Warpaths: Invasions of North America, 1613-1765

By Ian K. Steele. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. 282. Cloth $25.00. Paper $16.95.)

Over the past several decades, the field of military history has been subjected to an intense and often harsh reappraisal within the historical profession. Prior to the explosion of social history in the late 1960s and early 1970s, military history, alongside its traditional cousin, political history, was the crux of most American historical scholarship. However, the emerging social historians of the 1970s, seeking to uncover the experience of average Americans, cast hefty dispersions against the typical biases of old military history, which too often lent itself to failings of the "great men" theory of history. Under the reproachful guard of these social historians, much of what once constituted scholarly military history gradually disappeared. In its place appeared the popular military history which is so prevalent today. Aimed at the public audience rather than the historical community, this hybrid of military history has only served to further weaken the credibility of the military field within the discipline. Yet, despite the objections of the social historians and their successors, the cultural historians, military history , once given up for dead, is making a comeback. Historians have begun to question the restraints placed upon military history, and have found that by casting aside the relevance of violent conflict, social historians have ignored a major element in the history of the American nation.[1] The military history currently being produced, however, is quite dissimilar from that which once dominated the historical profession. Blending the traditional elements of military history with the best tenants of social and cultural history, this "new" military history intertwines aspects of the various sub-genres of history in an effort to display what revolutionary historian Don Higginbotham has termed "the wider dimensions of conflict."[2]

Ian Steele's Warpaths: Invasions of North America is representative of such a work. Forging the unlikely marriage of ethnohistory and military history, Steele offers a tantalizing new interpretation of the colonial settlement of the North American continent. Primary to his study is the complex relationship between the European invaders and the Native American population, or Amerindians as Steele refers to them. Steele focuses his energies on dispelling the stereotypical versions of colonial American history, clearly illustrating that North America was neither an uninhabited expanse discovered by the Europeans nor a Garden of Eden, where Amerindian nations dwelt in perfect harmony alongside each other in a land of plenty until the arrival of the European invaders, whose voracious appetite for land and wealth drove the Amerindians from their peaceful habitation and forever destroyed their pristine paradise. What Steele calls "an invitation to rethink a major aspect of early North American History," (preface) is in essence an authoritative and essential reinterpretation of the collision of fragmented cultures.

As ethnohistory implies, racial considerations are of vital importance to Steele's interpretation. Steele argues that the relationship between the white Europeans and the native peoples of North America, along with the difficulties and violence associated with their interaction, have been in the past oversimplified to considerations of white versus red, European against Indian. Such oversimplification along racial lines has not been significantly challenged, as it remains an obvious realization that European colonists did fight the native populations for control of the continent. However, implicit within such an oversimplification is the belief that it was a united front of Amerindians which opposed European encroachment, a concept of racial opposition which does not hold true under Steele's examination.

Steele's primary objection to the racial opposition mold is his assertion that Amerindians were never united in opposition to the colonists. For that matter, neither were the European invaders until after the American Revolution. Neither group was able to set aside longstanding differences and dislikes with one another in order to oppose the enemy in unison. A Critical question asked by historians for over a century centers upon how such a relatively small number of European invaders could have defeated the various native peoples of North America, who enjoyed a considerable numerical superiority. Numerous explanations have been espoused, ranging from the technological superiority of the Europeans, in the form of firearms and tools, to disease and biological warfare. Steele does not seek to deny the importance of technology or the biological ramifications of disease, but he does assert that these factors were not the primary reasons that the Amerindians lost their long struggle for North America. As Steele deftly illustrates, Amerindians, armed with their traditional bows and arrows, were often able to defeat Europeans equipped with matchlocks and snaphances. Similarly, disease, which devastated many Amerindian communities, failed to significantly weaken the fighting capacity of native warriors to the point that they were outnumbered by the Europeans.

