How deep do you have to dig to understand the origins of the United States? Traditionally, the story of our national origin begins with a clean slate; European settlers and colonizers arriving on a relatively pristine continent. But in historian Daniel Richter’s view, a confluence of environmental, economic and cultural forces on both sides of the Atlantic profoundly influenced America’s pre-colonial and colonial trajectory. We explore America’s history, before the Revolution.


  • Daniel K. Richter Professor of American History and Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania


  • 13:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It was a new country starting with a clean slate in 1776 at the dawn of the United States. Thomas Paine likened the new nation to a land of Noah after the floods, a new experiment unburdened by the histories and institutions of the past.

  • 13:07:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, most historians aren't so sure. The typical stories of the 13 colonies tend to gloss over the history of slaves and of native peoples. They also present the colonies in a kind of vacuum, isolated from other continents and from the deep histories of people who lived here for hundreds of years before its first settlers. So, how deep would you have to dig to understand the complexities of our colonial past?

  • 13:07:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIDaniel Richter starts in the middle ages, the effect of global climate change. In his newest book, he proposes a sweeping new way of thinking about our earliest histories. Daniel K. Richter is the author of "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past." He's a professor of American history and director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel Richter, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:11

    MR. DANIEL K. RICHTERWell, thank you for inviting me, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 13:08:13

    NNAMDIAmerica's colonial history is almost always thought of as a prologue, it begins around 1492, ends with the Founding Fathers. But that history has some glaring holes. In fact, despite thousands of books on the subject, you say most historians aren't really sure how to tell the story.

  • 13:08:31

    RICHTERAnd we are. And I think as a result, professional historians have let down the readers and let down the population as a whole. And having some understanding of this, what is after all a very long period. I've made it much longer than most people do in this book. But between 1500 and 1776, think about that, that's a very long period of time. Many people lived, died, lots of changes happening. And I think most of us don't carry in our head a story that would help us get from point A to point B.

  • 13:09:02

    NNAMDIIndeed, you say it's a historical record with some documents from the beginning, a bunch of documentary evidence at the end and almost nothing in the middle.

  • 13:09:10

    RICHTERWell, there's lots of evidence. And the problem is, it's hard to make sense of that evidence and hard to tell a story that has a clear beginning and an end.

  • 13:09:20

    NNAMDIIn 1776, Thomas Paine wrote in "Common Sense" about the American Revolution, making it possible to begin the world over again, an opportunity akin to Noah after the flood. What was fundamentally wrong with that view?

  • 13:09:36

    RICHTERI don't think there was anything wrong with that view, except that it was a political statement of wishful thinking. He was trying to -- if you go on and read what Thomas Paine actually said, you find that the book is actually full of history lessons. It's all about the history of the English monarchy in particular and the history of kings, in general. He goes all the way back to the Old Testament to try to prove that God somehow never wanted Israel to have a king in the first place.

  • 13:10:02

    RICHTERKings were a terrible idea. He goes through a very long set of historical and constitutional and philosophical arguments that are deeply rooted in his own past, precisely he was trying to convince people, no, that's old and we can get rid of it now, right?

  • 13:10:18

    NNAMDIBut there's a recurrent theme in the way colonial history has been told, the idea -- this idea of a blank slate, starting from scratch. And you open and close the book with writings of Thomas Paine. But you say, there are a few problems with that outlook, it's Anglo centric, it's teleological, and it's exceptionalist. Talk about that.

  • 13:10:40

    RICHTERI'm not sure which one to take up first.

  • 13:10:41

    NNAMDIStart with the Anglo centric first.

  • 13:10:43

    RICHTERWell, yes, Anglo-centric. First, it's simply wrong to think about the history of colonial North America as being all about the English. And we can really only see it that way if we see the whole point of colonial North American history as somehow leading up to an English speaking revolution in 1776. But in fact, of course, the vast majority of the population of North America throughout the period we call colonial was not English at all. The largest group of people in that area, of course, were native people who, if we focus the story simply on English colonies, are hard to fit in.

  • 13:11:24

    NNAMDIThen let's go there. The story, as you tell it, begins in the 10th or 11th century, 500 years before Christopher Columbus with the story of empires built in modern-day New Mexico and the Mississippi River Valley. There are no written texts about these people but we know them by what they left behind, the Pueblo Cliff Dwellings in Chaco Valley in modern-day New Mexico and the manmade hills or mounds that dot the Mississippi Valley made by the Mississippians. Who were these people and why are they important?

  • 13:11:53

    RICHTERWell, they remain a mystery. And one of the most moving experiences I think one can have is to go visit these sites, to go to Chaco Canyon, which is quite a trip to get there. I think there's a 30-mile dirt road you have to travel to get to the site. One of my most moving experiences about a decade ago was to visit Cahokia, which was the greatest of the Mississippian mound centers and climb up on top of these manmade hills in Southern Illinois and look out and see the skyline of St. Louis if it's a clear enough day and to think about who built these things.

