MIGRATION is a spatial means of changing the relations of people and property that in situ change more or less rapidly with the passage of time.271 In medieval and early modern Europe, when changes in property relations were rapid, they were likely to have been unpremeditated and uncontrollable, as after war, plague, or accident; when they were slow, they were usually bound by rules of inheritance or by long-term adjustments in the relative costs of factors of production. Migration, on the other hand, could substitute new land—new property—for both chance and time, as it did, in a limited way, when people moved from the open field lowlands of southeastern England to the more forested western uplands, or as it would do, more decisively, when they moved overseas. Transatlantic migration changed the relationship between people and property more drastically than the Black Death and more rapidly than any system of inheritance.272 For many, this was North America’s attraction: the opportunity to bypass both the confining grid of custom and power that dominated European property and the vagaries of chance that, at the personal level, usually turned on relatives’ life spans. The opportunity could be seized individually—to improve one’s lot in the world—or collectively—to impose, untrammelled, a European social vision on a new setting. Perceptions of opportunity were rooted in European custom and thought, but emigrants found themselves in new settings where people and property could not be recombined as in Europe. The change was quick and pervasive. Those of European descent in North America at the end of the seventeenth century spoke European languages and practiced countless European ways while living in societies without precise European equivalents.
It was not only, or even primarily, that they had moved back into the forest, although of course they had. There is something of northwestern France before the eleventh- and twelfth-century clearances or of Anglo-Saxon England when beaver, bears, boars, and wolves were still in English forests and commoners hunted freely there, in the experience of seventeenth-century Europeans in North American middle latitudes. When William the Conqueror established royal forests and forbade hunting in them, “the rich,” reported the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “complained and the poor lamented.”273 They also became poachers and over the centuries reached into dwindling forests for turf, wood, lops, faggots, berries, fish, and game and practiced their innumerable evasions against the constables, rangers, foresters, woodwards, verderers, regarders, and game keepers—to use English names for offices that were European—who were there to protect trees and game: another’s property.274 In seventeenth century North America, forests again were relatively open for gathering, chopping, and hunting but, of course, early modern rather than medieval Europe participated in this transatlantic reencounter. Commercial capital vigorously crossed the Atlantic, and with it came the technologies of resource exploitation, the laborers and settlers, and the trade that placed the early European settlements on the edge of North America within a seventeenth-century transatlantic web of prices, laws, institutions, and values.
Yet when seventeenth-century Europeans settled in eastern North America, their context was drastically altered. There was forest where there had been cleared land; sparse, isolated populations where there had been dense, continuous settlement; and beginnings in strange places where there had been continuity in familiar ones. There were unknown, neolithic people, missing European ways, and new relationships among the factors of production and with markets. Europeans were no longer in Europe. If European elements could be reestablished overseas, Europe could not—not even the fullness of any of its local regions. The context of life was different, and perhaps the most basic assertions that can be made about this pervasive change are that the relationships between people and property had changed and, following therefrom, the relationships between people as well.
The question then is raised of whether there was pattern in these changes and, if so, in what elements of European life overseas and at what scale? While the literature on European settlement in seventeenth-century North America frequently toys with the possibility of pattern,275 it trusts local or regional studies that emphasize the variety of European experiences overseas. There is wisdom in such caution. Yet were a more vigorous comparative and interdisciplinary literature to develop, it would have to rest on the assumption that individual settlements were not entirely unique, and also on some tentative assessment of the nature of their common patterns and of the processes that created them. This is a daunting order, but I think my own field, historical geography, has been young and brazen enough to take a few steps in this direction.276 If they are combined with the historians’ far larger and, overall, more mature literature on early North America perhaps an analytical framework for comparative study can be discerned. In any event, such presumption forms the basis of this paper.
Its essential premise is that the ideas implicit in European cultures were mobile, and that emigrants carried them far and wide to new settings that then exerted selective pressures. By “new settings” is meant the new relations among land, labor, and capital in which immigrants found themselves or, succinctly, their new relations with property. It is assumed to be in response to this nexus of New World relationships, rather than in response to the influence of the physical environment itself, that new settlements and societies emerged in the northwestern Atlantic area in the seventeenth century. Certainly, in the view presented here, the nature of New World societies cannot be deduced from an understanding of Old World ideas. If most of the details of seventeenth-century European settlements in northeastern North America were European, their compositions were not, and new compositions reflected selective pressures imposed in new settings.
The first part of this paper considers three characteristic settings within which the seventeenth-century European immigrants and their descendants worked out their New World lives. It outlines what might be expected to happen to Old World ways when seventeenth-century French and English people moved overseas to (1) work in staple trades, (2) live in towns, or (3) develop mixed family farms where there was little commercial opportunity. The second part of the paper briefly explores the relevance of these sketches to particular New World societies. Were I more familiar with early New England, these explorations would be located there. As it is, I must enlarge the scale to include territory I know better and touch on the whole theater of European settlement in seventeenth-century North America from New England north. The resulting paper is far too crowded but, in the circumstances, inevitably so.
Seventeenth-century European capital sought resources in the lands bordering the Northwestern Atlantic and, where it found them, developed societies that reflected specialized strategies of resource exploitation. While these strategies were as diverse as the staple trades involved, all were labor intensive and, as in England or France at the same time, this labor was a high percentage of product cost.277 Some of the demand for labor might be satisfied by natives, although this strategy was less successful in the Northeast than it had been in the Caribbean and in Central America. Invariably, European labor was needed, and the fulfillment of this demand generated European settlements that were dominated by specialized modes of production. In such settlements the staple trade was the focus of work. Its rhythms divided time; its organization divided people. These cells of specialized work were not bounded, as they would have been in Europe, by other European people about other pursuits, but by wilderness, ocean, and native North Americans. Nor were they constrained by tradition. They were units of seventeenth-century European production abstracted from Europe. As such they acquired their own momentum, shaping new societies around their own productive relations.
