Guest Post: Native American History within #VastEarlyAmerica

Today’s guest post comes from Steven J. Peach, who will graduate in May 2016 with a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. (Congrats, Steven!) His research examines Creek Indian politics, diplomacy, and power in early America. This is his first guest post for The Junto.

Image 1In 2015, Gordon Wood charged the William and Mary Quarterly with no longer publishing scholarship fixed “exclusively” on the “origins” of the United States. Restricting early America’s geography to the modern limits of the U.S., he argued that articles like that on sixteenth-century Castile make the “boundaries” of early America “mushy.” Not so fast, responded Joshua Piker, the Quarterly’s editor. A few months ago, he refuted Wood by saying that the Quarterly never focused solely on U.S. origins.  (Piker’s refutation is dazzling; if you have not read it, you should!) Piker went on to say that early Americanists must abandon any “misleading coherence or … artificial simplicity” to define the field. Instead, they ought to “get lost” in the “vastness” of early America—or Karin Wulf’s #VastEarlyAmerica.[1] What spaces did early America encompass, then, and how can the field begin to sketch them? Native American history offers a path forward.

As global peoples, Indians bring a vast early America into sharp relief. They traveled across the Atlantic as diplomats, celebrities, and captives. They shaped world capitalism as traders, producers, and consumers. And they served empires (and their own agendas) as scouts and warriors. Many, too, were enslaved, laboring in New England households and on Caribbean sugar plantations. In short, Indians suffused early America, with the result that European colonists often reacted and adapted to indigenous agency.

Several works situate Indians within at least four conceptual spaces to tell early America’s global story. Put on your analytical lenses to see the field.

First, zoom in. American Indians inhabited local worlds, cross-cut by villages, towns, clans, and other local markers of meaning. In Okfuskee (2004), for instance, Piker argued that early America was a place of Native “communities.” Clan and town affiliations mattered more than colonizers’ terms, such as “Creek.” Piker’s focus on one Creek town, Okfuskee, complicates terms like Creek or Shawnee or Iroquois, which obscure the “polyvocality and diversity beneath each tribal aegis.”[2] Other works privilege Native localities, such as Natale Zappia’s Trades and Raiders (2014), which probes the “interior world” of the indigenous Colorado basin.

However, some argue that the narratives woven from local spaces fractionate Native history. According to Pekka Hämäläinen, early Americanists must assemble the parts into a whole, joining “local and regional tales into larger American stories that transcend places, boundaries, and periods.” By zooming out, the North American continent comes into view. Aside from forging interconnected stories, a continental framework exposes new chronologies and, as Peter Wood remarks, unearths the “deep and diverse Native American presence.” Echoing Wood (and others), Juliana Barr calls upon historians to move the story of early America away from the “Atlantic origin myth” and towards the “Red Continent.” For Barr, Atlanticists prize a core-periphery model that marginalizes an indigenous “continental interior.”[3]

Image 2The continentalists mount a challenge to a third conceptual space: the Atlantic World. But like them, the Atlanticists thread multiple histories into a tapestry. Jace Weaver’s Red Atlantic tracks the ways in which “Native resources, ideas, and peoples” shaped “cultural exchange” in the Atlantic basin. Indigenous slavery was central to that exchange. In the 1600s and early 1700s, Native headmen provided the French with enemy Indian captives. French slaveholders put them to work in the Saint Lawrence valley and on Caribbean sugar plantations, with the result that Indian slavery ignited trans-Atlantic conversations on race and African slavery. Indians also used the Atlantic for their own ends. In 1734, a Creek named Tomochichi visited London, forged ties with the Crown, and used that alliance to enhance his power after returning home. Immersed in global contours, Indians belonged to both continental and oceanic worlds.[4]

Many Native Americanists in #VastEarlyAmerica have adjusted their lenses latitudinally to envision a hemispheric history, a fourth conceptual space. It harks back to Berkeley’s Latin Americanist, Herbert Eugene Bolton. In 1920, he taught “Greater America” by tracking the Western Hemisphere’s shared history of colonization, nationalism, and independence movements. Acknowledging Bolton and especially David Weber, Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman spearheaded Contested Spaces (2014). This edited collection tracks the “parallel histories” of Europeans and Indians across the Americas, showing how “Indian spaces” conditioned and limited settler societies.[5]

These conceptual spaces mutually reinforce one another. Although, for instance, Zappia’s “interior world” is a local/regional concept, he shows that the indigenous Colorado basin folded into a network of continental exchange. Likewise, Weaver’s Red Atlantic reached well into the Red Continent, where the indigenous-controlled mechanisms by which the French gain Indian slaves originated. Lastly, Piker’s community study retrieves Okfuskee’s wider connections to early America and the Atlantic World. For him, Native and American histories are not mutually exclusive.

