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  • Farming and Brass Kettles as Forms of Colonial Encounter:New Sweden from an Archaeological Perspective
  • Visa Immonen

The History of New Sweden and its Margins

Historians have spilled much ink regarding the seventeenth-century colony of New Sweden in the Delaware Valley, an area consisting of north Delaware, southwest New Jersey, and southeast Pennsylvania. A number of accounts have been written concerning the colony's history, Amandus Johnson's (1877-1974) two-volume The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware Valley (1911) being the most thorough. 1 In 1638, the commercial and political ambitions of Swedish statesmen led to the founding of New Sweden (Dahlgren and Norman 9). The Dutch seized the colony in 1655, and it was finally taken over by the English in 1664 (Munroe 16, 18, 40, 60-6). The colony's autonomous position ended in 1682. Written documents related to it are relatively well known, although not thoroughly studied, and the most important ones have been published (Waldron 327-9). Consequently, the political aims of the venture, its administration, ecclesiastical activity, and the social structure of the colony have been scrutinized in detail.

Although written evidence of the native populations in the Delaware Valley (mainly the Lenape, but also the Susquehannock) is quite scarce, [End Page 365] the relations between the settlers and the Native Americans have attracted the special interest of historians. Their relationship with the colonists is generally described as unusually friendly and peaceful, a symptom of the civilized attitudes of the Swedes. 2 However, in her detailed study Colonialism in the Margins: Cultural Encounters in New Sweden and Lapland published in 2006, the historian Gunlög Fur argues that peacefulness was more a consequence of the settlers' having no options. So few ships arrived from Sweden that the colony was continuously deprived of imported trade goods. It thus had to adopt the position of a middleman between the natives and other colonies, trading European products for furs and food from the Indians. The subsistence of the colony depended on the goodwill of the natives and their readiness to participate in trade (Fur, Colonialism 147 ).

In a similarly critical vein, Amy C. Schutt has examined interaction between the native populations and European colonists in her book Peoples of the River Valleys: The Odyssey of the Delaware Indians, which appeared in 2007. As a symmetrical counterpoint to Fur's work, she focuses on the native side of the encounter by emphasizing Indian-Indian relations in addition to the colonist-Indian relations. Schutt argues for the "the social complexity of the peoples under investigation and the fluid nature of the groups involved" (3) instead of falling back on a single rigid category of the Native. Moreover, she analyzes how the various groups "responded to the warfare, epidemic disease, and other tumultuous events of the seventeenth century by developing and using networks of trade and other forms of exchange, creating new alliances, sharing territories, and in some cases merging with other groups" (31).

Although both studies have been highly acclaimed, there has been some criticism that they did not take their projects far enough. For instance, John Smolenski's only complaint about Fur's book is that she does not provide enough examples and explicit comparisons between American and Nordic colonialisms (116), while Christina Snyder points out that Schutt's argumentation seems to imply that the Delaware Indians "were merely reacting to European prompts, rather than drawing upon millennia of culture and history to make decisions about themselves and the people around them" (785).

Despite their slight shortcomings, these two studies are examples of contemporary critical historiography placing the encounter between [End Page 366] the Swedish colonists and native populations in broader global context, whether contrasting them with Indian-Indian relations or comparing native-colonist relations with the situation in northern Fennoscandia. On both continents, state administration and colonists encountered indigenous peoples in a similar cultural framework and consequently observed and treated them more or less equivalently. Fur, informed by post-colonial theory, presents the national, colonial, and nostalgic biases of earlier historical narratives. Nevertheless, even Fur's perspective is not entirely unproblematic: her study is based on the written evidence alone, which could unduely emphasize the text...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2163-8195
Print ISSN
0036-5637
Pages
pp. 365-386
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-12
Open Access
No
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