In settings where there were neither constraints of custom nor alternative employments, capital acquired a particular leeway. There was no recourse to village custom; in particularly remote, ephemeral settlements, people lived beyond the reach of law. Distance from markets and, in some cases, the forbidding environments into which the staple trades had penetrated eliminated most alternative economic opportunities. A few people fled to live with the Indians; more slipped away to practice largely subsistent farming or to return to Europe. Because land available for family farms invariably bid up the price and increased the independence of labor, capital restricted this opportunity as much as possible—by the employment of Indian labor; by the seasonal transportation of white labor, hired at European rates, to the New World; by the use of long-term labor contracts, signed in Europe at European rates, coupled with severe punishments for desertion; and even by recourse to slavery. If laborers could be insulated from land, the societies associated with staple trades would be sharply stratified by position in the productive system. They would come closer than other European settlements in the seventeenth century to creating a proletariat and, on both sides of the Atlantic, they would make some men wealthy. Social stratification would lose most of the European nuances—family name, the myriad subtleties of education, honorifics, etiquette, and vocation—and would be tied instead to wealth and position in a single system of production.
Because most of the settlements associated with staple trades required seasonal male labor, their demographic profiles were severely imbalanced. White women and children—white nuclear families—were rare at first; then slowly more common. Where opportunity presented itself, there was white-Indian miscegenation, the children almost always remaining with their Indian mothers; then less miscegenation as the white demographic profile became more balanced. Initially, labor was geographically mobile. Single men worked out contracts and returned to Europe or contracted with a new employer in a different location; only as white women became more available would populations become more rooted. Occupational specialization eliminated most European trades. The nature of migration—characteristically young, single men hired in the dockyards and hinterlands of European ports—and the initial weakness of the nuclear family further reduced the possibility of local cultural transfers. These people were known more for what they did than for where they came from; their workplaces dominated and largely obliterated their regional backgrounds. In particular circumstances, there were partial exceptions. Where labor came from the same source region and had few New World contacts with other people, isolation protected some elements of local European tradition—accent, for example—that were independent of the staple trade itself. In this way, parts of local European cultures could long survive within settlements dominated by the technique and routine of specialized work. In general, tradition was weak in these settlements; individuals were exposed and easily exploited.
Such settlements depended on urban connections but not necessarily with towns on the western side of the Atlantic. Management could long remain in Europe, and European ports could remain the urban outlets of New World settlements. The mercantile town planted on the edge of the forest was not an inevitable hinge of New World development,278 and the level of urbanization in the European settlements in northeastern North America in 1700 was low: well under ten percent, less than half the English level of urbanization at the same time. Retarded urbanization reflected in some areas the continuing delegation of urban functions to towns across the Atlantic, and in others the emergence of substantially subsistent agricultural economies with weak urban requirements. Yet, New World towns had developed as foci of commercial and administrative attachment to Europe, as entrees to resource hinterlands or as regional centers of administration and trade. Contemporaries likened them to provincial towns in France or England, and they were, undoubtedly, the most comprehensive European transplantations to northeastern North America in the seventeenth century.
Compared to the workplaces of the staple trades, these towns were heterogeneous settings of Europeans overseas. Docks and warehouses lined their waterfronts, and successful merchants, together with their families and servants, lived in substantial houses. The civil and military paraphernalia of colonial government were usually in evidence, as were churches and associated hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Such places supported many employments: laborers, tradesmen, and artisans connected with the port, with construction, and with the provision of those consumer goods and services that could not easily be transported across the Atlantic; wholesale and retail merchants; professionals and clerics; and, in a few crown appointments to senior colonial office, members of the European nobility. Amid this occupational and economic range, European assumptions of status, honor, and deference found relatively congenial settings. An edge of European polish reemerged in these towns, to be reflected in street plans, architecture, and the domestic accoutrements of the well-to-do.
Occupationally diverse and socially highly stratified, these towns admitted more European details than elsewhere in seventeenth-century North America—and quickly began to recompose them. They were new, barely three generations old in 1700, and small, only Boston then having more than ten thousand people. Age and scale were shaping factors as, compared to European towns, were the high cost of labor, the related weakness of gentility and nobility, and the distinctive migrations that peopled these new towns.
As long as labor was relatively expensive, as it was whenever employers had to counteract the attraction of available agricultural land, there would tend to be less poverty and fewer servants per capita in these New World towns than in equivalent French or English ports. There would be fewer occupations, imports replacing some local manufactures because of the high cost of local labor, the smallness of the local market, and the absence of really wealthy patrons. There would be less elegance, in some cases because profits were still returning to Europe, in others because New World entrepreneurship was still building from modest beginnings and, in the background, because the refinements of European gentility and nobility were so largely irrelevant to the practical challenge of building in new places and so largely unsupported by the drastic New World change in the relative cost of land and labor. Hence the social range compacted a little, losing the glitter at the top and the worst wretchedness at the bottom, and the occupational structure thinned. The institutional accretions of centuries that gave some European towns a good deal of administrative autonomy and regulated much of their commercial and social life were more drastically reduced, if only because immigrants had come from such different institutional backgrounds. The collective memory of established custom was broken, and, institutionally, this meant an increased reliance on a smaller number of institutions—some, such as the nuclear family, that were widely accepted and easily transported, and others, such as courts, that were convenient vehicles for public order—and a tendency to support this contracted institutional legacy by legal definition rather than by custom. Seventeenth-century migration to most French or English towns was largely local; therefore such towns considerably reflected the regional cultures in which they were set, and only the largest metropoli departed from this pattern. In this respect the small seventeenth-century towns in northeastern North America resembled London or Paris much more than European towns their size: they, too, drew people from varied, distant sources and mixed, regional cultures. At the level of the vernacular regional traditions of France or England, the New World town was a locus of cultural assimilation where particular regional accents, superstitions, vocabularies, dietary preferences, and the like either would disappear or would be recombined in distinctive blends.
