The relationships between whites and Indians—political, cultural, social, economic; bathed in varying degrees of violence and sentimentality—have long held scholars’ attention. How best to approach such encounters—how to figure the roles of violence, assimilation, negotiation, and power—has vexed scholars for just as long. Was the frontier a “middle ground” of contested, imperial negotiations or a site of violent dispossession, where whites unceremoniously expropriated land and life from indigenous populations? How does the emergent discipline of ethnography, intimately implicated in these relations, contribute to and challenge the expansion of the liberal, democratic nation–state?
Two recent works approach these questions from quite different perspectives. David Andrew Nichols’s Red Gentleman and White Savages: Indians, Federalists, and the Search for Order on the American Frontier traces the political conflicts between the federal government, white settlers, and Indians in the trans-Appalachian West. In a sense, Nichols’s book can be read as a prehistory to Daniel Noah Moses’s biography of the nineteenth-century polymath Lewis Henry Morgan, whose ethnography as universal history of humanity found both its origins and its site of empirical research among the Iroquois on the vanishing frontier of western New York. In privileging the force of private property, both authors offer compelling insights on the mechanisms through which interactions with Indians, and attempts to make sense of them, contributed to the expansion of the United States as both nation and experiment in liberalism.
In Red Gentleman and White Savages, Nichols offers a political history [End Page 669] of Indian–white interactions in the trans-Appalachian West that takes treaty making as its central subject. The book is organized around four discrete groups: representatives of a weak federal government, frontier settlers, Woodland Indian chiefs, and Indian warriors. As the book develops, Nichols deploys the groups homologously—the federal government and chiefs often have similar aims and methods, namely engagement in treaties and the establishment of order on the frontier—even if they imagine often radically different ends of this process. Conversely, white settlers and warriors, while never engaged by similar motives, were both nonetheless more prone to violence, less inclined toward diplomacy, and, in the eyes of the former group, sources of disorder. Indeed, as these four groups vie directly and indirectly with one another for authority and some sense of contested order, what Nichols makes abundantly clear is that this is a history of absent sovereignty. If so, it is also the history of the massive, yet always contested, dispossession of land by the confluent and conflicting triumvirate of white settlers, state, and federal governments.
Chapters 1 and 2 examine a series of treaties that followed in the wake of independence, and Nichols outlines competing claims to authority and the fragility of federal authority on the frontier. In the power vacuum left by the defeat of the British, claims to authority by the Continental Congress, state governments, and private companies were greeted by most Indian chiefs by a desire to deal with only one authoritative body, just as they had dealt with the British prior to the war. Yet such would not be the case. In this atmosphere, Woodland Indians held the balance of power; some tribes willing to negotiate, others not, as evidenced by the formation of several pan-Indian federations. Thus, despite several treaties, the United States held little real power, even if this situation did produce a tenuous peace.
This illusion was quickly shattered by white settlers and Indian warriors, who generally felt unrepresented in treaties and were less willing to cede authority to governments and chiefs. Interestingly, as Nichols argues, this did not preclude the use of quasilegal and rational arguments for their actions. On the contrary, in the face of repeated attempts at the establishment of federal authority and massive land speculation by wealthy land...