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Reviewed by:
  • Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America by David Silverman
  • Daniel Mandell
Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America. By David Silverman (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2016) 371pp. $29.95

Silverman’s deeply researched, vibrant work explores how, from the beginning of European exploration to the close of the “frontier,” Native peoples in North America embraced firearms and sought to control their trade. For readers of this journal, the most significant aspects of Thundersticks are the connections that it highlights between gun technologies and developments in Native politics and cultures, particularly in diplomacy and conflict among Indian groups.

Thundersticks begins with the Iroquois’ embrace of the newly invented flintlocks manufactured by the Dutch in the 1630s, and their development of tactics and techniques that allowed them to dominate the Northeast for most of the century and raid as far west as the Great Lakes. But other Native groups also obtained guns, from the French as well as the Dutch, creating a regional arms race and a rising spiral of violence. Similar dynamics operated in the Southeast where the English gave firearms to Native allies to raid Spanish Florida for slaves, and neighboring communities formed defensive confederations and went slaving to obtain guns.

Silverman highlights the political and technological ingenuity that enabled Native groups to resist colonial power by stockpiling munitions, fixing weapons, and obtaining firearms from many sources. Although the Puritans gained victory in King Philip’s War by enlisting Iroquois warriors to prevent Metacom’s access to guns and ammunition, Natives around the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley were usually able to resist colonial forts and farms because “their sophisticated multilateral diplomacy and economic influence” allowed them to obtain firearms easily from “rogue traders” (153). Similarly, Yuquots and Tlingits in the Northwest used the guns obtained from Americans and British not only to extend their power but also to deter aggressive Russians and, later, traders when they became troublesome. Seminoles resisted efforts to push them out of Florida to “Indian Territory” by capturing guns from U.S. troops or buying them from Cuban fishermen and even Americans at treaty negotiations.

Finally, Thundersticks shows how tribes on the Great Plains reshaped their polities to control the firearms trade often hundreds of miles from Euro-American sources—including the nomads whose embrace of horses [End Page 269] and guns to hunt bison shattered the region’s economic and social diversity. In the 1820s, the eastern Natives “removed” to the Southern Plains gained an upper hand because they had flintlock rifles, which were superior on this terrain; later, U.S. agents supplied new gun technologies like the Sharps repeating rifle. Meanwhile, far to the north, the Blackfeet “developed a full-fledged political economy of firearms” (250), playing American and Canadian fur companies against each other to obtain a nearly limitless supply of smoothbore muskets that they used less to hunt than to fight the Cree and the Crow.

Silverman’s argument is that, regardless of these many variations, firearms served Natives as critical tools to defend and expand their territory and power, not as a Trojan horse leading to their subordination. Furthermore, he acknowledges the often-described terrors and carnage of firearms and their trade, including the epidemics brought by traders and the blowback of intensified warfare often driven by the desire to monopolize access to the deadly weapons. Thundersticks also suggests re-interpretations and new avenues of study: It concludes with members of the American Indian Movement (aim) flaunting AK-19s at Wounded Knee in 1972, suggesting that guns became potent symbols for Native peoples. Although we usually think of Native Americans attacking forts, nearly every chapter of the book depicts Native communities building sophisticated and effective ramparts, some featuring small cannons.

The book has a few noticeable gaps. To name two, it offers few discussions of the social changes that resulted from gun culture, particularly for women, and it includes no maps to aid in navigating the text. But aside from such blips, this strongly written account will appeal to a wide readership and offer new interpretations and future avenues for scholars.

Daniel Mandell
Truman State University


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pp. 269-270
Launched on MUSE
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