dead and ten wounded.

The British contingent marches on to Concord, only to find that all the weapons have been removed. Meanwhile the Massachusetts militia has assembled in force. The redcoats suffer heavily from snipers on the journey back to Boston. The American Revolution, also known as the War of American Independence, has begun.

Second Continental Congress: AD 1775

When the delegates of the continental congress reconvene as planned, in May 1775, hostilities have already broken out in the skirmish at Lexington. These are followed by a great mustering of militiamen of Massachusetts, soon joined by supporters from neighbouring colonies.

This American volunteer army is laying siege to British-held Boston when the delegates assemble in Philadelphia. These events transform their congress into a de facto government of the united colonies, with responsibility for conducting the military campaign. Their first duty is to select a commander-in-chief of the colonial army, to take charge of the campaign at Boston.

On June 15, after much preliminary negotiation, the choice falls on George Washington. He has his own past military successes to recommend him, but his selection also fulfils a political necessity in that he comes from the south. The present quarrel involves the most populous and prosperous northern colony, Massachusetts. Virginia has the same status among the southern colonies.

If north and south are to cooperate in a shared cause, it is appropriate that a southern general commands the northern militia (formally adopted by the congress on May 31 as the Continental Army). Within a few days of his appointment, Washington travels north to take up his post.

Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights: AD 1775-1776

Two weeks before Washington reaches Boston, an important engagement has taken place on Bunker Hill (or more accurately Breed's Hill) - a height overlooking the city from the north. Colonial troops occupy and fortify this vantage point, constituting a threat to the British in the city.

On June 17 the British storm the hill. They eventually succeed in taking it, but only after a battle so hard fought (some 1000 British casualties to only about 450 American) that it seems a victory for the amateur colonial militia rather than the British regulars. Certainly Washington is impressed by the spirit of the men he has come to command.

Washington spends the rest of 1775 training his troops, who number some 20,000. He also arranges for the transport, over difficult roads, of cannon captured by the colonists when they seize Fort Ticonderoga in a surprise attack in May 1775. On the first day of 1776 Washington flies for the first time a new colonial flag. With thirteen alternating red and white stripes, one for each of the colonies, the design evolves a year later into the Stars and Stripes.

To the south of Boston, overlooking the harbour, there is a promontory - Dorchester Heights - which has been inexplicably left undefended by the British. During the night of 4 March 1776 Washington moves his Ticonderoga cannon up the slopes of this hill.

From his commanding position Washington can now make the harbour unsafe for British naval vessels. The move proves decisive. On March 17 the British in Boston (by now under the command of William Howe) evacuate the city and sail to safety in Nova Scotia. They leave in the city two hundred cannon and large numbers of muskets with their ammunition - valuable additions to the American arsenal.

Washington, anticipating that New York is the next likely target for a British assault, marches to its defence. After settling his army in Manhattan and on Brooklyn Heights, he continues south to spend two weeks at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The subject under discussion is a contentious one - independence.

Steps to independence: AD 1775-1776

After the show of strength by the colonists at Lexington and Bunker hill in 1755 there are hopes in some quarters that parliament in Britain might adopt a more conciliatory tone. Any such prospect is dashed by the declaration in August 1775 that the American colonies are in a state of rebellion. This is followed by a Prohibitory Act in November instituting a naval blockade of the American coastline.

Meanwhile the congress in Philadelphia is still in session. It is carrying out the practical activities associated with government - organizing public finances, issuing money, running a postal service, placing orders for munitions, even commissioning the first colonial navy.

Increasingly, during these months, colonists are coming to the view that a complete break from Britain may be the only way forward. In May 1776 the revolutionary convention of Virginia votes for independence and instructs the Virginia delegation to present this motion to the Continental Congress. Early in June, in Philadelphia, a small committee is set up to draft a declaration of independence. Its five members include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The task of composing the document is left to Jefferson. It is passed on June 12 as the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

This powerful move towards independence comes to a head in early July. In the month between July 2 and August 2 the final break is proposed, proclaimed and eventually signed as the Declaration of Independence.

New York Philadelphia and Saratoga: AD 1776-1777

George Washington's defence of New York in 1776 and subsequently of Philadelphia in 1777 do not rank among his successes. In a series of engagements between August and November 1776 he is driven first from Long Island and then from Manhattan Island with heavy losses of men (mainly captured rather than killed).

On his retreat southwards in midwinter, with an army of only about 6000, he achieves two psychologically important victories by surprise attacks on isolated sections of the British army at Trenton and then at Princeton. These successes raise the colonial morale, and help Washington to recruit more forces. But they are followed by a further disaster in 1777.

