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Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783.

Usner's book effectively translates the complex history of the Lower Mississippi Valley in the first century of European settlement into a coherent story. He is one of the few historians to tackle this particular region, and after reading his book, one knows why so few historians have ventured there. The region was not an important colony from the perspective of the colonizers. It produced little wealth at great pains. Instead of being ignored for its economic marginality, the region was so easy to give up that it became a political ping-pong ball among the major European players. The constantly shifting political identity of the region makes for a complicated history. The "Indians, Settlers, and Slaves" of the book's title only captures some of the region's diversity. The Indians were from many different political and ethnic groups. "Settlers" refers to the French mostly, but applies to the Spanish and British claims to the area as well as German farmers and Swiss soldiers. Slaves included Africans and Indians. Usner's aim is to show how the people of the Lower Mississippi Valley interacted in a common local economy, which developed from a confluence of Indian, African, and European traditions.

The organization of the book reflects Usner's efforts to understand how this regional economy worked in the midst of changing political allegiances and diverse cultural backgrounds. The first four chapters give a history of the region from the initial French settlement at Biloxi Bay in 1699 to 1783, when the Treaty of Paris led to one of the many political realignments affecting the region. Usner argues that the "frontier exchange economy" continued to function despite changes in the colony's political identity. The last four chapters develop different aspects of this frontier exchange economy: economic activities that provided subsistence and produced export crops like tobacco and indigo; food exchanges and the emergence of a regional cuisine; the soldiers and boatmen whose labor connected the colony in terms of defense and transportation; and the deerskin trade, the major economic activity of the area.

The book is most interesting in its discussion of how Indians, Africans, and Europeans all contributed knowledge and skills to a common economic community. To survive in their new environment, European settlers relied on Indian expertise in agriculture and hunting. Slaves imported from Africa brought new foods - okra, for instance - as well as specialized skills in agriculture and herding. In turn, Indians borrowed from Europeans. Indians traded deerskins for livestock. The deerskins went overseas to be sold in European markets, while European cattle, horses, and pigs were incorporated in Indian villages.

My only criticisms of the book have to do with wanting to know more. For instance, Usner suggests that food exchange was a factor in African and Indian marginalization within the regional economy. Because European settlers had aspirations for more easily attained wealth, they depended on others for food. While this gave slaves and Indians some economic advantage, food production was ultimately not very profitable. Usner hints at this, but the process of marginalization and changing power relations within the regional economy remain intriguing, yet undeveloped, issues. I also wanted to know more about the regional economy before European settlement. By beginning with the French arrival, Usner implies that the "frontier exchange economy" was the outcome of European settlement. He points to many ways in which Indian trading patterns shaped the evolving regional economy, but limits his discussion to cultural practices. He shows, for example, that Europeans and Africans adopted a native trading language and ceremonial gift-giving that accompanied trade. But were there also established trade routes, trade items, and trading relationships in the regional economy before European settlement that influenced Indian, European, and African interaction?

Overall, Usner's research is an important addition to the literature on colonial economic development and will no doubt lead to further research into this region's history. Throughout the book, he draws on the experience of colonial British America, especially the south, and French Canada for insight into the nature of economic activity in the Lower Mississippi Valley. As in other regions, the colonial economy emerged from a myriad of cultural exchanges, but unlike other regions, the Lower Mississippi Valley's comparative lack of a rich staple export led to a more diverse regional economy.
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Author:Shoemaker, Nancy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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