Sometimes I think my conception of Revolutionary America was imprinted on my brain by Schoolhouse Rock, specifically "No More Kings." Rocking and a' rolling over the horizon from England to America, dumping tea ("that's called Taxation Without Representation, and that's not fair"), and sticking our tongues out at King George.
No number of biographies, serious history lessons, and excellent PBS documentaries have quite gotten those images out of my head. But when it comes to pre-Revolutionary America-the time we remember on Thanksgiving Day-my images are much wilder, murkier, and stranger. Because strange is what the 18th-century colonies were. We have few representations of them drilled into our brains apart from the apocraphyal "hey, let's eat!" story of the first Turkey Day.
Cinematic depictions of early America often fall into cliché-Terrence Malick's haunting filmThe New World does, despite its other merits. We might need to use our imaginations to conjure visual images of such strangeness, and for that books better fit the bill.
Here is a shortlist of three histories worth revisiting if you need to impress someone on Thanksgiving. All will make your brain hurt with how much you do not know about Colonial America. Plus, all three are certain to contain fantastic anecdotes to liven up a boring family gathering.
For a great overview of all the wacky stuff that happened before the colonists rose up, read Arthur Quinn's page-turning A New World: An Epic of Colonial America from The Founding of Jamestown to the Fall of Quebec. The book contains dozens of great stories of Champlain, Winthrop, and others, including freezing Jesuits trying to convert Hurons, failed attempts to set up a City of God, battles, and annihilations.
John Demos' The Unredeemed Captive recounts the harrowing story of a minister, his wife, and their two children captured by Native Americans and forced to march to Canada. One of the children, Eunice, eventually married a Native American. She refused to return to her family even after they returned to Massachusetts, and lived with her husband until her death at 95.
If it is a novel you seek, go ahead and brush off James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Or for a smart and utterly wacky riff on early America that contains online chats with Pocahontas, check out Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown.