I thought I knew quite a bit about the founding of the original American colonies: stories about Jamestown, the Mayflower, the Dutch in New York, are fed to us from our first days in school, then deconstructed, respun, and illustrated by movies starring, if we are lucky, Daniel Day-Lewis. I even taught once a seminar on the ideological origins of the U. S. constitution. I had no idea what I was missing.
The Barbarous Years, by Bernard Bailyn, tells the story of the first years of the colonies. He tells you where the colonists came from, not just the countries but down to the counties and villages. He describes what drove them away from all they knew, often agricultural depression or religious persecution, and who tricked, paid, enticed or forced them aboard tiny ships to cross the North Atlantic. What they found, horribly often, was death in the first year, or at least hunger and exposure amidst the political bickering of their leaders. Each colony had its own character, its own challenges. The many stories Bailyn weaves together are at times overwhelming, but I always found them fascinating.
Bernard Bailyn is the dean of American colonial historians. His first book was published in 1965, and this is undoubtedly the capstone of his writings. I do not know of any book that tells the story of the colonies so completely or well. There are many high points, The interactions between the colonists and native americans are absorbing (and heart breaking). The political and commercial infighting in New York deserves a series of light comic operas. But for me the real eye opener is the description of how the originally small religious differences among the Pilgrims and Puritans led to the recreation in New England of the religious persecution they all fled England to escape.
I think it is a wonderful book, a classic.