- The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast by Andrew Lipman
In his award-winning Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast, Andrew Lipman reframes the colonial era along the northeastern coast of North America. By Lipman's own admission, the book is a discourse about how "seafaring, violence, and Atlantic geopolitics shaped one place" (p. 14). He sees the history of the contest for the Algonquian-controlled coast and the early history of the colonies of New England and New Netherlands as one of "overlapping maritime zones with a shared history rather than as discrete territories with separate pasts" (p. 4). This watery frontier was a place where sachems and colonial governors engaged in a "multidirectional struggle," (p. 4) for dominance. He simultaneously frames this as a fight between European seaborne empires and a fight for native independence. His study is a rich, nuanced, and thought-provoking reimagining of this well-trodden area of colonial history, important for its conclusions as well as his approach. The work should be seen in the context of recent works by a new generation of early American historians seeking to recast the colonial encounter. They do so through the creative application of ethnohistorical methodologies that foreground Native people as historical actors and highlight indigenous cultural and political aims. At the same time, they move beyond the local to frame this new history using borderlands theory, imperial histories, and Atlantic world perspective.
Lipman examines the interplay between English invaders, Dutch colonists, the indigenous inhabitants of the region, and the environment and geography of the coast itself between Cape Cod and the Hudson River drainage—a heavily populated and resource-rich area in the early seventeenth century. The book's strength comes from Lipman's triangulation of the competing political ambitions to control this "saltwater frontier." He reveals important differences and similarities in how each power dealt with the others. The English, Dutch, and a number of powerful Algonquian confederated sachemdoms (Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, Mohegan, and Susquehannoc) as well as various smaller, loosely organized, Delaware-speaking Munsee groups, all jockeyed for power, sought to corner trade, and sometimes fought each another. They spread misinformation about each other's intents and activities, and deftly played rivals off one another, be they European or Algonquian. All also built towns and forts along this contested coast and exchanged and adopted each other's marine technologies and coastal [End Page 184] watercraft—blending the world of dugout canoes (mishoon in Algonquian) with the world of pinnaces, sloops and shallops. They created a shared regional maritime culture in the process. He concludes that neither the English nor the Dutch was able to control the fluid situation for the first fifty to sixty years of colonization because the area's powerful Algonquian sachemdoms held sway and set the tone for much of this history—at least until native population decline, increasing imperial involvement, and other factors unsettled the balance of power. Before then, colonial outposts were limited in size, scope, and influence, clinging tenuously to the coast, noncontiguous, and (most importantly) surrounded.
There is a lot to like about Saltwater Frontier. The first five chapters are innovative for how Lipman interweaves varied methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives into a tight narrative of intercultural and imperial competition. To write Saltwater Frontier Lipman made use of both English and Dutch authored documents, with all their biases and shortcomings, as well as geology, environmental studies, Algonquian folklore, and archaeological data. The variety of perspectives and approaches he brings to bear was impressive. They include environmental history, maritime history, borderlands theory, and, in particular, ethnohistory, with its focus on power and kinship systems and in understanding indigenous culture and worldview. He even used the history of food ways in a novel way to analyze Algonquian culture in the first chapter. It proved an effective vehicle for framing native subsistence strategies, gender constructs, and even social and political organization. And rather than disparate local conflicts as they are often presented, Lipman links the...