The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity
One of the most important consequences of the upheaval in the writing of American history that has taken place over the past generation has been the new attention paid to the Indians. A century ago historians of early America scarcely acknowledged their existence. In the opening paragraphs of his essay in the first issue of the American Historical Review in 1895 Frederick Jackson Turner set forth his entire frontier thesis for understanding the origins of the United States, and the Indians had no place in it. For Turner, the New World that the Europeans came to in the seventeenth century was “virgin soil,” an “unexploited wilderness” out of which American distinctiveness was born. Indeed, wrote Turner, it was “the fact of unoccupied territory in America that sets the evolution of American and European institutions in contrast.”1
No historian of early America would write that way anymore. Through the efforts of a squadron of scholars, the Indians have now made their presence felt in early America. During the past several decades works dealing with the native peoples of North America in the colonial period have multiplied dramatically. Since the 1960s the William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in the field of early American history, has increased its publication of articles on Indians five-fold. Some of the best historians in the United States have been turning to the indigenous peoples as a subject of research, and books on Indians in early America have begun winning prestigious prizes.
Some of this recent interest in the native peoples of America has grown out of the natural tendencies of young scholars in the historical profession to look for new and fresh topics for research. Others, like Daniel Richter, see in the history of the Indians an excellent means of challenging “people to stand outside their comfortable… assumptions and to learn unpleasant lessons from their study of the past.” A historian of this sort sees himself or herself as “a critic of culture” whose principal task is “to illuminate conditions of the present by casting a harsh light on previous experience,” something not all that hard to do in the case of the Indians.2
But perhaps most important in explaining this new interest in the Indians of early America have been the changing perspectives that many recent historians have brought to bear on America’s colonial past. Early American historians today are not as interested in explaining the origins of America’s peculiar national character as they used to be. Many of them have lost confidence in the traditional belief that the United States has a collective identity with common origins and have begun to look at early American history from vantage points beyond the nation, seeing in America’s colonial past something other than the beginnings of the United States. Louis Hartz a generation ago saw what such a changed perspective might mean for Americans’ conception of the Indian. The neglect of the Indian, he wrote, derived solely from the “interior perspectives” of historians…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.