- American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England by Katherine Grandjean
Published in a twenty-first century moment of fascination with social networks and the regulation of information flow, American Passage reconstructs deeper histories of these vital topics. Revisiting the seventeenth-century Northeast, Grandjean argues that an initial “communications frontier,” across which indigenous Algonquians and New England colonists grappled for influence with messages, rumors, and news, gradually gave way to a more stable landscape of colonial control. The book’s six chapters are organized chronologically to give an account of progressions—shifts from early colonists’ reliance on coastwise boat travel to their increasing familiarity with the region’s interior and from the individual, sporadic sending of messages (frequently dependent on indigenous couriers) to the creation of a regularized intercolonial postal system. The book acknowledges fits and starts in these processes and the difficulties that upheavals like warfare could bring. But in the aggregate, the story suggests a cumulative movement toward colonial infrastructure and Euro-American hegemony. It finds that during the course of roughly 100 years—from the tentative outset of New England colonization in the early seventeenth century to the start of the eighteenth century—human landscapes characterized by pervasive uncertainty and experimentation transitioned to more comprehensively integrated, smoothly functional ones.
One of the book’s strongest points is that “New England” was hardly a coherent, self-evident, or territorially extensive entity. It was a tenuous constellation of colonial experiments, most of them clinging to the Atlantic shoreline or rivers and most of them scantly connected. It took the entire seventeenth century for enduring links to develop—bridges, horse and cart paths, and ferries. The book’s source base emphasizes testimonials authored by elite Euro-American men, whose command of pen, paper, and alphabetic literacy has given them an exaggerated representation in extant archives. The study is document-driven, derived largely from 3,000 letters constituting the Winthrop Family Papers, held primarily at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Grandjean aggregated them into a database to discern patterns of senders, recipients, couriers, and routes.
American Passage aspires to tell stories of colonial and indigenous communications. Yet overall it remains a colonial project. Early in the text, Grandjean laments the seeming impenetrability of indigenous landscapes: “With feet planted firmly in Boston, or Hartford, or Springfield, we can only gaze out, across the countryside, and imagine phantom paths—unknown and inaccessible to English writers” (59). But this space is only “inaccessible” if limited methodologies are privileged. A more interdisciplinary approach would have acknowledged, for example, that archaeologists in the northeastern part of the country, sometimes working [End Page 450] in close collaboration with tribal communities, have significantly deepened understandings of indigenous settlements and networks, as well as of the myriad “hybrid” materials and practices that arose as indigenous and colonial peoples dwelled in increasing proximity. Most notably, American Passage declines to engage with contemporary Native American peoples and nations through ethnography or oral history—a missed opportunity, given that Grandjean’s campus, Wellesley College, neighbors Natick. One of the “Praying Towns,” Natick continues to be a place of enduring presence and meaning for contemporary Nipmucs.
Although the study briefly recognizes the detrimental mainstream discourse that has attempted to “vanish” Native American peoples, it would benefit from a fuller reckoning with those insights. Instead of imagining nearly vanished historical Native Americans haunting the present-day Northeast (as the book’s final sentence does), why not reach out to the numerous Native American people who still dwell there? Among them are tribal historians, scholars, critics, storytellers, and linguists who may well have valuable knowledge about the issues explored in this book.