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.