But tension lurks. The Red Continent risks swallowing local histories into a neat, reductive east-to-west tale. Do Hämäläinen’s “American stories” belong to North, Central, and South America? Or are they unintended code for U.S. nationalist history? Are Barr’s and Zappia’s notion of an interior world truly Indian-centric, or is “interior” a peskily recurring nod to cores and peripheries? The attempt by Contested Spaces to highlight “Indian cores” is also lodged in the core-periphery model. This issue is not semantic but conceptual. The “challenge” of creating indigenous-centered histories, the late Andrew Cayton observed, “has to do with history, not vocabulary.”[6]

Agreed. So how can the field move forward? The four conceptual approaches outlined above help us glean early America on a vast scale. The local focus is an especially productive method. Indians’ political, diplomatic, kinship, spiritual, and cartographic traditions all sprang from local frames of reference. Identifying with a certain town (or city) and a family/clan, Indians felt the greatest pressures of colonization on the ground. Barr and Countryman admit that colonization, while unfolding on a hemispheric scale, “reflected locally driven systems.” It’s not that early America’s indigenous populations were parochial, but that their experiences began within a nexus of specific peoples, places, and traditions.[7] The Okfuskees’ history began in, well, Okfuskee; Tomochichi’s in Yamacraw (his town). By working from the ground up, from local to global histories, #VastEarlyAmerica will come into view. Get lost in the local.


[1] Gordon S. Wood, “History in Context: The American Vision of Bernard Bailyn,” 2/23/2015, Weekly Standard, Feb. 23, 2015; Josh Piker, “Getting Lost,” Uncommon Sense—The Blog, Jan 21, 2016; Karin Wulf, “For 2016, Appreciating #VastEarlyAmerica,” Uncommon Sense—The Blog, Jan. 4, 2016.

[2] Joshua Piker, Okfuskee: A Creek Indian Town in Colonial America (Cambridge, MA, 2004), 3.

[3] Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Shapes of Power: Indians, Europeans, and North American Worlds from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century,” in Contested Spaces of Early America, ed. Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman (Philadelphia, PA, 2014), 31–68, here 33 (original emphasis); Wood, “From Atlantic History to a Continental Approach,” in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan (Oxford,  2009): 279–298, here 281; Barr, “Beyond the ‘Atlantic World’: Early American History as Viewed from the West,” Organization of American History Magazine of History 25:1 (January 2011): 13–18, here 15 (“Atlantic,” “continental”). For “Red Continent,” see Barr, “The Red Continent and the Cant of the Coastline,” William and Mary Quarterly, 69:3 (July 2012): 521–526, which borrows from Frederick E. Hoxie, “Retrieving the Red Continent: Settler Colonialism and the History of American Indians in the US,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31:6 (September 2008): 1153–1167.

[4] Jace Weaver, The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 10001927 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014), 17; Peach, “Creek Indian Globetrotter: Tomochichi’s Trans-Atlantic Quest for Traditional Power in the Colonial Southeast,” Ethnohistory 60:4 (Fall 2013): 605–635; and Mark Meuwese, “Powerless yet Resourceful: Brazilian Indians as Political Refugees in the Dutch Republic, 1654–1657,” in The Low Countries: Crossroads of Cultures, ed. Ton J. Broos, Margriet Bruyn Lacy, and Thomas F. Shannon (Münster: Nodus Publikationen, 2006): 83–92. For indigenous slavery, see Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill, NC, 2012), 165–192, 197–221, 255–274, 347–366.

[5] Emily S. Rosenberg, “America and the World: From National to Global,” OAH Magazine 21:2 (April 2007): 18-22, here 19; Barr and Countryman, “Maps and Spaces, Paths to Connect, and Lines to Divide,” in Contested Spaces, 1–28, here 23.

[6] Barr and Countryman, “Maps and Spaces,” in Contested Spaces, 24; Cayton, “Not the Fragments but the Whole,” William and Mary Quarterly, 69:3 (July 2012): 513–516, here 513. For the “new” continentalists falling prey to a nationalist paradigm, see Allan Greer, “National, Transnational, and Hypernational Historiographies: New France Meets Early American History,” Canadian Historical Review 91:4 (December 2010): 695–724, here 711–716.

[7] Barr and Countryman, “Maps and Spaces,” in Contested Spaces, 24.

4 responses

  1. This whole question reminds me of one of the more frustrating things about genealogy . . . with each marriage, you add in another family that becomes part of the story. To do a thorough family tree, then, you end up adding branches every step of the way. While this makes the whole exercise seem like a very daunting and never-ending task, it also makes for a much richer narrative.

    In the same way, we constantly must move back and forth between local and area studies, and “the big picture” in history. Little about either one makes sense without the other, and gives us a nearly inexhaustible lode of stories to mine.

    It’s all interconnected, so just jump in where your main interests lie, and learn from the work of others, adding your own as you go. Getting bogged down in arguments over drawing lines and what’s relevant to what is rather pointless, it seems to me.

    • I agree, Jim, that all of these approaches relate to each other in a number of ways. Exploring what those interconnections look like was a major reason that I decided to write this essay. But although “drawing lines” can seem pointless at times, it does help us to see where we’re at and where we’re going, analytically anyway. Thanks for your comment.

  2. This post also reminds me of recent scholarship on astronomy/astrophysics and dinosaurs. None of which now reflects even remotely what I ‘learned’ in school. Steven Peach’s second paragraph alone summarizes history we’ve learned only in recently in putting together the website and programs. The directed reading and the blogs are very useful and important to that intellectual investigation.

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