The third principal setting of European life in northeastern North America in the seventeenth century emerged more inadvertently than the other two but eventually involved more people. It was the mixed farm worked, essentially, by nuclear families who brought agricultural techniques, crops, and stock from northwestern Europe to settings where the relationships among land, labor, and markets were suddenly changed. Land was far cheaper, a reflection of lower population densities. If natives, an enormous forest, and an intimidating fauna often stood in the way, these unwelcome ingredients of new land could be pushed back and farms established with small capital outlay, simple tools, and relentless family labor. On the other hand, hired labor was expensive, partly because population was low but, principally, because relatively cheap land attracted labor and raised its price. Finally, European markets for European foodstuffs raised overseas were shielded by transfer costs and, after the third decade of the seventeenth century, by generally falling prices. Local New World markets were usually small and easily satisfied. In short, against landed opportunities were set high labor costs and weak or inaccessible markets.279
In such circumstances, settlements of mixed family farms were relatively detached, in comparison with those in Europe, from commercial or landed power. They participated, weakly, in North Atlantic trade; whereas the staple trades built lines of direct transatlantic dependence, these relatively subsistent societies weakened them because they attracted little external commercial capital. Nor was older, landed wealth drawn to settings where labor was expensive and land cheap; European nobles found that tracts of New World wilderness with Old World titles did not soon translate into estates and privilege. The officials representing French and English crowns, disinclined to bear the cost of governing distant colonies that contributed little to the wealth of the mother country, might legislate vigorously but enforce weakly and erratically. Consequently, local rural society found itself freed from many of the external fiscal and legal demands that capital and nobility placed on its European counterpart. The centralizing tendencies of a Stuart court suddenly would be remote, the royal charges (the taille) that took a third of the French peasant’s income would not be levied. Manorial and seigneurial institutions would be weak or absent. The bourgeoisie would own far less of the countryside. Youths would be less likely to be pressed into service; the forest would no longer have a watchful game keeper. Poor people would still live closely bounded lives but, in comparison with Europe, boundaries would have relatively more to do with local circumstances and relatively less to do with the power of crown, manor, or merchant.
There was opportunity, therefore, towards the middle and lower ends of the French or English social hierarchies, and toward the more vernacular side of rural life.280 However intimidating the initial encounter with the forest, the prospect of land was at hand. Labor that in France or England earned the annual rent for a hectare or two had come to settings where, after a few years, it was often possible to acquire title to a considerable tract of land and provisions to tide over a small family until there were crops in first clearings. Perhaps at the end of a lifetime there would be ten or fifteen cultivated hectares—a farm. Life was rude where a frail technology opened niches of settlement along a wilderness edge and Indian raids were sometimes calamitous, but after a generation or two most people ate better, lived longer, married younger, owned more livestock, and worked more of their own arable than most European peasants. Anchored now by land, the wandering, begging poor virtually disappeared. If hardly anyone attained the income of the prosperous yeoman or laboureur in England or France, the circumstances of the husbandman or, perhaps, after two or three generations, of the poorer yeoman, were relatively available to those and their descendents who brought labor and sought land. As long as land was available and commercial opportunities were weak, these societies would have little socio-economic range. Time diminished such differences if they had accompanied immigrants or delayed their emergence if they had not. Family after family would have a small farm, none would rise very far above the common level, and the complex socio-economic gradient of the European countryside would be confined to a narrow stratum. The rural landscape would lose much of its European complexity.
There was nothing mysterious about this process; new men were not being created. Land had been relatively cheap in relation to labor at various times and in various places in Europe, with approximately similar results. The closest temporal comparison may be with the century after the Black Death when depopulation raised the price of labor and reduced that of land, thereby creating relatively favorable conditions for ordinary people.281 The closest spatial comparison was with those areas where population pressed less heavily on land, where a good deal of forest or waste remained, and where clearing was still going on, as in the western, more pastoral lands of seventeenth-century England. Rural society there was more egalitarian than that in the densely populated champion lands of the southeast.282 Of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, such conditions were temporary. The demographic clock was ticking, and as population pressure increased land values, improved local markets, and enhanced commercial opportunity, socio-economic differentiation increased in proportion. But transatlantic migration had effected a particularly sudden and particularly extreme transformation of the relationship between land and labor with the result that throughout the seventeenth century, and well beyond, the man-land equations on the two sides of the Atlantic were out of phase. As French and English populations rose rapidly in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, land increased in value and real wages fell. The number of rural landless grew, and rural society became increasingly polarized between a prosperous or wealthy few and far more who struggled at the edge of destitution.283 For some, emigration broke this pattern by placing them and their descendents in settings where the relationship of land to labor was very nearly opposite. Where markets were also weak, the result was not social polarization but rather convergence around a minimal, family-centered sufficiency. Eventually, land values would rise—sooner near the towns than farther away, sooner where immigration was considerable than where it was not, sooner where a coasting trade could develop than farther inland—but nowhere in northeastern North America at the end of the seventeenth century had the relative cost of land for mixed farming and of labor to work it reverted to their characteristic European relationship.
The still vigorous regional cultures of seventeenth-century France and England also would be difficult to transplant overseas. In the staple trades they had suddenly encountered an overriding technology and economy; in the New World settlements dependent on peasant farming, the economic environment exerted less dramatic pressures on transplanted memories of local ways. Because wood was at hand, construction emphasized this material and in so doing perpetuated some elements of European technique at the expense of others. Where it was no longer so essential to extract the last gleaning from fields, the agricultural emphasis shifted. Stock browsed and grazed untended in the forest and their genetic quality declined. Rotations tended to simplify, and labor-intensive crops made belated appearances. Agricultural land looked rougher and less cared for, a quality that long occupied the commentaries of visiting European agronomists. Indeed, it was, in part because the recent battle with the forest was not entirely over, but also because, within the limits of a stable agricultural technology and the cost of clearing, land was being substituted for labor. And the relative availability of land meant that those collective elements of European agricultural practice—common lands and open fields with stubble grazing rights—that protected the poor’s access to land were suddenly unnecessary. Just as European farmers tended to move away from these constraints on individual decision-making when they felt economically secure enough to do so and when they could consolidate scattered holdings, so their North American counterparts exercised the same option in settings that provided unusual opportunity for poor people to acquire enough contiguous land to support their families. At most, open fields would survive for a generation or two. The tendency, therefore, was toward individual rather than collective farming, toward dispersed rather than agglomerated settlement, and toward an increasing social emphasis on the family. All such structural adjustments to new economic environments cut across the grain of Old World regional cultures.
Moreover, regional Old World cultures depended on common memories that were difficult to reassemble in new places. Sometimes the majority of immigrants to a particular settlement shared a local, Old World background, but, more often, they did not. Where immigrants’ local regional backgrounds were diverse, many memories quickly slipped away, the collective European heritage thinned, and vernacular cultures combined elements from different source regions supplemented by a few borrowings from the Indians. In these circumstances, European ideas that were not regionally specific tended to receive New World emphasis. The sentiment of the family—nuclear with modest extensions—the craving for land—a means to family-centered security in pre-industrial society—and a sense of private property—these were fairly ubiquitous assumptions that became more salient when people of different local backgrounds converged in New World settings that could not nourish uncommon memories but that did provide unusual, if limited, economic opportunity for ordinary people.
