Native Americans and the Middle Ground

Where Historians Disagree – Native Americans and "the Middle Ground"

For many generations, historians chronicling the westward movement of European settlement in North America incorporated Native Americans into the story largely as weak and inconvenient obstacles swept aside by the inevitable progress of "civilization." Indians were presented either as murderous savages or as relatively docile allies of white people, but rarely as important actors of their own. Francis Parkman, the great nineteenth-century American historian, described Indians as a civilization "crushed" and "scorned" by the march of European powers in the New World. Many subsequent historians departed little from his assessment.

In more recent years, historians have challenged this traditional view by examining how white civilization victimized the tribes. Gary Nash's Red, White, and Black (1974) was one of the first important presentations of this approach, and Ramon Guttierez's When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went (1991) was a more recent contribution. They, and other scholars, rejected the optimistic, progressive view of white triumph over adversity and presented, instead, a picture of conquest that affected both the conqueror and the conquered and did not bring to an end their influence on one another.

More recently, however, a new view of the relationship between the peoples of the Old and New Worlds has emerged. It sees Native Americans and Euro-Americans as uneasy partners in the shaping of a new society in which, for a time at least, both were a vital part. Richard White's influential 1991 book, The Middle Ground, was among the first important statements of this view. White examined the culture of the Great Lakes Region in the eighteenth century, in which Algonquin Indians created a series of complex trading and political relationships with French, English, and American settlers and travelers in the region.

In this "borderland" between the growing European settlements in the East and the still largely intact Indian civilizations farther west, a new kind of hybrid society emerged in which many cultures intermingled. James Merrell's Into the American Woods (1999) contributed further to this new view of collaboration by examining the world of negotiators and go-betweens along the western Pennsylvania frontier in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like White, he emphasized the complicated blend of European and Native American diplomatic rituals that allowed both groups to conduct business, make treaties, and keep the peace.

Daniel Richter extended the idea of a "middle ground" further in two important books: The Ordeal of the (Rare Books Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Longhouse (1992) and Facing East from Indian Country (2001). Richter demonstrates that the Iroquois Confederacy was an active participant in the power relationships in the Hudson River basin; and in his later book, he tells the story of European colonization from the Native American perspective, revealing how western myths of "first contact" such as the story of John Smith and Pocahontas look entirely different when seen through the eyes of Native Americans, who remained in many ways the more powerful of the two societies in the seventeenth century.

How did these important collaborations collapse? What happened to the "middle ground"? Over time, the delicate partnerships along the frontiers of white settlement gave way to the sheer numbers of Europeans (and in some places Africans) who moved westward. Joyce Chaplin's Subject Matter (2001) argues as well that Old World Americans at first admired the natives as a kind of natural nobility until European diseases ravaged the tribes, helping to strengthen the sense of superiority among Europeans that had been a part of their view of Indians from the beginning. Jill Lepore's The Name of War (1998) describes how the violence of King Philip's War in seventeenth-century New England helped transform English views of the tribes both because of the white victory over the Indians and because of their success in turning this victory into a rationale for the moral superiority of Europeans (who, in reality, had used as much "savagery" against the natives as the natives had used against them) by portraying the Indians as brutal, uncivilized people. As the pressures of white settlement grew, as the Indian populations weakened as a result of disease and war, and as the relationship between the tribes and the European settlers grew more and more unequal, the cultural "middle ground" that for many decades characterized much of the contact between the Old and New Worlds gradually disappeared. By the time historians began seriously chronicling this story in the late nineteenth century, the Indian tribes had indeed become the defeated, helpless "obstacles" that they portrayed. But for generations before, the relationship between white Americans and Native Americans was a much less unequal one than it later became. - Review of Lepore's The Name of War

Read the above review, originally published in the Chicago Tribune Book Review on December 20, 1998. The reviewer notes the difficulty Lepore (and other historians and researchers) face when attempting to write history from the perspective of a people who left few records. This writer terms that an "interpretive dilemma" and goes on to discuss the additional problem of knowing how the story ends. In what ways would you conduct research and write about the "Middle Ground," considering these types of pitfalls and limitations? — Project Gutenberg's reprint of Mary Rowlandson's captivity story

The captivity story has been, for many generations, one of the most intriguing types of primary sources for the study of Native American history, and Mary Rowlandson's is one of the most well-known. The site above offers a full reprint of the story. Skim through it and focus on Rowlandson's descriptions of her captors. Do you think these types of stories contributed to the earliest historical conceptions of the interactions of Native Americans and European settlers as described in your text? If so, in what way? If not, why not?