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Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America

Author(s):Richter, Daniel K.
Reviewer(s):Mancall, Peter C.

Published by EH.NET (October 2003)

Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. x + 317 pp. $27.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-674-00638-0; $15.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-674-01117-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter C. Mancall, Department of History, University of Southern California.

In the past generation a group of scholars has recast the history of the mainland colonies of British North America. They have collectively rejected the hoary Turnerian vision that validated the growth of colonial settlements as a victory of the civilized European over the savage American and an intractable wilderness. Daniel K. Richter, one of the leading historians of the Native experience in British America and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of its McNeil Center for Early American Studies, here buries the earlier triumphalist narrative by looking at the westward movement of Europeans from the perspective of Indian Country. The result is a vital contribution to our understanding of the British colonial experience. It is also, in its own way, a powerful reflection on the nature of writing the history of any indigenous population.

Facing East from Indian Country takes the reader from the initial moments of contact between Europeans and Native Americans in the sixteenth century through the opening decades of the nineteenth century. To get at what colonization meant from the perspective of Native peoples who did not leave extensive (if any) documentation of their views, Richter employs his keen analytical insights to reconstruct the contours of indigenous communities. He examines changes in Natives’ material cultures as a result of trade with Europeans and pays close attention to the demographic shocks produced by the introduction of devastating pathogens. He then provides an imaginative interpretation of the lives of three seventeenth-century canonical figures: the Virginia Algonquian Pocahontas made famous by Captain John Smith; the Mohawk Kateri Tekakwitha who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980; and Metacom, a Wampanoag known to the English as “King Philip” who, so traditional history tells us, “inspired a bloody war against Puritan New England” (p. 69). He convincingly argues that each of these three “sought cooperation rather than conflict, coexistence on shared regional patches of ground rather than arm’s-length contact across distant frontiers” (pp. 108-109). They did so despite the fact that the arrival of Europeans on American shores had led to massive Native population loss and periodic bouts of catastrophic warfare.

As the narrative unfolds the reader becomes increasingly impressed with Richter’s command of the materials. In a stunning chapter on “Native Voices in a Colonial World” he examines two kinds of documents, confessional texts and diplomatic records, to reveal the perspectives of indigenous observers buried within. Though the extant documents come from the hands of Europeans, Richter knows that these accounts “share two great strengths: they preserve something of what Indian people said at important personal and political moments in their lives, and they originated as largely self-contained oral texts, whose structure was largely under the Native speaker’s, not the European scribe’s control” (pp. 110-111). Richter shows how the vocabulary of these texts reflected the responses of disparate Native groups to colonizers’ reshaping of their lives. His analysis of the “ceremonial vocabulary” (p. 133) presented by indigenous orators in diplomatic negotiations is even more persuasive, enabling the reader to understand the morphology of politics in the colonial era. Seen from Indian Country, the presentation of wampum and the wiping of tears in condoling rituals are as important in understanding public behavior in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as other historians’ recitations of votes in assembly meetings. In order to grasp his argument, readers must understand that Natives mastered precise forms of communication in their efforts “to articulate a distinctive vision of cultural coexistence on Indian terms” (p. 150). By doing so, Natives and newcomers were able to create a world in which coexistence was possible.

The most depressing part of Richter’s book is his skilled analysis of the collapse of this collaborative world, in which Natives and Europeans could live harmoniously, into the increasingly racialized violence of the eighteenth century. As other historians have recognized, the crucial moment occurred with British victory over the French in the Seven Years’ War. Even as the British tried to solidify their grasp over eastern North America with the peace treaty signed in Paris in 1763, events began to turn bloody in the backcountry. The near simultaneous rise of the nativist movement led by Pontiac (based on the revivalist vision of the Delaware prophet Neolin) and the barbarous attacks on Natives perpetrated by the so-called Paxton Boys in Pennsylvania made 1763 a turning point in American history. From that moment on, Natives and colonists began increasingly to understand themselves as two fundamentally different groups of people. Eventually this belief would crystallize in the doctrine of “separate creations,” the idea that the indigenous peoples of the Americas sprang from different origins than those of the Old World. In this way of thinking, Natives “learned that, despite ancient rivalries among nations and speakers of different languages, they were all Indians” and that “the Master of Life had made Europeans, Africans, and Americans distinct from one another and purposely placed them on distinct continents” (p. 181). This pernicious doctrine weakened “the modern Indian politics” (p. 187) that had formerly enabled Natives and colonizers to coexist.

