Title: The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815
Author: Richard White
Categories: Indians, Empire, Borderlands, Early Republic, War
Place: Great Lakes Region
Time Period: 1650-1815
White examines the "middle ground" as both a place (the pays d'en haut of the Great Lakes region between 1650-1815) and a process of mutual accommodation between Algonquian-speaking Indians and French, British, and Americans. The middle ground consisted of creative misunderstandings in which Indians and Europeans attempted to build a set of mutually understandable practices. Several conditions are necessary for a middle ground process: a nonfunctioning or weak state authority, a relatively evenly-balanced distribution of power between peoples, the inability of one side to effectively use force over the other, and the need or desire to interact with one another (such as for trade goods). Both sides then try to engage in practices that the other side might find intelligible, such as European leaders consciously taking on the role of a patriarch that distributes gifts, mediates conflicts, and "covers" violent deaths. Indians, meanwhile, began participating in a market economy, compromised on legal punishments, and submitted to a limited degree to European oversight. The middle ground took place on both formal diplomatic levels (European powers budgeting for gift-giving) and the more everyday scale of individual interactions (sex and violence). People on both sides tried to justify their actions in terms of what they THOUGHT the other side's cultural framework to be (creative misunderstandings). Perhaps the best example is that of how they treated homicide, with both sides compromising - Europeans would sometimes cover the dead, while Indians would sometimes allow for individual perpetrators to be punished.
The narrative arc of The Middle Ground begins with a story of refugees, as Algonquian-speaking Indians flee northward from brutal warfare at the hands of the Iroquois during the 1640s-1660s. This places them in the orbit of French traders and missionaries and allow for the middle ground to flourish. The first half of the eighteenth century was a golden age for the middle ground, as Algonquians developed a relationship with Onontio (the title for a French governor) in which he was expected to act as a father in disbursing gifts and mediating conflicts. During this period the fur trade became deeply entangled with gift-giving, representing a hybrid form of exchange that was necessary for the system to function for both sides. During the 1740s and 1750s the French-Algonquian alliance began to weaken with increased competition from British. White drives home the point that in the pays d'en haut local, village politics were inseparable from imperial politics - instead of a hierarchical system of competing nation-states, the world of the middle ground took place between village alliances, intermarriages, and the decisions of specific chiefs that ended up reverberating across imperial politics.
The Seven Years War marks a turning point for the middle ground, and with British victory in 1760 came the decline of the middle ground as the British favored force over accommodation. Instead of embracing the earlier, more mediating model of the French Onontio, the British (particularly under Jeffrey Amherst) scaled back gift-giving and tried to institute more rigid rule. The middle ground receded only to re-emerge with Pontiac's rebellion in the early 1760s, which forced the British to turn back to the middle ground in an attempt to solidify their status as rulers. In the period between the Seven Years War and the Revolutionary War, the middle ground changed its character. Although the British tried to institute the middle ground on an official, diplomatic side (but did so only in a limited manner), a different form of cultural, on-the-ground, face to face interactions cropped up in villages centering on sex and prisoner-taking and the relationship between religion and witchcraft/magic. These were more ad-hoc accommodations and reflected the British inability to recapture the effectiveness of the middle ground that the French successfully built. Finally, during the Revolutionary War the middle ground collapsed. Backcountry American settlers engaged in violent Indian-hating and saw no need for cultural accommodation, and ultimately recast their relationship with Indians by positing them as racialized Others. Broadly, he charts the transition from a period of empires (that allowed for fluid actions and interactions by Indians) to that of a harder-edged nation-state with less room for maneuvering.
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License