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Truth in titling is an undervalued asset for academic histories. Typically, readers must wait for the post-colon part of the title to find out what the book or article is about. Not so, John Reda’s new volume, which announces its trajectory in its main title. From Furs to Farms is about just that, about how, in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the opening quarter of the nineteenth, agriculture supplanted trade in animal pelts as the principal economic activity in the middle Mississippi Valley.
As nicely elucidated by Reda, the transformation of the Mississippi Valley from furs to farms was not so simple and straightforward, however. First, there is the region on which he focuses. In the 1760s, its imperial claimants, Spain, France, and England, designated it “the Illinois Country” and/or “Upper Louisiana.” By the 1820s, it came to be divided into the states of Illinois and Missouri. Along the way, “a person born in colonial Cahokia in the early 1760s (who never relocated) would have lived by the age of sixty under the sovereignty of France, Great Britain, Virginia, the Northwest Territory, Indiana [End Page 281] Territory, Illinois Territory, and finally, the state of Illinois. For someone living just across the river in St. Louis the succession during the same period would have been from France to Spain, back to France (however briefly), and then the District of Louisiana, the Missouri Territory, and finally, the state of Missouri” (p. 146). Yet for the region’s residents, who included diverse Indians, Africans, and Europeans, it was even more complicated than this shifting set of flags suggests. For Reda maintains that while “officials in far-off capitals continued to treat the Mississippi valley as if it were a pawn in an imperial chess game, those living there had repeatedly demonstrated the ability to thwart external attempts to convert the titular sovereignty acquired by treaty into effective sovereignty” (p. 41).
Much of Reda’s story hinges on the distinction between titular and effective sovereignty, on the efforts of colonial and national officials to turn the former into the latter, and on the determination of occupants, both Natives and newcomers (a grouping that also included Indian refugees from the east), to contest, contain, and control the process by which imperial claims became more than lines drawn on not particularly meaningful maps. Ultimately, the United States succeeded where imperial predecessors failed “by offering white settlers a combination of physical protection, secure property rights, and white supremacy in exchange for their loyalty” (p. 3). But that did not happen overnight with the stroke of pens signed to treaties made in distant places. It was also not, in Reda’s telling, inevitable. To the contrary, Reda emphasizes that there was nothing manifestly destined about the assertion of authority by the United States in the middle Mississippi Valley. Moreover, understanding what happened and how it happened requires that we move beyond the “east to west sweep” that has long served to narrate the expansion of the United States. Instead, Reda insists that the passage from furs to farms “must be viewed from local perspectives . . . to understand the context” and the contest that wrought the transformation of the Illinois Country/ Upper Louisiana into the states of Illinois and Missouri (p. 146).
These perspectives are now largely familiar to and accepted by [End Page 282] scholars, but they are buttressed well by Reda’s book. By spotlighting the local and by looking beyond the boundaries that are to the boundaries that were, From Furs to Farms offers a worthy model for future studies of early American places.
STEPHEN ARON is a professor and Robert N. Burr Department Chair at UCLA. His most recent book is The American West: A Very Short Introduction (2014).