  • 13:12:28

    RICHTERAnd they are a mystery. But we do know from archeology that they were great concentrations of population. There are probably civilizations that required political mechanisms to mobilize a lot of labor to make all that possible, probably involved conquering a lot of neighboring folks to make the lives of the folks at the center possible in the way that they believe to be necessary to manipulate the spirit world and to provide the agricultural productivity that was needed to support those civilizations.

  • 13:13:02

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think were the biggest historical factors that turn the U.S. into the country it is today, 800-433-8850. Do you think we have a too simplistic idea of our colonial history? You can also send us e-mail to Send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, and join the conversation there.

  • 13:13:29

    NNAMDIMost colonists knew nothing about the Anasazi, the people who built the dwellings in Chaco Canyon or the Mississippians and most historians wouldn't consider them all that relevant to explaining how the American colonies develop and eventually demanded independence. Why should they be considered?

  • 13:13:47

    RICHTERWell, it should also be said that most Native Americans at the time of 1600 didn't know much of anything about those places either. My main purpose in doing that is to -- was to set colonial history in motion on both sides of the Atlantic, to give us a sense of peoples with deep past, were an awful of important developments that happened. And peoples who were already undergoing great flux and change as those great civilizations of the southwest and the Mississippi valley were mutating into much more decentralized, much more localistic, much more egalitarian kinds of societies.

  • 13:14:25

    RICHTERYou had -- people had not been living the way they -- in 1492, people had not been living that way forever. They had histories, they had major historical forces that had shaped their lives. And secondly, if I could just also mention...

  • 13:14:38

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 13:14:39

    RICHTERIt's very, I think, it's a very useful intellectual exercise and I make it work for 60 pages in this book. I don't know whether I could make it work for an entire book or not, probably couldn't. To having taken a look at what I call medieval North American quite provocatively, I think, to think about medieval North America.

  • 13:14:55

    NNAMDIYep, that is provocative.

  • 13:14:55

    RICHTERAnd I think it is -- it is not mainstream view of Native American history. I mean, there's certainly a lot of arguments, but this is not -- I don't think it's out of the ordinary way of thinking about that period. But what I try to do deliberately in the book is then take that same set of historical categories and the same -- wearing the same pair of glasses almost and then look at medieval Europe. And I do that, of course, I look at North America first for a lot of reasons. But I think it's a provocative intellectual exercise to try to think about medieval Europe second.

  • 13:15:30


  • 13:15:31

    RICHTERAnd have already thought about medieval North America and perhaps some of the same questions and issues in mind as you think about the societies that also were reinventing agriculture or building new urban forms, we're building cathedrals at the same time that people were building huge cliff railings in the southwest of North America and that, you know, maybe we can appreciate some things about the encounter between their great, great, great grandchildren when they met each other several centuries later.

  • 13:15:58

    NNAMDIThat's a fascinating way of looking at it. Again, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have professional historians let down their readers in accounting for our earliest histories? Call us at 800-433-8850 or send us email to Our guest is Daniel Richter, author of the book, "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past." He's a professor of American history and director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • 13:16:29

    NNAMDII grew up, as I've told listeners before, in what was then known as British Guyana, a country, small country along the northern coast of South America, a small part of the former British Empire. Typically, we wouldn't consider how the history of what's now called Guyana or for that matter Jamaica and especially Barbados and how those histories could influence the U.S. or vice versa. But this framework would suggest that it's useful to consider the parallels between the histories of those lands and the history of the United States. Why?

  • 13:17:02

    RICHTERWell, they're both parallels and simultaneous developments. They were part of the same imperial world. One of the things that I always like to stress in thinking about colonial period and how Europeans, Africans and Americans met each other is to think about a basic fact of navigating the Atlantic Ocean and that the winds and currents naturally take you south from Europe, not too far from the coast of Africa, back up past your part of South America into the Caribbean.

  • 13:17:36

    RICHTERAnd the last place you get to is some place like Florida or Virginia, right? There is another route, slightly more difficult to navigate but also possible which takes you way north. This is the one during the Middle Ages the Vikings took to North America, right? And this is the way most people got to New England and Maine and the place that's not accidentally called Newfoundland in that period.

  • 13:17:58

    RICHTERSo for anybody who made that trip, anybody who thought about the imperial world that Europeans were telling themselves they are creating, it's all one place. And in fact, North America is quite logically seen and should be seen as the northernmost part of the West Indies.

  • 13:18:18

    NNAMDIInterestingly enough, at one point, it's my understanding, you write about this, plantations in Barbados were generating more revenue than the entire economies of the northern colonies.

  • 13:18:32


  • 13:18:33

    NNAMDIThat boggles the mind because it gets to the issue of American exceptionalism, I guess.

  • 13:18:38

    RICHTERYes. And in many ways, you know, Barbados was, well, it's a tremendous horror story because of course all that wealth is coming from sugar plantations which are just chewing up West African enslaved labor at rates that are absolutely appalling. But this was particularly for the colonists, the English colonists who created Virginia and later South Carolina, Barbados was the model, what they were hoping to replicate. And they quickly discovered that they couldn't grow sugar. Virginians had continued to limp along growing tobacco, growing drugs, I'd like to say.

