- Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America
Readers familiar with Daniel Richter’s previous work will likely be surprised, as I was, by this new book of his. Richter’s well-known study of the Iroquois Confederacy in the first centuries of European contact, The Ordeal of the Longhouse (1992), is so copiously detailed and finely documented that I often find myself treating it like a reference book and more than just a scholarly monograph. Even though Facing East from Indian Country reveals the same masterful grasp of early American history and takes as its particular topic American Indian history, the similarities between the two books stop there. Facing East, by which this book will likely become known and which I suspect was what Richter originally planned for the book’s title, is a synthesis of all of eastern North America from the sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century.
Mary Beth Norton’s book-jacket blurb is the perfect summary of Facing East’s significance: “Beautifully written, this innovative narrative challenges us to look with new eyes at familiar tales and finds important meanings in unfamiliar ones.” While Richter’s past work has certainly been well-written, Facing East is more informal and playful in style. And Richter makes this distant historical period relevant by frequent, meaningful references to the present. This stylistic approach may have been a ploy to attract a wider reading public, but historians should more often throw off the shackles of pedantry and learn to write and read history as literature. I concur wholeheartedly with Norton and am stunned by how “beautifully written” this book is. Moreover, Richter has successfully written an accessible book for non-specialists while simultaneously treating scholars to substance and novelty in the ideas. Chapter-by-chapter, the historical literature from which Richter draws his explanations, stories, and examples will be readily identifiable to specialists in the field. He folds this diverse material into [End Page 808] a single narrative thread while at the same time suggesting re-interpretations of particular moments in early American history.
The overarching theme of the book is, as the title reveals, to examine European settlement of eastern North America from the vantage-point of the original inhabitants. The book begins with scenes of initial encounters, which are laced together primarily from Europeans’ written descriptions of those encounters and imaginative speculation. A possibly controversial technique, these re-enactments are thoroughly grounded in explanations of how Richter devised them and plausibly depict Indian points of view. Richter’s argument is that Indians responded to the arrival of Europeans with curiosity and a willingness to exchange materials and ideas, incorporate European technology and people, and consider how relationships with European settlers could follow multiple paths. By the time of the American Revolution and in the early decades of the New Republic, Euroamericans had opted to exclude Indians from the path blazed by their expansion westward. Interestingly, the early chapters of the book make the first century of European contact seem a mere whiff in the air as Richter pushes back the most significant changes in Indian life to the late-seventeenth century and beyond. The last chapter, “Separate Creations,” is the only one to put Euroamericans at the center of the story as the marauding Paxton Boys, various diplomats at the Treaty of Paris (1783), Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson all envisioned a world empty of an Indian presence. To close with an Indian voice, the epilogue uses the early-nineteenth century writings of Pequot Indian William Apess to give a critical overview of how Europeans claimed for themselves an “American” identity and history.
Facing East from Indian Country will appeal to non-specialists, a general public, and students as well as to scholars in the field. It is precisely the kind of book that could succeed at realizing Richter’s longstanding crusade to earn for American Indian history a vital place in the larger narrative of American history.