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  • The English Frontier in North America
  • Juliana Barr (bio)
Daniel K. Richter. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. viii + 502 pp. Maps, illustrations, notes, further reading, and index. $35.00.

With cogent argument, engaging storytelling, and flowing prose, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts seeks to reclaim the master narrative of early America from a traditional, Whiggish origin myth for the United States. In the words of Thomas Paine, the American Revolution amounted to a Noah’s flood at the end of the eighteenth century—a force that swept all away and “beg[a]n the world over again” (p. 3). Daniel K. Richter wants us to remember what came before that moment and conceptualizes a narrative of comparable scale and storytelling power by charting the “earlier strata of society, culture, and politics” that were submerged by the American Revolution but “remain[ed] beneath the surface to mold the nation’s current contours” (p. 4). To uncover these lost worlds and reveal, as the book jacket promises, “that the United States has a much deeper history than is apparent,” he breaks down the sum of early American history into six sequential cultural layers or eras defined by human actors: progenitors, conquistadores, traders, planters, imperialists, and Atlanteans. These layers represent the six parts into which the book is divided. In the process (and process is important here), Richter moves away from other conceptual models—Atlantic World, borderlands, hearth cultures and folkways, geography and ecological imperialism, and environmental factors of guns, germs, and steel—to focus instead on large-scale patterns and processes that can be sorted into the six key layers. And, for Richter, the thread running through all six is that “empires were the process.”1

The most powerful analytical reorientation in Richter’s telling of the story of early America lies in the fact that his layers reach back to 900 C.E., echoing recent trends in “deep history” that pursue an integration of “prehistory” and history to create a new scale for understanding human history.2 Richter therefore begins with a dual layer of medieval “Progenitors,” one in indigenous North America, one in Europe—perhaps a two-legged stool in Atlantic World terms, as there is no medieval Africa in this narrative, but his is a tale of Europeans and Indians. “Conquistadores” come next, laying “an ugly base” [End Page 530] through “patterns of ruthless violence, enslavement, and oppressive rule of indigenous peoples” (p. 5). “Cultural debris thrown up” by the collisions of that era result in overlapping layers three and four: “Traders” and “Planters.” These two sections usefully contrast “enterprising adventurers” (particularly the French and Dutch) who arrived in the wake of conquistadores to intertwine their economic trading goals with those of Indians against English planters who established their families, indentured servants, and enslaved African laborers in settlements from which they excluded Indians. The Planter stratum is both concurrent with, but also succeeds and overlies, the era of Traders, reinforcing through the juxtaposition of French, Spanish, and English designs a larger argument about the novelty rather than typicality of the English imperial experience in North America. State expansion out of Europe creates the next layer, “Imperialists,” with Englishmen and Frenchmen leading the processes charted in this section. All of this culminates in a top layer of “polyglot social forms” that, for Richter, “defied easy categorization as ‘American,’ ‘European,’ or ‘African’”—so he chooses instead to call it a “stratum of Atlanteans in which all North Americans found their uneasy places in a global British-dominated culture” (p. 7).

Let’s begin with the evocative Progenitors section to chart our path to this ending. In similar spirit to his earlier work, Facing East from Indian Country, Richter begins his narrative of early America with an innovative recreation of its bedrock.3 The first two chapters, “Legacies of Power from Medieval North America” and “Legacies of Conquest from Medieval Europe” offer a thought-provoking comparison, asking the reader to think carefully about the great similarities and striking differences between the two continents over the same expanse of pre-Columbian time. Using the traditional favorites that now begin most...


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pp. 530-536
Launched on MUSE
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