  • 13:19:16

    RICHTERBut were modeling their societies after the great wealth that was extracted by enslaved labor in Barbados by their contemporaries, their countrymen, people who were going back and forth between those colonies all the time. It should also be said that once that Barbados and the other subsequent West Indian sugar colonies were heavily dependent on North America for food and food stuffs, which were being traded back and forth, not across the Atlantic but coast-wise among the colonies.

  • 13:19:47

    RICHTERAnd so, again, it's -- you can't talk about the economy, the society, the colonization of North America, I don't think, without seeing it as integral to the same colonization of Barbados (unintelligible).

  • 13:19:59

    NNAMDIWhat you are proposing, what you are clarifying, I should say, is that because they were shaped by similar forces across the Atlantic, these developments, these histories should be seen or at least considered in parallel, they were developing at the same time under the same domination, so to speak.

  • 13:20:17

    RICHTERI might not -- I might go beyond parallel to say they're just -- they are the same or they're parts of the same story.

  • 13:20:23

    NNAMDIGot it.

  • 13:20:23

    RICHTERNow, certainly they work out a -- differently in different places. You can't grow sugar everywhere. You can't operate any kind of large plantations in most of Northern New England. Although, you can in places like Rhode Island and some were even on Long Island, but -- and so, you know, it's -- certainly there are a lot of regional differences, but the story is one story, not multiple stories.

  • 13:20:47

    NNAMDIHere we'll go to the telephones now. It's Jeanie in Silver Spring, Md. Jeanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:20:53

    JEANIEHello there. I wanted to know if different parts of the empire or the Americas attracted different kinds of people? Because I never remember hearing of any, you know, religious refugees going anywhere except New England and Maryland, certainly not the Caribbean or South America.

  • 13:21:12

    NNAMDIHere's Daniel Richter.

  • 13:21:14

    RICHTERWell, that's one of the stories that we miss. An awful lot of religious refugees did go to Barbados. There were -- it's not entirely inaccurate to describe Bermuda as another Puritan colony for instance. And all of those religious refugees were a part of a huge out flowing of population from the British Isles that were leaving for all sorts of reasons, many of them religious refugees.

  • 13:21:39

    RICHTERBut lots of people who were leaving England for religious reasons in that period went to Virginia. They went to Bermuda, they went to various places in New England. And then by the 18th century, of course, the great magnet for all of these religious discontented folks is Pennsylvania, where the doors were thrown wide open by the Quaker government to all sorts of people. They hoped, of course, who would become Quakers if they were given the liberty to discover the truth. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way.

  • 13:22:09

    NNAMDIJeanie, thank you so much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, if you have already called, stay on the line. We still have a few lines open that you can call at 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website,, ask a question or make a comment there.

  • 13:22:25

    NNAMDIYou can also send us a tweet at kojoshow. What do you think were the biggest historical factors that turned the U.S. into the country it is today? And do you see those historical factors in the pre-colonial period and do you see them in other parts of the Americas? 800-433-8850, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:24:32

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Daniel K. Richter. He is author of the book "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past." He's a professor of American History and director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Allow me to go directly to the telephones where Jim in Highland, Md. awaits us. Jim, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:24:55

    JIMYes, hello, Kojo. It's a great show. I wanted to thank you and your guest, Mr. Richter, for discussing this topic. I find it fascinating and it's actually one of the reasons we homeschool. I think my kids are getting a much more accurate picture of history than I ever got in public school in New England.

  • 13:25:12

    JIMSo, for example, we find the -- some of the native populations here were more advanced than the European colonists. Maybe not technologically, but politically and perhaps culturally. So it's just the best-named topic. I just wanted to make that comment. Thank you.

  • 13:25:33

    NNAMDIBut we're talking here in a way, Daniel Richter, about the limits of textbooks. At least that's what Jim is talking about and we get into what you call historiology, I think it's called?

  • 13:25:44

    RICHTERHistoriography, yes.

  • 13:25:45

    NNAMDIHistoriography, looking at how historians themselves write history and I guess that's what Jim is referring to.

  • 13:25:51

    RICHTERWell, yes, you know, history doesn't write itself. Someone has to write it, someone has to attempt to impose some order on all the chaotic developments of the past. And when I say impose some order, I don't mean making up your own story, but, you know, trying to think through what might be some of the most effective ways to pull out the themes that will let us see some important aspects of that past.

  • 13:26:14

    NNAMDIAnd what you are a part -- what we are seeing here is how as we understand more the narrative, so to speak, is changing -- evolving. And on, therefore, to Rob, in Washington D.C. Rob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:26:30

    ROBYes, thanks Kojo and Professor Richter, thanks. My question is even diving into a little more medieval history and I'm not even sure of the time period. But I've heard it once said that even further back in North America's past there was a time when a squirrel could walk from Maine all the way to the Mississippi River and never touch the ground.

