- Unraveling the Vast Past
In case you haven't heard, early American history is vast now. Karin Wulf's 2016 coinage of a new mandate for the field—#VastEarlyAmerica—only reflected what the field had already become, a rich and varied profusion of peoples and places.1 It is a field that is much more inclusive, and frankly much more interesting, than when it lived in parochial confines in the age of Perry Miller. Vast Early America is the field we need right now: we cannot understand the challenges that face the United States today, from Charlottesville to Standing Rock, without considering their tumultuous origins in our history of settler colonialism and slavery. I welcome and embrace the vastness. And yet it gives me pause. It was the chance to study individual people that got me interested in history. I'm not talking about the hagiography of the Founding Fathers that crams bookstore shelves: I'm talking about people more ordinary than that. As we seek an Atlantic, Pacific, or even global lens, might we lose sight of the virtues of smallness amid the vastness?
The best scholarship of the moment, like Jessica Yirush Stern's The Lives in Objects, reassures me that early American history can navigate both the vast and the small. Like Zara Anishanslin's Portrait of a Woman in Silk (2016) and Ann M. Little's The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016), the lens of The Lives in Objects is at once broadly Anglo-Atlantic and sharply focused on the local, even the individual. The book joins the work of other scholars who have tracked the effects of peripheries of empire on policy in metropolitan centers, such as Catherine Cangany's Frontier Seaport (2014) and Alejandra Dubcovsky's Informed Power (2016). In her ambitious study, Stern analyzes how British colonists and Native Americans conceptualized cross-cultural exchanges in the colonial Southeast, and how these beliefs both reflected and transformed the world around them.
The Lives in Objects examines British-Native exchanges of deerskin, textiles, guns, ammunition, food, and other items in the borderlands of colonial [End Page 196] Georgia and South Carolina, from the founding of those colonies to the imperial crisis of the 1760s. Far from a sweepingly powerful Atlantic trade, Stern reveals a world of exchange that was personal, fragmented, and full of willful miscommunications. Or perhaps a single "world" is not the correct term, for the author concerns herself with many worlds: "multiple modes of exchange coexisted," she argues. "As different goods took on different meanings, they moved into different circuits of exchange" (p. 146).
Stern's study complicates the literature on exchange by pushing back against scholars of a previous generation who tended to portray Native Americans as naïve gift-givers and Europeans as relentless capitalists. Defining culture broadly, Stern notes that neither the British nor the Native peoples of the colonial Southeast had homogeneous beliefs about production, consumption, or exchange. (She groups Cherokees and Creeks into a broad category she calls Southeastern Indians, citing their common roots in Mississippian culture.) Stern's analysis inverts older scholarly narratives about British-Native encounters. In her telling, it was British authorities, not Native peoples, who frantically tried to regulate commodity trading. And far from passively accepting European goods, Native women used craft skills and distinctive aesthetics to reshape English manufactures for their own tastes and needs. The book joins a growing body of scholarship, including that of Daniel Usner and Joshua Piker, which argues for the continuity of Native cultures in the face of settler colonialism. Finding continuity in Native material culture, Stern contends that "[c]ultures are resilient," meaning that individuals "often accept or reject" novel objects "in accordance with cultural norms" (p. 11).
The book takes its evidence from a broad swath of textual sources, including colonial records, account books, treaty conference proceedings, early modern economic theory, Native oral traditions, and the...