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American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories.

American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories. By Daniel H. Usner, Jr. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. xiv plus 189pp.).

Daniel Usner follows a first book on the frontier exchange economy of the "colonial" Lower Mississippi Valley with a more far-reaching analysis of the function of Indian agency and informal interracial exchanges of microbes, goods, labor, language, and games in the same region from the beginning of European contact through the early twentieth century. His emphasis on Indian agency, and on the frontier as a zone of cultural interaction rather than a racial border, places this work, self-consciously and successfully, at the center of the "newest" Indian history.

Usner begins with a detailed account of the uneven course of French-Natchez relations. Carolinians had familiarized the Natchez with the slave and deerskin trade and the European manufactures it attracted. The French competitively offered them the political partisanship, ceremonial respect, and trade opportunities they had learned to cherish. But the French wanted more than the Carolinians. By 1708, eighty French backwoodsmen lived in the Natchez villages, enjoying ample food supplies and local customs that enjoined premarital sex for profit on young women building their trousseaus. The results mainly discomfited missionaries, who also had little influence in mitigating customs of human sacrifice in this still Mississippian kingdom. The Natchez helped the French build Fort Rosalie (1715) and their head warrior compromised two cases of interracial murder. But when the French proposed that a Natchez village move out so they could move in yet another tobacco plantation, the Natchez plotted rebellion. The 300 sl aves they captured in its course helped them continue attacks on the French and the French-allied Tunicas, but by the early 173 Os, thanks to the Frenchmen's Choctaw allies, surviving Natchez were either slaves in the West Indies or inhabitants of their own towns in the Chickasaw, Creek, or Cherokee nations. Their language and their resistance to exploitation outlasted the nineteenth century.

Usner devotes a chapter to the demographic history of the Lower Mississippi Valley, identifying five main areas and more than two dozen tribes. Epidemics, wars, and enslavement reduced their numbers from 67,000 in 1700 to 22,000 in 1750, but immigration from other tribes, notably the Wichitas in the Red River region, the end of the Chickasaw-Choctaw wars, and growing immunities raised the total to 32,200 in 1775. Even smallpox brought by European soldiers fighting American rebels failed to keep the population of 1800 below 30,000. When the U.S. organized Mississippi Territory in 1798, over 100 Indian towns owned most of the land between the Chattahoochee and the Mississippi and their populations outnumbered those of whites, slaves, and free blacks together. Meanwhile the people experienced some amalgamation of small tribes decimated by disease and war, and more migration, usually for trade advantages, into, within, and outside the area. Most of the movement reflected Indian "agency"--not until the United Sta tes government got into buying millions of acres for thousands of dollars and using most of them to pay off trade debts to Forbes and Company or government "factories," did the notion of involuntary removal arise and arouse opposition. But only the largest tribes--most Creeks, most Choctaws, and the pragmatic Chickasaws, actively opposed and actually removed. "Disappearance" was the successful strategy of choice among the smaller peoples.

The relative slowness with which the French augmented their population and their tobacco and indigo plantations helped make tribesmen major players on this frontier longer than in New England or the Chesapeake. Only with the coming of the Acadians to Louisiana and the English to Natchez after 1763 did the black and white populations grow significantly; only after the invention of the cotton gin, combined with reduction in the market for deerskins, did the numbers become irresistible. During the first two decades of the 19th century, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama became states, and their combined black and white populations overwhelmingly larger than the Indian populations. From the Natchez rebellion forward, the French had tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to prevent military, marital, and market alliances between slaves and Indians; but when slaves states got to legislating they greatly restricted the ability of slaves to trade at all and Indians to sell liquor or brand cattle. Both could suffer death for poisoning a white person or destroying property.

Yet Usner's analysis of both eighteenth and nineteenth century Indian survivals indicates that strategies of using social and economic exchanges between tribes and the larger societies to maintain, symbolically and practically, the separate cultural identities of the tribesmen, succeeded from colonial times through the twentieth century. Even as the deerskin trade declined, Choctaws continued to camp outside Natchez to sell vegetables, baskets, mats, and meat. They and several other tribes moved seasonally to city markets; some men hunted meat for planters while wives picked cotton. The smallscale community exchanges of goods and labor Usner elaborated in his study of the colonial south lived on.

As in 17th century New York and 18th century Charleston, Indians participated in urban development. 19th century New Orleans featured Choctaw women in its public markets. Its principal spectator sport, raquette, resembled Choctaw lacrosse, with a short stick in each hand. The famous teams were African-American, with a few Indian players. Only baseball finally took away their Sunday afternoon spectators.

As the United States belatedly got around to surveying and selling the land it acquired in Lower Mississippi, smaller bands and "tribes" formed seasonal enclaves along rivers, or on the outskirts of cities, or simply "disappeared" into the backcountry. No publicity attended their removals, and 5,000 persons belonging to several tribes remain in Louisiana today. Romantics among the novelists, poets, and painters of the 19th and early 20th centuries treated urban or even neighborly Indians as corrupted by interracial contacts. Usner concludes with a beautiful chapter illustrating that master painters such as Karl Bodmer matter-of-factly documented what they saw--Indians in camp and market, distinctively costumed, solemn but hardly degenerate.

Usner's demographic emphasis makes one wish that he and his editors had been more careful with figures. At various points he gives inconsistent counts of numbers of Natchez, Quapaw, and Caddo warriors. His 35,000 slaves for 1800 not only disputes his assertion of Indian numerical predominance, but greatly exceeds his estimates of slaves for succeeding decades. A bit more attention to the details of the national land system would have dated the $1.25 minimum price to 1820, not 1804, attended to the consistent willingness of Congress to forgive its speculator-debtors, and above all dealt with the question of private land claims in Louisiana. Perhaps Indians could squat so freely for so long in the back country and around major cities because the resolution of those debts and claims took many decades during which no one was sure who owned what--even in New Orleans. There were a lot of squatters in Louisiana.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Young, Mary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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