As long as land was available locally, there would be little economic incentive for the young to move far from the parental farm. The extreme displacement of transatlantic migration could be succeeded by a period, the length of which would depend on the rate of population growth in relation to the amount of locally available land, in which most movements would be very short: young people would move to adjacent land. This local infilling would increase consanguinity and, whatever the mix of European elements, would tend to create pockets of very local, homogeneous, New World cultures. In the longer run, adjacent land would not be available. Then many of the young would depart, usually going to new land farther west. These longer moves and the settlements that resulted from them again mixed people of different backgrounds and, as the pace of westward migration accelerated, tended to blend them into an increasingly common culture while spreading it over a considerable territory. The general pattern, therefore, was one of very local cultural pockets around first settlements coupled, as time went on, with increasingly blended regional extensions.284
The eighteenth century would accentuate these dichotomies, but even in the seventeenth century the tendency to reshape the spatial pattern, as well as the content, of French and English regional cultures can be discerned. In rural France or England in the seventeenth century young people commonly moved away from their place of birth. Most of these moves were short, characteristically within nearby parishes and infrequently, unless the destination were a town, more than fifteen or twenty kilometers.285 At this scale, most migration was inserted within regional cultures. Those who moved farther were usually few enough, relative to the receiving population, to be culturally absorbed. High rates of geographical mobility in rural societies did not entail, therefore, the rapid convergence of established regional cultures. But in the northwestern Atlantic, white settlement was superimposed on wilderness—the Indians being displaced—and initial settlements were detached from regional contexts. In these circumstances, internal migration was culturally expansionistic. Because there were no established regional cultures, but at first only settlements, those who left such settlements moved away from their cultural support. If they encountered only wilderness, they would tend to reproduce what they had known, but if, as was much more common, they also encountered other people with other backgrounds, different memories would mix, and an increasingly blended culture would expand inland. The result, sooner or later, would be a convergence of different people, a mixing of ways and, overall, a simplification of cultural memories as some persisted and many others disappeared. Without cultural resistance and with new land drawing settlers, new blends would spread over far larger territories than was characteristic of regional cultures in Europe. At the other extreme, as long as individual settlements exported but did not import people, distinctive ways could survive there for generations, in some cases perhaps in more cultural isolation than anywhere in England or France.
In sum, however diverse the experiences of individual Europeans in northeastern North America in the seventeenth century, most lives were worked out in settings approximately like one of those just described. It is useful to consider that there was neither one nor an endless variety of North American settings, but rather a few common types within which most people lived their lives. These different settings shaped different societies, and people in each of them experienced North America differently. But all of these settings, even the towns, were severe abstractions from Europe. As I have tried to show in these sketches, the complex texture of Europe was gone, though European elements were established wherever Europeans settled. In a sense, North America disaggregated Europe, relocating parts here and there, detaching them from former social, economic, cultural, and regional contexts. The people who lived within these lean, re-emphasized selections of Europe would begin to experience and to measure the world as Europeans did not.
If there is something in Louis Hartz’s conception of the fragmentation of European culture overseas,286 as I am sure there is, the case should not be argued as Hartz tried to argue it. He is probably wrong about the process of fragmentation, which would seem to have little to do with the hiving off of ideas in Europe that then were transplanted overseas, and far more to do with selective pressures in New World settings. And the scale of Hartzian pronouncement is far too grandiose. Given his assumptions about the process of fragmentation, he is forced to define his fragments in broad European social and intellectual categories: New France was “feudal,” New England was “liberal-bourgeois.” Such labels are metaphors that point back to Europe, emphasize elusive European categories and deflect attention from what really was going on in the New World. The pockets of European settlement in seventeenth-century North America, like others later, are better taken on their own terms. Their economic, social, and demographic details are to be worked out; their folklores, material cultures, settlements, landscapes, and regional patterns are to be appreciated. As such understanding grows, it does become apparent that the complex texture of European life had not been reestablished overseas, but rather elements of it—fragments, if you will—that in new settings were being composed in new ways. This pervasive reorganization permeated the detail of European lives overseas. But, if the myriad details are seen primarily as responses to selective pressures in new settings, if the essential characteristics of new settings are seen to be changed relations among the factors of production, and if the factors of production in the early enclaves of European settlement overseas fell into a small number of characteristic patterns, then an analytical framework emerges that may have some comparative potential.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a seasonal European fishery had operated in the northwestern Atlantic for about a hundred years. As early as the 1530’s, Basque fishermen and whalers established seasonal stations along the north shore of the St. Lawrence, and long before the end of the sixteenth century thousands of fishermen from ports from Bristol to Lisbon crossed the North Atlantic each year to fish for cod.287 Out of the fishery developed an intermittent, then increasingly pursued, fur trade. By 1530, Iroquoians from the St. Lawrence Valley were trading with Breton, Basque, and Norman fishermen at the Strait of Belle Isle; by 1550, trade had shifted west to the mouth of the Saguenay, where, by 1580, French merchants came expressly to trade for furs. In 1600, they built a trading post at Tadoussac and, in 1608, another at Quebec.288 The Great Lakes Basin began to receive French goods via the St. Lawrence and Dutch goods via the Hudson. Indian groups that controlled this inland flow reaped deadly bonanzas. The Iroquoians at Stadacona (Quebec) and Hochelaga (Montreal), the earliest middlemen of the St. Lawrence fur trade, were wiped out by more westerly Indians sometime about 1580. By 1615, along parts of the Atlantic coast, and, by the 1630’s in the Great Lakes Basin, European diseases were running through native populations, leaving remnants in their wake.289 In New England, Puritan divines, observing the epidemics’ deadly course, attributed them to a kindly Providence opening the wilderness to the Puritan’s special errand. The Huron, sole middlemen of the French fur trade by the early 1640’s, were destroyed by the Iroquois League in 1649, and other Iroquoian speakers in the Ontario peninsula were dispersed soon after. Before 1660, diseases and warfare had depopulated much of northeastern North America as far west as the Michigan peninsula and the Ohio Valley.290 European settlement expanded into this relative vacuum. In Newfoundland, the fishery now left behind a resident population. Around the Bay of Fundy a handful of French immigrants dyked and farmed the marshlands. Along the lower St. Lawrence, the continuing artery of the fur trade, farms spread out along the river from Quebec to Montreal. And in New England, focus of far more immigration than the other settlements combined, agriculture expanded slowly inland, while a carrying trade spread through much of the North Atlantic.
