*Before the Revolution*

The author is Daniel K. Richter and the subtitle is America’s Ancient Pasts.  I admit I am a sucker for books on this topic, but so far it is one of my two or three favorite non-fiction titles of the year.  Excerpt:

The end of the Chesapeake chiefs’ efforts to use prestige goods to build power in the traditional way resulted from a more basic factor than the violent refusal of the English to play along.  Once substantial numbers of European and Native people began living near each other, it became virtually impossible for any chief to control the flow of goods to his people, even if, as Powhatan apparently tried to do, he redefined prestige in ever more esoteric directions.  As early as January 1608 — only a few months after the establishment of Jamestown — Smith complained that ordinary colonists and visiting sailors were trading so much metal to ordinary Indians that corn and furs “could not be had for a pound of copper, which before was sold for an ounce.”  Archaeological excavations confirm that the jewelers and metalworkers textbooks have long derided as useless appendages to the lazy Jamestown colonists worked busily to make copper and other metal items to trade with Native people.  This might have been the colony’s only productive enterprise in its earliest years.  All along the costs — and soon along the interior rivers — of eastern North America, this kind of unregulated trade between commoners was bad news for chiefs like Powhatan, whose power depended on European goods remaining rare and under their personal control.  But the opportunities that such trade represented — for both Europeans and Native people — were enormous.  Some chiefs found ways to turn the new conditions to their advantage.  Others did not.

Definitely recommended.  My favorite parts are about the agricultural revolutions experienced in native American societies, before the arrival of the colonists.  Here is part of the Amazon summary:

Richter recovers the lives of a stunning array of peoples—Indians, Spaniards, French, Dutch, Africans, English—as they struggled with one another and with their own people for control of land and resources. Their struggles occurred in a global context and built upon the remains of what came before. Gradually and unpredictably, distinctive patterns of North American culture took shape on a continent where no one yet imagined there would be nations called the United States, Canada, or Mexico.


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