Daniel K. Richter. Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. viii + 315 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4500-4.
Reviewed by Jeremy George (University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-War (April, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
In Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America, Daniel K. Richter examines European and Native American conceptions of these three subjects. He argues that trade, land, and power were always intrinsically linked, but Europeans and Native Americans fundamentally differed in their understandings of the connections between the three. The work is a collection of eleven semi-independent essays; most--but not all--of the essays and ideas featured here have previously been published as journal articles or chapters of Richter’s earlier books. Richter claims that this essay compilation will “sum up a phase in my scholarly career,” a career that has spanned three decades and has established him as one of the preeminent historians of early America (p. 1). Scholars acquainted with Richter’s work will be familiar with many of his arguments, but Trade, Land, Power also deserves to be judged on its own merits. Richter has organized his ideas around a unifying theme that helps bring together these various essays and allows him to make a compelling case for the enduring significance of trade, land, and power to both Europeans and Native Americans.
Richter organizes his work into two sections. In the first, he examines Native American understandings of trade, land, and power. He demonstrates that for Native Americans, trade was not simply about acquiring material possessions; instead, it was the relationships and alliances trade fostered that ultimately mattered. Such acts as giving presents or food to the colonists were more than simple exchanges of commodities; these acts indicated power by demonstrating one’s control of trade. As trade was thus inherently political, and not simply economical, Richter is able to show that while trade may have ultimately had negative long-term consequences for many Native Americans, in the short term Native Americans actually demonstrated political power by controlling trade with the Europeans. In one of the more fascinating essays (chapter 2), “Brothers, Scoundrels, Metal-Makers: Dutch Constructions of Native American Constructions of the Dutch,” Richter uses Dutch records of Native Americans to gain insight both into how natives viewed Europeans and how Europeans interpreted native views in the context of their own culture. Richter is then able to show how Native Americans understood the Dutch--simultaneously as “brothers, scoundrels, and metal-makers,” and perhaps even as “not people at all” (p. 50). However, he also uses this to show how the Dutch constructed these understandings of natives to criticize their own culture by contrasting perceived failings with the “noble savage” idea.
In the second section, Richter examines European understandings of trade, land, and power. In chapter 7, Richter critically analyzes William Penn’s famous “Letter to the Kings of the Indians”; he argues that however sincere Penn may have been in his desire for friendship and honorable dealings with the natives, he was ultimately most concerned with land. Penn’s insistence on buying land from the natives was perhaps less altruistic than many historians have assumed; Richter demonstrates that Penn’s desire for a legally obtained title to the land would prove helpful in land disputes with Maryland. Richter also shows how struggles over land use and ownership played a crucial role in the Seven Years’ War (chapter 8). English land claims and “purchases”--often blatantly fraudulent, as incidents like the “walking purchase” demonstrate--had the unintentional effect of fracturing Native American societies, eventually leading many to take up arms with the French.
Throughout the work, Richter demonstrates that European colonists frequently ignored or disregarded Native American understandings of the relationship of trade and power. However, he avoids glorifying or demonizing either side; instead he demonstrates how deeply ingrained ideas regarding trade and understandings of land ownership influenced Indian-European relationships from the seventeenth century all the way into the nineteenth. In his last chapter, Richter shows that even in the early nineteenth century, and even among those, such as the Quakers, who sympathized with the natives, whites remained unable to escape their inherent biases. Misunderstandings about native work habits and gendered division of labor were the result of preexisting beliefs of Native American cultural inferiority.
Richter does an excellent job of revealing native agency without romanticizing the relationships between Europeans and Native Americans. He makes clear that trade ultimately had negative consequences for natives; some historians, including James Axtell and Francis Jennings, have emphasized these negative effects of Euro-native trade, and Richter acknowledges that “in the long run” they are certainly correct (p. 55). However, this was not necessarily inevitable, and Richter shows that in the short term, both Native Americans and Europeans played important roles in establishing complicated and often tenuous relationships made more difficult by contrasting understandings of the meaning of trade and land. He, as he has throughout his career, successfully tells a story “in which Indian people are central actors rather than peripheral victims” (p. 68). While much of this work has appeared in print before, Trade, Land, Power stands on its own by bringing together many of Richter’s insights into one volume and conceptualizing those ideas around a unifying theme that reveals how Native Americans and Europeans had fundamentally different understandings of trade, land, and power.
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Jeremy George. Review of Richter, Daniel K., Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America.
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