In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Continental America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Journals
  • Continental Indian History
  • European Empires across the Continent
  • The West
  • Mississippi Valley
  • Ohio Valley
  • The Northeast
  • The Southeast

Atlantic History Continental America
Kathleen DuVal, Kristofer Ray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0015


Scholars traditionally have tended to limit early American history to the thirteen British colonies that rebelled and became the United States. More recent scholarship, however, has expanded the chronological and geospatial parameters of the field. Rather than ignoring places and peoples until the United States expanded west in the nineteenth century, “continental” historians now include most of North America (and even Alaska and Hawaii). In so doing they have come to recognize that Native peoples controlled the vast majority of the continent well past the American Revolution. They have offered more nuanced interpretations of the important roles played by French, Spanish, and other European colonizers in this history, both in their own right and as they interacted with British colonies. In so doing they have had to avoid a teleology focusing only on the places that eventually became part of the United States. Recognizing the irrelevance of present-day US borders to the colonial period, continental historians try to draw on and include the histories of northern Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean where relevant. Most general works on colonial America now incorporate continentalism at least to some extent. Historiography of the American Revolution and the early Republic, by contrast, has been slower to embrace this scholarly turn. Histories of the revolutionary period still generally focus on the thirteen rebellious colonies, and most histories of the early republic still see the continent solely from the perspective of an expansive United States. Even so, recent scholarship suggests that the continent is beginning to play a larger role in these later periods. This article focuses on historians who explicitly embrace continentalism and those works stressing themes such as Indigenous power, which continentalism has brought to the fore.

General Overviews

Most of these works discuss the philosophy behind the continental approach. Taylor 2001 gives a thorough narrative of the colonial period, whereas Calloway 1997 focuses on how interactions between Native people and Europeans changed the continent. Axtell 1992, Crosby 1986, Mancall and Merrell 2007, Smolenski and Humphrey 2005, and Special Issue: Panel I; Continental Possessions chronologically range far beyond the American Revolution but are more selective in subject matter.

  • Axtell, James. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    Axtell’s engaging essay collection explores Indian-European interactions in a variety of circumstances and shows Native centrality to early American history.

  • Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

    Sweeping synthesis of Indian-European interactions across the continent.

  • Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Shows how diseases, plants, and animals brought from Europe and Africa dramatically changed lives and landscapes in the Americas. Pays little attention to how people responded to the changes, a subject that can be found in other works.

  • Mancall, Peter C., and James H. Merrell, eds. American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500–1850. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    Reprints important articles on encounters among Indians, Europeans, and Africans across the continent. Authors include Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Brett Rushforth, Neal Salisbury, Timothy Shannon, David Silverman, Daniel Vickers, and Bruce White.

  • Smolenski, John, and Thomas J. Humphrey, eds. New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

    A broadly comparative set of essays on the theme of violence and order across British, Spanish, Dutch, and French colonies. Authors include Cynthia Radding on northwestern Mexico, Ann Twinam on race in the Spanish Empire, and Cecile Vidal on slavery in Louisiana.

  • Special Issue: Panel I; Continental Possessions. Journal of the Early Republic 24.2 (2004).

    Articles by Alan Taylor, Andrés Reséndez, Elizabeth Fenn, and James Brooks discuss the ways in which historians are centering early American history on the entire continent rather than looking outward from the British mainland colonies.

  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking, 2001.

    Detailed, lucid survey of the colonial history of North America, including Alaska and Hawai‘i.

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