  • 13:26:59

    ROBThat it was a blanket of forest, the entire way from what is now the, you know, the furthest east to the center of the country. Any thoughts on that history, that time period, Professor Richter? And specifically, if that is the case, when would that have been?

  • 13:27:15

    NNAMDIYou know, this is also a story of climate change, is it not?

  • 13:27:19

    RICHTERIt's, well, one of the things that I do put forward in the book. Although, I'm certainly not an expert on climate change as a scientist, is the importance of the climate in history.

  • 13:27:28

    RICHTERAnd that -- this is -- that's part of it, yes. I -- one of the things I suppose I've always wanted to do was to try to figure out exactly where that quote about the squirrel walking from New England to St. Louis or wherever you said he was supposed to walk.

  • 13:27:39

    RICHTERIt would be an awfully long walk for one thing. I'm not sure any squirrel would make that trip. But I suppose it's true, the squirrel would have to make some detours around some large of areas of Native American villages that had been cleared of trees, but it is certainly true that we don't call this the Eastern Woodlands of North America for nothing.

  • 13:27:58

    RICHTERAnd it is one of the, I guess, the quick answer to when that ceased to be the case was sometime in the early 19th century when colonists from the U.S. steadily cut down those trees and turned that land into their kind of farming. It, of course, had been farmed by Native Americans for many centuries before that with a different set of technologies.

  • 13:28:23

    NNAMDIRob, thank you very much for your call. I want to go back into the climate change issue but first a correction of sorts. We got two emails, one from Richard, who said the term Anasazi is considered by some to be a slur. It translates into ancient enemies and thus the National Park Service has switched to the term ancestral puebloans instead.

  • 13:28:43

    NNAMDIAnd Andy in Arlington, Va. said, "One correction that gives you an idea of how deep the history really is, the Anasazi were never known by that name. The word is apparently an insult in Navajo and the Navajo hated the cliff-dwellers there."

  • 13:28:55

    NNAMDI"Think if someone asked your worst, worst enemy what your name is, what their answer's likely to be. It's an example of what happens when historians are a bit too polite and credulous. More work is necessary. When I visited Mesa Verde, I was told that the archeologists there before the neutral Spanish term pueblo to designate the cliff-dwellers."

  • 13:29:14

    RICHTERI think that person has actually read my book. I make exactly those points and I don't -- if I used that term today...

  • 13:29:21

    NNAMDINo, I did.

  • 13:29:22

    RICHTEROkay, yes. In fact, I make exactly those points and the term I use in the book is ancestral puebloans.

  • 13:29:29

    NNAMDIWell, the people who live in the pueblo cliff dwellings in the hilltops of the Mississippi Valley were long gone when Europeans first arrived. But the native people they did encounter carried that baggage, so to speak, didn't they?

  • 13:29:43

    RICHTERYes, and also carried with them many of the -- particularly carried with them the forms of agriculture, the forms of community organization that were -- I think we don't call them ancestral puebloans for nothing. They are ancestral to the puebloan peoples of later generations.

  • 13:30:03

    NNAMDIIn the same way the reverse, I guess, could be said or the same thing about the Europeans. But the people coming over to Jamestown carried the baggage of feudalism and religious strife from their home countries.

  • 13:30:13

    RICHTERAbsolutely, yes, that's one of the central points of the book and that both of North America and Western Europe were going through this time of tremendous upheaval, tremendous social reorganization.

  • 13:30:26

    RICHTERThe emergence of new kinds of political systems and it's less easy to point this out for North America because the evidence isn't there to say it conclusively but I think it's quite likely to -- that we should entertain the possibility that great religious transformations were happening in North America as well.

  • 13:30:45

    NNAMDISpeaking of religion, here is David, in Arlington, Va. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:30:51

    DAVIDYes, good afternoon and thank you, good subject matter. Not to bring the conversation too far forward, but the professor alluded to something I've always wondered about. And the Puritans, how come Pennsylvania, that whole region, isn't super, ultra orthodox religiously? Something happened that the Puritans didn't just catch on and I'm wondering if it had anything to do with slavery?

  • 13:31:17

    NNAMDIDaniel Richter?

  • 13:31:19

    RICHTERWell, that's a big question.

  • 13:31:20

    NNAMDIThat is.

  • 13:31:21

    RICHTERWell, I think -- let me go back to part of our problem of trying to understand a narrative of colonial America. We all know about the Puritans and their arrival or think we know about it anyway. That's a story we know. We might get a little confused as to who the pilgrims were, who the Puritans were, whether there were capital "P" Puritans or lowercase Puritans or whatever.

  • 13:31:42

    RICHTERBut that was a particular moment in time and particularly before and during the English civil wars of the mid 17th century, right? That's part of the deep past. By 1776 and certainly by 1976 or 2011 and awful lot of things have happened where other peoples have come through and where the particular forms of society that those people created, you know, cease to -- didn't cease to exist but left behind their own layers of the past to be covered by other things.