Philadelphia, as the first city of America and the seat of the Continental Congress, has great symbolic importance. Intent on capturing it, Howe brings his army down from New York by sea in the summer of 1777, landing them at the head of Chesapeake Bay. Washington attempts to block their progress to Philadelphia but is severely defeated in a battle at Brandywine (in which the 20-year-old Lafayette fights bravely and is wounded, marking the first appearance of the hero of two revolutions). The congress delegates make a hurried escape from Philadelphia, which the British enter in triumph in September.

Yet the triumph proves hollow. In the same month another British army, under John Burgoyne, is in trouble north of Albany.

Burgoyne has made a difficult march south from Quebec as part of a strategy to join up with Howe, moving north from New York. The plan is to isolate the New England colonies. But Howe has instead gone south to Philadelphia. Burgoyne is unsupported, short of food and ammunition. After defeat in two battles near Saratoga, in September and October 1777, he surrenders to a larger American force under Horatio Gates.

Less than 6000 men are involved, but the propaganda benefit to the colonial cause is incalculable. Indeed Saratoga can be seen as the turning point in the war. The surrender of an entire British army to rebellious colonists attracts the serious attention of a nation with no love for Britain. France begins to negotiate an American alliance.

The international phase: AD 1778-1781

A French treaty with the colonists is agreed in February 1778 and two months later a large French fleet sails for America. In the following year, in the established tradition of Bourbon Family compacts, France persuades a reluctant Spain to join the fray (as the major colonial power in America, Spain is understandably wary of taking up arms on behalf of rebels).

These developments transform the war between Britain and the colonists. Up to this point the British have been able to ship troops and supplies across the Atlantic with no obstacle other than the elements. Now there are hostile French and Spanish fleets to contend with.

There is even the unexpected affront of warships from the infant American navy sailing from French ports to carry out raids on the coastal regions of Britain. The first American naval hero, John Paul Jones, makes successful sorties in the spring of 1778 and the autumn of 1779, seizing British vessels and launching sudden raids inland. The second voyage ends with the dramatic encounter between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis off Flamborough Head.

But the new French alliance has its greatest effect on military strategy in America. The main strategic aim of both sides, from 1778 to the end of the war, is to ensure that armies are well placed to receive naval support.

The first dramatic example of this is the sudden British departure from Philadelphia in 1778. Advance news of the expected arrival of the French fleet in the Chesapeake is enough to terrify the British, facing the possible prospect of being cut off in hostile territory without any source of supplies. They leave the city and march northeast to greater safety in New York.

This setback, combined with stalemate in the northern colonies, prompts a new British strategy - that of moving troops south by sea to attack the weaker southern colonies. But, after some striking initial successes, this is the campaign which eventually loses the war for Britain.

In December 1778 a British expeditionary force of 3500 men from New York lands in Georgia and captures Savannah. During 1779 the British win control of the whole of Georgia. In 1780, after shipping more troops to the region, they move into South Carolina. Charleston is taken in May 1780, and some 5000 American troops are captured in the city, after a siege of more than a month by both land and sea.

From this point the British, under the command now of Charles Cornwallis, face increasingly strong opposition as they press on into North Carolina. There are numerous bitterly fought skirmishes, often in the nature of civil war, because the Loyalists in this region are very active in support of the British.

Yorktown: AD 1781

The final result of the campaigns of 1780 and 1781 is that Cornwallis presses too far north, deep into Virginia, and finds himself isolated. He moves his army to Yorktown, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, and sets about fortifying this position as one where he can survive until relieved by a fleet from New York.

Meanwhile George Washington has been waiting to mount a joint operation with the French navy. Seeing his chance in the plight of Cornwallis, he arranges a rendezvous in the Chesapeake with the admiral commanding a French fleet in the West Indies. He then marches an army south through New Jersey and embarks them on ships in Delaware Bay for transport to Williamsburg, a few miles west of Yorktown.

By the end of September 1781 Washington is besieging Yorktown with an army of about 14,000 men (including 5000 French troops) and the French fleet is completing the blockade by sea. With no practical hope of any relief from New York, Cornwallis surrenders on October 19.

This effectively brings to an end the war of the American Revolution. The European nations continue to scrap at sea (Spain takes Minorca back from the British in 1782), but Yorktown is the last engagement of the war in America. The British drag their heels in evacuating their two prizes of the campaign - they remain in Charleston until November 1782 and in New York until October 1783. By then a peace treaty has been signed in Paris.

