- Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind, 1763–1815 by Robert M. Owens
Recent scholarly interest in violence, trauma, and fear as historical determinants has begun to reorient our understanding of colonial America and the early republic away from nationalist mythology and toward the rich realm of human experience. In this new book, Robert M. Owens, author of the excellent work Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy (Norman, Okla., 2007) asserts that long-established anxieties about trans-Appalachian pan-Indian alliances formed the foundations of early United States foreign and Indian policies. Not really a psychological exploration or a historical imagination study, Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind, 1763–1815 convincingly establishes the importance of fear, paranoia, rumor, and insecurity among the nation’s early leaders as causes for wider nationalistic imperatives. Owens asserts that a general western pan-Indian alliance was the greatest fear faced (and used) by American expansionists, for reasons that emerged not out of contemporary circumstances but out of Anglo-Americans’ colonial past.
Owens establishes this climate of fear in Part 1, which explains how Native leaders and colonial officials tried to hold together fragile, multicultural western strategies, only to have their schemes shattered in the chaos of the American Revolution. Owens’s main argument is best expressed in Part 2, where he asserts that a general and growing fear of pan-Indian alliances is the key to understanding American/indigenous diplomacy. Moving the argument away from the local and specific concerns of individual states, regions, or Native groups, and into the arena of national policy making, highlights the importance of identifying fear as a determining factor. Policy makers needed to accommodate Native priorities and settler demands, while also dealing with constant suspicions that western Indian groups might put aside their differences and work together against the new American regime, either on their own or with the help of British, French, or Spanish competitors.
Even after the feasibility of a general pan-Indian alliance waned with the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, fears of wide-ranging intercultural cooperation dominated expansionist policies for decades. This was especially true in the [End Page 659] southern states and their western borderlands, where the long-standing threat of Indian-slave alliances (in the aftermath of the Saint Domingue slave insurrection) seemed frightening and possible. William Henry Harrison’s contests with Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, the British-Indian alliances during the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson’s violent actions against the Red Stick Creeks and Seminoles, and other such events demonstrate the centrality, and usefulness, of these fears in expansionist American policy. Both Tecumseh and his successor, Black Hawk, found pan-Indian alliance an attractive, but ultimately elusive, resistance policy. Persistent fears of imagined intercultural alliances proved to be more useful in motivating white expansionist plans than the reality of those alliances proved beneficial to the Native resisters.
Owens expertly establishes the necessity of seeing early United States Indian and military policies as anxiety-based and transregional. The book disappoints only a bit by not exploring what the title suggests: how pan-Indianism was understood in the “Anglo-American mind.” Some of the policy makers’ motivations seem like reasonable trepidation about alliances between European powers, adventurous individuals, Indians, and slaves rather than outright fear or paranoia. That quibble aside, Owens’s thorough, profound research and crisp, witty prose should benefit scholars and please casual readers alike. Red Dreams, White Nightmares is an important and thoughtful addition to a growing body of work that illuminates the early United States’ Indian policy as the creation of an aggressive and expansionist federal system that was, at its heart, still engaged in battles deriving from its colonial origins, with imagined demons in the western woods.