  • 13:32:15

    RICHTERSo the short answer to your question is that the British Empire drags those Puritans in New England kicking and screaming into a world where religious toleration is the legal framework they have to operate under.

  • 13:32:27

    RICHTERAnd religious toleration, in fact, became -- and I'd used religious toleration carefully here because it doesn't really mean everything goes. But at least there's a British empire by the early 18th century where it's unlikely you're going to get killed for your religious beliefs anymore.

  • 13:32:44

    NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for your call. Onto John, in Washington D.C. John, your turn.

  • 13:32:51

    JOHNHello, thanks, Kojo. Love your show, by the way.

  • 13:32:54

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:32:55

    JOHNI just wanted to ask the historian how he feels about Howard Zinn's perspective on in his book in "People's History of 1492 To The Present?"

  • 13:33:08

    NNAMDIThis is where we get to the teleological part, but go ahead, please.

  • 13:33:11

    RICHTERWell, you know, Howard Zinn was -- he's one of the most important historians and certainly one of the most widely read historians that's out there. He's had a profound influence on an awful lot of people and I think for the most part, a very positive influence.

  • 13:33:25

    RICHTERHis books, though, were written quite some time ago and he was not particularly interested, I think, in the colonial period. And quite rightly, that was not the story he was telling in most of his books. So I'm a big fan of Howard Zinn and it was a great loss to learn that a year or so ago that he's no longer with us.

  • 13:33:44

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call John. Why I mentioned the teleological aspect of it is because one way of looking at Howard Zinn's work and it was very necessary and brilliant work, is that in the same way that some of the more Anglo-centric histories look at American expectionalism through the lens of determining what was going to happen later on the way Howard Zinn tends to look at history from the worker's point of view or from the point of view of those who were oppressed, lends itself to another explanation, if you will, about why the U.S. came to be. When it seems to me that the whole purpose of before the revolution is to say that there is no easy explanation that is predetermined.

  • 13:34:28

    RICHTERRight. No straight lines in these histories...

  • 13:34:29

    NNAMDIRight, correct.

  • 13:34:31

    RICHTER...and teleology, of course, is one of the few terms that historians use. It's kind of a technical term but, no, it means knowing where the story's going before you start and particularly assuming, of course we know where the story's going before we start.

  • 13:34:44

    RICHTERAs historians, we know what happened, right? But the problem there is to assume that the people living through that history knew where it was going and I think that if we have a narrative of colonial America in our heads it's one in which those Puritans and other folks came in the 17th century and their aim was to achieve freedom somehow and then we don't quite know what happened but certainly by 1776 that aim was being achieved.

  • 13:35:11

    RICHTERMaybe they were just waiting around so there were enough of them so they could all get free. I don't know. But you know, we don't have a way of talking about that period precisely because actually when you begin to look at what happened between 1620 and 1776, it is not a line that's going to the American Revolution.

  • 13:35:29

    NNAMDIOne example, looking back in hindsight, it's easy to see the interaction between Indians and Europeans and we assume it was just a relationship of one group dominating another. But if one reads your book, it was a dynamic relationship that evolved with different patterns of migrations and different stages of growth and development in the colonies.

  • 13:35:50

    RICHTERYes, and also, I think one of -- I hope that one of the messages that comes across is we can't talk about two peoples. We can't talk about Europeans on the one hand and Native Americans on the other. For some purposes, clearly, we can and I begin the book by talking about western Europe and Native America.

  • 13:36:04

    RICHTERBut, you know, it is a very, very complicated picture where native peoples are more often involved in rivalries with each other more than they are in rivalries with Europeans. Very often for Native Americans, a particular group of Europeans, the French for instance, are most valuable as an ally against other Native Americans, right.

  • 13:36:26

    RICHTERAnd of course, Europeans know this game by the term divide and conquer as well, right. And so, you know, we have this very, very complicated, long histories of different European groups and different native groups sizing each other up, trying to trade with each other, trying to make military alliances with each other and, yes, often killing each other. But that's not the only story that they're doing.

  • 13:36:50

    NNAMDIIndeed, part of what you're doing is explaining patterns of development by breaking away from typical categories. You mentioned not simply looking at the English, not looking at Indians and breaking down our history from new perspective.

  • 13:37:01

    NNAMDIYou've opted to frame this history in terms of layers. Can you please explain that? Encounters, colonies, empires.

  • 13:37:09

    RICHTERWell, I think that instead of a straight line, I like to think, again, in terms of layers. And I call them geological layers, but as many of my friends have pointed out, I'm not a very good geologist and I don't really understand how geology works.

  • 13:37:20

    RICHTERBut the basic idea is that, you know, people create certain patterns of interaction with each other that are appropriate at a particular time. And then other folks and other patterns emerge, but they don't replace what came before. They settle in on top of it, all right.

