Surviving reports from the earliest European settlers in America are rich in detail about the land, its resources, and the native peoples they encountered there. Though conflict would eventually come to dominate the relationship between European Americans and American Indian as the former came to overwhelm the latter both culturally and militarily, some of the best early European descriptions of native culture are rendered in almost ethnographic detail. Although most colonists assumed that the “Indians” could only benefit by adopting Christianity and European customs, a number—among them Captain John Smith, one of the founders of Jamestown, Virginia—were also able to view American Indian culture largely on its own terms, and as something more than just savagery.
But the larger purpose of most settler accounts of the New World was to update their Old World sponsors about the progress of the colonial enterprise—which was, after all, intended to enrich the home countries from which they originated. Much like entrepreneurs starting a business, the European colonists who settled America were expected to produce a return on the investment of their financial backers—whether to their government directly, as in the case of the Spanish colonization effort, or to royally chartered corporations, such as the English-backed Virginia Company and Massachusetts Bay Company. This expectation colored many of the earliest European accounts of America, whose authors tended to depict a land of opportunity—a depiction that, though it would become the dominant trope describing the United States in later centuries, belied the profound hardships experienced by the earliest colonists at the hands of the elements, disease, and American Indian conflicts. But for a colony to succeed, it needed increasing numbers of willing colonists, and reports back to Europe were designed to attract them.
Some accounts, on the other hand, presented more of a third-person perspective on the colonial experience, either because the authors were representatives of the home governments or companies, or simply because they were traders or visitors from outside the power structure of a given colony. These accounts often presented a more critical view of how the colonists were handling themselves. For example, Puritan accounts of Puritan New England tended to show God favoring their work in the New World, while British officials visiting New England later in the seventeenth century questioned how the Puritan conduct of American Indian relations led to the bloody and tumultuous King Philip’s War. Other accounts from British merchants suggested the Puritans’ emphasis on religiosity was interfering with the economic development of the colony.
Virtually all the colonial authors, however, believed in the rightness of the European mission in the New World, and were equally awed by the vastness of the wilderness that lay before them and that they were trying to tame.