- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Gloria Main
Harvard University Press, $49.95, 316 pages, illus.

In "People's of a Spacious Land: Families and Cultures in Colonial New England," Gloria Main, associate professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder, offers a magisterial analysis of colonial New England society, literally from the ground up. Beginning with the region's environment, she draws on a vast array of studies and her own powerful research skills to paint an authoritative portrait of the struggles of daily life for colonists and Native Americans. For both groups, the family was the basic organizing unit of society. By focusing on family life, the author finds the key to understanding the society, culture, and economy of colonial New England.
In the writer's hands, the study of New England is exposed to the solid, no-nonsense sort of analysis that revolutionized our understanding of life in the colonial Chesapeake, the subject of her first book. This adds several welcome touches to standard approaches to the region. First of all, she makes a pioneering effort to include Native Americans within our understanding of colonial New England society. Though their numbers were much reduced by disease, warfare, and poverty, Native Americans never disappeared from New England. Only their visibility changed. Unable to continue their way of life as before, they were forced to work as servants and laborers for their better-off English neighbors. But they remained, and Gloria Main does an admirable job of retaining them as a cultural counterpoint to the English throughout her study.
This account is also refreshingly unromantic. With a hard-edged realism, the author makes no bones about the real significance of New Englanders for American history. "They reproduced at a mighty pace and forged a work culture oriented toward investing for future returns. They created an economic and demographic juggernaut" which quickly spread across the northern half of the United States in the years after the Revolution and enabled New England to lead the way into modern industrial capitalism. What gave New England society its strength was not just the young marriages and many children (the French in New France actually married younger and had more children), though that helped. It was the New England town and its method of distributing land.
Towns controlled much more land than they actually used in the early years. Even though it was not immediately put to use, all that extra land had a purpose. The great economic dilemma of New England was that land was cheap and wages high because labor was so scarce. Unlike the Chesapeake, New England produced no profitable cash crop that could justify the reliance on servants and slaves to do most of the work. New England was also healthier than the South. More people survived childhood and lived longer there than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. This meant that there were lots of children around to help out on the farm. The problem was keeping them on when vast amounts of land beckoned from all sides.
To keep their children working for them, families and towns handed out lands to the next generation only gradually. Fathers would amass land into large estates and deed it to their children in their wills, providing them with a strong incentive to stay around and help out in their old age. This basic equation of land and labor affected every turn of the English life cycle, from birth to old age and death. With a keen eye for the property arrangements and power relations affecting the intimate life of a household, the author shows how New Englanders coped with the eternal human problems of work, reproduction, and social order in their own distinctive way.
Without the cheap land and high wages, New Englanders would have married less and later, as was the norm back in England. With it, they had large families (averaging 6 children) and lots of work, both on the farm and within the house. In the 18th century, all those extra hands could be turned to new forms of work as the economy developed, allowing the New England economy to grow without creating a vast underclass of economically deprived and socially disconnected laborers.
The author uses the changing predicament of women to highlight the differences between the 17th and 18th centuries. While their age of marriage increased only slightly, from about 20 1/2 to 221/2 (it was 26 for men), the nature of married life shifted. As land became more expensive and livestock became cheaper, these cornerstones of the regional economy began to disappear from women's dowries. By the mid-18th century, women's property was often made up exclusively of household goods, thus changing the economic stake a woman brought to a new household.
The rise of children, as objects of adoration and devotion, also worked against the powerful position and status women had had in the 17th century. The more resources husbands heaped on their children, the less they gave their wives. Widows received less property in 18th-century wills. They were also often coerced into staying widows and not remarrying by clauses that deprived them of much of their property from the estate if they remarried, something unthinkable in the 17th century.
The array of sources the author uses, probate records, wills, court documents, and diaries, allow her to get at subtle aspects of social life that often elude historians, like child rearing. Though a patriarchal society, there was no uniform policy of discipline. Some beat their children. Others did not, using guilt and persuasion instead.
Attitudes towards children are reflected in their names, which begin biblical and paternal, stressing the importance of religion and patriarchy. By the mid-18th century they become quite individualistic and, in the case of girls, almost whimsical. Mercy, Hope, and Patience become Molly, Dolly, and Clarissa (the leading character in a popular novel).
Love and concern for children is obvious in both centuries, strict Calvinist beliefs notwithstanding. There was one constant, however: to ensure obedience. Children, like women, were expected to follow the orders of their patriarch. A man who could not control his wife and children lost his honor and credibility in the community, and there was very little room for those who could not maintain a respectable household. Outsiders, be they Irish, African, or Native American could only be partially incorporated as servant labor into a society where membership in the church, the town corporation, and local kin networks determined social status and political power.
Unfortunately, the lack of the sources that make this analysis of the English so compelling puts Native Americans in an odd position. At times Native American society appears as a sort of colonial-era counterculture, defying the norms and expectations of the English mainstream. Children were indulged and encouraged to act independently of their parents. Women had more control over their bodies and greater autonomy in their lives. The intimate tensions and travails of Native American society tend to get lost in the implicit critique it presents to the English social structure.
This book is not about telling stories, though Gloria Main does use mini-biographies to illustrate the realities she is talking about. It is not always a smooth read. But it is a rewarding one, offering readers a rich understanding of the society that played such a crucial role in the making of the United States.

Evan Haefeli is a lecturer in the department of history at Princeton University, where he recently completed a thesis on religion and politics in the middle colonies. He is also completing a book, together with Kevin Sweeney, a professor at Amherst College, on the 1704 French and Indian raid on Deerfield, Mass.

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