The Barbarous Years

I'm reviewing the book with the above title by Bernard Bailyn. I'm in the "flipping through randomly to get a sense of the book" stage right now. One thing I ran across was Bailyn's account of the Virginia massacre of 1622.

If you want to dispel yourself of any notion that colonial American history consists entirely of peaceful Indians being exterminated by ruthless colonists, then you need only read an account of that event. Acting on Chief Opechancanough's plan, which had been years in the making, the Indians wandered unarmed into English settlements, and offered trades, or even sat down to breakfast with their English hosts. (For the the Indians to share meals with the English, or even sleep over at their houses, was apparently very common before the massacre.) At a certain moment (it is not clear from Bailyn's account if there was a signal), the Indians grabbed whatever weapon was at hand -- "axes, hammers, shovels, tools, and knives" (p. 101) -- and slaughtered their hosts, killing over 300 English men, women and children. They mutilated the corpses, burned down farms, and killed or dispersed farm animals. The attackers apparently especially singled out as targets the settlers who had been friendliest towards them, "as if the acculturation they had sought, with its assumption of divine sanction, was a special danger that had to be utterly obliterated" (p. 102).

The English, of course, were not blameless, and had been very careless about encroaching upon Indian lands with their plantations. But you can see why their view of the Indians was a little less accomodative after this event.


  1. That's an interesting immigration policy.

  2. What kind of a doofus would ever have believed "that colonial American history consists entirely of peaceful Indians being exterminated by ruthless colonists"? This is a semi-serious question. I suspect that many people do believe this, and I'd like to understand how they could possibly have reached that conclusion. American colonial history consists of Europeans (whose descendents came to call themselves Americans) showing up in a foreign country, winning a long series of wars (with quite a few lost battles along the way), and vae victis. What's so hard to understand about this for some people?

    I guess people have a hard time wrapping their brains around how wars get started; they would like there to be a definitive good guy/bad guy in every case (i.e. Hitler was bad, not "Hitler was despicable, but why wouldn’t the Polish discuss Danzig in good faith?"). If you feel a need to designate a good guy and bad guy all the time, then I guess you have no choice but make the noble savage the good guy and the white man the bad guy. Among the traits of good guys are being peaceable, just, slow-to-anger, etc. Therefore, it follows by goodthink that the Indians must have been peaceable all the time. Maybe it’s all just a massive instance of black-and-white thinking.


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