Edmond A. Boudreaux III, Maureen Meyers, Jay K. Johnson, eds. Contact, Colonialism, and Native Communities in the Southeastern United States. Florida Museum of Natural History: Ripley P. Bullen Series. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2020. Illustrations, tables. 322 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68340-117-9.
Reviewed by Peter Ferdinando (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)
Published on H-Atlantic (July, 2021)
Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)
“It Is All History”: The Mississippian World, Hernando de Soto, and European Colonialism in the Native Southeast
Thematic unity in edited volumes can be a tricky thing, but Contact, Colonialism, and Native Communities in the Southeastern United States pulls it off by weaving two threads—agency and variability—throughout its fourteen chapters. In their introduction, editors Maureen Meyers, Edmond A. Bourdreaux III, and Jay K. Johnson suggest that examination of Native American agency represents one of three major themes in the recent historiography of the contact period (1500-1700) American Southeast, while the two other themes revolve around “reconstructing the sixteenth-century social geography” and demonstrating “how Indian social institutions ... transformed” in relation to European colonialism (pp. 6-7). In a brief but effective summary of the last half-century of ethnohistorical scholarship, the editors highlight elements of these three themes in the work of Robin A. Beck, Robbie Ethridge, Sheri M. Shuck-Hall, Patricia K. Galloway, Paul Kelton, and most notably Charles Hudson. They then illustrate the connections among these existing works on agency, which they define in this context as “Native Americans ... navigating, negotiating, and developing strategies for adapting to the rapidly changing social and political landscape of the postcontact, colonial world,” and their “recognition of the importance of better understanding the economic, political, and social variability that existed among Native groups and among European colonists” (pp. 9, 11). In particular, it is this latter thread, an appreciation of the existing variable Mississippian world and the many variations of European contact and colonialism, in addition to the numerous differing continuities among the Indigenous societies of the American Southeast, that evoke new insights in this volume and will serve as inspiration for future works too.
The first thread regarding agency pertains to Native American commercial production, trade networks, and mobility. Matthew Davidson examines hide production among the sixteenth-century Fort Ancient farming communities of the central Ohio Valley. He studies the quantity and use of tools and debris associated with hide production, such as technological and production changes at the Hardin site (15GP22) in northeastern Kentucky, to argue for some “intensified hide production for indirect colonial exchange” (p. 186). Even in regions away from the initial effects of the “Mississippian Shatter Zone,” European colonial markets affected production. Jay K. Johnson and Ryan M. Parish also focus on production, in their case of stone thumbnail scrapers used with deerskins. They note similarities among scrapers from Mississippi’s Oliver site (22CO503) and Orchard site (22LE519), sites separated by some two hundred kilometers across the northern part of the state and two centuries in date. Meanwhile, Christopher B. Rodning investigates the use of marine shells among the Cherokee in the southern Appalachians into the contact era. He uses North Carolina’s Coweeta Creek site (31MA34) to demonstrate at least some continuity into the seventeenth century for shell items—such as shell beads, gorgets, and masks—that also come from nearby precontact sites. Most interestingly, however, Rodning interprets Cherokee oral traditions to suggest how the Spanish may have disrupted this trade. There are several other chapters on trade too, including John E. Worth’s ethnohistorical examination of the different kinds of movement of European goods throughout the American Southeast from 1513 to 1650, what he considers an era of a “virtual Spanish monopoly on direct and indirect European interaction with southeastern Indians” (p. 102). There is also the chapter by Nathan K. Shreve et al. on the centrality of the Middle Nolichucky Valley of Tennessee for “population amalgamation and coalescence” and that population’s early use of emerging colonial markets (p. 154). Indeed, this attention to production, the modification of existing trade networks, and the development of new commercial networks highlight specific decisions taken by Native Americans as the American Southeast converged with European colonial markets.
Several chapters similarly explore Indigenous agency through decisions connected with mobility. The chapter by George Sabo III et al. examines mobility in connection with impermeant coalescence at the Carden Bottoms site (3YE25/347) in Arkansas. They argue that this village developed in a new location, existed for a generation, then was abandoned, and most intriguingly had “three distinctive pottery-making traditions,” which is suggestive of a temporary “locally distinctive coalescence” among different groups (pp. 16, 31). Their work thus demonstrates that coalescence in the American Southeast did not have a predetermined route leading to a modern Native American tribal nation, but its course instead relied on the agency of people coupled with historical contingency. Several other chapters study mobility in different forms, such as the chapter by Edmond A. Boudreaux III et al., which details the incorporation of Hernando de Soto-origin iron artifacts at the Stark Farm site (22OK778), a site in the Black Prairie of northeast Mississippi, which was occupied by a people already in the process of relocating northward and who later formed the Chickasaw. Similarly, Gregory A. Waselkov and Philip J. Carr grapple with Alabama's McInnis site (1BA664), which had a pottery assemblage likely representative of the Towasas’ twelve-year residence with the Chacatos. Meanwhile, Denise I. Bossy pointedly discusses mobility as an explicit strategy for the Yamasee people starting at the mouth of the Savannah River. She argues that Yamasee mobility around the American Southeast was not a diasporic movement in connection with European colonialism but rather demonstrated a “remarkable strategy ... rooted in ... historic Mississippian practices of regional migration, population growth, and geopolitical dispersal” (p. 206). Bossy’s focus on a twenty-year stretch from the 1660s to the 1680s commences with Westo raids and the Yamasee’s strategic movements that exploited existing Native American networks and forged Yamasee-specific ones and ends when the Yamasee left Spanish Florida and brought some of the Guale peoples with them. Maureen Meyers does something similar with the movement into and around the American Southeast regarding the Westo and Savannah peoples, but she connects such movements to the concept of a borderland continuum from “fluid” frontiers to “static” borders (p. 193). For example, she argues that there were two distinct stages of Westo settlement in the American Southeast: first a “Virginia frontier” stage where they traded and lived on English Virginia's frontier, followed by a “South Carolina border” stage when the Westo traded with English South Carolina (pp. 196-97). As a consequence, the Savannah Indians learned from watching the Westo’s example and developed alliances with other southeastern Native Americans and the English simultaneously, which proved essential to negotiating this evolving borderland in the American Southeast.
