- Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country by Robert Michael Morrissey
ROBERT MICHAEL MORRISSEY
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
Empire by Collaboration is the type of book one wants to review. It is illuminating, provocative, and insightful. Readers can easily fit this work into a variety of historiographical traditions. For example, Robert Michael Morrissey shows us how far scholarship of the trans-Mississippi [End Page 774] region has moved since Richard White’s The Middle Ground (1991) first appeared twenty-five years ago. Whereas White’s book gave us an overview of the pays d’en haut, Morrissey’s book reveals how Algonquians and Euro-Americans created an “intercultural community in the Illinois” via “durable agreements” (10). These agreements often forced European officials, whether French or English, to place the needs of Illinois residents over imperial desires. Morrissey, however, does more than just explain the history of these multiethnic communities; he challenges the notion that Illinois residents were, as officials complained, lazy, indolent, and lawless. Rather, the residents of the region under study were “opportunistic and innovative. Not wedded to tradition, they were flexible and adaptable” (140). They had to be, since both French and English officials only reluctantly integrated Illinois inhabitants into their North American holdings.
The Indians and colonial settlers who made the Illinois region home were newcomers to the prairie. Each group sought something different when it settled, but what they shared was a desire to take advantage of the area’s natural resources. The Illinoisans became bison hunters, and eventually slave traders. The colonists started as fur traders, but eventually became grain exporters. Geography gave the area strategic importance. The Illinoisans, while nominally allied with the other eastern Algonquian peoples, often looked westward militarily and economically. The French arrived in the 1670s, in the midst of the Beaver Wars. Initially, the Jesuits and René-Robert de La Salle fought over whether French secular or religious interests would dominate the region. During the struggle, the colony of Illinois sprang up unplanned and unwanted. As a result, Indians and colonists created a unique society, one where “local agency” took precedence. The result was an “empire by collaboration” (87).
The question was how to create the working relationships both sides wanted. Their solution was fictive kinship, and while scholars are familiar with how this system allowed both sides to frame a particular mind-set, what Morrissey does with fictive kinship is illuminating. Initially, fictive kinship gave traders and Indians a means of creating both personal and political relationships. A mature colonial community did not eliminate the bonds of kinship. Morrissey shows how communities used God parenting to create fictive bonds between French, Indian, and Creole residents. He speculates that slaves might have found their way into the network, but does not push beyond what the baptismal records allow. As colonists [End Page 775] moved from being traders to farmers, and the Illinoisans gradually entered the Jesuit orbit, Morrissey uses godmother networks to show how fictive kinship ties continued to hold families, and communities, together.
Officials, whether French or English, believed the colonists who settled the area were libertines because, as Morrissey makes clear, settlers pursued their own agenda. They made practical decisions that often ran counter to imperial policy. For example, despite French policy, Illinois colonists secured their land fee simple, rather than as renters with seigneurial obligations. This development gave colonists an independence that residents of New France or Louisiana did not have. This independence showed up in other places too, namely in marriage.
For French officials, it was one thing for a voyageur or coureur de bois to take an Indian woman as a wife, it was quite another to have the leading residents of a colony do the same thing. But the Illinois region accepted Indian-colonist marriage throughout the period under study. As Morrissey notes, “French officials objected to intermarriage for two specific reasons: race and property” (150). At a time when “racial” purity was becoming more important in Europe, the mixed-race communities of Kaskaskia and Chartres challenged the notion of...