An American Tragedy

The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities

by Colin G. Calloway
Cambridge University Press, 327 pp., $59.95; $16.95 (paper)

The American Revolution in Indian Country is an important and frustrating book, at once original and derivative, scholarly and polemical, subtle and obvious. It is a searing account of the impact of the Revolution on Indian life. The prologue, conclusion, and epilogue are highly readable, broadly interpretative, and moving; as independent essays they form a blistering indictment of the destructive effect of the Revolutionary War on the native peoples and of the racism of the nation that emerged from it. But the main, substantive chapters of the book are choked with detail and intricate narratives, meticulously glued to the documented sources and the innumerable writings on the subject. One has to struggle through dense and tangled episodes—of tribal factionalism, divided allegiances, microscopic shifting alliances, skirmishes, raids, captivities, devastations, and atrocities. Some of the complex accounts of borderland warfare during the Revolution throw clear light on major historical developments, but some prove to be dead ends—efforts that got nowhere and made little difference to the overall story of the Revolution’s impact on the native American population, or vice versa.

And yet for all the bewildering maze of the details of guerrilla warfare, microscopic factionalism, and forest diplomacy, the book is a real contribution to the history of the Revolution—though not, perhaps, only for the reasons Professor Calloway explains.

Wisely, he sets the book up as a discussion of the problem of context. His detailed narratives are “small patches of a huge tapestry,” and that tapestry “must be fully pieced together before we can begin to appreciate the experiences of all the participants in the American Revolution or understand the full meaning of the story of this nation’s birth.” By this he means to tell us, once again—it is no news—that “women, backcountry farmers, and ordinary laborers, as well as African slaves” were not liberated from the traditional social and legal constraints of their eighteenth-century world by the Revolution. And his “small patch” of the tapestry—the devastation of the lives of the eastern Indians—is no news either. But no one before Calloway has attempted to cover the whole subject, to explain in detail precisely what the Revolution meant to the native peoples, and to place their experiences within the “huge tapestry”—the full story—of Revolutionary history.

Professor Calloway, the author of authoritative books on the Indians of northern New England, seems peculiarly well situated to view the complicated, and largely tragic, story in an exceptionally broad, even global, setting. For, as he tells the reader at the start of the book, he is a British citizen living in the United States (he is professor of history at the University of Wyoming), and his book

is a non-Indian view of Indian history, and a non-American view of American history, written by an expatriate Briton who holds no brief for British colonialism but who believes that distance and objectivity can be as valuable as “inside information” in writing good history.

Still, perhaps happily for him, the British—or at least their government—come out…

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