Monday, March 21, 2011

Our Savage Neighbors

I can't think of many nonfiction books that were so gruesome and depressing that I deliberately quit reading them, but I almost did that halfway through Peter Silver's Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008). So it's not for everyone.

Most of the book is a close and careful reading of what people wrote and said about the ongoing Indian guerrilla wars in Pennsylvania and nearby colonies from about 1750 to 1785 -- so it will be of interest to anyone with ancestors or relatives in that unprecedentedly diverse and turbulent society of English, Germans, Irish, Indians, and other groups.

Silver draws many interesting and provocative ideas from this material, among them:

  • Diversity itself, he finds, did not lead to mutual tolerance and understanding -- indeed, often the opposite as people reacted against their neighbors. However, having an outside enemy sometimes did. {xviii-xix}
  • Even a few people who were willing to use violence had inordinate power to shape events. Their actions often set off a chain of revenge that led to major changes and wars, as in the case of the Paxton boys and the 1782 genocidal massacre of pacifist Christian Indians by white Americans at Gnadenhütten in what is now Tuscarawas County, Ohio. {xxv-xxvi, 265ff.}
  • Racial prejudice as we know it played very little role on the white side of the Indian wars of the 1700s (racism as we know it was not invented until the following century). {294ff.} More important were fear and greed for land.
  • "Somehow, out of such unpromising beginnings, one of history's most self-consciously tolerant societies was made. The idea of 'the white people' may have helped some people to feel greater sympathetic identification with other Europeans -- even as it made a few, like the Quakers, into cultural villains, and drove up negative feelings toward all Indians." {xxiii}

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