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Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America (review)
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Reviewed by
Peter C. Mancall. Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. xix + 268 pp. Ill. $29.95; £23.50; overseas $32.95.

Indian addiction to the white man’s alcohol has been a feature of Native American history since early contact times. Whites for centuries have described and deplored the effects of drinking among Indians, without doing their part to change the situation. Peter C. Mancall in this book has brought together disparate testimony from English colonial sources to construct a cogent picture of the Indian liquor traffic, its purposes, its intractability, and its dolorous consequences from first settlements to the American Revolution, with collateral attention to French Canada. He accepts the course of this history as inevitable, though he presents with great poignancy the cry of many contemporaries, both colonial and Indian, that it was not.

Much of the book covers familiar ground, including the fur trade. The key chapter and freshest section is on Indian bibbing. Mancall finds that Indians often drank according to their own rules or rituals—for hospitality, for mourning ceremonies, or for a sense of power deriving from altered consciousness. Inebriation was a transcendent state. Thus Indians used rum medicinally according to their own understanding of medicine, though they came to realize that alcoholic intoxication was ultimately disastrous. When the supply of liquor was inadequate, men might abstain so that a few could get drunk; the others shared vicariously. If violence ensued, the drunken perpetrators were exonerated, on the grounds that the liquor, not the Indian, was responsible. The author points out that tribal leaders pleaded repeatedly with colonial authorities to stop the liquor trade, but he does not adequately explain why chiefs could not do it themselves. They could not because Indian societies lacked hierarchical structures for compulsory discipline. Here was an opportunity for the English to be true neighbors to Indians, but they passed by on the other side.

Mancall postulates two colonial motives for carrying on the Indian liquor trade: profits, and Indian acculturation to Western civilization through trade. But in reality neither one was central. The author neglects the larger picture: the basic English objective in Indian affairs was to get the Indians out of the way, so that settlement might proceed apace. Various means, both direct and indirect, were utilized, including game depletion, livestock encroachment, land purchase, negotiated removal, gun control, war, pocket genocide, disease, and alcoholic dissipation. Colonists condemned the deceits and excesses of the Indian traders, but as long as colonial officials sanctioned the use of alcohol to soften up the tribes for land purchases, the criticisms were hypocritical. Mancall lets the English off too easily.

Richard H. Frost
Colgate University