Independence achieved: AD 1783

The treaty signed in Paris on 3 September 1783 brings the American Revolution to its successful conclusion. The American commissioners in the negotiations (Benjamin Franklin and John Adams among their number) win extremely good terms for the new nation. Its independence is acknowledged without reservation, and its agreed frontiers are unexpectedly generous.

To the coastal strip of the thirteen colonies is now added the entire region west as far as the Mississippi and north to the Great Lakes. This was the area bitterly fought over between Britain and France In 1754-60. It now falls to the colonists as an immensely rich area available for westward expansion.

Adjusting the boundaries

British North America: from AD 1783

Under the terms agreed in Paris in 1783, the regions historically settled by the French now become the only remaining part of the British empire in America.

The territory along the St Lawrence, from Nova Scotia in the east to the Great Lakes, has been won by Britain from France at various stages during the 18th century. Known previously as New france, the official name for this region now becomes British North America - even though the population is predominantly French. However a more neutral name, Canada, also comes into informal use during the 18th century.

The first major immigration of British people into Canada occurs as a result of the American Revolution. The Loyalists, who have taken Britain's side in the war, have no future in the newly independent United States. In the years up to 1783 about 40,000 flee north into Canada. The majority (among them 1000 freed slaves) go to Nova scotia, where there has been a British presence for several decades. About 10,000 choose the province of Quebec.

From 1784 Britain reorganizes her remaining north American colonies on a more practical basis. Because of the sudden influx of Loyalists, Nova scotia is divided into three separate colonies by the formation of New Brunswick and Cape Breton (the latter is reunited with Nova scotia in 1820).

More significant are the changes brought about by the Canadian Constitutional Act of 1791. This divides the province of Quebec into two halves - Upper Canada (equivalent to modern Ontario) and Lower Canada (modern Quebec). These two provinces are at the same time given a new constitution, with power shared between the governor (representing the crown), an appointed legislative council and an elected legislative assembly.

Lower Canada is the province with by far the highest proportion of French inhabitants. It soon becomes, and remains, the centre of French political aspirations within British North America.

Doubling the American nation: AD 1803-1819

During the Napoleonic wars, and as an indirect result of them, the territory of the United States is doubled. The immediate reason is Napoleon's half-hearted efforts to re-establish a French empire in the west, remembering the heady times half a century earlier when France laid claim to the entire vast region either side of the Mississippi.

The land to the east of the great river has been lost to Britain (and therefore subsequently to the United States) in the Treaty of paris in 1763. At the same time the unexplored and seemingly less valuable territory to the west of the river has been ceded by France to Spain. Though only half of the original French territory, it retains the name Louisiana.

In 1800 Napoleon forces an abject Spain to return Louisiana to France. In 1801 he takes a similarly resolute stance against the rebellion of Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti, sending out an army to restore order in this valuable French suguar-exporting colony. But by 1803 circumstances have diminished his appetite for western adventures.

In two years yellow fever reduces the French army in Haiti from 25,000 to 3000 men. At the same time the fragile Peace of amiens looks like breaking down. Needing money for a renewal of war against Britain, and fearing perhaps that the British might seize Lousiana for their own empire, Napoleon sells the entire region in 1803 to Thomas Jefferson's envoys in Paris.

The Louisiana Purchase has often and rightly been described as the greatest bargain in American history. The price for 828,000 square miles, more than doubling the previous size of the United States, is $15 million dollars. With interest, until the final settlement, the sum paid amounts in all to $27,267,622 - or thirty-three dollars a square mile.

Coincidentally preparations have recently been made in Washington for an expedition which will reveal, with a degree of scientific accuracy, just what is being purchased for the nation. Early in 1803 President Jefferson commissions Lewis and Clark to undertake their famous exploration, from the Mississippi to the Pacific and back.

The purchase of Louisiana has the added advantage of securing the port of New Orleans for the trading activities of the American settlers who are now beginning to flourish east of the Mississippi. If the mouth of the river were in hostile hands, these infant territories could easily be throttled.

For the same reason it is greatly in the US interest to win the coastline east from New Orleans. This is achieved in two stages. In 1813 the area known as West Florida is seized (to become the coastal region of Alabama), on the somewhat dubious grounds that it was in fact part of the Louisiana Purchase.

