Life In 17th Century North America Was Brutal

Bernard Bailyn, in his book, The Barberous Years, describes a scene of suppertime for tobacco farmers in 17th century Virginia:


Wealthier landowners lived a life similar to farm workers:

“In the grinding reality of small-scale tobacco farming, masters lived and worked intimately with servants, their clothing and appearance in no way different from those of their hirelings.”

Bailyn’s descriptions of life for immigrants to America in the 17th century mirrors Katherine Turner’s descriptions, except she was covering the period from late 1800s to early 1900s. Both of them say that modern Americans romanticize the lives of our ancestors.*

“Later generations, reading back into the past the outcomes they knew, often gentrified this passage in the peopling of British North America, but there was nothing genteel about it. Bailyn shows that it was a brutal encounter — brutal not only between the Europeans and native peoples and between Europeans and Africans, but among Europeans themselves.”

Here’s another photograph by Lewis Hine.


Photo taken May 1910: “This photo shows what was formerly a chicken coop, in which during the berry season the Arnao family live on Hitchen’s farm, Seaford, Del. 17 children and 5 elders live in this made over chicken coop.” Library of Congress

This chicken coop (that housed 22 people!) was probably eons better than the homes of farmers 100 years prior.  I’m having a hard time reconciling the bucolic life I’m shown in movies, books, and even advertisements with these historical accounts.  Life for most of our ancestors was truly brutal.

* I’m reading Turner’s book. The Bailyn excerpt was thanks to Bill.

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