What if we considered the contested coastal region between seventeenth-century Plymouth and New Amsterdam “not just as part of the continent but as part of the ocean?” (p. 1). And what if we saw the territories of New Netherland and early New England as “overlapping maritime zones with a shared history rather than as discrete territories with separate pasts”? (p. 4). Andrew Lipman offers answers to these questions in his Bancroft Prize–winning book The Saltwater Frontier.
Part “borderlands” or “frontier” history and part “Atlantic” history, The Saltwater Frontier’s reach spans the width of the Atlantic, [End Page 269] concerning itself not only with the interactions between Indians and Europeans in the American Northeast but also with the movement of Indians eastward across the ocean. As Lipman cautions, the “saltwater in this book’s title is not strictly literal.” It “refers to the many kinds of maritime and Atlantic connections—cultural, political, martial, ecological, and material—that formed this borderland that was not entirely based on land” (p. 5).
Employing a source base composed largely of published transcriptions and translations, Lipman explores these oceanic links in six roughly chronological chapters, covering the period from pre-contact up to 1750. An epilogue then brings the narrative into the nineteenth century. What emerges is a violent tale of colonization with “saltwater as the primary stage of cultural encounters” and Native peoples at its center (p. 7). In keeping with recent scholarship that portrays Indians as active participants in the shaping of colonial societies, Lipman asserts that historians have given the sea prowess of Natives short shrift, largely missing their crucial role in shaping maritime colonial encounters and their subsequent influence on the whaling industry.
Taking a cue from the field of environmental history and its tendency to challenge conventional spatial frameworks, Lipman envisions the Atlantic coast between Cape Cod and the Hudson River as a continuous borderland. He contends that historians have needlessly placed New Netherland, New England, and the region’s Indian sachemships into “artificial frames,” studying them in isolation (p. 22). Not only did this meandering shoreline have “a nearly uniform climate and range of land and marine species,” Lipman asserts that the “colonial bounds were shifting and porous, unable to contain either people or events” (pp. 22, 4). A key example is the intersection of the Pequot War in New England and Kieft’s War in New Netherland. Not only were these two wars fought on overlapping territories, but they also shared some of the same actors. With a touch of humor, Lipman highlights the English-born, Dutch-trained mercenary who was known as John Underhill in New England but Jan Underhill in New Netherland. As Lipman ably demonstrates, imagined political [End Page 270] borders can act as a barrier to a deeper understanding of a region and its peoples.
Meticulously mining the latest scholarship, Lipman brings his work into a conversation with the field’s latest developments, themes that broadly stress agency, interconnectivity, reciprocity, and collaboration. Demonstrating the “communicative codependence” of colonists and Natives, Lipman shows how Indians were not only letter carriers in the service of colonists but also occasionally commissioned letters on their own behalf (p. 172). Indians could also gain power by withholding information, as when the legendary Squanto “began to toy with the flow of information” in his role as an interpreter (p. 101).
Lipman has a gift for writing prose that the general reader will appreciate, though uninitiated readers may miss the extent to which he has framed his arguments historiographically. Conversely, many readers already familiar with early American historiography will be delighted with Lipman’s ability to weave various threads into one largely compelling narrative. A third group who are not yet convinced of the merits of such a broad historiographical framework will undoubtedly see Lipman’s highly acclaimed book as a new battleground and a reliable sign that reports of the death of Atlantic history have been greatly exaggerated.
STEPHEN MCERLEANE is a doctoral student...