This is, more or less, how the map of North America stood as far as exploration by the Spaniards, French and British the first part of the 1600s. You can copy this if you want, it was colored in by a friend’s 9-year-old daughter, who kept asking me where the Pilgrims were.

America, 1600 – 1776.

I’m soooo excited about these centuries, even though most Americans probably know only about the first 20 years. What do I mean when I say that? Most of us have a pretty good grasp on the happenings from 1607 (Mayflower stuff) to the first “Thanksgiving” in 1621. Some Americans might remember the Salem Witch Trials, a sordid piece of insanity in 1692, but what about the other 150 years?

If you use Da Google for that time period, you don’t find a whole lot, either. And yet this century and a half could well be called the “make it or break it” time in our present-day history. Each failure – and there were  a lot of them – did not necessarily mean that lessons were learned and that success would surely follow.

In short, it was a time of a lot of lesses in our history:

  • passing uniquely colonial laws about slaves,
  • putting their manly thumbs down on women,
  • killing as many Indians as possible,
  • killing as many animals as possible,
  • and pretty much trying to keep from starving to death

But lest I be accused of writing only about the less, here’s the more:

  • the beginnings of education for (almost) all was invented – and colleges were established
  • the middle class was invented
  • limits were tested in a dress rehearsal to the Big Revolution,
  • great cities were built
  • the first seeds of American environmentalism were planted (which believe it or not, is related to the fourth bullet point, above)

I visited Colonia Williamsburg, a short distance from D.C., in 1994. It was a hot, sultry June day, I had some time to kill between a business conference and meeting some friends for dinner, so I took a tour bus that the conference was offering as a special bonus just for showing up. I forgot my camera, of course.

The costumes are authentic, the buildings just as much so (except for the air conditioning), but I found it a bit lacking, since it seemed to concentrate more on daily living – what they cooked, ate, how they built and decorated their homes – as opposed to the more salient information about how Virginia became Virginia. It reminded me of some of the Civil War enactments I’d seen. Great on costumes and loud guns, not so much on the bloody mess of how the whole thing started and ended. It was and is a huge tourism attraction. Didn’t Disney want to build an amusement park near there?

The Williamsburg website (there has to be a strong envy factor, thosefolks reserved a long time ago. Wow, what foresight!) is a really great resource for costumes and customs. They now have some recognition of blacks, the “African American Experience” and a bit more about the politics of the region pre-1776. I also like the fact that they have given more than a cursory nod to the religious lack-of-freedom that permeated Virginia throughout the 18th century.

We like to think that the Pilgrims and those that came before or after were a gentle, generous folk. They had been mistreated and subjugated in their respective European countries, so they knew what unfairness and discrimination were. The images, the paintings and drawings of these men and women show them smiling, with open arms, grateful to be in the New World where they could start over, fresh, clean from the war and plague-ridden Europe and England.

They’re almost always surrounded with the ubiquitous cornucopia of pumpkins, corn, and other veggies, fish and dead deer, perhaps a friendly arm around the shoulder of the neighborhood noble savage.

That image, unfortunately, is just not an accurate one. They were, no more and no less, products of whence they had come.

It is now time we take a peek at Europe since we last checked in, which was about 1500. We have some catching up to do. In many ways, the 17th century is the most important century for the New World – this is the century that set a lot of things in motion for We the People.

So, as the year 1600 unfolds…

The Old World has been rocked by the revelations of the New World. After all, the Bible never said anything about it, so the Church had some ‘splaining to do.

Furthermore, the sudden influx of thousands of tons of silver into Europe and eventually Asia has shifted the world’s economies with unexpected violence and force. Weatherford explores in some depth the Silver Connection in Indian Givers; Neal Stephenson’s trilogy, The Baroque Cycle handles the upheaval in fiction, but it is so clever and well-considered that it merits attention, as just about anything that Stephenson writes.

SPAIN – With the discovery of the New World comes new challenges. While Spanish coffers become fat, piracy – especially from the pesky English – is routine. The Protestant Reformation is threatening the regal ties with the Catholic Church; through marriage, the region is now under the control of the Spanish Hapsburgs. War after war – and the defeat of its Armada in 1588 (hundreds of ships lost, thousands of soldiers killed or missing) – forces the country into bankruptcy. Spain will never, never, never be a Big Shot in The World again.

ENGLAND – Henry VII may have liked Spain, but his subsequent heirs don’t, especially Queen Elizabeth. Having defeated the Spanish Armada, England is poised to take on the world. As the century is turning, the queen dies in 1603, leaving the throne a bit unstable. She has no children, so the crown goes to James, King of Scotland, who becomes James I. He is the king who ruled during the early English colonization of the New World and is perhaps one of the least written-about monarchs.

It is in his name that the Authorized King James Version of the Bible was printed; he also wrote The True Law of Free Monarchies in which he explains the divine right of kings, declaring that for Biblical reasons kings are higher beings than other men, though “the highest bench is the sliddriest to sit upon.” Sliddriest means slippery. He had a noted dislike for Parliament. Even so, he did not take kindly to the Gunpowder Rebellion and has all of the conspirators executed in some rather gruesome ways. This is a timely bit of history today since a mask purportedly the likeness of Guy Fawkes, one of the rebels, is much in fashion today.

RUSSIA – There are some good reasons why we should at least mention Russia. While the Spanish and Portuguese were making their various ways on the eastern and western parts of the New World, Russian sailors were exploring what is now the Bering Straight in the mid-1600s. Alaska was settled by Russians by the late 1700s; these settlers were as prone to the missionary mandate as their European counterparts, they brought Orthodox priests with them. It was during this period that Peter the Great ruled (1694 – 1725), he is considered one of the more progressive of Russia’s early rulers, even though he was true to his brutal predecessors in his treatment of Ukrainians, Cossacks, and anybody else who threatened his reign. The penultimate biography: Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie. Tsar Peter is worthy of note since some of his ideas and policies had a direct influence on what is now an obscure part of history – Winter Wheat.

FRANCE – The century before 1600 could have been summed up in three words: War, War, and More War. Unfortunately, most of the 17th century can also be summed up with the same three words. The Sun King – Louis XIV – will set a new bar for hedonism and royal spending. However, nothing stops the French from forging their own paths towards the New World, mostly near modern-day Quebec, the Great Lakes, and south along the Mississippi River. Although France does not send waves of colonists into these areas, numerous trading posts are established and alliances with several Native American tribes prove to be both profitable and handy.

GERMANY (aka the Holy Roman Empire) – The power struggles between Protestants and Catholics is about to reach a crucial point. Within a few years, the country will be fractured by the 30 Years War.

ITALY – It’s still not Italy yet.

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH – Protestants and Catholics are really getting testy with each other (see the 30 Years War). There are a passel of popes during these two Centuries, 25 or so, I lost count.

HOLLAND – Holland? Huh? Holland (aka the Netherlands) has suddenly become the new kid on the power block, despite having lost some cred with that tulip thing (Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash). Holland is one of the richest countries in Europe, having fostered lucrative shipping and banking trades, and probably the first-ever roots of a middle class. It sort of won the 80 Years’ War with Spain (source of the conflict: the Catholic Church) and new converts of the Protestant and French Huguenot movements are filling its cities, causing growing conflict with … the Catholics.