Although never completely neglected, the colonial history of the Midwest region has often remained in the shadows of scholarly attention when compared to that focused upon the Anglo-American Atlantic seaboard or the Hispanic communities of the Southwest. But in the past several years, the appearance of some excellent scholarly monographs have made the consideration of the heartland region necessary to any discussion of North America’s colonial past. Robert Michael Morrissey’s clearly written and well-argued study of the colonial Illinois country, Empire by Collaboration, not only takes a place among these important works, it may take the place at the head of them.
Colonial history is often presented to its audience as a contest, one between American Indians and non-Indians, or one between rival colonial empires, or one between the parochial and peripheral interests of colonies and the cosmopolitan interests of the imperial metropole. In contrast, Morrissey’s study of the colonial Illinois country challenges us to think about colonial empire in terms of collaboration rather than contest. Here the expression of the French Empire was a far cry from anything imagined by imperial dreamers and schemers in the centers of France, New France, and Louisiana. These distant authorities found their visions repeatedly confounded as diverse groups made common cause in order to transform a distant and, at times, neglected colony into a viable society. As officials worried that the economic development of Illinois would draw valuable resources away from New France, colonists continued to invest the capital that transformed the colony from fur-trading mission outpost to the breadbasket of Louisiana. When officials worried about the cultural and legal implications of intermarriage between French men and Indian women, the inhabitants continued a locally time-honored practice that made the colony sustainable at its foundation.
Yet, despite what might appear as the flaunting of imperial oversight, a variety of locals, including missionaries, traders, soldiers, farmers, and American Indians, were not above appealing to empire for favor, support, and sanction. Farmers wanted and needed access to [End Page 235] the markets of colonial towns in lower Louisiana. Missionaries turned to imperial officials when the growing habitant community threatened to overwhelm indigenous mission communities. The Illinois Indians successfully engaged imperial officials to support their own foreign-policy objectives vis-à-vis neighboring Indian communities. The picture that emerges is one of a set of pragmatic actors who, in the face of limited external support, minimal traditional authority, and abundant opportunities and threats, worked together to become a diverse, yet mutually supportive, community.
For the past two decades, revising Richard White’s Middle Ground has preoccupied historians of colonial North America’s frontiers. Many of these reappraisals have argued that these frontiers were not so much “middle grounds” as “Native grounds” where Indians held the balance of power. Morrissey sidesteps, for the most part, this issue. Rather, he addresses another issue discussed by White, one that is far more interesting, at least to this reader. White asserts that, although Indians and non-Indians came to cooperate, they often did so out of mutual misunderstanding. Their actions may have bridged a cultural divide but their comprehension often did not. Morrissey argues that in the case of the Illinois Indians and the French habitants of the eighteenth century, they did come to understand one another. And it was these understandings that allowed for collaboration and the creation of a distinct and multifaceted colonial community that was at once comfortable with autonomy and empire. In this collaboration, as in the many others treated in his book, Morrissey gives us a story of finding unity without a concomitant leveling of difference. And it is in this fashion that our author brings his story to the center of the stage of American history rather than leaving it in an apparently irrelevant or at best romantically exotic corner of it. [End Page 236]
ALAN G. SHACKELFORD teaches in the American Indian Studies Department at the University of...