Fig. 4. European Beginnings in the Northwest Atlantic.
By the seventeenth century, the inshore Newfoundland fishery was operated by French and English fishermen, most of whom sailed from French ports in the Gulf of St. Malo or from the southern English ports of Poole and Dartmouth. This fishery recruited labor from as far as forty or fifty miles inland—orphans or boys whose families could not provide better for them were often placed in the fishery in their early teens—and sent fishermen across the Atlantic on seasonal contracts.291 A few of them were left behind to tend shore properties while wintering in Newfoundland. Gradually a resident population developed: a few French settlements, the largest at Plaisance, along the south shore; and more English settlements, the largest at St. John’s, along the east shore of the Avalon and in Conception and Trinity Bays. There were not many residents involved—at the end of the seventeenth century perhaps a thousand wintered over in the French settlements and four to five thousand in the English—and all of them were dependent on the ships that came each year from Europe and on wages earned from catching and processing cod. Apart from gardens there was no agricultural opportunity in Newfoundland. At first, other New World settlements were inaccessible and external connections were entirely transatlantic. By about 1650, the growing connection with New England began to trouble employers,292 for it opened an otherwise closed system and bid up the price of labor. Even so, no European settlements in seventeenth-century North America were more completely dominated by a European staple trade. Essentially, European capital had brought labor and technologies worked out in the northeastern Atlantic to resources and workplaces in Newfoundland.
These populations were strikingly mobile. A cove that was continuously settled was not necessarily populated by the same people over many consecutive years. Men would stay for a few years and then return to Europe; others would take their place. Every summer the population would be multiplied by seasonal fishermen from Europe. Some men had wives in France or England, but even when wives came out and children were born in these settlements, there was still a great deal of transatlantic mobility, if not quite as much as before. In most settlements at the end of the seventeenth century, women and children accounted for less than ten percent of the population. Of the some six hundred people who wintered over in St. John’s in 1675, three-quarters were migratory fishermen there for the winter. Most of the rest were male servants and laborers who were somewhat less mobile. Only about ten percent of the winter population was made up of planters and their families, most of whom were also part of the transatlantic ebb and flow.293 Resident fishermen obtained supplies on credit and lived with annual, often accumulating, debts to creditors on both sides of the Atlantic. By the end of the seventeenth century, there were some local merchants, habitants-pêcheurs, the French called them, who owned shallops and hired men. The larger merchants lived in comfortable homes in Granville or Poole, while some of their agents and most of their labor force worked on this side of the Atlantic.
These settlements were unembellished workplaces. The shore drying of cod was particularly labor-intensive, and the larger centers of this activity in the migratory fishery may be thought of as seasonal, man-powered factories to which, in the permanent settlements, houses and gardens were added. At the end of the seventeenth century, Plaisance had a tiny church and a pallisaded fortification containing the governor’s residence, a chapel, and a garrison, but it was essentially a settlement of habitants-pêcheurs, most of whom owned three or four shallops and hired a few fishermen. Wharves and sheds lined the inner harbor with simple wooden houses and kitchen gardens behind. There were twenty women and seventy children in Plaisance in 1698. A few of these women had been born there; others came from various parts of northwestern or interior France, the Basque coast, Canada (the St. Lawrence colony) or England.294 Presumably little of their cultural backgrounds survived in this sparse fishing settlement of some three hundred winter residents, most of whom were migratory laborers. Every summer, Basque fishermen dried cod on the Plaisance beaches. At other sites of the migratory fishery, wharves, sheds, and drying platforms were sites of labor-intensive summer activity, and then were left to a few retainers until the next fishing season. There was not much ornament or much of European regional culture where the trappings of a European fishery perched on the edge of a severe New World land.
Whereas the seventeenth-century fishing stations along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia were much like those in Newfoundland, the settlements on the marshlands around the Bay of Fundy were extreme examples of another characteristic type of European settlement overseas.295 Out of range of the commercial fishery and, after the consolidation of the St. Lawrence route to the interior, marginally located for the fur trade, they depended on agricultural land obtained by dyking or clearing. Freshened marshland soils were fertile, and occasional inundations maintained yields. The climate was well suited to pasture and to the hardy European grains, vegetables, and fruits. A few immigrants seized this limited opportunity and established mixed farms on the marshland. There were not many people involved: some three hundred at Port Royal in the early 1650’s and perhaps twelve hundred in all the Fundy settlements by 1700. Almost all of these settlers were descended from a few dozen families. Tucked away in a corner of the northwestern Atlantic, the Acadians’ only regular trade was with New England. They built shallops and sailed them illegally to Boston, while Boston merchants operated unhindered in the Bay of Fundy. By means of their New England commercial connection, Acadian cattle, wheat, wood, furs, feathers, and fish reached outside markets, but the volume of this trade must have been small. Even in the eighteenth century, when the French fortress at Louisbourg created a large, relatively accessible market for foodstuffs, the Acadian settlements in the Bay of Fundy were minor suppliers. The Acadians were not self-sufficient, but their local economy probably was as nearly subsistent as that of any European settlement in seventeenth-century North America. Agriculture provided for families and produced small surpluses that, now and then, some Acadians were able to market.296
This meager economy would not attract European capital or interest European governments. A buffer between New France and New England, Acadia had some geopolitical significance and changed hands frequently in the seventeenth century. No matter which flag flew at Port Royal, where there was usually a governor and a few soldiers, the Acadians were left alone. Occasionally, some of them may have billeted soldiers, but there is no evidence of this or any other royal exaction, although men at Port Royal did serve irregularly in the militia. Much of Acadia was conceded en seigneurie, and some seigneurs probably sub-granted land. Now and then, seigneurial rents may have been paid, but there is no evidence that they were, that a seigneurial court was ever held, or a banal right exercised. As settlement spread up the Bay after 1670, any vestige of French seigneurialism must have been left behind and, without bailiffs or notaries, an illiterate people could have retained only drastically simplified elements of the coutume de Normandie or any other body of French customary law. Priests collected tithes, kept minimal parish records, at least at Port Royal, and must have arbitrated many civil disputes. Often these poor priests were all that survived of the bourgeois, seigneurial, ecclesiastical, and royal power that weighed on the French peasantry.
