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Reviewed by:
  • Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America
  • Nancy Shoemaker
Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. By Peter Silver. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008. 352 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

I have long thought of American Indians as the victims of an aggressive European expansion into the Americas, but Peter Silver in Our Savage Neighbors asks us to reconsider the nature of that aggression from the perspective of its perpetrators, specifically to enter into the psyche of those European colonists on the western edge of European settlement in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania to try to understand why they so ruthlessly and brutally killed so many Indians. He argues that they did so because they felt like victims: they killed Indians because they feared the “terroristic” violence that “had been carefully planned and carried out by the Indians with whom they were at war to induce the greatest fright possible” (p. 41). They then adopted terror themselves, pitching the Pennsylvania backcountry into such a state of chaos and bloodshed that Benjamin Franklin had to wonder who was the most savage, Pennsylvania’s Indians or “the christian white savages of Peckstang and Donegall!” (quoted on p. 203). In a profusion of rhetoric and imagery, Pennsylvania’s colonists articulated their fears by dwelling on dismemberment, bloody wounds, and other dreaded Indian atrocities. Silver calls this the “anti-Indian sublime” and sees its way of imagining “Our Savage Neighbors” as the basis for a more cohesive white American identity in the era of the American Revolution. Silver concludes by positing that a newly tolerant America emerged, obviously not an America tolerant toward Indians but one in which English, German, and Scots-Irish inhabitants recognized their common interests as white Americans.

Indeed, a more accurate subtitle for the book might have been, “How Pennsylvania’s Colonists Became White.” The current subtitle, “How Indian War Transformed Early America,” seems a bit grandiose and difficult to prove given the book’s narrow scope, which is Pennsylvania [End Page 153] from the Seven Years War through the 1780s. Was the chaos and violence that took place in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania really all that different from the Pequot War, King Philip’s War, Bacon’s Rebellion, the Yamassee War, and so on? Silver’s choice of perspective, the “we” implicit in the phrase “Our Savage Neighbors,” also seems too narrow for his ambitious claims. To study war but focus on a single point of view, to fall back on a contemporary analogy, is like having only the Fox News Channel or Al Jazeera as one’s sole source of information. Because Silver does not ask what Indians thought about “their Savage Neighbors,” we do not know how much of the violence and the “anti-savage sublime” might be common to warfare and border disputes in general and not, as Silver argues, something foundational in the experience of white Americans. I particularly wanted to know how often Indian violence against European bodies also involved theft of property. Silver tells us that Europeans who attacked Indians often stole their property as well, a possible motivation for murder, which Silver struggles to explain away as subordinate to their primary motivation: fear. Indians and Europeans appear to have treated each other’s bodies the same way, but what about property—clothing, trade goods, livestock, homes?

Silver has certainly done an impressive achievement at amassing and analyzing his data, making this the most thorough book on the topic of Pennsylvania’s eighteenth-century violence that I have read. I expect that anyone interested in the Paxton Boys or other pieces of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania history would find this book their most essential reference. I would also recommend the book to all historians because it was one of three winners of the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 2008, and we would all be served well by reading works so honored by our colleagues.

Nancy Shoemaker
University of Connecticut