- Children in Colonial America
The historical study of children is a relatively recent field, dating back only to the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, scholars, frustrated by a lack of sources originating from children, have used the tools of a variety of fields beyond that of history, such as ethnography and psychology, to explore the worlds of children. Several recent events indicate the American coming of age of the field: the publication of important encyclopedias and historical surveys such as Joseph Illick's American Childhoods (2002) and Steven Mintz's acclaimed Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (2004), years of lively conference activity, new professional organizations, and the appearance of this journal itself. It should be no surprise then that there should also be this new series, New York University Press, "Children and Youth in America," of which this book is the first, with a collection of articles showing the range of interests of established scholars and graduate students alike.
Edited by James Marten, a historian of nineteenth-century childhood in his own right, this collection brings together a broad range of scholarly and pedagogical interests. Clearly the goal of this work was that it should be a companion to a colonial America, U.S. survey, or history of childhood class and it tracks the standard regional and thematic patterns of college level instruction. Ranging in time from the experiences of native children in early colonial Mexico, to boys participating in agitation against the British in Boston following the Stamp Act crisis, the essays explore the experiences of children around the western Atlantic world and follow themes such as race, family, health, and identity. Each section is helpfully accompanied by one or two primary documents. The whole is embraced by a thoughtful foreword by Philip J. Greven, dean of the history of colonial U.S. childhood, who argues that the relevance of the field lies in its ability to make connections to the modern era.
Marten's editorial essay lays the foundation for this work. He argues that since colonial childhoods, indeed American childhoods in any era, were [End Page 295] diverse and shaped by their regional, racial, gender, and economic circumstances, they "can be better understood if they are considered together rather than separately" (4). To this end, the thematic organization works well, allowing us to see the variety of experiences encompassed within topics such as family or colonization.
Despite this diversity in children's worlds, I would like to have seen an attempt in this introduction to define childhood, since few of the contributors did so. Marten offers the fact that childhood is a cultural construction, "a concept created by humans rather than a state of being governed by inevitable natural laws" (8). That statement certainly allows us to examine the "bewildering variety of behaviors" accepted by people of children and youth across cultures and gives the contributors appropriate latitude (8). However, few of the authors offered any greater specificity about how they or the communities they were examining defined children, and that left the reader guessing the contours of the society.
The few who did were able to use a definition to make subtle observations about the communities they were studying. Mariah Adin, in her essay on violence towards children in New Amsterdam, examined court cases concerning abused children. Through these, which often involved children engaged in paid labor, she saw the society struggling to reach a legal understanding of childhood beyond the simple legal age of majority, which was twenty-five in that community. The courts saw some of the children before them "legally as dependent, but in fact functionally independent" and acted accordingly (91). Here, a definition added to the reader's understanding of the issue and gave Adin specific territory to explore. Similarly, Audra Abbe Diptee examined the world of slave children in eighteenth-century Jamaica, and also offered a clear definition. Dependent as she was on slave traders' records for her demographic information, she used their demarcation of height to determine maturity. For both...