Updated: Feb 11, 2019
Because of how English-focused much of American history is, it can be easy to assume that America’s colonial English literary traditions started when a lot of American history texts do: with the pilgrims landing in Plymouth. However, the first English-speaking permanent settlement in the U.S. was Jamestown settled around 1607 - at least for the first successful attempt. English speakers had been trying to carve a way out of North America long before that. And before the English language arrived in America, Europeans speaking French, Spanish, and Dutch were already in the modern-day borders of the U.S. It was the writings of these Europeans that gives us the earliest glimpses into life in America and its native peoples.
Colonial literature in America has a much broader scope that perhaps taught in the average elementary school history text. This period includes a wide variety of people and perspectives from the European explorers trying to find ways to describe all of the new plants, animals, scenery, and people they were coming across to those back home to the narratives of the first enslaved Africans brought over to serve the new European colonies to the records of the colonists themselves to the official - both religious and secular - documentation of colonial days. It is in this period that the country that would become America was finding its footing, had its first major religious movement, and set the foundations for a revolution.
The first Europeans to come in contact with America weren’t the English, French, Dutch, or even the Spanish but Portuguese explorers who managed to map much of the east coast from New York to Florida as documented in a map published in 1502. However, the Portuguese kept their discovery under wraps because the Pope had technically granted god-given rights to Spain for all of this territory. The first attempt at colonization of what is now America would be a Spanish attempt in present-day Georgia in 1526. That attempt would fail as would several others over the next century.
All in all, the Spanish failed four attempts to colonize the U.S., two in Florida, one in North Carolina, and one in Virginia. The French attempted to settle South Carolina, Florida, Maine, and Texas all without success. While England’s Lost Colony of Roanoke is probably the most famous colonial failure of any European colony in the present-day U.S., the English also attempted to settle thefailed Popham Colony in present-day Maine around the same time Jamestown was founded. However, Spain would be the first country to start and maintain a successful colony in what is now America.
Spanish St. Augustine in Florida is the oldest continuously occupied European-founded city in the U.S., established in 1565. Of course, the town was occasionally overrun by pirates and the English but most of its structures remained in tact. By the 1600s, the Spanish were exploring what is now the American west. Explorers and missionaries traveled, established settlements, and reported back to Spain tales of their adventures in New Mexico, California, Texas, and other territories. While searching for gold and more native peoples to convert, Spanish explorers and missionaries founded cities like San Diego, Santa Fe, San Francisco, El Paso, San Antonio, and Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, France was colonizing the Great Lakes via Canada, eventually following the Mississippi River and its tributaries south to Louisiana. The French were focused somewhat on conversion of native peoples to Catholicism but more on the trapping trade and making their riches off of the furs the new colonies could provide. Frontier forts and trading posts evolved into cities like St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. France and Spain would often fight over who had claim to the territory along the Mississippi, especially as the French territories ventured further south. France would even lose became the Louisiana Purchase to Spain before it was returned to them.
The Dutch had settled New Netherland in what is now part of New York state and New Jersey by 1614, creating a town called New Amsterdam on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. This was the foundation of New York City. The English took the city about 50 years later, renaming it and the New Netherland colony after the Duke of York. The Swedish also established a colony called New Sweden on the Delaware River between 1637 and 1655 in what is now the area where Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania come together. Their Fort Christinia became present-day Wilmington and they were responsible for introducing Lutheranism to the U.S. The Russians also came in fairly late in the game around the 1730s and 1740s but were exploring Alaska, a place most other European countries had barely heard of.
It would be the English colonies established in the 1600s that would eventually become the dominant force in America. They settled colonies in the Chesapeake Bay area in what is now Virginia and Maryland in 1607, followed by the New England colonies like Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1620s. Providence Plantation, founded by Puritan separatists, came about in 1636 while Anne Hutchinson’s Aquidneck Island colony came in 1637. Both of these colonies would become what is now Rhode Island. New Englanders with mining and adventure-oriented schemes spread out to New Hampshire and Maine. The so-called Middle Colonies that consisted of lands earlier settled by the Dutch and Swedes were taken over later on in the decade while Quaker William Penn would established his own religious colony of Pennsylvania in 1681.
