Apologies to the Iroquois

In 1700 the native peoples, whom the Europeans called Indians, demographically dominated the North American continent north of the Rio Grande. If we are to believe the best estimates, they numbered at least 1.6 million, nearly five times the 330,000 or so Europeans and Africans huddled along the Atlantic coast. A century later, by 1800, these proportions had been radically reversed: the inhabitants of North America with European and African ancestry had multiplied dramatically since 1700 and now numbered 5.5 million, over five times the number of remaining indigenous peoples, nine out of ten of whom now lived west of the Mississippi, with most of the eastern Indians having become the victims of war and especially disease.

These startling demographic statistics form the basic setting for understanding European–Indian relations in eighteenth-century America. They also form the background for Alan Taylor’s extraordinary book about white–Indian relations on the northern borderland at the end of the eighteenth century.

Taylor, a professor of American history at the University of California at Davis, who is among the most distinguished American historians, has written before about the northern borderlands of America. His first book, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors (1990), dealt with the violent protests of settlers against rich and powerful land speculators in the frontier territory of Maine during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His next book, William Cooper’s Town, which won the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1996, was a sensitive study of the great eighteenth-century land speculator who founded Cooperstown in upstate New York and was the father of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.

Taylor is obviously fascinated with borderlands, which are nearly as important a subject for historians these days as that of Indians. He has turned his remarkable gifts for historical recreation to studying the complicated ways in which the various Indian nations of the Iroquois, the rapidly growing numbers of white settlers, and the different governments of New York, the United States, and Great Britain all interacted and clashed during the late eighteenth century in the territory of the Six Nations of the Iroquois—the Mohawks, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas.

During the past thirty years or so the Indians have become increasingly central to early American historical scholarship, especially to the period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Not that the Indians have been ignored by most historians, but most of the earlier historical studies were written from the white settlers’ point of view and dealt with what Indian scholars now call the “policies and attitudes” of the whites toward the Indians. The Indians were important, but only for their part in the history of white society; indeed, the native peoples often became simply a means by which the advantages and deficiencies of white civilization could be measured. Some distinguished historians even ignored them altogether. Frederick Jackson Turner, in an essay on the early American West published in the first …

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