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  • Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America by David J. Silverman
  • Todd M. Kerstetter
Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America. By David J. Silverman. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 400. Illustrations, notes, index.)

David J. Silverman, in Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America, seeks to reclaim the “lost” or “denied” lesson that from earliest contact with European colonizing powers successive groups of Indians “used firearms to revolutionize their lives” (7–8). Firearms brought revolutionary changes to hunting and military efforts. They affected gender roles, shaped tribal trade and military policy, and brought unprecedented violence both direct (carnage wrought by the bearers of firearms) and indirect (devastating epidemics unleashed by microbes transmitted by arms dealers). Silverman’s story starts in the early 1600s and runs to 1877, and it moves over North America from the St. Lawrence River Valley to the swamps of Florida to the Pacific Coast of Alaska and Canada.

In a conceptual move reminiscent of Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country (Harvard University Press, 2003) and Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), Silverman places American Indians at the center of the story and emphasizes the choices they made adopting firearms and how they utilized the new technology in pursuing their own goals. He coins a fraught term in using “gun frontier” to interpret the move of firearms into Native America. By carefully defining his usage and emphasizing its multivalence, though, he rehabilitates what some historians still refer to as “the ‘f’ word” and effectively uses it to emphasize the complexity of this technology flow. Furthermore, he successfully challenges the stereotype that contact with Europeans set off an immediate downward spiral for American Indians. Some gun adopters parlayed the technology into a period of ascendance in which they increased their wealth and power.

Thundersticks provides a wide-ranging, deeply researched, provocative, and convincing case. A few minor adjustments would have made it even more effective. The map “Gun Frontiers in North America” (xiv–xv) could have helped readers connect the image to the argument more readily if it contained more explanatory material. Also, most of the territory acquired by the United States from Mexico is void on the map. Does the gun frontier hypothesis apply? Readers looking for events in Texas and the Southwest will find them in the twenty-eight pages of chapter 7. The rest of the book is set elsewhere.

The book aptly uses the introduction and epilogue to bookend the discussion with Crazy Horse’s and Sitting Bull’s experiences with firearms, but the main argument ends, and the gun frontier seemingly closes, in 1877. Carrying the discussion through 1890 would have allowed an [End Page 97] examination of Sitting Bull’s death and the tragedy at Wounded Knee two weeks later, both of which prominently involved disarmament of Native Americans and, arguably, powerful symbols for the end of the gun frontier and the closing of a chapter in American histories.

Those deeply interested in the subject might enjoy pairing this work with Roland Bohr’s Gifts from the Thunder Beings: Indigenous Archery and European Firearms in the Northern Plains and Central Subarctic, 1670–1870 (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), which examines the longevity of bow and arrow use by American Indians of the Northern Plains and central Canada in the face of the expanding gun frontier. All told, Silverman has made an important and impressive contribution to American Indian and North American history by adding depth and nuance to the discussion of the roles played in each by firearms.

Todd M. Kerstetter
Texas Christian University


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pp. 97-98
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