Guest reviewer Adam Pratt is an assistant professor at the University of Scranton. His current manuscript project is titled “The White Man’s Chance: Race and Politics in Pre-Removal Georgia.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
David J. Silverman, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).
Guns are ever-present in American life. Gun culture, though frequently ridiculed by opponents for its fetishization of firearms, is inescapable in the 21st century. Visual media demonstrates the logical outcome of an individual’s unfettered right to bear arms. AMC’s The Walking Dead places gun violence at the heart of its dystopian, zombie-plagued world, while Zombieland normalized the double-tap, or, the necessity of shooting the undead in the head twice to ensure further reanimation. Although recent Supreme Court decisions have fundamentally altered how most Americans understand the Second Amendment, these legal changes followed a larger, more fundamental shift. Indeed, if the crooning of Johnny Cash in 1958, entreating his listeners to leave their guns at home, did not convince Americans, then what chance do well-reasoned, logical arguments have?
Historians have traced the origins and evolution of this gun culture: whereas some point to America’s colonial heritage of gun-owning or the impact of the Civil War on the creation of industrial scale weapons manufacturing, David Silverman’s Thundersticks looks elsewhere. On the periphery of the continental gun market, he argues, Native Americans willingly engaged with gun sellers to procure arms as a way of halting the ravages of colonization. This early arms race tied Natives to the arms market, and, as Euro-Americans encroached on Native land, the presence of the gun frontier ensured that efforts for control of land pitted like against like.
Of course, this is not an effort to blame Natives for the current state of affairs. Rather it demonstrates the culpability shared by European settler societies for their shaping of colonial North America and the (well-armed) independence movements that followed. Indeed, if Zombie Thomas Jefferson could rise, unbidden, and pen additional reasons for American independence, certainly he would charge profit-hungry Europeans with fastening a gun culture onto the colonies, before, of course, a sweaty, begrimed former sheriff put him down with two shots to the forehead.
Silverman’s work is a fascinating and well-supported assault on previous interpretations of Euro-Indian relations. Indeed, he wastes little time going after the “Champlain thesis,” or the long-held belief that Samuel de Champlain’s introduction of firearms into Iroquoia fundamentally altered the balance of power in the Great Lakes region. Instead, Silverman argues, that it was not European dominance, or even a middle ground, but a full-scale assault by Iroquois gunmen “that galvanized an arms race throughout the Native Northeast” (23). Iroquois warriors raided their neighbors and traded captives for weapons in a cycle that was mirrored across the continent. So pervasive was the captives-for-guns market that the Indian Southeast was awash in both commodities for the six decades before 1720. Some groups had become so well-armed, the Tuscarora for example, that during their eponymous war the governor of Virginia conceded that his foes “were better provided with ammunition that we ourselves” (74).
This raises the larger question regarding how Natives acquired arms, and to what extent colonial powers were complicit in the proliferation of a gun culture. At times, colonial powers had a vested interest in arming Natives. During King Philip’s War, Silverman shows that the Puritans offered weaponry to Natives who joined their cause. Simultaneously, Governor Edmund Andros in New York restricted the flow of arms to the Narraganset and their allies. Although King Philip’s forces attempted to trade with the French, by the winter of 1676, that supply of arms had also dried up. What began as an overwhelming weapons superiority for New England’s Indians, soon turned into a drought, and with it, their chances for defeating the Puritans.
Make no mistake, however, European powers benefitted financially from the sale of guns to Natives. Nowhere does Silverman make this connection more explicit than in the types of trade that Indians engaged in to acquire firearms. The slave trade blossomed because of the necessity to acquire guns, though in the aftermath of the wars fought over the slave trade, Indians turned to new forms of economic activity to enter the weapons market. In the Pacific Northwest, gun traders exchanged their wears for beaver pelts starting in the 1780s, just as Indians in the southeast used the deerskin trade to acquire stores of arms. Their efforts decimated wildlife stocks and in some cases, realtered Native relationships with certain animals. Such fundamental environmental changes were not wrought zombie-like, but through choice and agency.
If the first five chapters of Thundersticks highlights native efforts to acquire guns, and the unintended ramifications those actions had, the last three chapters underscore the power of those weapons in the hands of skilled Native warriors. The Seminoles used access to guns, in the form of connections with Cuban fishermen, to stymie American encroachment and slave-catchers; Comanche tribes used access to guns, often from a variety of American sources to, ironically, continue their conflict with the U.S. Army; the Blackfeet exploited relationships with the Hudson Bay Company and other outfits to expand their territory—oftentimes at the expense of other tribes with reduced access to modern firearms. Moreover, Silverman’s work places Natives at the heart of the continental gun market. By doing so, he fits into a scholarly trend that casts a continent-wide net in their studies of the vast number of connections between Natives and settler societies. Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche imperialists, Claudio Saunt’s uncommon history of 1776, Anne Hyde’s exploration of trade networks in the early American west, and Gregory Smithers’ examination of the larger Cherokee diaspora all have an intellectual impact on this work.
The brunt of the argument, though, rests on the transformative impact guns had on North America. Silverman makes it clear that Indians “used guns to transform their lives and those of their neighbors” (55). He rightly sees Native acquisition of firearms as one of the most important factors in determining a tribe’s ability to hold onto its land. After the Seminole War, he contends, Natives “knew better than anyone that freedom for people of color in the United States was a never-ending fight requiring arms [and] ammunition…” (220). Armed resistance found that the possession of arms drew unwanted attention, but they also prevented the figurative double-tap. In the 21st century, the arms race between citizens and their government continues unabated. This fundamental conundrum still resides at the heart of the gun debate, and David J. Silverman’s Thundersticks does a marvelous job uncovering the roots of this uncomfortable truth.