The Europeans were able to conquer the Amerindians, in Steele's estimation, principally because of the natives' inability to unite. Steele convincingly shows that the Amerindians clung to traditional rivalries and maintained bitter enmities with each other which were strikingly similar to those of their European counterparts. Such disunity proved to be their downfall. As the colonists developed trade relations with the native populations, Amerindian rivalries were intensified by the competition for European goods and supplies. The natives adopted the use of the European musket, only to then fall slave to the whites' monopoly of gunpowder and ammunition. As the Europeans extended their web of dependence, the Amerindians engaged in wars of conquest of their own. s the European colonists went to war with one another for the right to possess North America, the Amerindians were fighting wars among themselves for the right to trade away their natural resources to the highest European bidder. Some Amerindian cultures withered away and died before the dual onslaught of the Europeans and their own native rivals. Others, most notably the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, were able to prosper and grow powerful, even taking on imperialistic aspirations of their own. As Steele reveals, the Iroquois survived and prospered during the colonial era because they adhered to the principles of union. Ironically, their own confederacy would eventually unravel and succumb to the perils of disunion during the American Revolution.

Race then degenerates into a secondary factor in the wars of the Amerindians and the Europeans. As Steele summarizes, "neither Amerindians nor Europeans were racist enough before 1765 to put aside pre-existing enmities and unite against the strangers" (preface). The primary factor was not race but competition, both for trade and for survival. Such primal competition most always manifests itself in the form of war. Much had been made by previous historians of the European use of Amerindian allies in their wars against one another in North America, but little attention has been paid to the efforts of Amerindians to employ the Europeans in their own conflicts as well. Few historians have recognized Amerindian agency, ignoring the often shrewd diplomacy by which Amerindians sought to cement alliances with the Europeans which would benefit their own interests. Such a revelation is hardly consistent with the stereotypical version of the poor Amerindians being duped out of their land and goods by the clever European traders. It remains true that Amerindians sometimes made poor decisions in their effort to manipulate the Europeans, which in some instances even seem foolish, but the fundamental importance of Steele's assertion is that they were active participants in their own fate. They fought the European invaders with all the resources available to them, made trade agreements and alliances which they felt were beneficial to their people, and canceled or broke such arrangements when they no longer served their purposes. The binding issue which has fueled the "poor Indian myth" for so long is the simple realization that the Amerindians lost their struggle. Their inability to unite, until it was too late, against a seemingly endless wave of European settlers, their over-dependence upon European trade goods, and, in many cases, their poor diplomatic decisions ultimately cost them dearly and allowed the Europeans to defeat them.

In focusing his interpretation on the wars of colonial North America, Steele has by necessity produced a work of military history, but has merged it with both ethnohistory and social/cultural history. Too often modern historians seek to analyze and discuss the causes and results of major wars without examining the repercussions brought on by the war itself, even though it is the actual fighting which often alters the fundamental causes of the war and forges the most lasting results. War represents a violent extension of human interaction, coming to pass when other means of appeasement or reconciliation have failed. It is the ultimate means of subjugation. This point is very evident in the European invasion of North America chronicled by Steele. Initial European attempts at colonization failed, especially in the South, as the Europeans, despite the superior weaponry and the ramifications of disease, were unable to withstand violent Amerindian aggression. As colonization efforts became more militant in nature, the Europeans gained an equal footing and eventually were able to shift the advantage to their side through a favorable balance of trade with the Amerindians. The history of Amerindian-European relations during the colonial period is a history of war and violence, which Steele brings home with blistering clarity. Perhaps the most succinct summarization of this point is made by Steele himself: "It is disturbing to recognize that modern North America was established amid such violence, but this sobering realization is better than accepting sanitized myths that make modern levels of violence seem like moral degradation from some peaceful colonial or pre-colonial "cadia"(preface). In retrospect, Steele's work represents the best which the new military history has to offer.

--- Daniel P. Barr
Courtesy of History Reviews OnLine

  1. See, for example, Maris Vinovskis, ed., Toward a Social History of the American Civil War: Exploratory Essays (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), and Don Higginbotham. "The New Military History: Its Practitioners and Practices," in David A. Charters, Marc Milner, and J. Brent Wilson, eds., Military History and the Military Profession (Westport, CN: Praeger, 1992), 131-145.
  2. Don Higginbotham, War and Society in Revolutionary America: The Wider Dimensions of Conflict (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988).

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