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Originally published Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'The Barbarous Years': Tough times for early American settlers

Bernard Bailyn's "The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America" tells the story of the tough, unsentimental immigrants who settled North America between 1600 and 1675, and of the harsh, sometimes savage conditions they had to surmount to succeed.

Special to The Seattle Times

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

by Bernard Bailyn

Knopf, 656 pp., $35

Bernard Bailyn has been a fixture at Harvard since 1953 and has won two Pulitzer Prizes for books on early American history. In "The Barbarous Years" he tracks the settlers who came to North America from 1600 to 1675, where they were from, why they came, and what they did in the New World.

Life for the first settlers, Bailyn writes, was one of "confusion, failure, violence and the loss of civility." The land was wild and to each side, Native American and European, the other was utterly alien. While the two traded and sometimes were friends, they also warred, both sides savagely. Writes Bailyn: "There never was a time, over half a century of settlement, when there was not a racial conflict."

The settlers came with institutional purpose. The settlements in Virginia and New York aimed to turn a profit for investors in the quickening economies of England and the Netherlands. Profit was elusive. In the first years, settlers died at unsustainable rates, and their home countries sent more settlers.

At the first settlement in Virginia that survived — Jamestown — Bailyn asks the reader to imagine "the constant, often unexpected arrivals of shipload after shipload of sickly, disoriented passengers in a climate that was debilitatingly hot and humid, lacking supplies to carry them over the first phase of resettlement, destined to be housed in crowded huts... ."

Of the first Virginia planters, Bailyn writes, "A few were educated, some were illiterate; but what counted was their common capacity to flourish in frontier settlements. They were tough, unsentimental, quick-tempered, crudely ambitious men concerned with profits and increased landholdings, not the grace of life."

The Puritans were no pushovers, either. They came to New England to create a community of God. Today they are remembered for their trials of witches, but in their day they were the religious left, challenging England's intolerance of them, and in fighting each other over matters of doctrine.

At the end of Bailyn's story, the colonists are still in a borderland world, still living with risk. In Maryland in 1650, 15 to 20 percent of men arriving from England died in the first year. Of youth lucky to reach 18, 30 percent had lost their natural parents.

Bailyn's strength in telling this story is in digging out and interpreting such records. He shows how the New Englanders' disputes over how to divide virgin land related to their origins in parts of England with different traditions of land tenure. He explains the Protestant sects and traces the geographical trajectories of various preachers.

Demography and family history will not fascinate everyone. "The Barbarous Years" is the third book in a project that began with, "The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction." In some places the reader may yearn for a more big-picture introduction and less of the detail.

Still, it is a fine piece of work by a historian who is now 90, and still has something to say about the period he has studied all his life.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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