The second thread running throughout this volume is variability. Indeed, much as the Spaniards, English, and French were not a monolithic block, neither were the peoples of the Mississippian world. The already mentioned chapters by Bossy and Meyers bridge mobility and variability effectively through discussions of different groups’ evolving mobility strategies. Meanwhile, Ramie A. Gougeon examines varied Mississippianization and the adaptation of riverine-orientated, agricultural lifeways to various coastal frontiers along the Gulf Coast, all of which demonstrate that frontiers, borders, and borderlands did not require a European presence to exist in the American Southeast. In fact, this chapter reveals the “potential for any number of iterations of frontier societies to have existed” (p. 116). Of course, European groups varied too, not only in nationality but also in types of interactions with Native Americans. Dennis B. Blanton’s chapter asks “what does an artifact assemblage typical of the Hernando de Soto entrada look like?” and provides an effective model developed from examining historical documents for references to European material culture and published assemblages from contact-era archaeological sites (p. 73). His analysis confirms a distinction in such assemblages between the earlier European entradas, including Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, Pánfilo de Narváez, and de Soto, and more-sustained later colonial contacts. He also finds an intra-de Soto entrada variation caused by the finite nature of the expedition’s supply of European materials and a Spanish “recalibration of expectations” in connection with their interactions with Native Americans (p. 97). He uses this model to argue that much of the assemblage from Georgia’s Glass site (9TF145) is more similar to Florida sites associated with de Soto’s trek, because they have a greater quantity and more diverse selection of European materials. He also adds that the site might have been “a chiefly compound that experienced an encounter with Soto’s party early in 1540 ... over more than a single day and ... it was relatively peaceful” (p. 100).
Particular highlights in Contact, Colonialism, and Native Communities in the Southeastern United States include this attention to variability and an underlying terminological, historiographical argument. Rather than envisioning the Mississippian world as something separate that had little bearing on the contact era, many chapters in this volume explicitly connect the pre- and post-contact worlds, emphasizing Indigenous continuities and the important decisions taken by the inhabitants of those Mississippian worlds to grapple with the presence of Europeans during the contact era. For example, Waselkov and Carr forcefully discuss how “concepts like ‘prehistoric,’ ‘protohistoric,’ ‘historic,’ and ‘contact’ ... arbitrarily and ... unwisely subdivided a cultural continuum,” rather they argue that “it is all history” (pp. 138-39). And Ethridge’s concluding chapter picks up this argument and suggests that “we stand on the brink” of developing a “deep social history” for the American Southeast, one where “the Mississippian and early colonial South are no longer separated by an earlier conceptual, methodological, and intellectual gulf” (p. 227). The Mississippian context of the American Southeast, then, is just as critical as that of western Europe—and indeed western Africa. Whether using archaeological data, documentary records, oral traditions, or other sources of information, it all leads to—as Ethridge puts it best—creating a “seamless social history of the American South” in which “there is, in fact, no such of a thing as ‘prehistory’” (p. 228). As an ethnohistorian studying the American Southeast, such bold claims excite me for the future of the field.
Altogether, the editors and various authors succeed in developing a volume that interweaves agency and variability in the contact period American Southeast. Many of the chapters are quite readable for a nonexpert audience, such as Meyers’s chapter on the Westo and Savannah, which tells an engaging story that would work well for an undergraduate class, as well as Blanton’s chapter, which combines documentary sources, archaeological artifacts, and multivariate quantitative methods that could introduce graduate students to the vast possibilities of ethnohistory. Although a few chapters get a little lost in archaeological minutia, the collection as a whole will impress upon readers that Indigenous agency is a given; that Native American and European variability in the American Southeast—and the Americas more generally—is important; and that histories are all connected, whether pre- or post-contact. As Ethridge confidently asserts in her conclusion, the shattering of the Mississippian world was not a collapse into disappearance but rather a process of transformation leading some peoples to the modern Native American tribal nations of the American Southeast, for “the Mississippian world endured at least two major collapses before contact” (p. 218). Telling the long history of the American Southeast, then, reveals that such collapses, transformations, and continuities are the real story when Indigenous and European worlds collided in the American Southeast.
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Peter Ferdinando. Review of Boudreaux III, Edmond A.; Meyers, Maureen; Johnson, Jay K., eds., Contact, Colonialism, and Native Communities in the Southeastern United States.
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