- A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe's Encounter with North America by Sam White
I have found that one of the most challenging parts of teaching colonial American history is finding ways to make that foreign past relatable and relevant to students. Sam White's A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe's Encounter with North America, is a thought-provoking study that emphasizes the roles of climate and climatic change in the stories of Spanish, English, and French colonization during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, presents material that can help one overcome that obstacle. An insightful work that draws connections between the past and present, A Cold Welcome "is [End Page 379] a history of North America's first colonies written from the vantage point of global warming, produced with the help of new tools to reconstruct the climates of the past, and conscious of the challenges posed by climate change" (p. 4).
White's exploration of "another age when climatic change and extremes threatened lives and settlements" casts new light on the "forgotten century" of American history between Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean and the Separatists' landing at Plymouth (p. 5). By revealing how "the Little Ice Age helps explain how so many expeditions, all across the continent and over the course of almost a century, would so often face disaster," he enriches our understanding of North America's "creation story from hell" seemingly dominated by disease, starvation, violence, and death (p. 251). Focusing on the founding of Santa Fe, Jamestown, and Quebec, as well as discussing dozens of other expeditions and settlements, most of which utterly failed by any metric, White reveals how European colonizers struggled in the face of volatile and extreme climate conditions in North America, even though the Little Ice Age also affected Europe during this time, although to a lesser degree. Adverse climate conditions—especially harsh winters and dry summers—not only jeopardized European expeditions and settlements, but they also affected European interactions with Native American communities as desperately hungry and/or cold colonizers often lashed out at Indians to alleviate their hardships. Moreover, the challenges posed by the Little Ice Age affected imperial rivalries by, for example, weakening Spain's resolve to defend its early claims in North America and thereby opening a window of opportunity for the French and English to gain a foothold in the Americas.
To tell this environmental history of colonial North America, White analyzes a diverse array of sources. His deeply researched and well-documented study includes references to a variety of historical documents, including archival materials held in Italy and Spain, as well as published sources originally composed in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin, Dutch, and Turkish. White pairs [End Page 380] these documents with climatological studies, including both paleoclimatologists' studies of such physical remains as tree rings and ice cores as well as historical climatologists' analyses of written records–and archaeological findings in the areas of zooarchaeology, palynology, and bioarcheology. Just as impressive as the interdisciplinary resources base is White's effective handling of diverse data and concepts, as he presents accessible and engaging discussions of classical and modern climate theories, among other complex topics.
Overall, A Cold Welcome is a strong addition to the literature on colonial America. A beautifully written book, it deftly weaves together information derived from diverse sources to deepen our understanding of colonial American history as well as provide teachers with fresh material to integrate into their lessons. Sam White should be commended for producing an eminently readable book that tells the story of the Little Ice Age's role in colonial North American history both chronologically and geographically, and one that insightfully draws together the distant past and present. A Cold Welcome should find a wide audience among scholars of early America and lay readers alike.
ADAM R. HODGE is assistant professor of history at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio. He is author...