While the southern states of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas had already been settled by the French and Spanish, British and a few French colonists also began establishing the roots for other southern states. Many of those who first settled in the American south were British indentured servants who had gained their freedom after fulfilling work contracts that had paid for their passage. Large groups of Scots and Ulster-Scots moved into the Appalachian and Piedmont regions in the mid to late 1700s, largely drive by religious persecution as well as new farming methods that saw people replaced with sheep.
Of course, the bulk of the hard work done in settling colonies like the Carolinas and Georgias came on the back of Africa slaves who had been shipped to present-day America. The Spanish and Portuguese had brought the first slaves to the New World in 1501 as part of the triangle trade between Africa, the Americans, and Europe. Native Americans were also sometimes enslaved and shipped to the Caribbean to work on plantations there, such as those on the Desire in 1619. Jamestown became the first British colony in America to have slaves when 19 Africans were brought there in 1619 by Dutch traders who had seized a Spanish ship. Slavery was legalized in Massachusetts in 1641, and the right for Virginians to own slaves was upheld in 1654.
While slavery was accepted throughout what would become England’s thirteen colonies, it was most predominant in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. Disease and backbreaking labor had killed off many of the white colonists in the early days of the Southern colonies. It was the desire to cultivate massive plantations of profitable crops like rice, sugar cane, tobacco, and indigo without the pain of risky labor or deadly diseases that prompted many white European colonists to purchase slaves first take on the hardest of jobs and then the bulk of the labor. Slavery eventually replaced indentured servitude as indenture periods lasted only seven years and, if the servant died before then, their boss didn’t recoup costs. While the majority of enslaved persons in the U.S. were black Africans, there were also a mix of Native American and East Indian brought from other British colonies slaves as well.
The fact that the European powers like France, Spain, and England who often fought against each other in their own lands now had colonies that were growing larger and closer together prompted the first military conflicts in colonial America. As far back as the 1640s, the French, Dutch, English and Spanish were focusing on colonial defense both from rival countries and Native Americans. Often, colonial powers would side with native groups that already had animosity towards each other, fighting proxy conflicts through the native peoples.
Conflicts like the War of Austrian Succession back in Europe spawned American conflicts like King George’s War while the French and Indian War between 1754 and 1763 was the colonial theatre of the Seven Years War’ back in Europe. The results of these wars would drastically change the political landscape of the present-day U.S. The French and Indian War saw France lose much of its territory, giving up much of what was west of the Mississippi and territories like Louisiana to the Spanish and territories east of the Mississippi to Great Britain. During this time, Britain also gained Florida from Spain. The British would then become somewhat of a super power eastern America and Canada.
British culture began to invade the colonies both new and old. Most of the political structures of the colonies were based on British law. The Georgian style of architecture - later renamed the Federal style during the Revolution - was dominant. Prominent residents of big cities like Boston, New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia considered themselves British citizens despite that not one of their ancestors in several generations had set foot in England. The coming of the Industrial Revolution meant that British factories were producing more goods like pottery and textiles than could be consumed within Great Britain alone, meaning that the colonies would have to consume these goods. Between 1740 and 1770, the number of British goods being shipped to the American colonies increased by 360 percent. It would be this desire to reinforce Britishness in the American colonies both politically and economically that would eventually backfire and lead to the American Revolution.
Exploration Narratives (1562-1620)
Some of the first documentations to come out of the colonial era were those accounts written by early explorers described what they had encountered in the new world. The first of these is actually not an account from Spanish explorers by the Vinland Saga written in Old Norse that recounts the adventures of Leif Eriksson arriving in what is thought to either be Novia Scotia, Newfoundland, or Maine around the 11th century. Of course, the first verifiable sources came from the Spanish, French and English then later Russian, Dutch, German, and Italian explorers who began finding their way through the New World.
