Richard W. Pointer

A Race Doomed to Recede and Disappear

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Native Americans and the Early Republic

Native Americans and the Early Republic

Native Americans and the Early Republic, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert, University Press of Virginia, 2000, 370 pp.; $49.50, hardcover; $17.50, paper

As the American Revolution wound down, J. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur sounded a death knell for more than British colonial rule. Indians, he wrote, appeared to be "a race doomed to recede and disappear before the superior genius of the Europeans."[1] Ever since, most of us in the United States have been inclined to agree. On the face of it, Crevecoeur's prediction has seemed accurate, at least with respect to the course, if not the cause, of Indian history. Our history books and movies have told us that in the hundred years after the Revolution, Indian lands and populations got swallowed up, sometimes in small bits, other times in large chunks. As the nation grew, Natives became increasingly removed, literally and figuratively, from the centers of American culture. Once out of sight, it was easy to put them out of mind. And that's pretty much where they've remained, even for American historians. Today some of us, depending on where we live, get occasional glimpses of Native Americans and their part in America's past. But the disappearing act that Crevecouer forecast appears to have been realized.

Yet appearances can be deceiving. And in this case, as with Crevecoeur's more famous prophecy of a single American identity arising out of the interplay of multiple religious and ethnic groups, history has proven to be more complex and less certain than the Frenchman anticipated. At least that is the conclusion I have been coming to over the last decade.

It turns out that Crevecoeur was not a very good prophet (in any sense of that word), but he did help formulate a powerful fiction about the place, or lack thereof, of Native Americans in the emerging republic. White Americans in the late eighteenth century were inclined to associate Indians with a colonial past and not with a national future. They envisioned their fledgling nation as a "new world without Indians." Their nineteenth-century successors concurred. Presidents, pioneers, and professors relegated Natives more and more to the margins of American life, so much so that by the twentieth century it became difficult to imagine that Indians had ever been anywhere else.

That was certainly where I found them when I began graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1970s. My study of American history, including early America, caught sight of Indians only when I looked at the periphery. I proceeded to write a dissertation and a book about eighteenth-century religious diversity without giving Native Americans a second thought. What I did know about Indians at the time, I had learned mostly from a fellow graduate student, James Merrell. Jim was tirelessly working away on the Catawba Indians of the Carolinas. By the time his book on them appeared (1989),[2] he had convinced me that it was time to "dis-cover" Crevecoeur's fiction and to re-place Indians within American history. Many other historians arrived independently at the same conclusion, with the result that we are in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of scholarship intended to do just that.

A case in point is Native Americans and the Early Republic. The contributors to this outstanding volume are collectively persuaded that accounts of the early national period must return Indians to the central places they occupied within American life down to the 1840s. Not surprisingly, Jim Merrell states this most boldly in an afterword that adeptly links the volume's ten preceding essays and sets out an ambitious research agenda for Native American historians. Over the past 15 years, Merrell's voice has been the sharpest and clearest among a new generation of Indian historians insisting that Natives be seen as major actors rather than bit players in the drama of colonial American history. Now he and his coauthors extend that argument to the first decades of the new republic.

Merrell suggests that however much Crevecoeur expected and others wanted Indians to go away (literally or culturally) in the 1780s, they hadn't and wouldn't for another two generations. Most of the continent north of the Rio Grande was still "Indian Country"; vast stretches of land remained under Native control, as they had been before the arrival of the first Europeans.

Even more telling, Indians retained a presence almost everywhere whites lived in post-Revolutionary America. Face-to-face contacts were far more commonplace in the late eighteenth century than we might imagine. Citizens of the new nation were accustomed to seeing and interacting with Natives. That would no longer be the case four or five decades later. By the 1830s, Indians had become little more than a novelty or a curiosity to most East Coast residents. What happened in the intervening years to bring about such a dramatic change is far less clear than it once seemed.

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