What was left was a peasant society drawn from here and there in northwestern France, and maintained on the Fundy marshes. In the early years, some settlers took Micmac wives, but the demographic profile soon balanced in this society of farm families, and most of the Acadians’ material culture came from France. Dykes and sluice gates were similar to those in the marshy landes of coastal western France; the techniques of squared log, timber frame, or wattle and daub construction employed to build the Acadians’ tiny houses were well-known in northwestern Europe; and Acadian food, more varied and abundant than the diets of the poorer French peasantry, presumably was prepared and served in French peasant ways. Items of French rural culture relevant to the lives of poor farm families on the Fundy marshlands had been retained, whereas French privilege had faded. Apart from the fort at Port Royal, which was always of contemporary military design, there was hardly a suggestion of French architecture. Visitors mistook the church at Port Royal for a barn. Acadian buildings, like most of the rest of Acadian material culture, were products of local materials, French peasant techniques, and the failure of a substantially subsistent economy to generate wealth.
Unlike the fishermen, these people were soon detached from a transatlantic migration field. Their sons and daughters stayed in Acadia, intermarried, and farmed the marshland. Clusters of consanguineous settlement emerged around parental farms, and when some progeny moved to new marshes they took an increasingly common Acadian culture with them. If some of the settlers at Port Royal in 1650 retained accents of Aunis or Poitou, at the end of the century their descendents at Minas or Chignectou, the Acadian settlements near the head of the Bay of Fundy, shared a vernacular culture in an inbred society. Years later, when some of the deported Acadians were resettled on the Ile de Ré near La Rochelle, neither the local peasant culture nor the differentiated and deferential society in which they found themselves were part of their experience, and most soon left for Louisiana.
In Canada, the French colony centered on the St. Lawrence River, furs and hides were the only seventeenth-century exports, and still made up eighty-five percent of the value of exports at the end of the French regime.297 Until the destruction of Huronia in 1649, this trade depended on Indian middlemen. Thereafter, it was carried on by French traders who, well before 1700, were familiar with the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi, and some waterways beyond Lake Superior. After 1670, they had faced English competition from Hudson Bay, as well as the Hudson River, and responded by pushing inland. The fur trade depended on Indian hunters; the French were middlemen, and they required white inland labor to transport trade goods, man posts, and procure furs. The size of this labor force is debated but probably consisted of about three hundred men a year at the end of the seventeenth century. These men operated westward out of Montreal, part of a transatlantic trading system based in La Rochelle and passing through the St. Lawrence towns to interior trading posts and, finally, to Indian bands.298 Both Montreal and Quebec depended on this trade as well as on the Crown’s civil and military expenditures. At the end of the seventeenth century, perhaps a fifth of a Canadian population of about seventeen thousand lived in these towns. Of the thirteen to fourteen thousand in the countryside, a few, near Montreal, were siphoned off each year by the fur trade and, well down-river from Quebec, a few others participated in the Gulf fishery. The great majority farmed—as had their parents and would their children—in this colony created by a staple trade that, long before 1700, could employ only a tiny fraction of its growing population. Canadian farms raised much the same crops and livestock as the Acadians but in a more ample territory where, in this most interior of seventeenth-century European colonies in the northwestern Atlantic area, external markets were out of reach, and local ones were soon satisfied.
In many ways, the fur trade and cod fishery were diametric opposites: the one maritime and stationary in the territory it exploited; the other continental and expansionistic; the one indifferent or hostile to the Indians; the other dependent on them and on their technology; the one competitive; the other inclined toward monopoly. Yet both were staple trades that drew men to remote resources. As in the fishery, most fur trade labor was seasonal; men returned to the lower St. Lawrence, just as fishermen returned to Europe. The seventeenth-century fur trade left behind children of mixed blood but not yet a permanent white population in the interior, although some of the Orkney Islanders in posts on Hudson Bay would stay for several years. Wages in the St. Lawrence fur trade were higher than those in the fishery, a reflection less of the arduous, dangerous nature of the work—for these qualities also characterized the fishery—than of the availability of land and, hence, of alternative employment, along the lower St. Lawrence. Most engagés made their first trip west in their early twenties, and most made only one trip; the 170 or so livres they earned for four months of paddling were perhaps enough for some of them to buy the few stock, the seed, and the tools with which to begin a farm.299
At the end of the seventeenth century, there were approximately two thousand people in Quebec and just over one thousand in Montreal. In Quebec, commercial and administrative functions were separated by a cliff at the base of which were warehouses and docks, and the laborers, artisans, shop and innkeepers, and merchants associated with the port. Above them were the fort, hospital, governor’s residence, seminary, and a remarkable array, for so small a New World place, of the baroque architecture and geometric gardens of seventeenth-century France. Newer, smaller, and closer to the fur trade, Montreal was rougher, but both these towns, through which passed a trade that in good years sent furs to the value of well over a million livres to La Rochelle and that together reproduced most of the governmental apparatus of a French provincial town, housed defined, stratified societies.300 The colonial governor, the intendant, and their retinues lived in Quebec. There were troops and officers. In both towns there were a few nobles, some of them created in Canada and almost all of them living well beyond their means in a colony where land could not support ease, or engaging in activities that in France would have been unacceptable for people of their rank. Some nobles were indigent wards of the crown, and only a few left estates as large as those of the more prosperous artisans. There were priests and sisters of several orders and some fairly well-educated laymen: notaries, doctors, bailiffs. There were merchants, men of frugal, unostentatious habits, who commonly left fifteen to thirty thousand livres and sometimes more than one hundred thousand livres and were the wealthiest people in the colony. There were tradesmen and artisans, shopkeepers and, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, laborers, domestic servants, engagés recently arrived from France and working out their contracts, and sailors. Probably the occupational mix was leaner and certainly it was somewhat different, but there is no doubt that Montreal and Quebec reproduced much of the social fabric of a French provincial town during the ancien regime.
