- The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701
The Edge of the Woods is a narrative history of the Iroquois Confederacy beginning at about the time French explorer Jacques Cartier came up the St. Lawrence River and met the native inhabitants of Hochelaga, thought by scholars to be Iroquoisan peoples. The book ends at a well-known moment in the Confederacy's history when—after a series of devastating conflicts and complicated diplomacy with neighboring native peoples, the French, and the British—the Confederacy retrenched to reconsider strategies and consolidate anew. Jon Parmenter's unique approach to this familiar history is to emphasize Iroquois "mobility," by which he means the manner in which the Iroquois laid claim to a vast territory and were able to maintain political connections within this geographically and socially dynamic space.
So much has been written about the history of the Iroquois Confederacy that Parmenter's book will have a difficult time finding a wide audience, but this is a deeply and carefully researched book that makes a valuable contribution to Iroquois studies. That the Iroquois appear to have grown in power in the first few centuries of European settlement of North America and held such extraordinary influence in the Northeast over several centuries has made them a focal point for some of the best scholarship in early American history. And, if I were to recommend any single book on this topic to readers, my choice would still be Daniel K. Richter's The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (1992). Richter's book deals with many of the same events as described here, and even though Parmenter asserts a new interpretation of many key issues that puts him at odds with Richter's analysis, The Ordeal of the Longhouse seems a fuller history. Both books deal with the political machinations that reveal sophisticated strategizing behind Iroquois actions, but The Ordeal of the Longhouse manages to explain the international politics of the region by integrating more discussion of the coinciding economic and social developments, such as the fur trade, effects of missionization efforts, ethnic composition of villages, and the cultural meanings of acts and words.
The most interesting aspect of Parmenter's book is his emphasis on space. He drew on archaeological resources to identify locations of Iroquois villages across time, and he provides many new maps of Iroquois Country as well as an impressive appendix at the end that lists and identifies archaeological sites with the names of Iroquois communities in the documentary record. He also looks closely at the St. Lawrence River valley Iroquois and their connections to the more centrally located Onondaga, Mohawk, and Seneca nations. This attention to the northern periphery works particularly well to support his observation that the edges of the Iroquois empire had enormous significance in the confederated people's decisions about war and diplomacy. I am not keen on his term "mobility" as the encapsulation of what the spatial relationships were among Iroquois peoples, however, and think a term like "territory" seems more appropriate. Parmenter's evidence could be thought of as being about movement, but he seems to present even more and much stronger evidence showing how the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century [End Page 1157] Iroquois conceptualized their territory as a bounded whole: as ethnically diverse but politically unified nations organized around the principle that they inhabited and controlled a vast territory. In either case, whether Iroquois ideas about space are best referred to as "mobility" or as "territory," Parmenter's attention to how the Iroquois spatially conceptualized their relationships within and beyond the Confederacy opens up some new ways of approaching American Indian history.