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  • Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion by Dawn Peterson
  • J. M. Opal (bio)
Key Words

Native Americans, Indians, Expansionism, Adoption, Choctaws, Cherokee, Redstick Creeks, Andrew Jackson, Lyncoya

Indians in the Family: Adoption and the Politics of Antebellum Expansion. By Dawn Peterson. ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 432. Cloth, $39.95.)

It is easy to remember one of the central insights of Second Wave Feminism: "the personal is political." It is much harder to put those words into historical practice. After all, the sources on which historians rely reflect an older configuration, in which politics and statecraft inhabit one plane of importance and visibility, while family life and intimate relations carry on more discreetly. Only in the past generation have scholars found ways beyond, around, or simply through the usual dichotomy. Dawn Peterson's new book is an impressive case in point.

Centering on adoption in both a literal and metaphorical sense, Indians in the Family reconsiders the efforts by Choctaws and other southern Indian nations to cope with U.S. expansion from the 1790s to the 1830s. That timeframe began with Federalist efforts to "civilize" those nations and ended with the more naked aggression of the Jacksonian period. Peterson lends that chronology a generational rhythm and a human face. Both native and U.S. characters and their kin reappear as the chapters unfold, confronting the interlinking problems of race, kinship, and nationhood that they helped to create.

In the near aftermath of the American Revolution, states and speculators gobbled up native grounds while citing their "right of conquest" against British allies. This was the geopolitical context for the well-known Gnadenhutten massacre in Ohio and for more obscure bloodshed along the southern frontiers. Especially after the U.S. Army's victory over the northern Indian nations in 1794, however, this period of helterskelter predation gave way to the civilization program of the Washington and Adams administrations.

Peterson insightfully reads that Federalist project as a variant of, not an alternative to, the "bio-political" ideas and demographic fantasies of Thomas Jefferson, as spelled out in his Notes on the State of Virginia (28). Both Jefferson and his future rivals in U.S. politics believed that patriarchal households within liberal property regimes produced the most children. These private enclaves, in other words, were the building blocks of America's rising empire. While trying to foster such domestic [End Page 170] arrangements among the presumably migratory natives, some U.S. elites brought Indian children and youths into their own homes.

As their trade networks with the British, Spanish, and French withered, a small but powerful cohort of native leaders eagerly sent their sons and nephews to live with these "fathers." They saw such adoptions as apprenticeships in U.S. power relations. Among them was Molly McDonald, a powerful Choctaw living within a growing sea of white settlers and black slaves in the Pearl River region of Mississippi. During the 1810s, her son James lived first with the U.S. agent to the Choctaw, Silas Dinsmoor, and then with the superintendent of Indian trade, Thomas L. McKenney. Peterson's ingenious reading of the enigmatic traces that these bi-cultural homes left behind offers "an intimate glimpse into the history of nation building—and of attempts to destroy indigenous nations—in post-Revolutionary North America" (9).

Pace the destruction, Andrew Jackson also brought an Indian into his family. This was in 1813, while his army of militia and volunteers wiped out the "Redstick" revivalists of the Creek Nation. Among the survivors was an infant boy, Lyncoya, for whom Jackson felt a curious compassion. Clearly the General did not want to bring natives more fully into the U.S. national family. Instead, his much-publicized adoption of Lyncoya softened his image on the national stage and conveyed the General's final victory over the boy's bygone nation.

As Jackson and his passionate supporters entered national politics in the mid-1820s, people like James McDonald and other native youth who had spent time in U.S. homes did too. Fluent not only in English but also in what McDonald called the "labyrinth of litigation," they used their...


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