Jeffrey Ostler. Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 544 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-21812-1.
Reviewed by Gregory D. Smithers (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Published on H-AmIndian (August, 2019)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
American Settler Colonialism and Its History of Genocide
Surviving Genocide is the first volume in a projected two-volume series that revisits historical debates about genocide in US history. Historian Jeffrey Ostler focuses on the eastern half of the United States in this engagingly written and thoroughly researched book. In fact, Surviving Genocide is a triumph of historical synthesis and incisive scholarly analysis. In eleven well-conceived chapters, Ostler reminds readers of the often deadly intentions and consequences of US settler colonial expansion between the late eighteenth and the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
Ostler’s analysis builds on a generation of interdisciplinary scholarship that frames settler colonialism around the logic of “elimination.” Scholars such as Patrick Wolfe, Cole Harris, and Lorenzo Veracini have revealed the colonial structures that made—and make—the colonizers’ territorial dispossession of Native nations and violent efforts to eliminate Indigenous people possible. In expanding on this scholarship, Ostler asks how the United States justified an ethic of extermination. At the same time, Ostler’s analysis is not one-dimensional; he gives readers clear insights into the thinking of Native people by carefully analyzing their words and actions. The dynamism of Ostler’s analysis amounts to a compelling case for how Native leaders recognized exterminatory threats to their people and the emotional turmoil that they must surely have felt as they struggled to devise military and diplomatic strategies to survive the physical and psychological terror of settler colonialism. Dragging Canoe, the famed Cherokee chief, highlighted this point in 1776 when he linked the rapid contraction in Cherokee landholdings to the extermination efforts against his people.
The narrative arc of Surviving Genocide will be familiar to readers who know the history of what became the United States. Ostler reacquaints us with colonial invaders like de Soto, surveys the genocidal violence that the Puritans visited upon the Pequots, and reframes the impact of the Seven Years’ War throughout Indian Country. Indeed, the latter four decades of the eighteenth century proved both deadly and disruptive to Native people, a point emphasized by Ostler’s careful presentation of demographic data. This is also highlighted in how colonizers raped Native women and girls, contributed to the spread of disease, initiated explicitly genocidal attacks on Native communities—evidenced in the violence perpetrated by the Paxton boys in Pennsylvania in the early 1760s, the Gnadenhutten massacre, and the atrocities at The Glaize during the 1790s. Little wonder Native people saw in the territorially expansive American republic a people determined to exterminate Native communities throughout the eastern half of North America.
One of the many strengths of Surviving Genocide is Ostler’s careful rereading of the words and actions of the United States’ founding generation. He grounds this analysis by reminding us of key landmarks in North American legal and political history—the 1763 Proclamation, the Quebec Act, and the Northwest Ordinance, to name just three—and weaves the genocidal words and actions of American colonizers into the fabric of this larger history. If the United States was founded as a white man’s republic, its moral core was formed by the zeal of its citizens and their leaders to exterminate Native people. There is no shortage of evidence to support this argument. Ostler correctly presents Daniel Boone as an invader of the Cumberland Gap, highlights the genocidal intentions of George Rogers Clark’s Illinois campaign, and reveals how Native Americans viewed George Washington as an agent of extermination. And Thomas Jefferson does not escape Ostler’s attention, either. Indeed, Jefferson’s correspondence with his political and military allies is clear about his desire to see Native Americans removed from their eastern homelands, or exterminated.
It was not only political elites who expressed genocidal intentions toward Native people. Ostler demonstrates that exterminatory attitudes existed among all classes of white society. For example, when noted Indian killer Michael Cresap led Pennsylvania settlers against Shawnees and Delawares on the Ohio River, Cresap was unequivocal in his intentions: “put every Indian he mett with on the River to Death” (p. 50).
The genocidal attitudes and actions of US citizens were in accord with the political, legal, and economic structures being put into place by America’s founding generation. Ostler is therefore right to question the notion that US Indian policy revolved around a discourse of “civilization” during the 1790s and the first decade of the nineteenth century. Such commitments were superficial at best. Henry Knox, who is often seen as one of the principle architects of assimilative Indian policies, revealed his true feelings toward Indigenous communities when he used the notion of “just war” to rationalize the killing of “banditti” Indians (p. 99).
From the Gulf South to the Ohio River Valley and Great Lakes, exterminatory intentions informed US expansion. For example, Oster makes a compelling case for the genocidal intentions of American military forces against the Red Stick Creeks during the War of 1812. In other words, long before Andrew Jackson was swept to power and entered the White House, US settler colonialism was committed to the removal, cultural destruction, or physical extermination of Native Americans. What Jackson brought to the presidency was a populist zeal that was energized by anti-Indian racism.
Ostler is clear about the devasting cultural and physical consequences that the removal era had for Native people. Between 1830 and 1850, he calculates that approximately 88,000 Native people were coercively removed from their eastern homelands, of which 14-19 percent perished on the forced journey into the West. Indian removal constituted a genocide on a mass scale. In its intent and outcomes, removal fragmented cultures, frayed kinship systems, and precipitating the deaths of thousands.
In recent years historians have made some curious claims about the removal era and genocide in US history. One historian has argued that removal only impacted Native people in the Southeast, while another contends that “ethnic cleansing” more accurately frames the history of the United States. The former argument is factually wrong; the latter relies on a willful misreading of the historical record and a naïve belief that “moral restraint” prevented genocide from staining the republic’s history. Ostler’s meticulous research and careful analysis reveal the flaws in these arguments. Surviving Genocide therefore joins other recent works by historians such as Benjamin Madley's 2017 An American Genocide in viewing massacres and Indian removal less as anomalies in American history and instead situate them as historical examples of a larger, unfolding genocidal past that proved foundational to the formation and expansion of the United States.
. Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018); Gary Clayton Anderson, Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime that Should Haunt America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amindian.
Gregory D. Smithers. Review of Ostler, Jeffrey, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
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