James Merrell, Into the American Woods:
Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier.
Norton, 1999. 463 pp., endnotes, index.
In 1976, Francis Jennings published his bitterly impassioned and politically charged book, The Invasion of America. Released during America’s bicentennial, Jenning’s analysis confronted the “conquest myth” underlying the contemporary conventional wisdom regarding Native Americans. This myth hubristically assumed that the Europeans who “discovered” America encountered a “virgin land” crawling with “savages” who lacked all pretense and potential for anything as historically rooted as “civilization.” Unprivileged and sub-human, the Native, according to this interpretation, inevitably suffered “suicidal extermination” at the expense of the European effort “to conquer the wilderness and make it a garden.” Jennings answer to this charade of an assumption was as simple as it was incisive: “Incapable of conquering true wilderness, the Europeans were highly competent in the skill of conquering other people, and that is what they did. They did not settle a virgin land. They invaded and displaced a resident population.” (15)
Jennings’ venomous injection ran a rapid course through the field’s historiographical body. If Native Americans did indeed enjoy their own histories and civilizations, the reasoning went, then what did these societies look like? How did they work? A slew of historians provided compelling answers throughout the late 1970s and 80s. James Axtell’s The European and the Indian, L. Leitch Wright’s The Only Land They Knew, Richard Acquila’s The Iroquois Restoration, and Anthony Wallace’s King of the Delawares: Teedyuscung all substantiated Jennings’ vituperative analysis with cooler and comprehensive ethnographic examinations of various Native societies. The virgin land, which had enjoyed decades of uncontested authority, was quickly reclaimed.
Ethnography, however, has its natural limits. When executed properly, this approach illuminates the deepest intricacies of a hidden culture, but, as a result of its unwavering focus on a culture’s internal workings, it simultaneously tends to ignore the shifting boundaries between distinct cultures. In response to this problem, a group of historians altered the prevailing focus and began to examine the interstices among Native and European cultures.
Richard White’s Middle Ground best embodied this approach. In this path-breaking work, White implicitly argued against Jennings’ declension narrative by documenting the constant cultural, social, and political negotiations that transpired between Native and European cultures in the Ohio River Valley region. With its steady emphasis on the ongoing diplomatic interactions occurring during the years leading up to and including the Seven Years War, White revealed substantial levels of cooperation among Natives and Europeans in their strategic effort to shore up military alliances within a precarious geo-political arena. “Accommodation” soon replaced “invasion” as the pivotal buzzword describing the Native-European relationship. The re-orientation, moreover, finally gave Native Americans something that had long deserved: agency.
James Merrell’s second book, Into the American Woods, threads the needle of these interpretations by providing a balanced look at a heretofore unexplored colonial profession: the “go between.” Go betweens were both Native and European negotiators who trekked into the woods to carry messages and negotiate compromises as representatives of their respective political entities. As Merrell elaborates, “they were the ones who carried the letters, but did not sign and seal them; who memorized the speech on wampum belts, but did not draft it; who translated, but did not speak, at the grand councils; who stood between the tables crowded with colonial and Indian leaders at a treaty banquet to make sure that the liquor and talk flowed freely, but did not join the feast.” (33) These men, more than any other natives or colonists, shared the middle ground. They did so, moreover, out in the woods, away from their homes, and mired in an undefined no-man’s land.
And, as Merrell shows us, they couldn’t stand each other. Fundamental misunderstandings persistently dogged negotiators, and Merrell’s primary aim is to develop systematically the elements of this cultural divide. He begins with the woods themselves, pointing out in an introductory chapter that while “both [groups] counted as woods many of the same lonely stretches of forest and mountain,” they also believed that “the other inhabited those forbidding recesses.” Echoing William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, Merrell further explains that Indians “believed that the woods ought to last forever.” The Europeans, in contrast, “hacked away at the forest, dreaming of the day when the trees would be gone, the land cleared, the very climate and air forever changed.” (27) Burdened by such “fundamentally antithetical ideas of the American woods,” the negotiators found themselves struggling to communicate before they even opened their mouths, swapped gifts, or sat down to eat.
When they did engage in these rituals, confusion first spread like a slow rash, and then exploded. Messages were continually clouded by shoddy translations, linguistic miscues, and inadvertent expressions of unintended meanings. This disconnect may have inspired negotiators to redouble their communicative efforts, but, at the same time, it stoked underlying feelings of distrust. Messages woven into wampum belts, scribbled in pen and paper, improvised verbally, and guarded in diplomatic double entendres, purportedly aimed to support “the general desire to promote trade and avoid war.” (202) Their collective effect, however, was usually to undermine this desire. Merrell writes, “Intercultural communication was plagued by ignorance and folly, fraud and mistrust, cupidity and arrogance; indeed, as time wore on, the interference got worse rather than better.” (202)
Thus an ironic kind of declension, one quite different from Jennings’ version, challenges the “accommodation” of White’s famous middle ground. The tenor of Pennsylvania’s initial relationship with the backcountry Natives was set by the colony’s founder William Penn in the 1680s. As Merrell explains, the general era of peace that prevailed between 1680 and 1750 “lay in a happy conjunction of Penn’s benevolent views on Indians with the conditions his settlers found on their arrival.” (35) Specifically, the Delawares were inclined to embrace the European settlers because they were living in constant fear of the more powerful Iroquois to the northwest. As a result, they showed unusual enthusiasm for Penn’s overt declarations of peace and intercultural cooperation. Penn vocally and repeatedly insisted upon his wish that “we may more largely and freely confer & disscourse.” (35) The Natives, needing Europeans guns (and rum), were anything but restless.
This initial cooperative framework, however, experienced substantial stress as population increase among the Europeans rendered land–and the communication about that land– a point of contention. On the one hand, the Onodaga Indians and Philadelphia leaders signed major treaties in 1732, 1736, and 1742. On the other hand, Pennsylvania’s population exploded from 20,000 to 100,000 between 1701 and 1740, and with this growth came “the colony’s determination to acquire territory.”(176) Indians were soon complaining that, “We are Indians, and don’t wish to be transformed into white men.” But white men, generally insensitive to this concern, only ratcheted up their diplomatic efforts and, according to Merrell, in no time “words went astray as they crossed the frontier.” (205) When the Seven Years’ War commenced, the framework had all but crumbled, with “the usual problems of frontier negotiation” becoming “infinitely more difficult.” By 1754, “peace disappeared beneath a torrent of blood and fire.” The irony, of course, is that increased cultural and diplomatic confusion paralleled the increase in inter-cultural communication. The more Natives and Europeans learned about each other, and the more they worked to communicate, the worse the situation became.
White’s Middle Ground received such critical acclaim in part because he raised the hopeful specter of intercultural cooperation among groups that have been thoroughly pitted against each other throughout American history and culture. Daniel Richter’s Ordeal of the Longhouse and even Merrell’s first book, The Indians’ New World, helped further stoke the optimism. Nevertheless, Into the American Woods hits the breaks of this trend. When I saw Merrell give a paper based on this book in 1997, a member of the audience expressed grave concerns over the negative implications of his argument, and the impact it would undoubtedly have on future scholarship. Merrell nodded, said he fully agreed with her fears, and explained, quite bluntly, that he wasn’t necessarily pleased with what he had found.
Fortunately, Merrell’s sour message is buoyed by his brilliantly fluid and concise prose. Not only does he manage to complicate the historiographical landscape for professional historians, but, at the same time, he has somehow produced a work whose narrative structure makes it an excellent read for lay audiences as well. Few historians can pull this off.