THE PROPER BANNER of Britain's North American colonies, if one had existed, should have been a tri-color: red, white and black, to represent the three types of mankind embroiled there. Until recently the story has been seen through white eyes, and mainly those of the white leadership; the concerns of poor servants or slaves have been neglected, and so were the motives and feelings of the continent's true natives, the grotesquely misnamed "Indians." Transported convicts, or those on simpler indenture, or captured Africans, were hardly settlers in the usual sense. What Europeans regarded as discovery and exploration was for native Americans invasion and exploitation.

Even if the record is confined to that of the white settlers, who were arguably the dynamic agents in colonial history, other difficulties confront the scholar. The British were of course not the only people to plant themselves in North America. French, Spanish, Dutch and Swedes all claim attention. And as the British gradually became dominant, their colonies differed greatly one from another.

Luckily, these barriers have been surmounted by a good number of gifted historians, such as David B. Quinn, Wilcomb E. Washburn, John Demos, Edmund S. Morgan, Richard S. Dunn, Michael Zuckerman (to name only a few). Among the older generation, Carl Bridenbaugh stands out, and not merely by right of survivorship. He is remarkable for the number, variety and verve of his published works. Others confine themselves to one period, region or theme. Professor Bridenbaugh, writing sometimes in conjunction with his wife, has produced -- for example -- Vexed and Troubled Englishmen, on the pressures that prompted emigration; Cities in the Wilderness, Cities in Revolt, and other books on urban life ranging from little Williamsburg to cosmopolitan Philadelphia, the second city of the English-speaking world in the latter part of the 18th century; and Mitre and Sceptre, an account of colonial antipathy to the Church of England as a factor in bringing on the Revolution.

Bridenbaugh emeritus happily keeps up the flow. Of his two newest volumes, Early Americans gathers up some previous essays and adds a couple hitherto unpublished. Jamestown is a succinct history told in selected aspects. The essays are a charmingly learned miscellany. For me, one of the most intriguing deals with Tom Bell, who after being expelled from Harvard in 1732 put his classical education to use as a confidence trickster, gulling the gullible in the mainland colonies and in the West Indies. Other pieces likewise bring out the wider implications of some bygone news item -- such as the social tensions underlying a case of manslaughter at a Virginia tavern in 1766.

The white history of Jamestown began in 1607, when the Susan Constant and two smaller vessels dropped off 105 Englishmen at that swampy forest peninsula. Black labor in Virginia dated from 1619. The end came in 1699 when Jamestown was abandoned as Virginia's capital in favor of the nearby Middle Plantation (Williamsburg). The Indians of the Tidewater had already met white men in the shape of some Spanish parites, and Raleigh's "lost colony" on Roanoke Island. In the first decades, three quarters and more of the colonists died of starvation and disease. Outside Jamestown, Indians killed some of them. They retaliated by killing Indians, especially after the "massacre" of 1622. The township was burned down during Bacon's Rebellion (1676). Apart from John Rolfe and a handful of others, no one in Jamestown's forlorn annals seemed to behave wisely and generously. The English, obsessed with tobacco cultivation, assumed they could seize food from the Indians. The red men grew increasingly "trecherous" in response.

Carl Bridenbaugh fastens in both books upon the figure of Opechancanough, a giant of a man, organized the 1622 rising, when nearly 400 whites were killed. Bridenbaugh argues that this formidable and wily warrior should be seen as an important "native American patriot." Moreover, he develops the theory that -- unknown to the British -- Opechancanough was the same person as a young Indian chief who had been educated by the Spanish, only to "go native" and kill some Jesuit priest in 1571. The theory is not provable. Lack of documentary evidence is yet another problem for historians of this particular dark and bloody ground. Bridenbaugh's hypothesis, though, is characteristically imaginative. It deserves to be true, as a further memorial to the work of this fine venturesome chronicler.