The Florida peninsula itself undoubtedly belongs to Spain, but American acquisition is simplified by the fact that Spain, during the War of 1812, is an ally of Britain in the European conflict against Napoleon. Andrew Jackson marches into Florida in 1812 but on this occasion has to withdraw. In 1818 he finds a reason to return (in pursuit of Indian parties raiding into Alabama). This time he seems set to stay.

The result is the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, by which Spain sells Florida to the USA for $5 million and the waiving of any American claim to Texas. This agreement completes the establishment of new transcontinental borders for the American nation.

Transcontinental borders: AD 1818-1819

The Louisiana purchase, and the rich opportunities suggested by the findings of the Lewis and clark expedition, focus American minds on the west - with the Pacific now the boundary of the nation's ambitions. In this new context continuing struggles against the British in Canada or the Spanish in Mexico can only be a distraction. In both directions demarcation lines are agreed before 1820.

In 1817, just three years after the last hostilities between British and Americans on the Canadian border, the Rush-Bagot agreement establishes very low levels of naval armament as the maximum for either nation on any of the Great Lakes.

This first precautionary peace-keeping measure is followed a year later, in 1818, by the agreement which has held good ever since - that the frontier between the two nations will run west from Lake of the Woods along the 49th parallel.

At this stage the border is drawn only as far as the Rockies. The region west of the continental divide (as yet virtually unsettled at this latitude by Europeans) is regarded for the moment as shared territory between the two nations. In 1846 it is ceded to the USA by Britain, recognizing as a fait accompli the human reality of the Oregon trail. Since then the frontier has continued along the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific coast.

Meanwhile the Transcontinental treaty of 1819 has established an extensive southern frontier for the USA It looks less logical than the straight line of the 49th parallel in the north, and it will later be subject to considerable adjustment, but for the moment it is a great benefit that it can at least be drawn on a map.

The new border runs from the Gulf of Mexico up the Sabine river, then goes west along the Red river, north up the 100th meridian, west along the Arkansas river, north up the Rockies and west along the 42nd parallel to the Pacific. With the territory north of this line acknowledged as theirs, Americans get down to the absorbing process of Opening up the west. And they now have the confidence to put down an international marker.

Meanwhile the Transcontinental treaty of 1819 has established an extensive southern frontier for the USA. It looks less logical than the straight line of the 49th parallel in the north, and it will later be subject to considerable adjustment, but for the moment it is a great benefit that it can at least be drawn on a map.

The new border runs from the Gulf of Mexico up the Sabine river, then goes west along the Red river, north up the 100th meridian, west along the Arkansas river, north up the Rockies and west along the 42nd parallel to the Pacific. With the territory north of this line acknowledged as theirs, Americans get down to the absorbing process of Opening up the west.

Texas: AD 1821-1836

From the 16th century Texas, though much neglected, has been a northern region of Spanish Mexico, or New spain. It is formally recognized as such in the border Agreement of 1819, when any US claims to the territory are relinquished. Just two years later Mexico wins independence from Spain.

Later in 1821 a 27-year-old American, Stephen Austin, arrives in Texas with 300 families to establish a settlement. They are the first of many. By the early 1830s there are some 30,000 Americans in Texas and only about 7000 Mexicans. Friction would be inevitable in these circumstances, but it is aggravated by the issue of slavery.

The Americans, from the southern states, bring slaves to work the cotton plantations which they establish. The republican government of Mexico, outlawing slavery, places garrisons in Texas in an attempt to discipline the unruly colonists.

In 1835 the colonists rise in rebellion and capture San Antonio. The town is recovered in March 1836 by the Mexican commander, Santa Anna, apart from one building - the Alamo, an old Franciscan chapel in a walled complex, which is held by fewer than 200 Texans (among them Davy Crockett). In the most famous event of early Texan history, the defenders hold out for twelve days and account for 1000 or more Mexicans before themselves being overwhelmed and killed.

The fall of the Alamo is followed by a massacre at Goliad where 300 Texan soldiers, surrendering after a battle, are killed in cold blood on the orders of Santa Anna. The settlers have recently declared their independence, as the republic of Texas. It is a claim soon sealed by a convincing victory.

In April 1836 Sam Houston surprises Santa Anna's army taking a siesta near the San Jacinto river. In a brief skirmish his men kill 600 and capture another 200, including Santa Anna. With this event the tide turns. Mexico makes no further effort to suppress the Texan rebellion, while nevertheless denying the independence of the self-proclaimed republic - of which Houston is elected president.