Giovanni Caboto - whose name is often Anglicized to John Cabot to reflect that the Venetian was in fact sailing for England - wrote one of the first accounts of mainland America when he became one of the first Europeans after the Vikings to explore the American coast in the late 1400s. The Spanish had already been active in the Caribbean, South America, and Central America but hadn’t shared many accounts of lands northward before then. It would be 1507 before Europeans realized that this land Christopher Columbus had dubbed the West Indies was not in fact Asia but a different area all together. Cabot and Columbus were among a large group of Italian explorers who had the maritime experience needed to explore the New World. Since Italy itself wasn't vested in the exploration of the Americas, they often worked for other countries like England, France, and Spain.
Juan Ponce de Leon offered the first accounts of Florida and had the first encounter with the Gulf Stream as he traveled through the Florida Keys. This made de Leon the first European after the Vikings to make landfall on the mainland of the U.S. The same year de Leon found himself in Florida, Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa crossed the isthmus of Panama into the Pacific Ocean, claiming all territory on the Pacific Coast for Spain and dubbing it Las Californias. Working for France, Giovanni de Verrazzano arrived at the Cape Fear River delta in 1524, charting coastlines in South Carolina up to Long Island and Narragansett Bay.
Exploration of the Americas was largely based on the coasts with explorers not traveling very far inland until the 1500s. Oddly enough, it would be the American west that garnered most of the attention from early explorers. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca traveled the American Southwest from 1527 to 1537 in the ill-fated Narvaez expedition. He and his group were taken in by various native tribes in the upper Gulf Coast for several years with only four of them surviving. The fact that they were forced to work alongside native women and in the same conditions as everyone else led to the surviving noblemen describing their time as being enslaved, though later historians debate whether the group were actually slaves or just being made to pull their own weight. The group traveled into the interior of Texas and possibly portions of Mexico and Arizona.
Despite the disaster of the Narvaez expedition, it was soon followed by the de Soto expedition in 1539 that explored the interior of Florida and the Coronado exploration of the southwest and Great Plains in 1541. In 1583, Escalante and Barrado explored present-day New Mexico. Also exploring for Spain was Villagra, who also brought back an account of New Mexico in 1610. These explorers offered some of the first accounts of Native Americans living west of the Mississippi as well as the diverse landscape, flora and fauna of the country.
For the French, Jacques Cartier offered the first account of the interior along the St. Lawrence River in 1535. Much of the French exploration was focused on what is now Canada, but accounts like those of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, or Robert de La Salle between 1679 and 1682 would give the first glimpses of the Great Lakes region as well as the territories along the Mississippi. Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet also went down the Mississippi in 1673, bringing back some of the first descriptions of animals like catfish and buffalo. The Canadian fur trade also sent explorers as far west as the Great Plains, though few recorded their experiences for fear of giving away prime trapping territory to others.
Seeing that they were behind, English writers like Francis Drake, Richard Hakluyt, and Martin Frobisher began setting out reasons for England to get involved in the colonial game. John White, one of the founders of the Roanoke Colony, would later write a well-read account of his theories and experience in trying to recover the lost colony, one of the first accounts of English colonization in the Americas. It would be the diaries and recordings of Captain John Smith at Jamestown that would record the first successful British colony in the Americas. William Strachey, a contemporary of Shakespeare and secretary of the Virginian colony, would also write numerous accounts of the colony as well.
The works of Smith and Strachey were used to bring other colonists to America and settle. A lot of early works, like Daniel Denton’s Brief Description of New York (1670), William Penn's Brief Account of the Province of Pennsylvania (1682), and Thomas Ashe’s Carolina (1682), would also serve as ways to convince readers to come try their luck in the New World. The narrative of the explorer had gone full circle from merely reporting back the discoveries in this new place to actively encouraging readers to come and settle based on what the New World had to offer.
