By David Freeman Hawke

Harper & Row. 195 pp. $16.95; paperback, $7.95

Surely American mythology contains few more persistent images than that of the early years of white settlement. Jamestown, Plymouth, Williamsburg, the Delaware Valley, the Chesapeake: All blend together, in an orgy of sentimentality, into such images as the New England village with its steeple and its central green, or the old Virginia capital with its elegant brick buildings and its women in quaint dresses. Yes, we know they were hard times; but they were good ones as well, and they are often cited in unflattering contrast to our present excesses and shortcomings.

But popular mythology and historical truth only infrequently connect, in the United States or any other country, but especially in this one with its undiminished need to invent and reinvent itself. These days, though, mythology is up against an ever more vigorous challenge from history, as researchers dig into the ordinary pasts of ordinary Americans and begin to tell us what life actually was like three centuries ago in the new-found land. The picture they are painting is not exactly an ugly one, but it isn't especially pretty either; it is simply a picture of daily life, and the plain fact is that daily life in early America was something other than a bed of roses.

That is a principal conclusion to be drawn from David Freeman Hawke's "Everyday Life in Early America," the first in what is called "The Everyday Life in America Series," edited by Richard Balkin. "Although relics from the past do survive," Hawke writes, "the everyday life of 17th-century Americans differed drastically from ours. As Fernand Braudel ... reminds us, to comprehend it we must 'strip ourselves in imagination of all the surroundings of our own lives.' The journey backward, he adds, 'is a journey to another planet, another human universe.' "

Though we tend to think of that little universe as a single place, in fact it was three: New England, the Chesapeake and the Delaware Valley. In the mid- and late 17th century, these were very different places. The New England village was tightly organized and coherent, a "corporate" town, as John Demos has called it; the Chesapeake, by contrast, was "a brutal, self-centered society that lacked communal bonds of any kind"; and William Penn's Middle Colonies, with their 5,000-acre townships and their "promise of religious toleration and easy acquisition of land," constituted "the first truly innovative society in America."

These places differed in climate, in topography and in ethos, but in all of them, though to varying degrees, there was a common element: The ground had to be cleared. It was an arduous, protracted process. "Much has been made of the so-called Protestant work ethic the early settlers brought with them," Hawke writes. "It would be truer to say that the demands of clearing the ground created such an ethic." Once cleared, at the rate of an acre or two a year, the ground yielded up little more than subsistence, a diet based heavily on corn and hogs.

The family was of course the central unit of the farm and the society that was beginning to emerge around it, but as we know from Demos and other historians it was not the multigenerational unit that mythology depicts; it was usually father and mother and children. But whatever its size, it served far more roles than it does today; they included business, vocational institute, house of correction, church and welfare institution. Functions now performed by school or government were then assumed by the family, and its right to exercise them was supported in law.

If the family was a "little commonwealth," the world outside it was often hard and brutal. Heavy drinking was widespread, even in Puritan New England, and violence was commonplace. Sexual activity outside marriage was far more vigorous than we now imagine it to have been, though penalties for it could be severe. But the death sentence was applied "mainly to the crimes of murder, sodomy, witchcraft and insurrection." The sentence was rarely carried out with clinical efficiency; torture was common.

Life in early America was not nasty, brutish and short, but neither was it the Elysium that we often fancy it to have been. Most of those who settled it came from an England that was then in a period of turmoil, and many brought its penchant for disorder and intolerance with them. In time these were ameliorated, and the foundation for a great republic began to be laid. But as Hawke tells us in this cautionary analysis, that republic's early days were anything but idyllic.