- Properties of Empire: Indians, Colonists, and Land Speculators on the New England Frontier by Ian Saxine
In many respects, what became known in the 1980s as “the new Indian history” got its start in New England. Before Francis Jennings published The Invasion of America in 1975, studies of Indian history in New England tended to be short and simple.1 In these accounts, the Wampanoags, already ravaged by disease, helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter and shared a meal that grew in national mythology to become the first Thanksgiving. Then tensions increased, the English destroyed the Pequots in 1637, and, despite John Eliot’s efforts to convert Indians in Massachusetts to Christianity, colonists broke the power of the tribes in King Philip’s War in 1675–76. Defeated and demoralized, Indians “disappeared” from history books if not from the region.
Prior to Jennings, the most extensive treatment had been Alden T. Vaughan’s New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620–1675. First published in 1965 and reissued in a revised edition in 1979, Vaughan’s treatment was significant for its more extensive treatment of Anglo-Native relations. Vaughan had argued that the first two generations of Puritans pursued relatively humane Indian policies. Jennings presented a very different portrayal: his Puritans were not only genocidal but had also left behind a distorted view of their interactions with Natives in their texts, which they laced with heavy doses of moral rectitude to divert attention from their actions. The Invasion of America marked the beginning of a new era in the historiography on Indian New England. James Axtell, Neal Salisbury, and other ethnohistorians dug deeper into the cultural complexities of encounter and took a hard look at the brutalities of colonialism. Scholars of Native New England gradually pushed the field’s inherited geographic and chronological boundaries as well; Kenneth M. Morrison’s The Embattled Northeast ventured into Maine, and other historians have dispelled the myth of Indian demise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2 Historians today explore multiple [End Page 162] Native American historical experiences in every corner of New England across eras, even reconstructing Indigenous prowess and power on the waters off the coast, and they routinely weave Native American histories fully into their studies of other peoples’ histories.
In Properties of Empire, Ian Saxine adds to this scholarship; he examines the well-worn topic of Indian land sales, but he focuses on Maine in the eighteenth century and asks new questions. Recent scholarship has interrogated and qualified the sharp dichotomies earlier writers drew between Indigenous and colonial landholding; most notably, Allan Greer’s Property and Dispossession explores varied forms of property formation and dispossession—and of Indigenous resistance—across the continent.3 Saxine likewise challenges some long-held assumptions about how easily Indians lost their lands by examining relationships between the English and the Amarascoggin, Kennebec, Penobscot, and other groups known collectively as Wabanakis, the people of the Dawnland. In place of a simple narrative of white greed and Indian loss, and of conflicts over lines drawn in the dirt, Saxine painstakingly weaves a tapestry of Wabanaki and colonial landowning and land transfers. Overlapping and competing systems of property placed colonial officials, speculators, and settlers in contest with each other as often as with the Wabanaki people whose lands they coveted.
Proprietors and speculators were, perhaps counterintuitively, often the strongest champions of Indigenous land rights, because Indians who possessed full title to their land could sell it to whomever they chose, rather than only to a government that claimed preemptive rights. Indians, therefore, played an important role in Maine’s early colonial history, not only as enemies or allies of the British in the recurrent imperial struggle with France but also because the titles they sold to colonists were a legal basis for landownership. As Saxine explains, “Indian land needed to be conveyed by a proper deed, with witnesses, and executed as such in a county court” (174). But acquiring land by...