Rural society was far less occupationally diverse and stratified. With weak markets and a growing number of subsistent farmers, only crop failures consistently relieved the slide in agricultural prices.301 Land was available almost everywhere. Even at the end of the century, uncleared land was worthless except within a radius of the urban demand for firewood. The price of cleared land reflected the labor cost of clearing it but had no speculative value. After the heavy immigration of the 1660’s and early 1670’s the pace of land sales slowed: the Canadian countryside expanded in direct proportion to the population and in almost as much commercial isolation as the marshland farms around the Bay of Fundy. Such a countryside attracted neither capital nor privilege, both of which remained urban. The massive bourgeois penetration of rural France had a meager Canadian counterpart: about twenty percent of the farmland within a few kilometers of Quebec and Montreal and some neglected seigneuries. Nor was nobility drawn to seigneuries that, in themselves, did not impart status, and that could not support its social pretensions. Ecclesiastical seigneurs were more patient, knowing that unpaid rents or land would be retrieved sooner or later and having an institutional base for long-term management. At the end of the century, Montreal Island, with forty-five hundred people—by far the most populous Canadian seigneurie—was beginning to turn an annual profit of ten to fifteen thousand livres. As its Sulpician seigneurs pressed their rights a little harder and censitaires procrastinated as they could, population growth created conditions a little more like those in France.302 In the Gulf of St. Lawrence some seigneuries were developed as fishing stations. Overall, the seigneurial system, which even in relatively small French seigneuries required a manager, an attorney, an assistant attorney, a clerk, a sergeant, lieutenants, and perhaps a gaoler, hung over seventeenth-century Canada in a state of suspended animation, its legal structure intact, unlike Acadia, but the conditions that would give it life not yet in place.303 There were no royal taxes, although families near the towns billeted soldiers and most men served intermittently in the militia. The bishop saw to the erection of parishes and the establishment of resident priests, who would be supported by tithes of one twenty-sixth of the grain harvest, where numbers warranted. Canada was not Acadia; far more French institutional apparatus was in the Canadian countryside, where it would remain a somewhat ghostly presence as long as an essentially subsistent economy was unable to create wealth and land was available for ordinary people.
After the early 1670’s, the Canadian population grew largely from natural increase at an average annual rate of two and a half percent, doubling in just under thirty years. Most of this increase was absorbed by the countryside where young people could expect their own labor to reproduce the family farm of their upbringing. Farm lots were available in most seigneuries for the asking, and the low seigneurial rents charged for them often went uncollected for years. Provisions, stock, and tools might be obtained by wage labor or, more usually in a system of partible inheritance, from a share, or an advance on a share, of the value of the parental property. The considerable variation in the size of cleared landholdings along the lower St. Lawrence in the seventeenth century depended, for the most part, on the stage of farm development. Small farms were being cleared; larger farms bore a generation or more of work. Where farms were the same age, there was a remarkable sameness: similar houses were at the fronts of similar lots amid similar fields growing similar crops. There were no really large habitant farms, nothing comparable to the holdings of the coq du village in France: but in established areas there were many farm families with fifteen or twenty cleared hectares, most of them planted in a two-course rotation of wheat or peas and fallow. These farms also contained considerable kitchen gardens, each of which included a few fruit trees, and there would be a few chickens, sheep, swine, a cow or two, a pair of oxen, and, perhaps, a horse. In most years, such a farm produced a small surplus for sale while providing for most of the subsistent needs of the family. There was no luxury or ease anywhere, but the marriage age, the infant and adult mortality rates, and the comments of visitors all suggest a standard of living above that of most French peasants.304
From the beginning, agriculture was individual rather than collective, a sharp accentuation in a setting where ordinary people could obtain land, of the tendency toward individual farming in northwestern France. There were no open fields with strip allotments, and commons, locally important where there was good but limited riparian pasture, were a small part of the whole agricultural economy. The assemblée des habitants, whose principal function in France was to apportion the burden of externally imposed charges, became in Canada no more than the fabrique (church vestry) that attended to parish affairs. In time, informal communities of close kin would develop in the lines of settlement along the river; more essentially, the nuclear family and its local extensions found breathing space in the agricultural land along the lower St. Lawrence.
Almost half the people who lived in Quebec, Montreal, or the surrounding countryside came from Normandy or the Ile de France in the north, or from Aunis or Poitou in the west; and almost all the rest came from other parts of northern or western France. The great majority of these immigrants were young, single men who crossed the Atlantic as soldiers or as engagés and came from poor but not quite destitute backgrounds. Only one man in twenty and one woman in five was or had been married when they embarked for Canada; after 1673, female migration virtually ceased, averaging, thereafter, three women per annum to the end of the French regime.305 Therefore, when nuclear families reformed in Canada, characteristically husband and wife came from different French regions or a French man married a Canadian girl. Such families lived among others of equally diverse background, and in the second generation their offspring intermarried, further mixing the brew. In this way, the local cast of particular French backgrounds was soon lost; like their Acadian counterparts, the second- and third-generation Canadians who moved from older parishes near Quebec to land on the South Shore, or lads near Montreal who signed on for a season in the fur trade were culturally far more homogeneous than their recent emigrant ancestors. Here, broadly, were two migration fields—one around the Bay of Fundy, the other along the lower St. Lawrence—distributing North American cultures fashioned in somewhat different settings out of immigrant French people from, as far as we know, much the same backgrounds. Whether in Quebec or Montreal there were enough people of common regional stock to delay this process for a generation or two is unknown but improbable.
At first glance, there seems to be little relationship between early New England and the small, scattered, rather adventitious settlements that developed out of the cod fishery or the fur trade in Newfoundland, Acadia, and Canada. New England received a far larger, far more family-dominated migration, and many of these people travelled from a common source region to a common local destination. Many of them brought some means and education. They came relatively early in the seventeenth century, leaving time for several seventeenth-century generations, and for a good deal of New World population growth. Many of them were Puritans who had been drawn across the Atlantic by a vision of social and religious regeneration. Such motivation gave early New England a deductive overtone that was completely absent farther north. And, while some New Englanders depended on the cod fishery, many more on essentially subsistent family farms, and a few on the fur trade, the most vigorous motor of the New England economy was probably the coastal carrying trade. Certainly, New Englanders and Canadians had no use for each other. They fought, considered each other the devil’s agents, and would have resolved the French- or English-speaking destiny of northeastern North America much sooner had they been able to get at each other’s throats more easily.
