David La Vere. The Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers, and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies. Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 2013. 272 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-1090-0.
Reviewed by Matthew Jennings (Middle Georgia State University, Macon)
Published on H-War (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Tracing the Fortunes of War in Early North Carolina
"Even God seemed to hate North Carolina," reads the first sentence of the introduction of David La Vere's fascinating history of the Tuscarora War (p. 3). La Vere follows the assertion with a description of the colony's backwardness, factional strife, harsh disease environment, and lack of prospects for economic success, particularly when compared to its neighbor to the south. While God may or may not have had it in for North Carolina, it is fair to say that the historical profession, with a few notable exceptions, has done the colony no great favors. The study of early North Carolina has lagged far behind that of other regions of English America, prompting one recent chronicler of the colony's history to lament that "historians have been tempted to forget that [it] ever existed at all." The Tuscarora War places the diverse, contentious, and violent history of North Carolina at its center, and in doing so illuminates a dimly understood conflict for a new generation of readers. At the same time, La Vere experiments with a framing device that may inspire future scholars to explore new ways of approaching early America.
In September of 1711, a coalition of Native peoples, numbering in the hundreds and led primarily by Tuscaroras (an Iroquoian-speaking group that constituted the main indigenous power in the piedmont), attacked European colonists near the Neuse River. The initial strike killed at least 140 colonists and captured several dozen more, knocking the fledgling, disorganized colony on its heels. The conflagration stemmed from abusive trade practices, including slave raids, fears of encroachment by colonists, and perhaps Seneca influence in Tuscarora affairs. In the months and years that followed, North Carolina rallied to defeat the Tuscaroras, but only with extensive assistance from South Carolina, whose success in the conflict in turn rested on extensive assistance from its Native allies, primarily Yamasees. North Carolina's victory came at a high price and carried consequences that reverberated within and beyond the colony's borders for years afterward. The basic contours of the conflict have been known to students of colonial history for some time, but the strength of La Vere's work turns on his ability to tell the complicated story of the war in straightforward prose, without sacrificing any complexity. For example, rarely, if ever, did colonial-era "Indian wars" pit exclusively European armies against single Native nations, as one might be led to assume from labels like "the Tuscarora War," "the Yamasee War," and "the Anglo-Cherokee War," just to name a few. But recognizing that a situation is multifarious and nuanced and relaying that to a broad audience are two different things, and La Vere succeeds admirably in the undertaking.
The Tuscarora War is more than a fresh look at this often-overlooked colonial conflict. The book approaches the war through a series of eight intertwined biographies focused on the key players. Some of the personalities are better known and easier for biographers to access than others. Christopher de Graffenried, William Brice, Thomas Pollock, John Barnwell, and James Moore left behind paper trails of varying length and usefulness. In the cases of Native protagonists King Hancock, Core (probably pronounced "Coree") Tom, and King Tom Blount, La Vere borrows from the ethnohistorian's or anthropologist's toolkit when he combines sensitive readings of outsiders' documents with ethnographic accounts and oral tradition to fill in the gaps. Not surprisingly, the portrayals of the Europeans are more fully realized, but that is a reflection of the source material more than any shortcoming on the historian's part. What the treatments of the Native men lack in sharp detail, La Vere makes up with rich historical context that takes into account the diversity of Native experiences in the piedmont region and beyond. The book makes a significant contribution to the study of war in early America. In describing Tuscaroras', and other Native peoples', ideas about warfare, tactics, and especially the use of fortifications, La Vere is on the cutting edge of the study of early modern conflict, and far beyond the stereotypes about Native warfare that plagued many earlier histories. In its inventive use of multiple biography and attention to Native cultures of violence, The Tuscarora War provides models for students of early American warfare and early American history to follow.
Given the amount of archival research and careful use of published primary sources, La Vere's work is likely to be the most detailed account of the Tuscarora War that we will have access to for some time, and that fact makes The Tuscarora War a singularly valuable achievement. The historical literature associated with the conflict is, for the most part, dated and scattered, though a glance at the bibliography indicates that La Vere is conversant with his scholarly predecessors. Professors looking to shore up or expand their lecture materials, or for an accessible yet sophisticated narrative to assign to undergraduate classes in colonial history, southern history, or Native American history will find this book tremendously useful.
. Bradford J. Wood, "Thomas Pollock and the Making of an Albemarle Plantation World," in Creating and Contesting Carolina: Proprietary Era Histories, ed. Michelle LeMaster and Bradford J. Wood (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 211-33, quotation on 212.
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Matthew Jennings. Review of La Vere, David, The Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers, and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies.
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