Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South by Robin Beck (review)
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Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South. By Robin Beck. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. 316. $90.00 cloth)

This book addresses the evolution of the Catawba nation of the Carolina piedmont using the regional archaeological and ethnohistorical records from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Beck draws on social theories of structure and event to frame his arguments about the factors that led to the rupture and re-articulation of Native [End Page 656] tribal populations in this region. The Catawba endured great cultural upheaval during these centuries, including the cyclical collapse of many regional Mississippian chiefdoms in the fifteenth century, the sixteenth-century disruptions caused by Spanish exploration, and finally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the destructive, long-lasting acculturating force of European colonial powers jockeying for control of the trade and territory of Native people.

The book is thematically organized into three principal sections indicated by the book’s title: chiefdoms, collapse, and coalescence. The first section deals with the role played by the Mississippian chiefdom of regionally integrating populations of agriculturalists under the umbrella of a hereditary chief, whose authority was supported by a tributary economy of maize surplus and whose legitimacy was reinforced by mound ceremonialism. This system began to unravel as a result of the sixteenth-century intrusions of Hernando de Soto (1539–43) and Juan Pardo (1567–68) into the Carolina piedmont, which disrupted the established alliances between towns and villages associated with these tributary chiefdoms. Beck synthesizes compelling evidence from previous excavations for the archaeological identification of two chiefly centers named by de Soto and Pardo at the Mulberry (called Cofitachequi by de Soto/Canos by Pardo) and Berry (called Xualla by de Soto/Joara by Pardo) mound sites in the Carolina piedmont.

In the second section, Beck contends that British market demand for slaves and animal skins was the principal cause of the collapse of the chiefdom structure. Beck relies heavily on documentary sources to argue that the slave-raiding Westo and Occaneechi tribes hastened the collapse of the chiefdom due to the loss of laborers for accumulating maize surplus and the loss of male warriors to provide defense. Moreover, British commodity exchange would have altered Native conceptions of status and prestige and, in turn, increased competition for leadership authority between the highest-ranking hereditary chief and lower-ranking warriors who were successful slavers and hunters. Finally, Beck documents the Native population loss from epidemic [End Page 657] diseases occurring after 1696 due to increased direct contact with British traders. Such population losses would have led to displacements of people from one river valley to the next. Here, Beck is on more tenuous ground as he attempts to link village names with varying degrees of spelling correspondences from one valley to the next, arguing that these name correspondences are evidence of population migrations.

The third section of the book focuses mainly on the factors leading to Catawba coalescence, a process resulting from the replacement of chiefdoms with chieftaincies, which are defined as confederacies of autonomous tribal towns and villages of displaced descendants of some of the original piedmont chiefdoms. Beck cites several eighteenth-century historical accounts that testified to the changing allegiances of Catawba villages in their political dealings with Europeans and other Indian tribes.

In summary, the book succeeds in synthesizing previous research by archaeologists and historians regarding the prehistory and history of the Carolina piedmont. Most of the ideas in this book for southeastern chiefdom collapse and subsequent coalescence are not new, but Beck has adapted them from other scholars to provide a working explanation for the transformation of the political organization of Native peoples of the Carolina piedmont. Interestingly, many of the arguments and much of the documentary support contained in chapters two and three appeared previously (sometimes verbatim) in a book chapter by Beck in an edited volume, Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South (2009). Nevertheless, his use of documentary evidence from four centuries of European contact is appropriate and quite thorough. His book should be of interest to both archaeologists and historians who wish...