And yet, English immigrants to New England found themselves in settings that corresponded approximately to one or the other of the three types discussed in the first part of this paper. If that description of the selective pressures exerted by these settings has some general value, then early New England should reveal some of their characteristic effects. Apparently it does, and what follows is a short, unembellished list. Of course, my analysis does not include Puritanism, and while this is inexcusable, I know—rather like writing on Winnie the Pooh without mentioning honey—the omission does at least permit the inference that where my remarks and the reality of early New England diverge, Puritanism was perhaps the cause.
The absence of a sizeable staple trade and the weakness of the rural economy encouraged autonomy at two scales: of colonies from England and of local countrysides from royal officials, landed gentry and nobility, and commercial capital. The New England fishery was not large enough, and the New England coasting trade was not manageable enough to encourage close, English control of these transatlantic colonies, with the result that there were long periods of virtual autonomy followed by those resented bursts of attempted control that culminated in the War of Independence. The matter of local autonomy seems less clear. From Sumner Chilton Powell to the present, some authors emphasize the relative independence of local communities from the common sources of power in the English town and countryside,306 whereas others stress the complexity and power of centralized control.307 Perhaps both are correct. It would follow from the arguments presented in this paper that the principal source of the centralized control of local life in the agricultural settlements of rural New England, to the extent that such control existed, must have been Puritanism. Puritan control would diminish as settlement spread and opportunities for individuals unfolded.
The cheapness of land, the cost of labor, and limited occupational options created countrysides in which the socio-economic range was much less than in England. Puritanism would not affect this change except to bring across the Atlantic some prosperous yeomen and artisans who would receive larger shares of new town lands than most of their fellows. Such migration could establish a considerable socioeconomic range in the developing countryside, but the difference between one man who received two hundred hectares and another who received twenty was not nearly as substantial as it would be a few generations later when the land was cleared and far more valuable. In many townships, no one would be very rich, few would be desperately poor, and the prevailing middle would not vary far from a common, marginal sufficiency. Near the towns, and with time, differentiation would increase. The fishing settlements would be sharply stratified by occupation in the fishery but, because there was some agricultural alternative to fishing, fishermen’s wages would be higher than in Newfoundland or England. Social differentiation, increasingly based on wealth, would be most pronounced in the port towns. Everywhere the relative availability of agricultural land would tend to improve the standard of living of the poorer peasantry, a change that, as in Canada, would be measured by the basic demographic statistics.
Collective rural traditions would weaken in New England, where poor farmers held more land than their English counterparts. In such circumstances commons or stubble grazing after harvests on open fields would suddenly be less important, the pressure on land would relax, and rights defended clamorously on the other side of the Atlantic would slip away. In those townships where most settlers came from open field backgrounds, collective traditions would be reestablished, and then would be replaced, often within a generation, by more individualistic agriculture as the reality of different circumstances sank in. Even the nucleated village, long taken to be the tangible geographical expression of the New England rural community, would be rare in New England before the late eighteenth century.308 In New England and Canada the basic pattern of rural settlement appears to have been the same: nuclear families lived on their own farms and services were dispersed among them.
The cultural traditions of English regional custom would blend in New England as people mixed, intermarried, and moved through migration fields that distributed the new vernacular culture. This process would be delayed where people of similar English background settled together, and might be delayed further if subsequent movement generated local migration fields within townships. Sooner or later, different backgrounds would tend to merge; in city and countryside local cultural convergence would be the rule, local cultural isolation the exception. Presumably, long before the van of settlement reached the western Connecticut of Charles Grant’s study,309 East Anglians, Yorkshiremen, and Hampshiremen would have disappeared. Long before the end of the eighteenth century a relatively common New England vernacular culture would be poised to spill out of New England.
In rural areas, the smaller occupational and economic range, the weakening of traditional local cultures, and the common, generational movement of new families to new land would change English patterns of deference. First, they would reduce their range and fine tuning simply because the range between rich and poor had diminished and because there was far less occupational variation. Second, deference would have less to do with tradition—family name, vocational status, and the like—and more to do with personal traits and with income. In new settings it would be far easier to know whom one liked or who was rich than to classify people in terms of their social pedigrees. Third, deference would become more symbolic, being associated less with an ongoing, organic society in which people had familiar places than with the idealization of such a society. Is this an interpretation of the meeting house with its innumerable sermons about Christian community set amid a society of dispersed farming families who made their own agricultural and market decisions, tended their own property, and provided as they could for their own children? At the other end of the scale of deference, could the crown have become, in time, simply an irrelevant symbol rather than the culmination of an organic society that no longer existed?
Finally, by abstracting Puritanism from its English social context, New England would change the Puritan meaning of community: the English social order (within which a Winthrop assumed the City of God) would not be in the minds of Puritan divines who preached community in late seventeenth-century New England. Their community, I should think, would have become either more visionary or more local and personal. If anything, the work of pioneering and the practical achievements it demanded would reinforce the ascetic materialism of the Puritan tradition, while the growing salience of the nuclear family and proportional decline of the organic community would emphasize the privatism in the Puritan encounter with God. Sooner or later, such religion would become emotional and evangelical.
Here, then, are some steps toward a simple and fairly comprehensive analytical framework that may have some value for the comparative study of early modern European settlements in northeastern North America. The framework can be much elaborated, of course, particularly regarding the towns. Some of its present inferences may prove to be wrong; at most, they should be used suggestively rather than deductively. But perhaps it is clear that the seventeenth-century European colonies north of New Spain, including those south of New England, present a singular opportunity for comparative study. Data are abundant, new settlements were isolated from each other, and new societies reflected fairly clear responses to the selective pressures of different settings. Perhaps, too, such studies may shed some light on a subsequent North America, partly because they deal with the roots of later experience; partly because seventeenth-century settings had later equivalents that exerted similar pressures and had similar effects. The seventeenth-century settlements bordering the northwestern Atlantic introduce modern North America chronologically and geographically, and, conceivably, the study of them may also introduce North America analytically.
Cole Harris is Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia.