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Image Genesis: The British Reconnaissance of North America

In the beginning, there was a neglected half-century of Anglo-American history which preceded the four great migrations. From 1580 to 1630, more than thirty English settlements were planted in what is now the eastern United States. Many survived, and a few remain culturally distinctive even today.1

On Smith and Tangier islands in the Chesapeake Bay, for example, immigrants from the far southwest of Britain founded a culture which still preserves the dialect of seventeenth century Cornwall and Devon (zink for sink, noyce for nice). At Plymouth in southeastern New England, another variety of English culture was introduced by the Mayflower Pilgrims who were very different from the Massachusetts Puritans; even today this small sub-region still calls itself the “Old Colony,” and speaks a strain of English which is subtly distinctive from other Yankee accents. On New England’s north shore from Marblehead to Maine yet another culture was planted by fishermen from Jersey, Guernsey and English channel ports; their folkways still survive in small towns and offshore islands from Kittery to the Cranberry Islands.2

In Massachusetts Bay, an eccentric Devon family called Maverick settled the present town of Chelsea and an island in Boston harbor that still bears their name. They had trouble with the Puritans and moved away, keeping one jump ahead of the larger cultures that threatened to engulf them. By the nineteenth century, the Mavericks had found their way onto the western plains. Their name was given to range cattle that bore no man’s brand, and became a synonym for independent eccentricity in American speech.3

Many such “mavericks” settled America before 1630. The Balch and Conant families, to name but two, both arrived in Massachusetts before the Winthrop fleet and are still known in New England for going their own way. Altogether these earliest English settlers added color and variety to the cultural mosaic of early America. But their primary role was to prepare the way for larger groups that followed. They were the reconnaissance parties of British America.4

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