Religion would have a massive influence on the early colonial literature in the modern-day U.S., due largely in part to the mass migration of Puritan separatists to New England between 1620 and 1640. Puritans were members of the Anglican church in England who felt the church needed to separate itself further from Catholicism. Rather than meet their demands, James I and his unlucky successor Charles I thought that providing these separatists with their own lands far away from England would be a good solution to the problem. The area was sold to the Puritans as a place they could remake in their own image and where they could serve as warriors for god. The Puritan migration ended around the time that Puritan leaders like Oliver Cromwell gained power in England, but the seeds had already been sown for the Puritan influence in North America.
In fact, the first book printed in British North American - The Bay Psalm Book - was a metrical psalter printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Mass., by the Puritans in the tradition of other books they had brought with them to the New World like the Ainsworth Psalter, Ravenscroft Psalter, and the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter. Some other early written works by Puritans included sermons, John Winthrop’s spiritual autobiography about his conversion, and other meditations on religious subjects. Even William Bradford’s account of the founding and settlement of the Plymouth Plantation, Of Plymouth Plantation, devoted a lot of allegory to the New World as a garden of Eden and a focus on how the wickedness of colonists led to its downfall. Bradford felt that the uncharted land was ripe with the Devil and therefore casts Satan as the narrative’s villain.
Cotton Mather was one of the most prolific writers of the period, producing more than 400 publications in his lifetime. Today, he is largely remembered for his Wonders of the Invisible World and how both the work and he played a pivotal role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Mather also produced some scientific work and also promoted Christian missionary work among native groups and African slaves. Mather’s Puritan sensibilities come through in his works when he indicates that it is better for Africans and Native Americans to be Christians in slavery than to be free without Puritanism. While Mather wasn’t the only preacher delivering these fire and brimstone messages, he was undoubtedly the most famous.
Others like Roger Williams and Thomas Morton wrote about their changing beliefs and their grievances with the heads of the Puritan church in New England. After being kicked out of the colonies they disagreed with, both of these separatists would go on to form their own colonies along with their followers. Morton even published a satirical literary work titled New English Canaan about the Puritans, published abroad in 1637. The book was somewhat of a response to Of Plymouth Plantation, pointing out how the attempts by the Puritans to share their allegedly Christian values with native peoples had turned the true paradise New England had been into a purgatory. Williams also published a narrative about how the Puritans in trying to escape the religious rule of England had hypocritically created their own tightly controlled theocracy in the New World in The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, published in 1644.
Outside of religious debate, poetry and often poetry with a religious tone was a favorite method of expression among early New Englanders. Despite the fact that Puritan leader Cotton Mather had warned against the intoxicating power of poetry, verse remained popular and often theologically focused. The Bay Psalm Book itself can be seen as poetry as was the popular New England Primer. Michael Wigglesworth’s 224 stanza poem The Day of Doom about the Judgement Day was the most popular Puritan text in early America at the time. Colonial poets like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor heavily incorporated Puritanical beliefs into their poetry.
Diaries and personal records were also popular means of not only recording history but also describing life to those outside the colonies. Edward Winslow’s diary of the first years after the Mayflower’s arrival proved invaluable to historians. The Diary of Samuel Sewall published later in 1973 has given readers insight into the Salem Witch trials and the impact of Puritanism on colonists. Written between 1652 and 1730, Sewall was one of the judges in the trials and later reflected on his fears that trials had been mistakes of both morality and the judicial system. The diary shows how attitudes were beginning to shift by 1700 away from the Puritans of New England’s founders and into a more secular world.
Age of Enlightenment (1700-1750)
Secular writing grew in the 1700s as the Age of Enlightenment found its way into the American colonies. Even early on in the days of the Puritans the Bible wasn’t the most popular book found in the home of the average American settler. Religious themed tomes like Pilgrim's Progress and the aforementioned psalters were more common. A large portion of colonists owned books, even though they were more expensive in the New World than in mainland Europe. A lot of literature was still being imported from Great Britain and while there were pressed in the New World, it wasn’t uncommon for books written by colonists to be published in London and then shipped back to consumers in America. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Benjamin Franklin founded his Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731.
