People are not the only immigrants in the world. The age of discovery began a transatlantic exchange of animals, plants, and germs. Most of us know about the devastating effects of Old World diseases; the worst thing the white man ever gave the red man — worse than war or liquor — was smallpox. The New World returned the favor with syphilis. “We have many pocky corses now-a-days,” says the gravedigger in Hamlet, “that will scarce hold the laying in.” Agriculture profited by the exchange. Horses, livestock, and fruit trees went west, corn, potatoes, and tomatoes east. But wilderness — the world we mistakenly call natural — changed too. We regularly read fun fillers or scare stories about the escape of strange species: parakeets living in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, killer carp itching to break into the Great Lakes. But the process began centuries ago.
Europe was slowest to leave its mark on North America. Spain’s vast Latin American empire was rocking and rolling by the mid-1500s. Lima and Mexico City each boast a university founded in 1551, months apart (Lima nipped in just ahead). The pope had long before that assigned Brazil to Portugal. The nations that colonized the north — France, Holland, England — were slower to move, and their footprint for many years was relatively light.
The Dutch and French stepped lightly by design. New Amsterdam was a commercial venture to extract beaver pelts from the interior. The founding myth of the colony is the story of Peter Minuit’s buying Manhattan from the Indians in 1626 for $24 worth of beads and buttons. The art of the deal: In hoc signo vinces. Over time Dutch traders were joined by farmers. The Bowery is now a gentrified millennial street; before that it was flophouses; before that it was the old Dutch word for farm. But buying and selling, not sowing and reaping, was what made New Amsterdam tick.
New France along the St. Lawrence had its farmers too; Quebec license plates, if not Quebec drivers, still say Je me souviens — I remember. But France, like Holland, was running a fur empire. Its strategy was to befriend its native suppliers. The French converted the Indians, slept with them, and allied with them. The webs of their traffic and diplomacy spun over North America’s interior waterways, through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and the Missouri. A requirement of keeping the Native Americans happy was not crowding them with new Americans. So New France, vast on the map, was underpopulated.
England’s practice was to send Englishmen across the Atlantic. This was slow work, because who wanted to go there? The climate in England’s New World — broiling in the summer, freezing in the winter — was surprisingly unpleasant for a people coddled by the Gulf Stream; Englishmen perversely made things worse for themselves by not adjusting their dress and diet to the new reality. No one got rich either. The backers of the Jamestown Colony imagined brisk imperial trade between their venture and the home country, but these hopes would not begin to be realized until tobacco culture took hold decades down the road. For the longest time, the main incentives for Englishmen to cross the ocean were religious or political. The colonies were dumping grounds for malcontents.
Who was discontented at any given moment depended on the fortunes of politics back home. When High Toryism and High Anglicanism reigned under Charles I, Puritans fled Babylon for New England. When Cromwell clipped everyone’s hair (Charles’s shortest of all), Virginia opened its arms to royalists. Quakers, far on the radical end of the religious spectrum, were paradoxically comfortable with the Restoration; William Penn was friendly with both Charles II and James II. He used their patronage as an opportunity to create Pennsylvania. In this haphazard fashion English North America was settled.
It did not seem particularly dynamic. New France was untouchable under the restoration: Charles II took subsidies from Louis XIV so as not to have to summon troublesome parliaments. New Amsterdam made a tempting target but a hard one to hold. England captured it in 1664, renaming it New York. But in 1673, the Dutch took it back. They ceded it to England a year later, in exchange for Surinam. Peace at last? Not quite. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution elevated a Dutchman to the English throne as William III, in place of his father-in-law, James II. A New York merchant, Jacob Leisler, seized the city in support of its new Dutch-Anglo overlords. But London (and many of the locals) felt he had been too impetuous, and in 1691 Leisler was hanged, then beheaded.
William’s eye was on grander things: He wished to wage a world war against Louis XIV and all the pomp of Versailles. The struggle of the plucky underdog and the dark empire was hailed by Winston Churchill (in Marlborough: His Life and Times) and, more remotely, by George Lucas (Star Wars). William died in 1702; the task passed to his sister-in-law Anne. England’s future as an imperial power blossomed, then hung in the balance. Anne finally tired of glorious but expensive wars; there were rumors that she might pass her crown to James II’s son, living in exile in a French palace.
The wheel of fortune never took that final backward spin. When Anne died in 1714, the throne passed to the Georges, remote German cousins, and England settled decisively into the course of empire.It took another generation, but by mid-century it had driven France from North America.
One of the plants the English brought to their New World gardens was the carrot. When it escapes into the wild, it is tough and woody, but it can live almost anywhere, especially where the soil is dry and obdurate. In late summer its large, flat flowers, compounded of dozens of small white blossoms, nod on every roadside, looking for all the world as if they have always lived there. On some banks they crowd thick enough to greet a bridal party: Queen Anne’s lace.