The Barbarous Years – The Original American Immigrants

Pulitzer Prize winning author Bernard Bailyn writing The Barbarous Years opens a sweeping and authoritative discourse into the  peopling of North American between 1600 and 1675.  From Jamestown, Virginia to Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who were these individuals who braved three plus months voyages on small, crowded and disease infested ships to arrive at the edge of the American wilderness? You will learn not only who they were but why some succeeded while others were destined to fail.


No one needs tout Bailey’s credentials as historian and researcher. He is brilliant. However, what is most remarkable is his ability to keep the subject flowing, fascinating and understandable for the lay reader. Bailyn delivers in brilliant digital display the complexity and challenges of the people responsible for the early settlement of North America.

Think of this:

Why did the Jamestown fail numerous times?

Why did the Catholics establish a foothold in Maryland and the Finns and Swedes in Delaware?

Why did The Massachusetts Bay Colony begin to work from day one.? Was it religious fervor or the composition of the settlers themselves?

What role did the varied Native American tribes play in the success or failure of early settlement.

How did the Pilgrims differ from the Puritans and the aforementioned from the  Quakers and the Dutch?

Were indentured servants a precursor to slavery?

Winthrop, Bradford ,Stuyvesant, Keift, Underhill, King Philips War.

The Barbarous Years that marked the original settling of America is a most accurate title for the book. Adventurers, scoundrels, orphans, preachers, doctors, lawyers, Native Americans, politicians, merchants and perhaps most important, the hundreds of unnamed families with children who came to America during the Great Migration of the 1630s , bringing with them the skills and the ethic to permanently settle on the land.

The ” New World” was British North America during its early settlement but Bailyn clearly identifies the complexity of cultures, trade and geography that would eventually become America. The Barbarous Years is a fabulous foundation for understanding colonial America’s formative years. Also by Bernard Bailyn: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, and Voyages to the West, which won a Pulitzer.

A wonderful different perspective of the  settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony comes from reading Anya Seton’s historical novel Winthrop Women. Search


Another Anya Seton Classic

British historical novelist Philippa Gregory in her foreword to Anya Seton’s Katherine  is correct in identifying Seton among those writers who  ” Dominated historical fiction  following World War II.”   In the opinion of Gordon’s Good Reads,  Seton’s historical novel  Katherine , a huge best seller in the 1950s ,  is perhaps her very best.  Katherine is without doubt a love story, a romantic novel indeed, but the attention to the detailed setting in  Medieval  England in the 1300s , gives this book high marks as a classic historical novel. Just as she did with Winthrop Women, Seton traveled to the novel’s setting and has marvelously recreated a world that only a novelist of her calibre could bring to life.


Katherine , from rags to riches , Knights in shining armor ( John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster), serfs, England’s feudal system, bastard children, the Black Death,  kept woman, love triumphs!  All of the elements of a great romantic novel are here but with page after page the reader is placed in a time and place of Fourteenth Century squalor, chivalry and treachery amid riches , castles and jeweled crowns beyond imagination.    Arranged marriages enthroned Kings an Queens  including  12-year-old King Richard, while the lower classes begin an epoch march to freedom, long before Cromwell and Henry the Eighth dashed all hopes of equality.  Seton gets the history right and delivers the lesson  within the framework of a wonderful love story well outside the confining lines of a text-book. Add to this novel the poetry and presence of Geoffrey Chaucer!

Put Katherine on your reading list. Anya Seton ( 1906-1990), through all of the years will, never disappoint.  See my previous reviews here at gordonsgoodreads of Seton’s Winthrop  Women and Dragonwick.  Also by Anya Seton:  Avalon, Devil Water, Foxfire, Green Darkness and My. Theodosia.

Dragonwyck-Sixty Years Before Fifty Shades of Grey!

Anya Seton’s novel Dragonwyck preceded E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey by sixty years. However, Seton’s story was prescient of the current runaway best-selling trilogy!

I came upon Dragonwyck after reading Seton’s The Winthrop Women and was quickly drawn to the story of an innocent Connecticut farm girl being catapulted through circumstance into becoming the young wife of the wealthy and dominating patroon of Dragonwyck Manor. The similarities to the Fifty Shades of Grey plot become quickly evident.  Fifty Shades of Grey has Christian and Anastasia, Dragonwyck, Nicholas and Miranda!  Fast cars for Christian and Anastasia, a fine coach and six for Nicholas and Miranda. No bondage and handcuffs in Dragonwyck to be sure, however eighteen year old Miranda Wells quickly learns there is a tremendous price to be paid  for releasing the bonds of hardscrabble New England farm life for an aristocratic lifestyle of limitless wealth as the submissive mistress of Dragonwyck Manor. Dragonwyck emits echos of the great gothic novel Jane Eyre.

