Indians at the Center of Colonial American History

David Silverman (The Geoge Washington University)

Students of American Indian history need to guard against a tendency to treat Indians simply as passive victims of an east to west sweep of Anglo-American people and institutions. Rather, Indians were active players in a continent-wide struggle involving numerous Indian and European players centered on overlapping intertribal and inter-imperial rivalries. Though it is absolutely true that the colonial period was full of danger and disaster for indigenous peoples –the dominant theme of recent decades of scholarship – it also presented opportunities for Indians to accumulate wealth and power, often in partnership with colonists and at the expense of other Indians. One cannot begin to understand Indian behavior in colonial contexts without grasping that they were often seeking to accumulate strength in the context of intra- and inter-tribal rivalries, not just to achieve damage control in the face of colonial encroachment.

By the eighteenth century the English colonies in North America had grown to the point that they threatened to expand their dominance from the Atlantic coast to the trans-Appalachian region, but that situation was slow to develop and was not what Indians understood to be the colonial norm. Colonialism took place not just on the east coast, but throughout the continent, involving not just the English but the Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and even the Swedish. Most colonies, including most English colonies during their formative stages, were premised on trading with and/or evangelizing Indians rather than displacing them from the land. Violence in these contexts was part of a spectrum of negotiations in which Indians held the balance of power. To be sure, colonial expansion had reached impressive lengths by the mid-eighteenth century: the English had established settlements all along the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountain range and fur trade posts throughout the Hudson Bay drainage; the French had clusters of settlement in the St. Lawrence River Valley, Illinois, and Louisiana, with trade and missionary stations in the wide spaces in-between; the Spanish had military forts, missions, and ranches scattered throughout Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and California; and the Russians had a base in coastal Alaska from which they extended their fur trading operations as far south as California. Yet Indians retained control of most of the continent, sometimes even in the very midst of the claims of European nations.