Dr. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States might be better titled A Proletarian's History of the United States. In the first three chapters Zinn looks at not only the history of the conquerors, rulers, and leaders; but also the history of the enslaved, the oppressed, and the led. Like any American History book covering the time period of 1492 until the early 1760's, A People's History tells the story of the "discovery" of America, early colonization by European powers, the governing of these colonies, and the rising discontent of the colonists towards their leaders. Zinn, however, stresses the role of a number of groups and ideas that most books neglect or skim over: the plight of the Native Americans that had their numbers reduced by up to 90% by European invasion, the equality of these peoples in many regards to their European counterparts, the importation of slaves into America and their unspeakable travel conditions and treatment, the callous buildup of the agricultural economy around these slaves, the discontented colonists whose plight was ignored by the ruling bourgeoisie, and most importantly, the rising class and racial struggles in America that Zinn correctly credits as being the root of many of the problems that we as a nation have today. It is refreshing to see a book that spends space based proportionately around the people that lived this history. When Columbus arrived on the Island of Haiti, there were 39 men on board his ships compared to the 250,000 Indians on Haiti. If the white race accounts for less than two hundredths of one percent of the island's population, it is only fair that the natives get more than the two or three sentences that they get in most history books. Zinn cites population figures, first person accounts, and his own interpretation of their effects to create an accurate and fair depiction of the first two and a half centuries of European life on the continent of North America.
The core part of any history book is obviously history. In the first three chapters of the book, Zinn presents the major historical facts of the first 250 years of American history starting from when Christopher Columbus's Niñ a, Pinta, and Santa Maria landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. It was there that Europeans and Native Americans first came into contact; the Arawak natives came out to greet the whites, and the whites were only interested in finding the gold. From the Bahamas, Columbus sailed to Cuba and Hispañola, the present-day home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. One-hundred fifteen years later and 1,500 miles to the north, the colony of Jamestown was founded by a group of English settlers led by John Smith; shortly after that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by a group of Puritans known to us today as the Pilgrims. Because of uneasy and hostile relations with the nearby Pequot Indians, the Pequot War soon started between the colonists and the natives. Needless to say, the colonists won, but it was at the expense of several dozen of their own and thousands of Pequots. But despite Indian conflict, exposure, starvation, famine, disease, and other hardships, the English kept coming to America. In 1619 they were settled enough that they started bringing African slaves into the middle colonies. Before resorting to Africans, the colonists had tried to subdue the Indians, but that idea failed before it was created. Zinn writes:
"They couldn't force the Indians to work for them, as Columbus had done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre the Indians, they would face massacre in return. They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not.
"White servants had not yet been brought over in sufficient quantity.... As for free white...