In the United States, on the other hand, the new republic is immediately recognized. There is also a widespread feeling that Texas should be included in the union, as the colonists themselves wish. In the 1844 presidential campaign the Democratic candidate, James Polk, is elected on a platform supporting the annexation of Texas. In 1845 congress admits the Texan republic (by now home to 140,000 Americans) as the 28th state of the union, regardless of Mexico's undeniable claim to the region.

This in itself would be sufficient pretext for war. Another likely cause, unadmitted, is President Polk's yearning for yet more of Mexico - rich California. And there is also an unresolved dispute over the boundary of Texas.

American and Mexican War: AD 1846-1848

The Americans in Texas claim that the southern boundary of their province is the Rio Grande. The Mexicans maintain that it is the Nueces river, more than 100 miles to the north. War breaks out in 1846 when President Polk sends an American army under Zachary Taylor into the disputed region, prompting the Mexicans to take the same step in retaliation.

Taylor makes little progress into northern Mexico beyond the city of Monterrey, which he captures in September 1846. During that winter Polk tries another tactic. He sends an American army under Winfield Scott by sea to the Gulf of Mexico.

In March 1847 Scott takes the port of Veracruz after a three-week siege. He then marches inland and defeats Santa Anna (once again serving as Mexico's president) at Cerro Gordo. Though strongly opposed in the mountainous terrain, he reaches Mexico City. He enters the capital in September.

The resulting treaty, signed in Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, gives Polk all that he has hoped for. In return for a payment of $15 million, Mexico cedes to the USA the territory now forming the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. With suitable forethought, during the course of the war, US forces have already occupied the only developed parts of this vast region, New Mexico and California.

This treaty of 1848 establishes the southern border of the USA along the line which has prevailed ever since. Meanwhile, in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, the northern frontier with British North America has also been agreed. It runs along the 49th parallel to the Pacific coast, acknowledging as US territory the region which will become the states of Oregon (in 1859) and Washington (in 1889).

With these developments the boundaries of the entire continent north of Mexico are settled, except for a somewhat indeterminate one to the northwest of Canada in the remote and inhospitable regions of the Yukon. West of this natural frontier, in Alaska, the landlord in the mid-19th century is still the Russian tsar.

Russian-American Company: AD 1799-1867

From the discovery of Alaska on Bering's second voyage, in 1741 (see Bering's voyages), there has been consistent interest in the region from Russian fur traders and from ships of other European nations. Captain cook explores the coast in 1778 and is followed in the next few years by British trading vessels. The French send a scientific expedition in 1786. Meanwhile the Spanish are indignant at all this intrusion, because they claim as their own the entire Pacific coast from Mexico to the extreme north of the continent.

The Russians, first in the region and most active in the Alaskan fur trade, take positive measures in 1799 to create a monopoly. They set up the Russian-American Company, with an imperial charter.

The company makes its headquarters at New Archangel (now Sitka). For a while an apparently viable small colony is established, with a shipbuilding industry of its own, but it gradually comes to seem a liability rather than an asset to Russia.

In 1855, when Russia is under pressure in the Crimean war, there is preliminary discussion of a possible sale of Alaska to the United States. Negotiations become delayed, from 1861, by another conflict, the American civil war. Eventually a sale is agreed, in 1867, with the American secretary of state William H. Seward. The price is $7,200,000 (yet the controversial transaction is known for a while as 'Seward's Folly').

Alaska begins to develop economically with the first discovery of gold in 1880, and the process accelerates after the Klondike gold rush of 1897-8. The region is given territorial status in 1912 but does not achieve statehood until 1959, as the 49th state.

Meanwhile the year of the Alaska purchase, 1867, has seen the final end of the colonial era in North America - with the establishment of the dominion of Canada.

Dominion of Canada: AD 1864-1867

For some years the inhabitants of British North America have expressed discontent with their colonial status. And there has been continuing political friction between the British and French communities in the historic region along the St Lawrence river and north of the Great Lakes (merged from 1840 into a single colony as the Province of canada).

The result is a conference, called in 1864, to discuss a possible federal union of all the provinces of British North America. The conference endorses the idea. But when it is put to the various assemblies during 1865, only the Province of canada (by far the largest) votes in favour.

The British government, reacting with enthusiasm to a practical solution for a familiar colonial problem, exerts pressure on New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to join the scheme. So when the British North america Act is passed at Westminster, in 1867, four former colonies (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of canada now separated again into Ontario and Quebec) unite to form a new Canadian state - which formally comes into existence, on 1 July 1867, as the Dominion of Canada, with Ottawa as the capital city.

North america finally settles down into two great modern nations.
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