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Dragonwyck begins in Connecticut, then moves to the wealthy estates of the Mid-Hudson region of New York and the social whirl of New York City.  Dragonwyck  is not a historical novel of the scope of The Winthrop Women but it does open to the reader much of the social and economic lifestyles of many of the founding Dutch families of New York as they shared their time between mansions in New York City and their castles on the Hudson. Landed gentry supported by an old world feudal system of subsistence tenant farmers who worked the land.

For further insight into Seton’s The Winthrop Women, see my September blog post. You may also wish to consider Seton’s novel Katherine  for which many overviews are available on-line. It was the most popular of all of her novels and is on my “futures” list.





The republishing of the prodigious historical novels of Anya Seton in the first decade of this century brings to light the treasure trove encompassed in her work.

Winthrop Women, first published in 1958 and later released in 2006 is a particular gift for those whose interests lie in the history of the Puritans, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the early settlement of the environs of Greenwich, Connecticut.  Above all, it is a great love story and the saga of a strong and independent woman richly entwined in the region’s history.

Winthrop Women  embraces a broad  historical web, set in the 1600s (1617-1655)  centered around the family of  John Winthrop, a fanatical practitioner of the Puritan faith  who became the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and his rebellious niece and daughter-in-law Elizabeth Fons. Their descendents  remain in Connecticut and  throughout New England.  Seton tells the Winthrop family and  Elizabeth Fons’  story in three parts: The early years in England living a near aristocratic lifestyle; the great Puritan migration to the New World with the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony;  Elizabeth’s  banishment from Massachusetts and her emergence in Greenwich, Connecticut with husbands (correct) , lovers and children joining in the journey!

Anya Seton’s story of Elizabeth is written in ” high-definition.”  From childhood, “Bess”  is of independent thought and passionate in her views. She was born on a collision course with the beliefs of her Puritan elders, especially John  Winthrop.  Long before boarding the ship Lyon for the journey to  the New World, this child of luxury and  high social status had established herself as the Fons’ and Winthrop family non-conformist.

Proudly leading his flock beneath the banner of religious freedom to the colonies in New England,  far away from the dictates of King Charles, Cromwell and the ruling British establishment, John Winthrop becomes a  zealot and religious tyrant, ruling over his domain, with a wrathful “God” as his enforcer.

Elizabeth’s ever complicated life, saturated with her passion for men and her non-conformist beliefs, provides the framework for an abundant tableau of what life and love was like in 1630s New England. The drudgery of daily survival, the absence of  luxuries, disease and Indians both friend and foe. Foremost, the woman’s role of being, above all, a necessary  “good breeder,” upon which the future of the faith and the colony itself depended!

Elizabeth, having fallen in love with John Winthrop’s son, her cousin Henry, became pregnant and was hastily married before leaving England!  Henry, a kindred free spirit was not traveling with Elizabeth on the ship Lyon but was under his father’s supervision on the Arabella. Elizabeth learned  upon her arrival in Massachusetts that Henry had drowned in a boating accident upon landing. There would be two more husbands and many children, living and still-born before her story concludes thirty years later.

During a brief period when Winthrop had been ousted as Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor, the community rose up against Elizabeth’s behavior with rumors and  speculation that she and her Indian servant Telaka  were possessed by the devil. The outcry became witchcraft! Banishment from the colony, the final solution in those days short of hanging, saw Elizabeth, her family and Telaka ( whom Elizabeth had rescued from a slave auction) on their way to Greenwich where under Dutch law there was greater respect for individual freedom and religious beliefs. This novel is so wonderfully written and researched  that of course, Telaka, had ended up in Boston only after being kidnapped from her tribe, the Siwanoy Indians who populated the area in and around Greenwich! A homecoming for Telaka and a new most welcoming home for Elizabeth, her husband and brood?  Not quite that simple!

In the Greenwich chapters you will walk with Elizabeth on the white beaches of  Monakewago ( Tods Point), follow the Mianus River, witness the massacre of over 1000 Siwanoy Indians ( Telaka’s family) in what is today Cos Cob. There will be yet another husband and more “breeding, ”  and another banishment with the loss of thousands of acres of land that today encompass the entire Town of Greenwich.

History is taught in many ways and Seton is deserving of  high praise both as a novelist and historian for Winthrop Women.  Seton wrote Winthrop Women while living in Old Greenwich, Connecticut where she died in 1990 at age 86. She is buried there in Putnam cemetery.

Other highly acclaimed novels by Anya Seton  include, Foxfire ( 1950),  Katherine (1954),  The Mistletoe and the Sword (1956).