The travel journals of Sarah Kemble Knight and William Byrd provided insight into the secular aspects of colonial life, recalling the varied scenery, people, and society both writers encountered. Knight’s journal encompasses a trip between Boston in New York while Byrd focused on his experiences in Virginia. He would also write a text about his participation in the 1728 surveying expedition between Virginia and North Carolina, detailing how relations between native peoples and whites had evolved. Robert Beverly II published The History and Present state of Virginia in 1722 about the early life in the colony and the people who inhabited the colony. William Batram would describe the landscape of the American south in his popular text Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West.
In terms of secular poetry, Ebenezer Cook published the satirical poem A Voyage to Maryland in 1708 about his experiences traveling between Maryland and London as a tobacco planter and merchant. The 700-line poem initially may seem like a takedown of colonial vulgarity but ends up poking fun at English snobbery instead. Maryland politician Richard Lewis also wrote numerous pastoral poems about the scenery in the area and described the New World in conventions common in European pastorals.
Closer toward the American Revolution, literature began to focus on Enlightenment Era topics like history, science, mathematics, and politics. Newspapers, literary magazines, and texts like Poor Richard’s Almanack also provided reading material for early colonists as well as helped shaped the European Enlightenment into the American Revolution in the U.S. Founded in 1721, the New-England Courant is considered the first newspaper published in the New World, though commercial papers with shipping news had been published previously. The Courant would be suppressed a mere five years after it began publishing. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette was first published in 1728 and lasted well into the American Revolution while The Virginia Gazette was published in Wiliamsburg, then the colonial capital, from 1736 to 1780. This free exchange of ideas that went so far as to question the existence of god was spur further separation from Europe.
The Great Awakening (1730-1750)
Some time in between the Puritan dominion of the English colonies and the Enlightenment desire to distance society from religion, America had its first truly native religious movement. While Puritanism had been born in England and exported to America, the Great Awakening was the first massive religious fervor to be born and run the course of its life within the confines of the American colonies. This evangelical movement focused on individual piety and religious devotion rather than that guided by church leadership and was the first transdenominational movement in the country.
Leaders of the movement like George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards wrote extensively on religious and moral philosophy, ideas of spiritual revival and salvation, and the concept of religious rebirth. The movement not only increased the number of both free and enslaved African Americans who were exposed to Christianity; it also turned many white followers of the Great Awakening into abolitionists. Missionary societies were also established across the country and new denominations like Methodist and Baptist would evolve from it.
The seminal piece of literature from the period might be Rev. Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but this wasn’t the only religious text that continues to have an impact on modern-day American religion. His account of the revival he held at Northampton called A Faithful Narrative would become a best-seller in Great Britain and led to similar religious revivals across that country. His services became well-known for the fact that participants would have mystical religious experiences and visions, something that accompanies many American revival movements.
Quaker writer John Woolman would produce his Journal that detailed in missionary work with Native Americans as well as abolitionist works. His works would later inspire Henry David Thoreau. The sermons of George Whitefield were popular in Dutch and German communities, especially among Lutherans. The revival split the Presbyterian church in America with Gilbert Tennet and Jonathan Dickinson leading the charge for more “experimental knowledge of Christ” over “doctrinal orthodoxy.” Of course, the most controversial preacher of the Great Awakening would probably be James Davenport who was even arrested and found mentally ill for his attacks on other ministers. He even encouraged the burning of books by Puritan leaders like John Flavel and Increase Mather, father of the famed Cotton.
