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  • Crossing the Sound: The Rise of Atlantic American Communities in Seventeenth-Century Long Island by Faren R. Siminoff
  • Joseph S. Wood
Crossing the Sound: The Rise of Atlantic American Communities in Seventeenth-Century Long Island. By Faren R. Siminoff. New York: New York University Press. 2004

This intriguing book deals with a marginal chapter of the Colonial New England story and the marginal peoples who played out the parts. The book addresses early English settlers’ sustained and productive economic engagement and political encounter with native peoples in the geographical interstices of English settlement and Dutch trading realms along Long Island Sound. In so doing—in focusing on the margins, not the cores—it points the way toward greater understanding of the complexity of Atlantic America in the Seventeenth Century.

To accomplish her goal, the author offers a historical study of the geopolitical strategies of the region’s native peoples and Dutch and English colonists for land acquisition and control. Land as territory for gathering resources and for buffering from other people, of course, was an essential requirement for native people’s successes. Land as property for grazing and cultivation was essential for successful English settlement, while “touching land,” as the author puts it, was the modus operandi for Dutch claims to control trade flows. Within-group class and social issues over community membership and leadership compounded and complicated each group’s attempt to negotiate land ownership and access to economic resources. The product of all of these entangled engagements and encounters was a form of settlement community richly distinctive from the New England conventional wisdom, and one that led to the rise of a new culture region.

Communities are the author’s primary interest, as the book’s subtitle notes. Communities, of course, have always been exclusive, and the communities in question here went to great lengths to exclude others. Boundary crossers, as the author calls them, were, on the other hand, central players in change, for they forced encounters and forged relationships. They were critical to successful engagement, thus facilitating dissemination of goods and ideas, transaction in land, and the geographical relocation of whole communities. In addressing community development and formation, the book achieves its author’s objectives of establishing and understanding the conditions for a new and successful Atlantic American community type, the social and economic intra- and inter-group relationships of which proved sufficiently effective both operationally and politically to allow settlers to cross the Sound.

Yet very little of the book has to do operationally with the process of crossing Long Island Sound. Indeed, one gets little or no sense of place or geography in the book. I admit to being a geographer, and thus perhaps I am too overly sensitive to this issue. Still, the book’s maps give the reader little understanding of the expansion and displacement of communities and the flows of people, goods, and ideas generating the encounters, all of which define for the author this region. Region, of course, is a construct, one defined in terms of the nature of encounters and cultural diffusion. Regions are dynamic, which is what this book intends to argue, of course. Even as globalization produces new regions today, colonization produced new regions in the seventeenth century. Colonization inspired engagements and encounters, especially over access to land, that in turn shaped and reshaped this interstitial space between English and Dutch interests and inhabited by native peoples into a new English region. Full-scale English settlement of eastern Long Island after 1640 could not have happened otherwise, the author notes. After all, even if politically not New England, one is hard pressed to define eastern Long Island in terms of material culture in any other way. So, it seems, there must still be more here for understanding and interpretation than the author presents.

In the end, however, the book does meet the objectives the author has set for herself: It is a successful derivation and synthesis of work done by multiple scholars on particular aspects of early colonial New England community formation and settlement, especially with respect to Indian political culture and cultural ecologies; Dutch interests and practices; the transmission, persistence, and evolution of English...

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