|Author(s):||Main, Gloria L.|
|Reviewer(s):||Smith, Daniel Scott|
Published by EH.NET (December 2002)
Gloria L. Main, Peoples of a Spacious Land: Families and Cultures in
Colonial New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. xi +
316 pp. $49.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-674-00628-3.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Daniel Scott Smith, Department of History, University of
Illinois at Chicago.
In this book, Gloria Main, a historian at the University of Colorado,
contrasts the families and cultures of the white settlers of colonial New
England and the Ninnimissinouk, the collective name for the native peoples of
southern part of that region. “The central story,” according to the author (p.
ix), is “the intertwined processes of family formation and town founding by
which the English took the land and displaced its original inhabitants.”
Between initial chapters assessing the two cultures in the period of English
settlement and concluding ones dealing with the transitions during the
eighteenth century before the American Revolution, Main focuses on the family
life cycle. Successive chapters treat family formation, fertility and child
mortality, childrearing and childhood, and the stages of youth and old age. Of
course, the sources for the English are much richer than for the
Ninnimissinouk. Information about the native-Americans was filtered through the
perceptions of the English, some of whom used aspects of Indian lifestyles to
criticize values or practices of their own culture. Others disparaged the
Indians, and no group in the early modern era can be said to rank very high on
a metric of ethnographic sensitivity. Main’s effective use of modern
anthropological studies of other cultures to supplement the scanty or biased
historical record is one of the strengths of the book.
The broad outlines of the story were etched by radically different demographic
trajectories. Attracting fewer than 25,000 immigrants during the colonial era,
most of whom arrived before 1641, the European-origin population of the region
attained 100,000 by 1700 and 900,000 by the time of the first census of 1790.
Estimates of the numbers of native-Americans before European contact are highly
problematic. Main mentions a figure as high as 100,000. What is clear is that
population plummeted, mainly due to the impact of epidemic disease, during the
period of contact. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Indian population
of Massachusetts and Connecticut was, according to Main (p. 195) under 5,000.
Diminished numbers of native-Americans at the end of the seventeenth century
did not prevent Indians and their French allies from effectively containing the
expansion of white settlement within New England until 1713.
What is novel in Main’s treatment of Indian demography is her inclusion of a
component of fertility. Extended nursing practices and the consequent long
intervals between births of native-Americans were one of the factors in
population decline. Like other peoples everywhere outside of northwestern
Europe, Indian women had their first child very early, though Main has no
information on this point, and had low marital fertility rates compared to
European women. Due to the “spacious land,” which facilitated the establishment
of new households by young couples, colonial New England women married earlier
(in their early twenties) than their English counterparts. Because they weaned
their children before they reached one year, they had the shorter birth
intervals typical of early modern west-European populations. Natural increase
was thus rapid among the colonists and their descendants. While some Indians in
the eighteenth-century in New England lived within the boundaries of English
settlement, most did not. Whether some adapted the nursing regime of their
white neighbors is unknown, at least to me.
Main’s intended audience is closer to the general than the scholarly. However,
the inclusion of maps would have assisted students and others not familiar with
the location of towns and other features of the geography in New England.
Having worked on this project for a long time, Main here merely summarizes the
results of her extensive research into genealogies, probate records, and other
sources. Those seeking details will need to look up her earlier journal
publications. In particular, Main or, more likely, her publisher chose not to
burden readers by reporting the number of cases upon which quantitative
generalizations are based. Earlier articles report that more than 20,000
probate inventories from southern New England are included in the overall
database, but I did not find a detailing of the numbers of marriages or other
events from her genealogical database.
In order to convey the increasing commercialization of the region, Main
contrasts the activities reported in diaries kept by Thomas Minor between 1653
and 1685, and by John May for an extended period after 1707, and in a memoir by
Samuel Lane covering between 1737 and 1803. This is an effective narrative
device. My impression from the text — it can be no more — is that Main is
suggesting an earlier beginning and a more gradual transition from a less
toward a more commercial economy than does Winifred Rothenberg. A previous
article, co-authored with Jackson Turner Main, reported that the growth in
probated real wealth before the between 1638 and 1774 was limited to land and
its improvements. Other categories of wealth merely fluctuated over time
(Journal of Economic History 48 (March 1988), Table 2, p.36). In neither
the text nor the notes does Main engage directly with the arguments and
interpretations of other historians.
A work that addresses multiple audiences can frustrate some members of each.
Less problematic is the multidisciplinary character of Peoples of a Spacious
Land. In this outstanding example of multidisciplinary history, Main
considers social, demographic, economic, anthropological, and geographical
topics and issues. I can think of no other work published in recent years that
is so wide-ranging.
Daniel Scott Smith is currently working on the social demography of the
Northern military effort during the American Civil War. Among his recent
publications is “Cultural Demography: New England Deaths and the Puritan
Perception of Risk” (with J. David Hacker), Journal of Interdisciplinary
History (Winter 1996). He has served as president of the Social Science
History Association and as editor of Historical Methods.
|Subject(s):||Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||18th Century|