Reed on Tanner, 'The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present'

Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed. The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present. New York: Macmillan Press, 1995. 208 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-614-08321-7.

Reviewed by Harry A. Reed (Michigan State University )
Published on H-Survey (April, 1997)

The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present offers an impressive range of maps, timelines, paintings, and photos of individuals, groups, and communities in movement across America. It creates an important impression that America is--and has been since the beginning of the modern era--a multicultural society. That the multicultural nature of the society was neither desired nor appreciated by the actors involved is also made clear. Greed, exploitation, land grabs, and religious intolerance are given brief narrative development as motivating factors for human movement. And when the negative elements are not explicitly stated, their existence and impact can be teased out of the available maps, tables, timelines, and data presented. In addition, the atlas provides a running narrative survey highlighting the ebb and flow of various ethnic peoples and the character and contributions of their movements to and through the continent.

While the editor should be commended on the breadth of this enterprise, there are several minor and some glaring problems in the treatment of African-American migrations. The accompanying narrative is in some cases outmoded and misleading. In its opening look at the African presence in North America, the book makes some grievous assertions. While institutionalized slavery did not begin immediately, Africans in general were not considered indentured servants except in very special circumstances. Although the systemization of slave codes may have come several years after the first African laborers arrived in the colonies, the codes themselves were a recognition of the immediately established special status of blacks as servants (in the New England case) for life--a telling differentiation from white indentured servants. Moreover, by 1675, while Maryland and Virginia may have had only 4,000 slaves, the Virginia code of 1661 had settled the fate of African workers as slaves "durante vita." The gross generalizations about Africans are confusing and mar an otherwise careful narrative. Were all Africans farmers? Did all have knowledge of iron and textiles? Even given the problem of distilling masses of complex information about Africa this narrative could have been more accurate.

The narrative does a more credible job in weaving blacks into the saga of the American Loyalists, exiles from the American Revolution, 1776-92. Still the narrative is incomplete: African-American Loyalists not only went to Nova Scotia from ports such as New York and Boston, they also headed to Jamaica from southern locales. While the narrative does note the ill treatment of blacks who went to Nova Scotia and their subsequent migration to Sierra Leone, it would be important to know, for example, that black Loyalists in Jamaica helped to establish churches and organizations and in general managed to maintain their freedom within the British slave economy.

It is gratifying to note in the section "The Eve of Conflict: North America, 1860" the inclusion of a map illustrating the existence and distribution of free African-Americans in the United States. Following the Civil War, blacks appear in every section of the narrative depicting population shifts in America. A more direct focus is provided in "The Great Migration: African-Americans Move North, 1917-20" (in which two reproductions of Jacob Lawrence's heralded Migration of the Negro paintings enhance the narrative). Although the title presents a chronology of 1917-20, the accompanying map is labeled "Changes in African-American Population, 1910-20," giving the more accepted timeline. Finally, "From Island to Mainland: Caribbean Migration, 1952-95," closes The Settling of North America's treatment of African-American migrations.

Given Helen Hornbeck Tanner's reputation and achievement, one hopes that a second edition of this atlas will correct the criticisms noted above. On balance, though, The Settling of North America does an outstanding job in at least three spheres. One, it firmly establishes the multicultural character of America's migrations and the resulting society. Two, it notes the continued presence and participation of African-Americans in one of the most characteristic human endeavors in the modern historical period: people on the move. Three, it shows people as actors responding to their own needs for greater autonomy rather than simply automatons responding to social catastrophes.

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Citation: Harry A. Reed. Review of Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, ed., The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present. H-Survey, H-Net Reviews. April, 1997.

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