But the ultimate undoing of the rapprochement between the peoples of eighteenth-century America lay in the hands of the descendants of European colonizers, not Natives. As Richter points out, J. Hector St. John de Cr?vecour answered his famous question — “What is an American?” — by defining “this new man” as someone of European ancestry (p. 189). Native religious leaders might have dreamed about a world from which Europeans would disappear — a recurring theme in Indian Country well after the events described by Richter — but the leaders of the American Revolution helped to usher in an age in which Natives were marginalized and then excluded. The Declaration of Independence, echoing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, blamed King George III for stirring the “merciless Indian savages” against the otherwise peace-seeking sons and daughters of Albion (p. 217).

The years following the Revolution were disastrous for most indigenous peoples in eastern North America. The rising hatred of the age culminated in the most notorious episode of what Richter rightly calls “ethnic cleansing” in American history, the relocation of the southeastern Native peoples to lands west of the Mississippi River in the 1830s. Americans have decorously termed this forced march “Indian removal,” a term that hides its insidious intent and masks the relatively new idea that “Americans” are exclusively the descendants of European migrants. Watching as the tragedy unfolded was the Pequot William Apess, the author of the first published Native American autobiography, which appeared in print in 1829. Richter uses Apess’s writings as the basis for a poignant epilogue. It is a fitting choice since Apess, like Richter, recast the dominant American narrative in order to see events from the perspective of Indian Country. His writings countered non-Natives’ collective amnesia, evident when the post-Revolution inhabitants of the United States appropriated the term “American” for themselves and erased Natives from their vision of the nation’s founding. These chroniclers ignored the fact that there had been a time when Natives and newcomers got along. That idea no longer fit into the nation’s conception of itself, no matter how hard William Apess tried to put it across.

Taken as a whole, Richter’s book teaches many lessons. It is both a well-crafted narrative and a meditation on the nature of evidence, particularly the kinds of documents that survive to enable modern scholars to reconstruct the period before 1830. Economic historians will benefit from Richter’s careful overview of the broad stages of development in eastern North America from initial conflict to cooperation, and from a fragile coexistence to the catastrophe of the post-1763 period. His remarks about how Native peoples reoriented their lives to get new trade goods and his careful consideration of how larger political and religious forces shaped commerce over the course of this era are crucial for those who want to integrate indigenous peoples into the economic history of the continent.

In the end, this book recasts the dominant early American narrative by rethinking the history of the continent east of the Mississippi River. That said, it primarily focuses on Anglo-America and pays scant attention to the trans-Mississippi West. To be sure, the Native peoples in this book met Europeans who approached from the east. But the indigenous peoples of California encountered a Francis Drake who arrived from the Pacific, the Pueblos met an itinerant Francisco V?squez de Coronado as he wandered eastward toward Kansas from the southwest, and the indigenous peoples of the Northwest first made contact with outsiders from Russia who had traveled across the Pacific to get to the Western Hemisphere. These peoples felt the brunt of colonization from the west, not the east. More to the point, Richter’s argument traces President Andrew Jackson’s loathsome ethnic cleansing from the east to the Mississippi, but does not follow this logic further by exploring what the indigenous peoples of modern-day Oklahoma and Kansas thought of the migrants who moved into their territory. Did new notions of pan-Indian identity that had emerged east of the Mississippi in the early decades of the nineteenth century spread onto the Plains or into the Rocky Mountains? The reader of Facing East from Indian Country cannot know the answer because Richter has not applied his consummate skills to that historical problem. That, of course, is less a criticism than a call for Richter to follow this book with another. Next time we can hope he will situate himself not at the Mississippi facing east but farther west, watching as events unfold in territory that remained — and remains today in many places — Indian Country.

Peter C. Mancall teaches in the Department of History at the University of Southern California and is the co-author, with Eric Hinderaker, of At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century