Alan Taylor admits straight-up in the introduction that he took a very expansive view of the subject of the first volume of Penguin’s History of the United States series. Geographically, he looks at all of North America, rather than just the broad swath that would become part of the US. Time-wise… well, he does start with the initial migrations across the Bering Strait, but naturally doesn’t spend that much time with the spread of humanity across the continent and the changes that wrought. But he does talk about the subject before moving on to the arrival of Europeans from across the Atlantic.

In general, this is the usual ‘colonial’ focus, with the book winding down once the United States forms (though the last section covers the California coast and Hawaii up to about 1800). The main point of the increased geographical scope is to show the various European projects of conquest and/or settlement, and how they played out differently, or against each other. Regions are looked at in large blocks in the text, which partially undercuts the point, as some relationships end up scattered about, but mostly it works.

Part of why it works is that North America wasn’t any sort of unified place from native or European viewpoints in the period, so several stories play out more-or-less independently. They also provide meaningful compare and contrast examples, especially for the Eastern Seaboard colonies. Those sections are split up by the original English administering of them, and explains how the modern states were originally grouped before being split into separate colonies later (a sequence never adequately mentioned, much less explained, in other histories I’ve seen).

The general thesis through most of the book is how European powers tried to control this new continent, but the ability to have things go the way planned always fell far short of the plans. Past this, there is a good amount of explanation of how native agriculture worked in various regions, and how European settlers inevitably disrupted these patterns, starting the cycle of friction that was only downward as exposure to European diseases rapidly diminished native populations.

Taylor is also at great pains to point out that this was nearly as much a problem for early Spanish authorities, since the main plan was to make use of the huge pool of labor they had conquered… and was now dying off. This leads to needing to import labor, and Taylor goes into the economic process where slave labor crowds out indentured labor (which was more than bad enough). Much of the latter half looks at how various regions evolved slightly differently under these pressures.

There’s a fair number of conflicts during this period, and I don’t think they’re well served here. Conflicts between Europeans and natives, like Metacomet’s War, are well-enough handled, but any conflict between European powers feels more glossed over, even within the limitations of such an overview, with some exception for the British conquest of the Dutch colonies.

This is, of course, and overview, and has to be fairly succinct in any subject, but this is definitely a new standard in overviews of the period, and an excellent start to Penguin’s series.