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A Continent of Ghosts
“The Seven Years War, Pontiac’s War, Lord Dunmore’s War, and the Revolutionary War were to the British a single, twenty-year conflict geared at preserving their hegemony in North America and, by extension, in the Caribbean and the Atlantic.”
At the suggestion of a friend, I read “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America,” by the Finnish academic Pekka Hämäläinen. This book would startle and seriously upset most Americans’ sense of U.S. history, if they troubled to read it. At least it did in my case. I write what follows, taking the book at its word, contrasting it with the blank canvas of my own knowledge of U.S. history prior to the Civil War. The author is a well-regarded Oxford professor, so I have some confidence in its accuracy, even though the feel-good elements provoke a bit of suspicion.
First surprise is that the first European explorers (sic) in North America encountered a plethora of communities, nations in their own minds, that were linked by widespread and sophisticated trade and kinship ties. News of European incursions in particular spots quickly spread up and down the coast. Moreover, the obsession of the Europeans with their search for gold and silver was well understood, to the point where Indians used that knowledge to lead Europeans on wild goose chases based on promises of riches that would rival the genuine treasure found by Spanish conquistadors in Mexico and the Andes. Little gold and silver was to be found in the east and southern (Gulf) coasts of North America.
I had heard of the Indian empires in Mexico and the Andes. The model in North America was confederations of a horizontalist shape, in contrast to the more hierarchical Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans. An advantage of horizontalism is that it presented would-be conquerors from Europe with a quandary — it was less easy to behead a nation of its leadership or destroy its capital cities, the standard practice among European rivals. On top of this was the nomadic nature of certain Indian empires based on horses, such as the Comanches, who would be “everywhere and nowhere” at the same time.
Second surprise was the primacy of women in native governance, well exceeding their station in European civilization. The horizontalism was matched by consensus patterns in decision-making.
Our usual focus on the American revolution neglects the reality that most of North America was ruled by Indian nations until the 19th Century. The exalted thirteen colonies were all east of the Appalachian mountains. Historical accounts stuck on the formal boundaries of which colonial or later U.S. power laid claim to territory glossed over the actual Indian powers in control.
Another key point is that it was not European technology that enabled settlers to prevail. Weapons became readily available to Indians through trade and the constantly shifting alliances between colonial powers and native Americans. The introduction of horses was also vital, especially in the west. It was substantially the onset of diseases for which Indians in densely populated regions of the East had no immunity, including the deliberate use of biological warfare (gifting blankets infected with smallpox). Technology did not become decisive until the development of rail and telegraph networks that made U.S. military power insurmountable.
The story does move slowly at times, given the constant jockeying for advantage and position among British, Spanish, French, and a multitude of Indian nations. There is a continuous series of alliances and break-ups among them. Each interest is always trying play off adversaries against others.
All European powers sought Indian allies. Evidently the French were more skillful in diplomacy. The British tended to rely on brute force. Even so, the superior military power of Britain succeeded in diminishing the French presence, based in the St. Laurence River and environs, eventually reducing them to nil. British defeat of the French was a serious blow to Indians, who had become adept at playing them off against each other.
The Spanish, no less cloddish than the Brits, through an assortment of blunders were pressed south by the Comanche empire. The dominant power in North America even after the Revolutionary War remained assorted Indian federations. The most powerful was the Iroquois federation based in what became New York state. In what became the central U.S., it was the Lakota. In the south, it was the Comanches. (The Apaches most evident in our Western cowboy fables were much the lesser power.)
Originally, the “USA” was confined to east of the Appalachian Mountains. The Lakota and Comanche empires sustained themselves between the Mississippi and the Rockies well past the Civil War.
Eventually the exploding settler population of Europeans lured by the promise of free land, and in certain places, gold prospecting, and the collapsing Indian population due to disease turns North America white. As the quote at the top reflects, the prevailing view of the birth of the “USA” tends to gloss over the predominant powers in North America — Indian nations — up through the first half of the 19th Century
A similar set of blinders attends the question of slavery. The chief victims of slavery in the Americas until 1800, at least in terms of numbers, were Indians. Indians routinely took as slaves the losers in conflicts, when they didn’t execute them. In the case of children, a more benign type of assimilation by adoption transpired. Indian slavery of Indian captives taken in war was more a matter of forced assimilation, rather than capture for the narrow purpose of forced labor.
As a commenter suggested in a previous post, chattel slavery of Africans and Indians by Europeans reached a level of brutality without peer, but capture by Indians in war, including by each other, could be literal death sentences. In the case of European powers, slavery could be tantamount to death sentences when it entailed transport to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.
In this respect, the 1619 theme is a distraction from a bigger picture, a kind of inverted Eurocentrism. Colonization entails slavery and precedes capitalism historically by any reckoning. Virginia is said to have been a locus of outrageous breeding of slaves for commerce, but in earlier decades the plantations of the Caribbean and Brazil, and the Spanish-run mines of Mexico were death camps.
African-American anguish over the legacy of slavery is unimpeachable, but in my view it tends to obscure the holocaust that preceded it that rendered America east of the Mississippi a continent of ghosts. We hear less about the enslavement of Indians because it culminated in their extermination. Fewer survived to tell their stories.
It seems logical to infer that the liquidation of Indian nations made the use of African slaves more urgent for agricultural exploitation and the rise of U.S. economic might. The other reservoir of potential slaves had either been emptied by disease and wars of extermination, or rendered implacably hostile nations.
One would think this connection would loom larger in origin stories of U.S. slavery. Aside from the transparent economic motive, the moral legacy of Indian extermination could have made chattel slavery of Africans more socially tenable. Indian slavery could have normalized the institution for subsequent European immigrants and their African victims.
There has been an outpouring of research on enslavement of Africans. Enslavement of Indians would be a ripe topic for research.