An Empire of Small Places: Mapping the Southeastern Anglo–Indian Trade, 1732–1795 by Robert Paulett (review)
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Trade, Native Americans, Spatiality, Mapping, Frontier

An Empire of Small Places: Mapping the Southeastern Anglo–Indian Trade, 1732–1795. By Robert Paulett. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pp. 264. Paper, $24.95.)

Robert Paulett’s new volume in the Early American Places series (a collaborative publishing endeavor undertaken by four university presses) makes an important intervention in the growing body of literature tracing transitions in eastern North American Native–settler relations from the colonial era to the early national period. Taking the southeastern deerskin trade as his framework, Paulett analyzes change over time in the spatial sensibilities that governed human relations in that region. Anglo American colonists initially adapted to indigenous concepts of space in order to gain access to the deerskin trade. After 1763, British colonial authorities, and later those of the state of Georgia and the United States, found ways to impose their vision of a proper spatial order on the land. Linking ideological changes with physical transformations of the landscape, Paulett’s study captures the rich spatial experience of a diverse range of historical actors in what is now the southeastern United States during a crucial period of its history. [End Page 120]

The book consists of six chapters, organized thematically but progressing in chronological order. Vividly written narrative vignettes open each chapter and prime the reader for the broader interpretive claims offered within. Paulett attends effectively to the intellectual challenge of reconstructing the “Indian sense of space” (4) while also assessing critically the transformative power of settler spatiality. While the study tracks the evolution of the deerskin trade from its origins in a Nativedominated, messy, and difficult-to-control empire of commerce, through British imperial efforts to better regulate an empire of land, down to a republican American empire of liberty devoted to the exclusion of Native people from their ancestral homelands, Paulett avoids falling into a narrative of inevitable indigenous decline. The author’s focus on the originally shared and eventually contested production of space in the southeast demonstrates how thousands of discrete human movements shaped the region’s history before, during, and after the fundamentally transformative Revolutionary War.

Paulett’s opening chapter on the mapping of colonial Georgia—a colony “founded to serve the interests of British imperial maps” (12), intersects with cutting-edge work on imperialist cartography by demonstrating how colonial projectors’ fantasies of controlling gridded Cartesian spaces confronted the competing discourse of indigenous peoples’ relational, processual notions of space as a series of interconnected points. The author’s arguments are sustained by the sources cited, but unfortunately the reproductions of the maps in the text are small and lack the resolution to make an independently convincing visual case. Nevertheless, Paulett paints an effective picture of how sweeping claims to territorial mastery conveyed by early British imperial maps contrasted with colonial traders’ actual experience of space; far from reflecting mastery over the landscape, the constricted movements of traders along Native paths generated traders’ deep familiarity with only a limited number of places and peoples. Still, the jealousy with which traders guarded their particular, experiential geographical knowledge of the southeast became a flash point of controversy with imperial authorities seeking to rationalize control of revenues from the deerskin trade after 1763, as well as with colonial backcountry planters interested in replacing the town-based commercial economy of the deerskin trade with more intensive cultivation of agricultural commodities by an enslaved African labor force. [End Page 121]

The American Revolution, in Paulett’s view, was “absolutely crucial” (192) in establishing the power dynamics that yielded a new conceptualization of frontier spatial relations among citizens of the state of Georgia. Given that claim, the absence of any in-depth analysis of the Revolutionary War’s key events represents a moderately surprising omission from an otherwise detailed and comprehensively researched monograph. Be that as it may, the book’s concluding chapter offers an original and provocative argument concerning the significance of newspapers in reorienting early national Georgians’ sense of appropriate human relationships to the land. The medium of newsprint facilitated the spread of geographic literacy in a general sense, but Paulett claims that the juxtaposition of news stories concerning wars...