While the Awakening began to disappear in the 1740s, it would have a lasting impact on American culture. American Protestantism is more sectarian than its European counterparts and encouraged the growth of the first interdenominational and nondenominational churches in America. Many of America’s early institutions of learning were founded to train ministers suited to specific denominations. The movement also encouraged women to write more and reflect more about their faith, leading to a number of diaries, such as that of Hannah Heaton, leaving a record of the female experience in this religious revival. For African-Americans, the movement bolstered abolitionism and the desire to teach theology to African-Americans ended up providing many freed and enslaved blacks with the ability to read and write.
Literature about Native Americans from a European perspective existed from the beginning of colonial America. A lot of the accounts were from travel accounts that wrote about native peoples nearly anthropological perspective, though often with tinges of racism and xenophobia. These texts often detailed societal and cultural aspects of native peoples. Accounts like those of Daniel Godkin, John Mason, and Benjamin Church focused on military conflicts with native peoples, often painting them as dangerous savages.
Stories of people who had lived among native groups - and not always willingly - became sensational best sellers in both the New and Old World. More than 1,600 New Englanders found themselves living among native tribes as a result of European conflicts with Native Americans like King Philip’s War and the French and Indian War. While there were plenty of stories that recounted the adventures of white Europeans captured by pirates, eastern traders, and in North Africa, the combined intrigue and fear of the savagery of the native peoples of the Americas provided for an interesting twist on the captivity narrative genre.
Mary White Rowlandson was a Puritan woman captured by members of the Narragansett tribe along with her children in 1676 who later wrote an account of her ordeal. The narrative remained so popular that it was in constant print well into the 1700s and created the captivity narrative genre. while there had been similar narratives before, it was Rowlandson’s depiction of Native Americans as beasts and devils testing her own moral fiber that made her account sensational. Her story would led to Cotton Mather’s The Captivity of Hannah Dustin and Jonathan Dickinson’s God’s Protecting Providence, both of which had religious overtones.
John Williams wrote The Redeemed Captive about his experiences being forced to march to Montreal and held in Canada following the Raid on Deerfield in Queen Anne’s War. Elizabeth Hanson wrote a narrative about her experiences being taken from Dover in New Hampshire during Father Rale’s War. Susannah Willard Johnson also wrote a popular narrative about her captivity during the French and Indian War. New England merchant William Pote wrote about being captured during King George’s War while King William’s War produced no less than seven captivity narratives. Many of these narratives would go on to influence early American writers like James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, and Robert Montgomery Bird.
The fact that European people were so ignorant of the ways of the New World made it easy for American writers to fake captivity stories for a reading audience. These stories would include the conventions that made other narratives popular but actually contained little if any facts. Many captivity narratives, such as The Remarkable Adventures of Jackson Johonnet, have been since proven spurious. However, the lack of factual basis for these stories didn’t lessen their impact. They often fueled hatred and mistrust among whites and native peoples while also reinforcing racial stereotypes about Native Americans. The texts were used to justify the forced conversion as well as elimination of native peoples.
White Europeans weren’t the only ones giving accounts of their experiences in the New World. African-American literature has its roots in the colonial period and also helped give rise to some of the earliest abolitionist movements, even as slavery was expanding and becoming more ingrained in American culture. Many Africans turned the white-focused captivity narrative on its heads, using the conventions that made these captivity stories so popular and using them to highlight the injustice and pain of slavery. The first slave narrative published in the New World was A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man, published in Boston in 1760.Writers like Jupiter Hammon, Olaudah Equiano, Venture Smith, Jeffrey Brace, and John Jae would usually cast a spiritual light on their story of slavery, often showcasing Christian redemption as their means of escape from the peculiar institution.
These slave narratives would continue to be popular well into the mid-1800s, particularly as a reading material to push for abolition and break down the myths about African Americans. They would also inspire white writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe. After the Civil War, organizations like the WPA would work to record the narratives of former slaves as they aged to preserve this period of American history for future generations. Outside of the slave narrative, black writers like Jupiter Hammon and Philis Wheatley were also turning the convention of African slaves as unintelligent on its head by writing thoughtful and intricate religious poetry.
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