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  • The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of a Nation by Colin G. Calloway
  • Nathaniel F. Holly (bio)
The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of a Nation by Colin G. Calloway Oxford University Press, 2018

THE MOST RECENT BOUNTY of Colin Calloway's particularly fruitful intellectual orchard is well worth a read for scholars concerned with indigenizing early America's master narrative. By focusing on the experiences and policies of Conotocarious, the town destroyer, Calloway illuminates how Indigenous people "shaped the life of the man who shaped the nation" (15). In so doing, the author hopes to provide a more complete telling of what he calls "America's story" (14). Divided into three parts, this study describes the constantly evolving Indigenous world Washington lived, fought, and negotiated in. It follows the first president from his days as a sixteen-year-old surveyor in the spring of 1748, to his ill-conceived forays into Indian Country at the head of an invading force, to his seemingly more detached role as president of the United States. Yet while the resulting narrative certainly includes more Indigenous actors, actions, and anxieties than its biographical predecessors, its larger contours and perspectives will be familiar to most scholars.

While part 1 begins with a sketch of Indigenous Virginia prior to Washington's early work as a surveyor, most of the opening seven chapters chart the early stages of Washington's education in Indian affairs. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his learning curve depended heavily on Indigenous knowledge. As a twenty-year-old, for example, Washington carried some correspondence to a French commander deep in Indian Country at the behest of Robert Dinwiddie. In order to make that trek, Washington relied on a Seneca named Tanaghrisson to teach him how to navigate the "slow and deliberate process" of Indigenous diplomacy required to safely cross a variety of Indigenous lands. Even if he was traveling to a French fort, Washington quickly learned that he was crossing "Tanaghrisson's World." But that did not stop the future land speculator in chief from commenting on the "Several extensive and very rich Meadows" he encountered that might be good for future colonization (75).

The bulk of part 1 and virtually all of part 2 emphasize Washington's martial encounters with the Indigenous residents of the eastern woodlands. After describing how the young colonel "consistently misread the motives and actions of the Ohio Indians" as being pro-French rather than [End Page 171] pro-Delaware, Calloway guides the reader into the wilderness of Washington's years as general of the Continental Army (96). By examining these historiographically well-trod years with an emphasis on Indigenous peoples, Calloway highlights the contradictions inherent in Washington's views of his Native neighbors. While he knew that "Indians could have a critical impact on the war" as allies, he also thought that the safety of his fledgling country depended upon offensive wars to "Root out these nefarious Wretches, from the face of the Earth" (221, 245).

The sorts of military actions he advocated for were necessary to make a legitimate claim on western lands that he had long hungered for. Part 3 explores the first president's efforts to use his public position to seize as many Indigenous lands as he could while simultaneously treating with these same peoples as sovereign nations. Though Washington willingly entertained visiting diplomats in Philadelphia as a means to secure lands as peacefully as he could, he was not averse to more bellicose solutions. Indeed, Washington's Indian policy was essentially an ultimatum: "civilization or death" (387). But as Calloway points out, Conotocarious "saw his policies as setting Indians on the road to survival, not destruction" (484–85).

As Calloway promises in his introduction, this is a book that expertly describes the relationship between the first president and the first Americans. On several occasions, however, Calloway concedes that this half century has a "different cast viewed from Indian country" (217). But aside from a few allusions to these Indigenous perspectives—the United States as "Thirteen Councils" or the Seven Years' War as a "war of...


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pp. 171-172
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