Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country by Robert Michael Morrissey (review)
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Robert Michael Morrissey, Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 352pp. $45.00.

Robert Michael Morrissey, in Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country, offers a reinterpretation of the French colonial empire in Illinois from the 1600s until just before the Revolutionary War. Morrissey convincingly argues that the French empire in Illinois was characterized by “compromise and flexibility, by diverse people purposefully acting to create a mutually acceptable order” (7). French Illinois was an “empire of collaboration” where distant French officials, French traders and settlers, Jesuit priests, and Illinois Native Americans worked together to develop a legal system, economy, laws, and social relations.

By focusing on the theme of collaboration, Morrissey sheds new light on the scholarship of colonialism. Historians have frequently interpreted the French empire in America as a failure, with inflexible French imperialists issuing top-down directives that aimed to control unruly local settlers, traders, and Indians. In Illinois, however, local interests frequently influenced French imperial policy. Indeed, collaboration took place on multiple levels: between Illinois residents and French officials; between French Jesuits and colonists and Native Americans; and between men and women. Thus, the French empire in Illinois was not mere accommodation, but an “informed, purposeful collaboration” at multiple levels (10).

Morrissey organizes his material chronologically, with each chapter covering approximately a decade. The author carries his thesis through each [End Page 155] chapter and always provides specific examples to illustrate his points. For instance, in the 1690s officials in Canada attempted to restrict trade and travel in the West, particularly in Illinois; those who violated these orders were subject to arrest. In practice, however, French officials did not arrest Illinois settlers and traders. Indeed, they eventually embraced the illegal settlements and collaborated with the colonists themselves (87). In the 1730s, French officials decided to ban intermarriage between French colonists and Native Americans. Again, local colonists rejected the imperial decree, intermarriage continued, and no arrests were made (104). For each decade, the author illustrates that French colonial policy involved negotiation with the settlers over large and small issues; more often than not French officials gave in to Illinois settlers, traders, and Indians.

Morrissey’s theme of collaboration extends to Native Americans and offers a needed reinterpretation of Illinois tribal history. Frequently, the story of the Illinois, and Native American history in general, is presented as a narrative of the rise and fall of tribes in the face of colonialism. Through-out the time period under study, however, the Illinois were strong, flexible, and influenced French colonial policy. The Illinois used the slave trade as an avenue of power; they also strategically intermarried with French traders and colonists. Even after removal from Illinois after the Revolutionary War, the Illinois adapted and amalgamated into the Peoria tribe, moving west to Kansas and Oklahoma.

The author also provides important information about Illinois women, Catholicism, and colonialism. Building on the work of authors such as Jennifer S. H. Brown, Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, Susan Sleeper-Smith, and Sylvia Van Kirk, Morrissey discusses the conversion of Illinois women to Catholicism and their intermarriage with French traders and colonists. Morrissey argues that more Illinois women than men converted and married outside of their tribe to “combat unfavorable polygamous marriages and the oppression they experienced in the slavery-dominated social world of Great Kaskaskia” (64).

Morrissey’s primary research is meticulous and extensive. Especially intriguing is his use of Illinois language dictionaries created by Jesuit missionaries. For example, the author draws the conclusion that some people were not well-integrated into the Illinois kin-system because words that meant “I don’t love him like a real brother” or “I don’t regard him as a relative” appeared in the dictionary (73). While interesting, it is important to note potential biases of these Jesuit dictionaries which were certainly designed to [End Page 156] help convert and “civilize” the Indians. Moreover, could Jesuit sources mask important tensions between the Jesuits and the Illinois that could counter the narrative of collaboration? Or, on the other hand, over-exaggerate tensions between Illinois men and women?

In addition to written primary...