I'd like to know about the logistics of colonization.
May 4, 2012 4:24 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to know about the logistics of colonization, from the point of view of the colonists. In general, but primarily I'm interested in 16th or 17th century European colonization - for example, the people who founded what is now New York City.

The more specific the details the better - for example, I know that they must have brought some guns, and some gunpowder, but how many and how much? How long did they keep importing gunpowder (or its components)? If not "essentially forever", how long was it before they started searching for local supplies of sulfur or whatever? How many people did they assign to search for such stuff? How much of such a searcher's time would be spent searching? How about after they've found all the components - how many people harvest the materials, how many people make it, how often, and how much of their time do they dedicate to it?

All of that is just meant as some examples of the sorts of things I'm interested in and the degree of specificity I'm hoping for. Some more examples (not to be construed as me being interested in only these particular questions):

What specifically did they bring along with them? How much of each of it? How many axes, how many looms, et cetera? When did they start fashioning their own, and of what? What animals, how many? What seeds, how many?

How much food, to last until they can obtain sufficient food on their own?

What particular skills did they require some of their members to have? How many people with such skills?

Did they have tents to use until they could construct more permanent dwellings? If so, how long did they use them for, before those more permanent dwellings were built? Or did they just fashion lean-tos or some such pretty much immediately upon hitting the site? Similarly, sleeping bags (or whatever) brought with them, and eventually fashioning beds and mattresses and blankets and pillows?

What did they do first? How long did it take? How many people did they assign to it? What did they do next? And so on? For example, I imagine some very early things would be "clear ground for farms", "build a basic barricade", "start actually farming", "build fences for livestock", "build houses and other buildings (what buildings when, by the way?)", and so on.

Did they expect supplies sent to them from the homeland? If so, what, how much, and how often? Was it planned out in advance that they'd get such-and-such within three months or whatever, or did they take what they got?

Was payment handled for such supplies via a company back home that had a vested interest? Or upfront before having left by the colonists themselves? Or in trade (but I'd imagine trade would not have been fully up to speed at least for a while)? Or did they actually bring cash with them just to send back in exchange?

Did they expect to arrive in waves? Planned waves, or just whenever some sufficient number of new people decided to join?

How many people at first? How many expected to arrive later and when?

What things did they start producing on their own, locally? How much of it? When did they start? When did they get up to speed on it? Not just items, but also materials - for example, when did they start dedicating people to things like finding and mining metals?

How about differences in things like this between colonies that were essentially really first comers and colonies that had ostensibly friendly pre-existing colonies within a few hundred miles or whatever?

What was the initial ratio of men to women? Adults to children? How did those ratios change over time?

Again, that's all just meant as examples of questions, not as a complete and exhaustive list of questions. I'd be interested in hearing basically anything about this sort of thing. I'd be interested in book recommendations, website recommendations, and random information that you personally know.

Thanks in advance.
posted by Flunkie to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed American Colonies by Alan Taylor and it has an excellent bibliography.
posted by shothotbot at 6:36 PM on May 4, 2012

I think I read this article from the Smithsonian magazine posted to MeFi a while back; I think it would be of interest while not answering all your questions. Sample:
....the hapless Mayflower spent several frigid weeks scouting Cape Cod for a good place to land, during which time many colonists became sick and died. Landfall at Patuxet did not end their problems. The colonists had intended to produce their own food, but had neglected to bring any cows, sheep, mules or horses. (They may have had pigs.) To be sure, the Pilgrims had intended to make most of their livelihood not by farming but by catching fish for export to Britain. But the only fishing gear the Pilgrims brought was useless in New England. Only half of the 102 people on the Mayflower made it through the first winter.

How did even that many survive? In his history of Plymouth Colony, Governor William Bradford himself provides one answer: robbing Indian houses and graves. The Mayflower hove to first at Cape Cod. An armed company of Pilgrims staggered out. Eventually they found a deserted Indian habitation. The newcomers—hungry, cold, sick—dug open burial sites and ransacked homes, looking for underground stashes of food. After two days of nervous work, the company hauled ten bushels of maize back to the Mayflower, carrying much of the booty in a big metal kettle the men had also stolen. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn,” Winslow wrote, “for else we know not how we should have done.”

The Pilgrims’ lack of preparation was typical. Expeditions from France and Spain were usually backed by the state, and generally staffed by soldiers accustomed to hard living. English voyages, by contrast, were almost always funded by venture capitalists who hoped for a quick cash-out...
posted by Abiezer at 6:42 PM on May 4, 2012

Here is a list of provisions and livestock brought to Botany Bay by the First Fleet, and it had to last them until the Second Fleet arrived a couple of years later.
posted by pompomtom at 7:47 PM on May 4, 2012

There were a couple of decent books on the lost Roanoke colony in the last decade, and I know at least one of them went into considerable detail in the topic areas you're asking about. My mother, not myself, has also been reading some books on Pizarro and other conquistadors. In some cases there are amazingly detailed records available to show the status of an expedition as it embarked. Essentially what you're asking about is considered social history of American colonization and the later after, say, 1975 that your sources are written, the more likely they'll have paid close attention to this sort of thing.
posted by dhartung at 11:59 PM on May 4, 2012

Based on your extensive questions below the fold, I'm not sure this is at the level of detail you're looking for. But since you mention 17th century colonization of what is now New York City, you might enjoy The Island at the Center of the World, which is on precisely that topic and does deal with some of the nitty-gritty.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:02 AM on May 5, 2012

When it comes to how colonization played out day-to-day, we know more about the Jamestown colony founded in 1607 than probably any other. This is because there has been a decade's worth of archaeology on the site in addition to standard historical sources. The best book combining the archaeology and history is Bill Kelso's Jamestown, the Buried Truth. There's also James Horn's A Land As God Made It which has more of a narrative flow.
posted by jfbeatty at 7:50 AM on May 5, 2012

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