  • 13:37:36

    RICHTERAnd so, again, I see the progenitors as the bedrock layer, these heritages that come from medieval North America and medieval Europe. And then one of the heritages is the layer I call the layer of conquistadors, of conquests, which is rooted in the Middle Ages but also rooted in the emergence of early modern states in Europe.

  • 13:37:55

    RICHTERThe rise of those monarchies of England and France and Spain and the rise of the non-monarchy of the Netherlands and that mode of conquest creates a layer of interaction with native peoples and with enslaved peoples in the Americas.

  • 13:38:12

    RICHTERThat never goes away, but it is not the dominant form of interaction from that point forward. And the next layer I talk about is what I call the traders layer, which I see as primarily rooted in patterns of North America and indigenous relationships that are based on trade and exchange.

  • 13:38:28

    RICHTERMany Europeans find a way into that and find a way of establishing a mode of interaction in North America that is quite different from that of the conquistadors and settles in uneasily atop and often in rivalry with those early patterns.

  • 13:38:43

    RICHTERI go on with various other layers and would be happy to do that, but perhaps we ought to stop now and listen to a phone call or something.

  • 13:38:51

    NNAMDIOkay. Then I'll follow your instructions. Here now is, let's go to Reese, in Washington D.C. Reese, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:39:02

    REESEHi, thank you. So you were talking earlier about how this is all one story, everything interconnected. So my question is, what were the driving forces that created the United States and the North -- the continental United States and the Caribbean staying somewhat separate? At what point did they diverge?

  • 13:39:19

    REESEFrom my limited studies on the area, my guess would be it would have something to do with slavery, revolts in the South, in the Caribbean rather and the rise of liberalism in the continent.

  • 13:39:30

    RICHTERWell, I think it's -- all of those things are important. I think that -- one of course we need to remember as we think about North America versus the Caribbean is that, depending on how you count them, there were 26 British colonies on the eve of the American Revolution.

  • 13:39:48

    RICHTERWe can even get into a debate about whether that's the exact count or not but 26 is nice because it's twice 13. And these included North American places like Quebec, Nova Scotia, the mysterious colonies of East and West Florida, right, which did not take part in the revolution either. So it's a complicated set of questions. But if I were to point to one thing, and I am reluctant to point to one thing, the key difference between the Caribbean and the parts of British North America that became -- that accidentally became the United States in the American Revolution, is that those British colonies created a uniquely welcoming legal, political, cultural environment for while male heads of families to own their own farmland.

  • 13:40:35

    RICHTERAnd to achieve what I call a kind of downsized futile dream of owning your own estate, being able to pass that property onto your children, being able to effectively exploit the labor needed to make that farm work, whether its enslaved labor or indentured servants or your own family, right. And part of that is the availability of that land in North America, which of course also leads to tremendous conflicts with Native Americans as well.

  • 13:41:03

    RICHTERBut that land base simply isn't there in the Caribbean, and very early on, those small planters are forced out, particularly of Barbados, and many of them wind up in South Carolina, they and their children, right? So again, it is the same story, but the -- it's the availability of land in fee simple in North America that is -- it's a historical accident. No one set out to do it that way, but it is what happened, and I think is the key to the massive European population that immigrates to North America.

  • 13:41:35

    RICHTERThe key to the tremendous conflicts with Native Americans over access to that land, and ultimately what makes British North America a different place than other part of the British Atlantic World.

  • 13:41:45

    NNAMDIReese, thank you so much for your call. We've got to take a break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call when we come back. If the lines are busy, go to our website,, and ask a question or make a comment there. Since us an e-mail at, or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:43:47

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Daniel K. Richter. He is author of the book, "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past." He's a professor of American history and director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel Richter, in 1608, Admiral Christopher Newport arrived at the Colony at Jamestown and summoned the local chief Powhatan.

  • 13:44:10

    NNAMDIThis meeting involved a number of ceremonial gifts including a crown which apparently carried different means for the participants.

  • 13:44:18

    RICHTERYes. And I make much of this, which we know about this event primarily from John Smith, who was the historian as well as the sometime governor and rival of our man Newport as well in Jamestown. Now, he writes the scene as like a comic opera. He just thinks it's the most hilarious and stupid thing that's ever happened. But it really is -- it's a wonderful example of how the two worlds of politics, power and domination of Native America and early modern Western Europe come together.

  • 13:44:53

    RICHTERBecause of course the point of the ceremony was that the authorities in England had sent Newport out with a crown with various other gifts. I think there was a pitcher and a basin, and believe it or not, a bed, which seems somewhat puzzling. But I've since -- actually since the book was published found that European monarchs gave each other beds all the time.

  • 13:45:15

    RICHTERAnd usually what that meant was an extraordinarily expensive, you know, brocade bedspreads and these kinds of things. But in any event, so they shipped all this stuff off, and the story was that, of course, Powhatan, the paramount chief of the territory known as Tsenacommacah, or the densely inhabited land, that's the native name for the Chesapeake Bay, was supposed to come to Jamestown to get his crown.

  • 13:45:39

    RICHTEROf course, the whole thing is, he would become a futile vassal of King James the first by coming to getting his crown, to be crowned by the English, and to become subject to English authority. Well, of course, the first thing Powhatan says is, no, I'm a king. You're gonna come to see me. I'm not coming to see you, right? And so he makes them pack up the bed, put it on a boat, drag it up the river, drag it through the swamps, and Smith is actually hilarious on this, about how they're trying to get all the stuff to Powhatan.

  • 13:46:06

    RICHTERSo they finally have the ceremony, and they can't get Powhatan to kneel to accept his crown. And John Smith says, because Powhatan doesn't know what's going on here, he doesn't know what -- of course, he knew what was going on. He wasn't gonna kneel to take this crown from these people, who of course, from his perspective had brought him sumptuous gifts, right?

  • 13:46:23

    RICHTERThey have demonstrated their inferiority to him and are in fact becoming his -- he wouldn't use the word vassals, but he would say his subordinate chiefs, right?

  • 13:46:32


  • 13:46:33

    RICHTERAnd so they finally get the crown on his head and all this, and then Powhatan gives back gifts to the English, including the cloak off his back, which was in fact apparently a very elaborate ceremonial cloak that was a mark of his office, and a pair of shoes, right? So they've exchanged gifts, and actually Powhatan's got bigger gifts than he's giving back, which also makes a him a more powerful person than they are. And so this is a wonderful example of how these two worlds of politics come together.

  • 13:47:00

    RICHTERAnd also a wonderful example for helping us understand why these two folks didn't get along very well in the long run in that particular region.

  • 13:47:07

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Frank in Manassas, Va. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:13

    FRANKYes, thank you. I grew up out west, and of course we have a lot of more recent Native American history out there, and one of the big things is giving back -- quote "giving back" certain lands to, whether it’s the Sioux or the Crow, or whoever. And one thing that I've always found fascinating and your guest has hit on is that, you know, these individuals nations or tribes constantly fought among themselves for hunting ground rights and other places.

  • 13:47:44

    FRANKSo if we were ever to solve the problem say in, you know, the Black Hills of Dakota, why are the Sioux entitled to that, and why aren't the Crow -- why shouldn't that go to the Crow who the Sioux, at one point, threw off. And I think that just shows the futility of some of this stuff. And I'd just love to hear your guest's opinion about that.

  • 13:48:03

    NNAMDIDaniel Richter.

  • 13:48:04

    RICHTERWell, I'm not gonna intervene in the details of those disputes, but it is important to remember that these are long complicated historical events, but, you know, I think it's also important to remember that whatever the controversies are between particular indigenous groups about their historical claims to the land, the fundamental thing is what -- is how that land got into the hands of the government of the United States.

  • 13:48:34

    RICHTERAnd I think that the danger is in stressing controversies on the native side of ownership. We might take that as an excuse to not focus on the broader issue of how that land left native hands to begin with.

  • 13:48:48

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We got an email from Casey in Annapolis who says, "I think your guest is highlighting an issue that extends far beyond just the presentation of colonial American history to the way human history is taught across the board. In most Americans' understanding of world history, it's centered completely around the European story that the exclusion of the narratives of the majority of the world's population which lives in Asia. You hear nothing of the emergence of societies that brought us advanced mathematical concepts and paper money and much more." Daniel Richter.

  • 13:49:22

    RICHTERExactly. And I think that -- I hope I'm making some small contribution to that broader effort, but also making it in way that ultimately is telling a story about the region of North America. So I think we need to both balance telling stories of particular places, but also putting things in a more global context. The last section of my book is called -- it has a kind of awkward name. I went back and forth as to whether to use this or not, but instead of calling the people who lived in North America in the middle years of the 18th century Americans, I call them Atlantians instead.

  • 13:50:01

    RICHTERBecause they live in this mixed-up Atlantic world that is composed of all kinds of Western Europeans, all kinds of Native Americans, all kinds of West Africans, and many, many other people in between. And in many ways, what most ties them together is their links to the Atlantic trade routes and the Atlantic empires that had been built in the previous generations.

  • 13:50:23

    NNAMDIThis question may seem fairly long, but you'll see where it's going. It's about how the stories of our past end up taking a life of their own. Over the course of two centuries, historians have tried to explain the significance of the American experience, and identify factors that made us who we are. And those articles and books themselves are actually very interesting historical documents.

  • 13:50:45

    NNAMDIOne of the criticisms of early American history, and indeed of most history books ever written, is that they are often written to prove how this unique and God-blessed country became unique and God-blessed. And that certain stories that did not fit neatly into that narrative were ignored. My first question has to do with the extent to which history is often written with an eye towards patriotism.

  • 13:51:12

    RICHTERWell, the first remember is history is always written with an eye toward something.

  • 13:51:16


  • 13:51:18

    RICHTERAnd making a story about the past is always a very tricky effort that involves -- primarily involves the questions that people at the time the history is being written are interested in, right?

