The Four Deaths of Acorn Whistler: Telling Stories in Colonial America by Joshua Piker (review)
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The Four Deaths of Acorn Whistler: Telling Stories in Colonial America. By Joshua Piker. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 310. $29.95 cloth)

On April 1, 1752, some Creek Indians killed several Cherokee not too far from Charleston, South Carolina, and although Acorn Whistler did not participate in the incident, he was held responsible and executed to avenge those deaths. Those basic facts, however, did not prevent the fabrications of four different versions of these events by four different storytellers who had four different agendas. After all, “telling the right story was more important than getting the story right” (p.11). Joshua Piker scrutinizes these four tales and uses them not only to show the complexity of colonial America but also to understand the storytellers themselves. The result is a brilliantly organized, smartly analyzed, creatively written text that both educates and entertains its readers. [End Page 109]

Acorn Whistler’s death overshadowed his life, and his contemporaries chose to sacrifice him to save themselves, each for their own reason. South Carolina governor James Glen was in danger of losing his job as a new administration took power in London and reconfigured the British Empire, so he presented himself as an exceptional diplomat who understood the inner workings of Indian politics and could use his expertise to maintain peace among rival Indian nations. He arranged for Acorn Whistler’s death to promote reconciliation between Creeks and Cherokee while asserting British authority over Indian affairs. Malatchi, the leading headman of the Lower Creeks from the town of Coweta, sought to strengthen and stabilize the Creek confederacy while solidifying his position as the unequivocal leader, so he ordered Acorn Whistler’s death as retribution for the attack on April 1 and thereby demonstrated his influence over Creek politics. Upper Creek headmen from Acorn Whistler’s (possible) town of Okfuskee wanted to prevent further troubles with the Cherokee and the British, so they accepted Acorn Whistler as a scapegoat but expressed outrage over his death as an attempt to advance the supremacy of their town over others. Thomas and March Bosomworth, agents hired by Glen to travel to Coweta and meet with Malatchi about this matter, played political games in Charleston and Coweta in an effort to secure their standing in both British and Creek realms, so they chose to become involved in the affair and suggested that Acorn Whistler be blamed for the April 1 attack. In the end, these four stories not only told different versions of Acorn Whistler’s death, but they also revealed much about the persons telling the tales and about the worlds that they inhabited.

Piker plots his own story carefully and thoughtfully, taking his readers through every nuance of every perspective about this particular event, and readers should be prepared to read every word so that they do not miss a single detail. Piker’s prose is neither tedious nor boring, however; instead, his writing style makes this book a true pleasure to read. His meticulous analysis of imperial affairs, Creek politics, and colonial America exposes the intricacies of life in this place and [End Page 110] at this time, but his astute insights about individual characters and their personal motivations are equally impressive and compelling. His endnotes are exhaustive and reveal conscientious research that few authors can match yet all should strive to emulate. Piker has crafted a multifaceted text that transcends the bounds of one discipline and shows how they are all interrelated, and he reminds historians to think beyond their own agenda and to include all viewpoints. Piker’s search for meaning in Acorn Whistler’s death thus provides readers with a comprehensive examination of this one incident while revealing its broader implications for everyone involved and teaching readers to appreciate the complicated nature of early America.

Julie Anne Sweet

Julie Anne Sweet is an associate professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she teaches colonial and revolutionary America as well as American Indian history. She is the author of Negotiating for Georgia: British–Creek Relations in the Trustee Era, 1733–1752 (2005) and William Stephens: Georgia’s Forgotten Founder (2010).


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