- Adventure, Violence, and Knowledge in Early American Borderlands
I recently saw an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York called Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry. The exhibition featured nineteen tapestries whose awesome hugeness was made all the more impressive by the staggeringly intricate detail in which they depicted their subject matter. The experience of seeing dramatic scenes like the conversion of Saul woven into a textile fifteen feet high and twenty-five feet wide overwhelmed the senses and the mind. Adding to the effect was the knowledge that each image must have taken many hundreds, if not thousands, of person-hours to execute.
David Narrett’s Adventurism and Empire: The Struggle for Mastery in the Louisiana-Florida Borderlands, 1762–1803 brought this experience to mind. Narrett weaves a tapestry that is at once vast, spectacular, and intricate. He thoughtfully guides the reader to an understanding of both the big picture and the exquisite embroideries and knots that can be seen only from up close. The book’s main arguments are three: that Louisiana and Florida were borderlands, with limited imperial presence and much instability; that Anglo-Spanish rivalries had a big long-term impact; and that empires and native groups competed for control of the waterways and pathways that connected the ocean to the interior. A corollary to these arguments is that the absence of established governments placed disproportionate power in the hands of adventurers. Narrett’s extensive research and formidable powers of organization help him prove all these arguments beyond most reasonable doubts. [End Page 803]
But the question of where Narrett’s finely woven text fits into the larger tapestry of early American and borderlands history is difficult to answer. This is partly because Narrett only obliquely addresses several large questions that historians of borderlands have been thinking about for the past thirty years. One such question was famously posed in Richard White’s Middle Ground: how do people of disparate cultures learn to live together in regions where the state and rule of law are weak or absent? Answers to this question have come in the form of countless books and articles that can be divided into two overlapping groups. One body of scholarship emphasizes negotiation, hard-won agreement, race mixture, and convenient mutual misunderstanding across cultural lines. This group of works includes The Middle Ground itself, James H. Merrell’s The Indians’ New World, James Brooks’s Captives and Cousins, Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families, and many others. A second genre of borderlands historiography works against the grain of White’s argument and emphasizes violence, chaos, the breakdown of negotiations, racial polarization, and simmering hatred. Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground, Merrell’s Into the American Woods, Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors, and Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years can all be thought of as part of a genre focusing on bloody ethnic discord in the colonial borderlands. In Bailyn’s words, the colonial world of North America was a place “replete with bitter rivalries, scandalous accusations, violent encounters, assassination attempts, executions, and above all bloody massacres of the native Indians and earth-scorching raids.”1 This grim vision is far indeed from the world of interethnic deal-making White so brilliantly described in The Middle Ground.
The differences between the literatures focusing on borderlands concord and discord are largely a matter of emphasis. A neglected facet of White’s masterpiece is that the middle ground, as he depicts it, was often a violent and unsettled place. The presence of negotiated cross-cultural agreement did not imply an absence of bloodshed or misery. And Merrill’s Into the American Woods, despite its focus on the transformation of Penn’s Woods into a bloody “abattoir,” features a great deal of cross...