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  • Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi by Jacob F. Lee
  • Stephen Warren
Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi. By Jacob F. Lee. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019. 358 pages. Cloth, ebook.

Jacob F. Lee’s Masters of the Middle Waters is an ambitious, well-researched synthesis of the histories of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri River watersheds and the various peoples—Illinois, Chickasaw, Osage, French, Spanish, and American—whose diplomats and traders vied for control of these spaces over the longue durée. From roughly the fall of Cahokia around 1300 to the era of removal, Lee argues, Natives and non-Natives alike used fictive and actual kinship to gain mastery over waterways and, by extension, power over the region and its many peoples. For most of the colonial period, the Illinois, Chickasaw, and Osage determined the course of empires, and both the French and Spanish depended on participating in the alliance networks these nations had built to sustain their footholds in the heart of the continent. But human mastery of the region was ephemeral, and kinship systems evolved, shifted, and sometimes fell apart. By necessity, then, the ascendancy of the Illinois, Osage, and Chickasaw—like that of the French, Spanish, and British traders—faded as new regional powers asserted their supremacy over the region around modern-day Saint Louis. Rivers remained the spine and the heart of this vast interconnected world; throughout Lee’s epic narrative, Native nations and empires alike survived, and sometimes thrived, by establishing kinship networks along the waterways that coursed through this region.

Lee’s work brings together several historiographical trends. Since the 1991 publication of Richard White’s The Middle Ground, historians have slowly turned away from his argument that shattered Native communities and colonizers alike adopted a shared world “of mutual and creative misunderstanding.”1 In The Native Ground, Kathleen DuVal emphasized Europeans’ dependency on Native peoples in the Arkansas River valley. Historians Michael Witgen and Michael A. McDonnell focused on the Anishinaabe to tell a story of autonomy and resistance in which Indigenous sovereignty lasted well into the American period.2 Lee’s work applies these [End Page 144] analyses to the central Mississippi River watershed. He clearly demonstrates that the Illinois, Chickasaw, and Osage were expansionist powers whose mastery of the Middle Waters reveals the essential vulnerability of European colonizers in the heart of the continent. What sets Lee’s work apart from these earlier studies is his close attention to kinship as the primary determinant of a people’s success or failure along these watery pathways.

Lee joins a growing trend of scholars such as Sami Lakomäki and Pekka Hämäläinen in his use of Euro-American terms to explain and define Native political systems.3 Similarly, in his explanation of Native slavery in the late seventeenth century, slaves are defined as commodities. However, a closer analysis of the Miami-Illinois language would have introduced readers to the fuller spectrum of Indigenous servitude, which ranged from chattel slavery to the incorporation of the enslaved into Illinois kinship systems. Violence and the traffic in human beings, as understood by Native people themselves, deserved further attention. Lee does, however, explain the strategy of Illinois slavers. They targeted Native nations such as the Wichita and Chickasaw because those people lived well beyond their home territory; long-distance slaving expeditions safeguarded alliances closer to home.

Masters of the Middle Waters also explodes the distinction between the pre- and post-contact cultures of what are now Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Lee provides a refined, careful, and accessible analysis of the human societies defined by archaeologists as the Oneota, Danner, Huber, Fisher, and Fort Ancient cultures. In so doing, Lee draws on the pathbreaking work of anthropologist Robbie Ethridge and a host of southern archaeologists and historians who have done much to stitch together pre- and post-contact worlds.4 Lee has adapted Middle America to these southern studies, thereby further blurring the distinction between Native and European power and authority.

The result is a synoptic view, and Lee eschews...


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pp. 144-148
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