Guest Review: Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier

Today’s guest poster is Bryan Rindfleisch, Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University.

Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

0d337473867b29df062e5a25056ce87aWhen most people think of European colonization in New England and New Netherland, we think in very terrestrial terms. This familiar narrative includes the fur and wampum trades, treaties and the negotiations over land, and conflicts such as the Pequot War, Kieft’s War, King Philip’s War, and so on. But Andrew Lipman, an assistant professor of history at Barnard College, flips this entire terrestrial story upon its head. He does this with one simple question: “What if we considered this contested region not just as a part of the continent but also as part of the ocean?” In doing so, Lipman recovers the astonishing maritime contexts of seventeenth-century America, where both Indigenous and European peoples encountered, collaborated with, and fought against one another on the water just as much as they did on the land. This, then, is the provocative beginning to Lipman’s Bancroft Prize-winning The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (Yale University Press, 2015).[1]

Lipman’s maritime focus is not the only contribution that he makes to Early American and Native American histories. In addition to the “intersection[s] of land and sea,” he envisions this contested region as a frontier, but not in the Turnerian sense of the word. Instead, Lipman deploys the metaphor of the saltwater, or that meeting of terrestrial and oceanic spaces, to explore the fluid, permeable, and trans-spatial nature of New England, New Netherland, and Algonquian sachemships throughout the seventeenth-century. Further, Lipman’s paradigm of the saltwater frontier encompasses the many and diffuse intersections of the “cultural, political, martial, ecological, and material…that formed this [new] borderland.”

It should also be noted that this use, if not appropriation, of the frontier is quite deliberate. According to Lipman, Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “Frontier Thesis” projected the “land as the defining feature of the American past,” and in doing so erased Native Peoples from the water every bit as much as from the land. In short, Lipman inverts “the old ways we used to think about geography, indigenous people, and the writing of history,” and to instead imagine the “Native past…as a sea story.” (For more on Turner–Lipman, see Joseph M. Adelman’s “The Significance of Old Historiography.”)

Whether fishing or gathering shellfish for a community’s subsistence, trading with or warring against neighboring Indigenous populations, deploying maritime metaphors in political councils, or invoking the ritual power of water beings, the ocean proved critical to coastal Algonquian ways of life. In particular, the water served as a vital economic space, as Native men conducted a “boat-and-canoe borne” trade between Algonquian communities, transported furs and wampum to New England and New Netherland, and engaged in a highly lucrative, albeit brief, whaling industry. The Algonquian oceanic world was also a gendered space, in which women were largely excluded from the maritime realm, with their labors and responsibilities closely tied to the land.

Even after Europeans arrived on the scene, the cross-cultural encounters between the Dutch, English, and Algonquians continued to unfold primarily on the sea rather than on land. Europeans kidnapped Indigenous peoples on the water, Algonquian warriors pirated and boarded English and Dutch ships, Native mariners transported goods and messages to and from European allies, and shipbuilders on both sides incorporated watercraft ideas and technologies into their own designs. In fact, it was Algonquian sea power that initially limited English and Dutch expansion in the northeast during the early seventeenth-century. As Lipman argues, Indigenous maritime prowess “demonstrated the weaknesses of European power in the years when the only true colonial-controlled spaces were the decks of [their own] ships.”

However, the Pequot War (1637–1638) and Kieft’s War (1643–1645) altered the dynamics of power in the northeast, setting the stage for “a more invasive, territorial-based” colonization during the mid- to late seventeenth-century. But even the origins of these conflicts, such as the murders of John Stone and John Oldham, occurred on the water rather than on land. Similarly, much of the fighting took place on the sea or along waterways. For instance, Pequot warriors launched amphibious assaults against Puritan settlements or engaged in estuarine battles against English ships. In response, the Puritans moved farther inland in order to protect their communities. In the end, the English proved incapable of competing with the Pequot on the water, which convinced Puritan leaders to try and wage war by land. The resulting terrestrial warfare, noted for its exterminatory violence used against the Pequot at Mystic, shifted regional power away from local Algonquians and also threatened to reduce the importance of water to Indigenous ways of life. In contrast, maritime conflict between Dutch and Algonquian peoples in New Netherland blunted imperial efforts to expand into the interior, thereby containing the terrestrial ambitions of the Dutch colony.

Ultimately, it was during the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672–1674) and Metacom’s War (1675–1676) that the saltwater frontier “quite literally became a frontier in the oldest sense of the word, meaning a regulated boundary between peoples.” Again, both of these conflicts involved maritime origins and warfare, but this time the English deliberately set out to master the seas as much as the land. Puritan leaders outlawed Native watercraft and travel, targeted Algonquian canoes for destruction, policed the shorelines and river inlets against Wampanoag penetration, and sold Indigenous captives to the West Indies.

But Lipman demonstrates that the saltwater frontier did not vanish after 1676, and it remained a fluid, if albeit contested, space. In fact, Algonquian communities came to rely even more upon their maritime ways of life, particularly as fisheries, whaling, and sailoring became the primary means of subsistence and economic exchange after Metacom’s War. These industries also embodied the continued intersections of land and sea, as well as European and Indigenous peoples and cultures. For instance, Algonquian fishers, whalers, and sailors incorporated Western technologies and labors into their worlds, while still drawing upon Native knowledge and cultural practices to cope with their changed circumstances. The Mohegan whaler and missionary, Joseph Johnson, put it best in 1772: “Altho I have been wh[e]re dangers were and great dangers too…I have been Preserved on the mighty Waters.”

All of this is to say that Lipman has done a remarkable job of challenging us to see the Indigenous and American past in a different light. And I think it would be beneficial, if not a useful exercise, to consider if the saltwater frontier might similarly change how scholars view Indigenous and European encounters, relationships, and conflicts in other parts of (vast) North America.


[1] The Saltwater Frontier also received an honorable mention for the 2016 PROSE Awards in the U.S. History category. See

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