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  • Winning the West with Words: Language and Conquest in the Lower Great Lakes
  • Edward Watts (bio)

Indiana, Great Lakes, Western settlement, Michigan, Native Americans

Winning the West with Words: Language and Conquest in the Lower Great Lakes. By James Joseph Buss. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. Pp. 328. Cloth: $35.00.)

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...


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