Winning the West with Words: Language and Conquest in the Lower Great Lakes
Indiana, Great Lakes, Western settlement, Michigan, Native Americans
James Joseph Buss’s Winning the West with Words unabashedly builds upon Richard White’s two-decades-old “middle ground” thesis, and rather uncritically. It opens with an epigram from White, and even the Introduction’s title, “Clearing the Middle Ground for American Pioneers,” alludes to White’s assertion that the pre-1815 Great Lakes region was a liminal space in which races, trade systems, tribes, politics, and religions interacted on a complex local level with none attempting or achieving regional dominance or dominion. For White, all that changed when Anglo Americans “won” the War of 1812 and, asserting their rights from the Treaty of Paris, erased the middle ground and imposed a hegemony of Protestantism, private property, raced citizenship, and clear-cut agriculture.
Buss tells the story of that erasure, mostly as it occurred in northern Indiana between 1810 and 1840. But erasure—as opposed to annihilation—is by definition a metaphor for incompletion, as anyone who works with a pencil knows. Whether or not you buy in to White’s thesis, Buss’s work merits serious consideration for redirecting the conversation about [End Page 544] precisely how Anglo American culture imposed itself on this region by telling the stories about the vanishing of Indians, squatters, and other nonconforming groups. For Buss, these were enacted through a series of acts of cultural coercion and selective historiography as well as through more direct interventions and removals. As such, Buss’s methodology owes very little to White’s: Its narrative of erasure is built through the rhetorical analysis of how the story was told. For Buss, the facts of the story were subsumed as an intrinsic part of the process of erasure. He begins from the retrospective perspective of the early twentieth century when the process of erasure, purportedly complete, was in fact ongoing.
The cover of Winning the West with Words re-creates a poster from the Decatur County (Indiana) 1916 celebration of Indiana’s centennial as a state. It foregrounds an Indian in a canoe being removed by a soldier in back of whom is a Conestoga wagon, and behind whom, up among the clouds and the sunbeams, emerges a clocktower, an implicit narrative sequence Buss re-creates in the book’s chapters: Indians, removal, settlers, and then towns. As the book progresses each older symbol is effaced and then replaced by the next, or so went the official narrative of erasure. The book’s greatest value, however, is in its tracing of the transgressive, apparently unerasable, middle-ground leftovers whose intractability made the repetition of a narrative that started in 1816 still seem necessary in 1916.
Moreover, borrowing from postcolonial theorist Mary Louise Pratt, Buss demonstrates time and again how Anglo American settlers, pioneers, and, finally, townsfolk, impose a narrative of “anti-conquest” on the region to “secure their innocence” as the passive agents of an ineluctable historical inevitability: The early nineteenth-century west, by this telling, was not conquered and colonized—as had been the eastern seaboard states and the other dominion settler colonies—but rather was transitioned to appropriate Anglo American control through the careful management of an inevitable process, absolving the tellers of the tale from the messy sins of colonialism and granting the nation exceptionalist absolution.
Each of Buss’s chapters moves the narrative through an exchange between the erased and the erasers. In each succeeding chapter, those doing the erasing are in turn erased—as the Indian gives way to the squatter, the squatter to the settler, the settler to the townsman, and so on. The sections that stand out, chapters 2 and 5 in particular, address the problems posed by liminal “white” populations to the progressive [End Page 545] and accelerating narrative. Chapter 2 looks at squatters in the “Michiana” territory near LaPorte and Michigan City, Indiana. White squatters going back to the Paxton Boys and the Whiskey Rebellion had long claimed the eastern centers of power were rhetorically and legally reducing them to nonwhite status. Hector St. John de Creveceouer (1782) called squatters “new-made Indians.” Buss records the difficulty squatters faced as more organized settlement following the War of 1812 led to a codification of land ownership that led in turn to land speculation.
Chapter 5 should be of special interest to scholars of borderlands interracialism. On this same “middle ground,” the accounts of dozens of captives, mixed-race, and Metis figures demonstrate a multiracial population for whom the fineries of racial identity were simply nonissues. However, as the Anglos came west, so did whiteness as a means of vertical organization, and mixed populations became, most importantly, non-white. The story of Frances Slocum on the upper Wabash serves Buss’s thesis here, and he tells it well. Captured as a girl in Pennsylvania, Slocum was raised among the Miami and stayed with them throughout her life, living in the hybridized style that blended traditional lifeways and “civilized” elements. In 1835, her long-lost brother tracked her down and attempted to “rescue” her back “home.” She resisted, mostly silently, and the whole affair, despite considerable publicity, came to nothing. Like other captives such as Mary Jemison or John Tanner, race had become less important than family and other filial and parental bonds. Slocum’s supposed “whiteness” meant nothing to her, while it meant everything to her neighbors. She stays, and is never fully erased, along with her mixed-raced family.
Chapter 7 then moves to the level of professional historiography and the construction of celebratory pageants such as the aforementioned in Decatur County. The concretization of these interlocking progressive narratives in official county and state histories completes the story Buss views as beginning with the (mis)remembering of the 1795 Treaty of Greenville during its 1814 rewriting. In sum, the book completes its mission and sheds new light on exactly how and why Anglo Americans not only conquered and settled the west but also, subsequently and more importantly, controlled the historiography of the process through a careful pattern of sanitization and selection.
A few minor comments in an otherwise very favorable review: Like Susan Grey’s The Yankee West (Chapel Hill, NC, 1996), Buss’s book extrapolates about a large region based on evidence from a rather limited [End Page 546] space. Similarly, the title is a little misleading: The lower Great Lakes are Ontario and Erie, far to the east, and much of the book concerns the Wabash valley—not part of the Great Lakes waterway at all. Those caveats notwithstanding, Buss’s fresh approach and deft use of rhetorical and postcolonial theory—as well as his useful and focused forays into the archive—make this an essential part of our continuing effort to reconsider midwestern, western, and “frontier” experiences in American history.
Edward Watts is a professor of English at Michigan State University. His most recent book is In This Remote Country: Colonial French Culture in the Anglo–American Imagination, 1780–1860 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006).