The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675

by Bernard Bailyn

Hardcover, 2012




Knopf, (2012)


From an acclaimed historian of early America, a compelling account of the first great transit of people from Britain, Europe, and Africa to the British colonies of North America and their involvements with each other and the indigenous peoples of the eastern seaboard.

Media reviews

For such a broad, comprehensive work, “The Barbarous Years” is oddly narrow.
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"Mr. Bailyn is at his best writing about New England—familiar terrain—and recounting the travails and then rapid growth of the Massachusetts Bay Colony after 1620. This section could stand on its own as a short book on the subject: The author colorfully portrays the Puritan leaders, their
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propensity for schism and the relentless struggles between doctrinal compromisers and the pure of heart. Puritans eagerly resorted to flogging, dismembering and burning their opponents. These were barbarous years indeed."
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User reviews

LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
The history of the inhabitants of the Atlantic Seaboard in the 17th century was no Thanksgiving dinner party. Instead, it was more like Hobbes' dictum that life is full of "continual fear, and danger of violent death; [...] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The native inhabitants, of
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course, were the real first Americans. They were extremely varied in culture, customs, and languages, had extremely difficult, perhaps Spartan upbringings for their children, and occasionally engaged in extremely brutal warfare, including torture. They were also adept at agriculture and mixed crop usage, which the early European colonists were solely lacking.

From there, Bailyn starts with Virginia and makes his way north to New England. The Virginia colony had poor leadership and barely survived famines and massacres (Most notably the Powhatans in 1622). The former was due to incompetence and bad weather, the latter was due to incompetence, poor defenses, and tribal conflicts which were mismanaged.

The Maryland colony, led by a Lord Baltimore, didn't have as many difficulties with the natives, but instead had a bad disease and malaria problem. It was also a haven for escaped Catholics and some non-conformist Protestant sects after the English Civil War.

The Dutch, of course, founded some colonies in present-day New York, then known as New Amsterdam. They, too, had brutal conflicts with the Native Americans. It's interesting to note that already, the colony which would become New York City was already heterogeneous in population - Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians, English, Welsh, and some Africans, slaves or otherwise.

One interesting and unusual assertion is made about the Swedish colonies, small in population and often overlooked. He discovers that almost half of their colonies were populated by Finns, already accustomed to difficult terrain and indigenous peoples - the nomadic animistic reindeer-herding Sami of northern Scandinavia.

New England is an area Mr. Bailyn has covered before, and well. This is well-trod ground, as he recounts more religious schisms among the Puritans, the intensity of their communal religious devotion, and, of course, their tendency to torture dogmatic opponents.

Only a handful of the new colonists were nobility, and only a portion of the others brought families with them. A large segment of this new population were disaffected young men with some craft, hoping to build a new life or to escape from the wars of the old world.

Bailyn only briefly touches upon the topics of slavery and forced human trafficking to America. Of course, slavery is millenia older than the American colonies. That, it seems, is a topic for another book. What can be said, though, is that violence, and uncertainty were major factors for all those in this new world - colonists, nobles, explorers, families, Natives all. Such is life on the frontier. Few of us would be here without it.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Fractious tribes and fractious Britons clashed, constantly misunderstanding each other, with side orders of massacres, torture and cannibalism used by various tribes to assert dominance over the (temporarily) vanquished. Also, immigrants didn’t like each other much either—it’s funny now, but
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the folks of Massachusetts really thought the folks of Rhode Island were dangerous perverts. These were rough years, seemingly more full of failure than success, especially when religious/political reform began to make the kind of headway that various dissenting sects thought was impossible back in the home country, leaving the new colonies more rigid than Britain itself and making the inhabitants look like they might have fled out of unwarranted pessimism.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
It was not easy to be an immigrant to the wilds of America in the 17th century. This (perhaps too) exhaustive survey of the various settlements was full of detail of the trials and tribulations of both the settlers and the native peoples (in general, not a pretty picture!).
LibraryThing member qaphsiel
If you want to immerse yourself in the early colonial period of eastern North America, there is no better place to start than Bernard Bailyn's The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America. As the title suggests it covers the conflicts of the era, but not only the armed conflicts. In
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the heady mix and times of the early colonial period conflict occurred in every arena - religious, political, economic, and cultural - and between nearly every identifiable group. Framing the conflict as European vs Native American or English vs Dutch oversimplifies to the point of uselessness.

You can read more of this review at my blog: Review of “The Barbarous Years” by Bernard Bailyn.
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Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — History — 2013)


Original language



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