Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts (review)
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Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts. By Daniel K. Richter. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. 502. $35.00 cloth)

Most Americans, despite a vaunted interest in the Founding Fathers, have little genuine belief in the importance of the pretwentieth-century past. Ironically, this preference for the new over the old, for the future over the past, goes back a long way. Daniel Richter opens his monumental work, Before the Revolution, quoting Tom Paine, who said in 1776: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again" (p. 3). Richter shows in the ensuing pages that Paine was wrong: the predicaments of every era, though always unexpected, nevertheless come from those of the preceding era.

We have needed such a book on "the grand sweep" of America's deeper past, for we live in a period of minute studies of certain wars, decades, and regions. The historical field has changed markedly in the past thirty years; valuable new perspectives and resources have been brought to bear. Yet despite—or perhaps I should say because of—this wealth of new understandings, no one has truly tried to tie together the many studies of America's precolonial and colonial history—or perhaps I should say histories—until now.

Richter aptly calls all the varied peoples of the North Atlantic who populate his pages "Atlanteans." He acknowledges that this is not what they called themselves, but the term is effective, nevertheless. He deftly moves through massive amounts of information, often calling upon traditional stores of knowledge, yet without fear of turning old assumptions on their heads when he needs to. For example, he begins by positing that in effect both sides of the Atlantic had their own "Middle Ages" prior to the encounter that occurred in 1492 (that is, Native Americans as well as Europeans). He shows that Puritans as well as Catholics had their own conquistadores, and in the [End Page 471] next chronological layer of events, the network of trade he portrays involves Native Americans as deeply as it enmeshes Europeans. In the next chronological layer, the planters (or settler farmers) become the primary engine, before largely giving way to the imperialists. But the layers are not clearly distinct from each other; at each point, what has been of paramount importance in times past is still present, shaping what is coming next. Indeed, Richter ends each segment of the book by treating a place or person he then returns to again—looking from a different angle—at the start of the next section. For example, Jamestown is founded as part of the English attempt to conquer and colonize, in a sort of Protestant crusade. Yet it is also in Jamestown—most particularly in its relationship with the Powhatan Indians—that the author introduces us to the emerging era of trade.

Despite being deeply analytical and full of new perspectives, the work is also encyclopedic, in the sense that one may situate almost any element of particular interest in the grander scheme, as it treats big ideas and particularities equally well. Kentucky, for example, first appears as one of the earliest places where farming is known to have occurred in North America (with the cultivation of squash around 2300 BC). The region illustrates the profound changes in Native American life that accompany the gradual turn towards agriculture. Later, it is the ancestral home of the Shawnee, who in the course of the seventeenth-century Indian wars spread north and west, changing the face of the Native American political landscape. Later still, both Kentucky and the diasporic Shawnee find themselves on the western side of the Proclamation Line of 1763, which itself becomes integral to the crisis that generates the American Revolution.

Richter, as longtime director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies in Philadelphia, has been at the crosscurrents of colonial studies for a number of years. As a leading expert on Native American history in the colonial era, he is one of the few colonialists prepared to treat indigenous participation in the unfolding of history as seriously as it deserves. He has thus been able to pull off the almost staggering...