  • 13:51:32


  • 13:51:33

    RICHTERAnd certainly one of the most persistent questions that people at any time are interested in is how did the society I'm living in come to be the society it is? And I suppose -- I mean, that's a huge question, but I suppose that is what drives almost every historian...

  • 13:51:52


  • 13:51:53

    RICHTER...writing about the place that he or she lives in. And I think there is also -- there's a huge value of historians writing about places they don't live, the outsider's perspective, right? And so, you know, often that does come down to patriotism, doesn't it? And I think that that's all well and good. We have to have a usable past, we have to a past that we can connect to and be -- and find inspiration in.

  • 13:52:17

    RICHTERBut I think that, you know, too often that slides over into something that becomes not really history, but becomes folk tale or folk wisdom, right?

  • 13:52:29

    NNAMDIWell, you know exactly where I'm going, because here's my next question. Historians are always trying to get people to remember the lessons of the past, and understand how the past is prologue to the present. But in American politics right now, people have been using our history or at least their own interpretation or understanding of our history to score political points, and to beat each other over the head. And it would seem that the kind of Anglo centric, teleological and exceptionalist now is versus everyone else is what we're seeing on the American political stage right now. Is it?

  • 13:53:07

    RICHTERWell, it's certainly true that -- well, history has always been a political weapon of one sort or another. One of the things I write about in this book is it's an ancient story of -- well, ancient in American terms, a 300-year-old story of the politicization of the stories people told themselves about the great event of the British empire called the glorious revolution. And event that name shows something about the politics of it. It was a glorious revolution, or as its advocates at the time, and particularly a generation or so later said, the late happy revolution.

  • 13:53:43

    RICHTERYou know this thing which was -- people were legitimately proud of it as an event that had established the supremacy of Parliament, established the importance of representative institutions, and the British societies on both sides of the Atlantic, enshrine the Bill of Rights. I'm not sure that we appreciate enough how much the U.S. Bill of Rights owes to the British -- the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and an equivalent Scottish document of that same period, which among other things enshrined a version of the right to arms and everything else in those events.

  • 13:54:18

    RICHTERSo yes. People always are using the past for political purposes, and that's probably unavoidable. What I think too often happens though is that people use the past for political purposes without actually doing their homework, and not -- it has been interesting this week, and I don't want to prolong the already overlong debate over Sarah Palin's comments about Paul Revere's ride, but one of the things as I was kind of going through the various tweets and blog posts about that this morning, is how long it seems to have taken anybody in that debate to actually go look up any evidence at Paul Revere's ride.

  • 13:54:57

    RICHTERAnd that's a problem. It's not so much the politicization of history that's a problem, it's the politicization of history that's not rooted in any actual effort to find what the evidence is, I think.

  • 13:55:11

    NNAMDIThank you so much. On now to Brad in Winchester, Va. Brad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:19

    BRADThanks, Kojo. Professor Richter, I had a question about the state lines for the colonial states, and if you look at them on a map, they look like they almost follow lines of latitude, you know, running east and west. Was that based on water rights or some other factor?

  • 13:55:41

    RICHTERI think it's safe to say it wasn't based on water rights, although, of course, rivers become natural boundaries in some cases. What you really had, of course, was people sitting in Europe giving charters to various individuals, companies, and occasionally royal entities, for kind of vaguely imagined chunks of North America that was rooted mostly in sea coast on the Atlantic seaboard, right?

  • 13:56:08

    RICHTERAnd most of the -- many of the English colonies had ridiculous charters that went from the Atlantic Ocean to the South Sea, which meant the Pacific Ocean, right? And they often overlapped. They overlapped because they were written at different times and different places and because there were often old charters that had kind of lapse and then people rediscover them and they try to have legal cases to recover that land.

  • 13:56:30

    RICHTERBut I think you really need to think that in the beginning most of these places were -- it's not water rights, but it was water borne. It's a section of the Atlantic sea coast, perhaps a section of land going up a major river like the Hudson river or the St. Lawrence River, or the Chesapeake Bay. But you -- the counties begin at the waters and then what happens in the inland is actually usually vaguely defined and then fought over, both with-- between Native Americans and Europeans for who which county own which part of that land.

  • 13:57:01

    NNAMDIBrad, thank you very much for your call. We're almost out of time. But you called this book, "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts" plural. What is the significance of that title?

  • 13:57:12

    RICHTERWell, you know, book titles are always vexed events with struggles with your editor over this. But the one word I always stressed throughout was past had to be plural. And there are -- I think there are many pasts. There not just the six pasts I talk about as layers in this book. But we do need to appreciate that things grow up over time, and there's not one past leading to a particular end point. There are many pasts and many stories by many people that I hope I've at least glimpsed in this book.

  • 13:57:44

    NNAMDIDaniel K. Richter is author of the book, "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past." He's a professor of American history and director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:56

    RICHTERThank you.

  • 13:57:57

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Taylor Burnie, with assistance from A.C. Valdez, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer today, Andrew Chadwick. Katie June-Friesen has been on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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