- Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800–1860
Native Americans, Fur trade, North American West, Mixed race
This book is significant because it provides a new and important interpretation of the history of the North American West during the first half of the nineteenth century. It does so by focusing on family relationships, cultural practices, and state polities. Tracing change over time by using family continuity and state transformation to understand the history of the North American West seems so sensible, clear, and obvious that one can only wonder why no one had thought of this organizational and interruptive construct before. The answer to that question is such a book [End Page 727] can be written only when a historian has thought deeply about the subject, using extensive original research to bring new insights.
Anne Hyde begins her study in 1804 by analyzing the importance of family connections to the fur trade. She emphasizes St. Louis and the Chateaus, Santa Fe and the Sublettes, the Arkansas River Region and the Bents, and the Pacific coast with the Vallejo family, among others, as well as native nations such as the Osages, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Nez Perces. She argues that families gave form and function to the fur trade; business influenced, if not determined, family relationships. Hyde’s reconstructed world conveys the importance of isolation, ethnic negotiation, and government power, the latter driven by changing concepts of race. To craft her narrative, Hyde traces several families during a specific chronological period. She makes the important observation that each family and cultural group had its own ideas about how trade networks functioned and how they had to be maintained and expanded. The fur trade is the structural foundation upon which she links families and places. At first, these families influenced the outside world more than others affected them, but that relationship changed dramatically in little more than a half a century. Hyde tells penetrating stories about stability and a lack of change “by looking at the way people make families and do business in a region where no one knew who would win” (17). Most of her geographical territory lies outside the United States in both reality and law.
Hyde divides her study into three parts: The first is “Replacing a State: The Continental Web of Family Trade.” Part II, titled “Americans All: The Mixed World of Indian Country,” deals with the Native American response to the fur trade, war, and removal. Here, she emphasizes the importance of the mixed-race people who proved essential for business, politics, and diplomacy, and whose importance rapidly diminished as race increasingly shaped relationships with the arrival of the Euro Americans. Part III, titled “From Nations to Nation: Imposing a State, 1840–1865,” emphasizes conquest and the ways in which concepts of race and imperial power changed the North American West as new groups arrived. By the Civil War, she concludes, the West had become “a place that called itself one nation but that seemed poorer for the loss of those many nations” (24).
Cogently Hyde emphasizes stability over time, family continuity, and business affairs built on personal relationships. Economic stability meant mutual trust, family reliability, and the use of military power when diplomacy [End Page 728] failed. Kinship protected families against change and helped them adapt to it. Marriages, partnerships, and friendships gave system and order to the world, bridged cultural gaps, and facilitated peace, trade, and linkages with the outside world. The North American West was a world of disparate but not yet desperate peoples. People customarily and easily crossed racial and cultural boundaries, but those days were numbered. The great distances of the North American West that had provided cultural protection began to erode with the arrival of the Euro Americans. Slowly, then swiftly and overwhelmingly, racial distinctions and prejudices became more important than military power. The people of mixed races were the first losers. Whites imposed inflexible racial boundaries in a world where...