Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind, 1763–1815 by Robert M. Owens (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert M. Owens, Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind, 1763–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. 320pp. $32.95.

Which is the stronger motivator—hate or fear? This unpleasant but relevant question is at the heart of Robert Owens’ Red Dreams, White Nightmares, an examination of the idea of pan-Indianism in white American politics and society in the early republic. Owens sets out his argument as a corollary to work on Indian-hating by Peter Silver, Patrick Griffin, and others. Hate alone, Owens writes, does not explain policy and policymaking, for “if we remove from our analysis the terror that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century whites felt regarding Indian wars . . . we effectively dehumanize them as badly as Parkman dehumanized his Indian foils.” (8) At key moments, white fears of Indian alliances—as opposed to white indignation at Indian military practice—forced the hands of administrators and generals. Lord Dunmore, for example, launched his 1774 war against the Shawnee and Mingo in part to sate his anxiety over a potential combination of those nations with the Cherokees to the South (50–54). American Indian policy, 1795–1805, was largely dictated by fears of pan-Indian conspiracies—even though the United States had already defeated the Ohio Confederacy in 1795. “[T]he fear itself,” writes Owens, “continued to haunt the frontier,” with imagined alliances among Indian nations, the Spanish, and the French occupying the psychological site of anxiety formerly reserved for the Northwest Confederacy and its desultory British allies (165). Even when there were no Indian coalitions to worry about, Anglo-Americans acted as though there were, and tried to stop them.

The potential upshot here—one Owens never really states directly—is that while hate served as a powerful motivator, it was a perpetual long-term anxiety that created the atmosphere in which that hate could be transformed into violence. American armies and politicians always found inciting incidents, but whatever real or imagined outrages were committed by Native Americans, it was the early republic’s “media echo chamber” that turned rumors of pan-Indianism into a public priority (183–84). For twenty-first-century American thinkers and policymakers—stuck with an anxiety-driven media and confronted with the engines of hate in the US and beyond—this formulation of the relationship among hate, fear, and policy is worth thinking about.

Is that enough, however, to make Nightmares stand out in the increasingly [End Page 118] crowded field of Native American history, 1763–1815? Owens adds a fair amount of detail to the diplomatic history of Native America. He has mined the archives in several languages, and there are details in this volume that readers will not find even in Greg Dowd’s Spirited Resistance or Richard White’s Middle Ground. Owens also successfully weaves Florida into the story; his two chapters on William Augustus Bowles are the best in the book.

The very subtlety of Owens’s argument, however, may obscure its contribution. Hate and fear are near allied, especially in practical politics; some readers may find the exercise of separating them futile. Moreover, Owens is not always clear about the difference between fear of presumed Indian alliances and fear of presumed Indian brutality. The murder of Jane McCrea, for example, was a huge propaganda victory for Patriot forces—but its fearmongering had more to do with a fear of Indians than of Indian alliances (75). When Dunmore fought the Shawnee-Mingo alliance to prevent a broader coalition, were his actions driven by fear or realpolitik? Owens’ point, I suspect, is that we cannot ever separate the two.

If so, the real upshot of this book is not Owens’s conclusion about the Black Hawk War. If Owens is right, fear forms policy. If so, then we might do better to think of white frontier society as a quivering mass of nerves—leaping at shadows and shivering under their bedclothes. Griffin’s and Silver’s works are limned with the notion of the white frontiersman as a brutal tactician—hate translated into power and grit. Historians still tend to stereotype frontier whites as fearless mountain men, who did what they...