- The Invention of the Creek Nation, 1670–1763 by Steven C. Hahn
The Muskogee people of the late eighteenth-century American Southeast possessed territory, a national leadership, and ideas that legitimated both their territorial claims and their leadership’s emerging power. Yet scholars have denied the nationhood of the people the English named the Creeks. The idea of the “Creek Confederacy” is entrenched and powerful, and Steven C. Hahn’s new book on the Creeks is an important refashioning of the confederacy-nation dilemma.
The Invention of the Creek Nation does more than breathe new life into a stale scholarly debate, however. Hahn labors to present Creek politics as the Creeks themselves experienced them, from Mississippian foundations to local and tribal institutions, and finally to British concepts modified to fit the Creeks’ historical circumstances and worldview – or, modified to fit the realities of the colonial Southeast. If Hahn fails to win many converts for the “nation” side of the nation-confederacy debate, it is not because his book is poorly researched or poorly written. Invention is painstakingly researched and ably written. The image of the Creek Confederacy, murkily understood as it may be, may prove too resilient.
Hahn’s book moves beyond the debate in some crucial regards, and that is what will make it valuable for scholars in the years ahead. In an early chapter, Hahn traces the roots of the Creeks into the Mississippian period. Scholars have recently begun to understand the long shadow cast by the Mississippian chiefdoms of the Southeast, and the legacy they left to their early modern descendants. Patricia Galloway and James Carson’s books, and a recent exhibition at Chicago’s Art Institute all make connections between the early modern tribes and their ancestors.1 Mississippian chiefdoms declined as polities, but Southeastern people brought away traits like dualism and kinship that would define their existence in the post-Mississippian world.
Hahn carries this kinship-based identity through a series of interactions with the Spanish, English and French empires, as each colonial power made its appearance in Creek country. In 1718, the Creeks achieved the “Coweta Resolution”—a useful term coined by Hahn. Creek leaders, under the guidance of “Emperor” Brims, determined that their people would be best served by maintaining peace with all three European powers. Hahn points to the Coweta Resolution as a masterstroke of Creek diplomacy. Following it, Creeks recognized distinctions between French, English and Spanish goals, and adjusted national policy accordingly. For instance, the Creeks allowed the French to build a fort in Creek country, but refused the same to the land-hungry English.
Hahn’s look at the founding of James Oglethorpe’s Georgia colony is instructive. Tomochichi, who had been exiled from a Creek town, used the establishment of the English at Savannah to enhance his reputation among the Creeks. Confronting a colony of English settlers who they recognized as land-hungry from previous dealings forced Creeks to delineate the boundaries of their territory. Hahn correctly perceives this as a crucial step in the invention of a nation.
Creek politics during the Seven Years’ War demonstrated how the policy of neutrality worked; at the same time, defense of national lands became a prime concern, prefiguring the disputes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Creek towns maintained contact with the Spanish, French, Cherokees, and English throughout the conflict, but they did not waste their warriors in the service of one of those imperial powers.
Creek nationhood combined indigenous factors with the unique situation of living next door to English colonies that provided valuable trade goods while they posed serious threats to Creek territory. It is telling that the Creek nation only had one rigid border: that with the British colonies directly to its east. Neither Cherokees, Choctaws, the French nor the Spanish caused Creeks to define their borders as strictly as Georgia and South Carolina. The type of colonization employed by Britons in the Southeast factored in to the sort of nation the Creeks would forge. Hahn carefully points out that there were indigenous...