- Red Dreams, White Nightmares: Pan-Indian Alliances in the Anglo-American Mind, 1763–1815 by Robert M. Owens
Robert M. Owens’s latest effort traces the development of pan-Indian fears in Anglo-America from Pontiac to Tecumseh or, more fitting from the perspective of this book, from Jeffery Amherst to Andrew Jackson. Owens argues that the fears held by frontier settlers and government officials of intertribal cooperation and its more terrifying darker side, a general Indian war, shaped Indian policy for generations. Prior to Pontiac’s War, for example, the British often promoted peace between their indigenous allies to counter French threats, but this policy shifted in the 1760s as English officials took great pains to divide Indians by encouraging intertribal conflict and warfare. With the creation of the United States, British policy again reversed course as their agents labored to unite Indians against their former colonists. Owens stresses that such efforts stemmed as much from a desire to prevent pan-Indian coalitions being directed against them as they did from countering the United States.
For the first forty years of its existence, the United States had even more reason to guard against pan-Indian alliances. Fears of Indian uprisings, coupled with the dread of slave rebellions, especially in the South, drove policy. Officials were particularly concerned with preventing a union of Indians living on either side of the Ohio River. An Ohio confederacy could be damaging—as seen with the Harmar and St. Clair debacles of the early 1790s—but a true alliance of northern and southern Indians would prove disastrous. American policies therefore targeted these broad Indian alliances. Ultimately, a general Indian confederacy never came to fruition, which, Owens argues, ensured the survival of the United States. [End Page 78]
Red Dreams, White Nightmares is an easily accessible book. Nineteen short chapters (divided into three parts) and a lively narrative make for a quick read. Owens’s argument is driven mostly by reports and rumors from government officials, newspapers, and other correspondence, or from those in charge of policy and those hoping to shape policy. It serves as a convincing account of Anglo-American fears of pan-Indianism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Few would disagree that such fears were a central feature of Euro-American frontier life during periods of chronic warfare, but some scholars may question the degree to which fear and terror affected policy makers. Officials were certainly concerned with pan-Indian threats and the possibility of a general Indian war, but terrified? The words of U.S. commissioners in November 1788 reveal much. Writing to Creek leader Alexander McGillivray, who earlier accused Congress of deceitful negotiations, the commissioners replied that it was beyond belief that the general government “after withstanding one of the greatest Powers of Europe, with her allies, together with almost the whole of the Indian tribes combined, should at this day have recourse to base artifice, in order to accomplish the ruin of a few Indian tribes.”1 As this quotation suggests, American officials had a very real sense of their own strength vis-à-vis Indian nations, even if at times they projected power and used coercive threats to mask a position of financial or military weakness. The scale of empire weighed heavily, as vast differences in economic, political, and demographic power underpinned relations between Anglo-Americans and Indians.
Red Dreams, White Nightmares asks us to take fear seriously. Owens successfully demonstrates that we should. Scholars wishing to carry these ideas further could benefit by inverting the title (“White Dreams and Red Nightmares”) to better understand how fear shaped indigenous peoples’ responses not only to foreign diseases, economies, and encroachments but also to Euro-American coalitions, confederacies, and nation building. [End Page 79]
1. Colin G. Calloway, ed., Revolution and Confederation, in Early American Indian Documents: Treaties and Laws, 1607–1789, 20 vols., ed. Alden T. Vaughan (Bethesda, Md.: Univ. Publications of...