- Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi by Jacob F. Lee
Jacob F. Lee's Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi offers a vibrant retelling of the period between the collapse of Cahokia in the early fourteenth century and the rise of the United States in the early nineteenth. His work highlights both the paramount importance of midcontinental riverways like the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wabash and the centrality of Indigenous understandings, and networks, of kinship in shaping and controlling this pivotal region. These factors ensured that the landscape and waterways of Middle America provided a venue in which "numerous Indian nations, European Empires, and individuals struggled for power and wealth and fought to limit the authority of others," and, because these engagements connected "regions too often seen as discrete," their effects echoed across colonial America and the wider Atlantic (8).
When the French first encountered the midcontinent of North America in the late seventeenth century, "ignorance and prejudice prevented them from recognizing the well-ordered social and political world constructed by Illinois and their allies" (47). Employing strategies developed and honed in the aftermath of Cahokia's fall, the Illinois "recognized the power that came from controlling waterways and river travel" and "buil[t] kinship-based alliances that linked their towns to trading partners in the western Great Lakes, the Great Plains, and the lower Mississippi valley" (17–18). Over the course of the seventeenth century, Indians and French alike used kinship to develop intimate and durable ties in the region. However, resistance by French officials to these relationships "created a rift between French political interests in the region and the familial, religious, and economic bonds that linked Jesuits and coureur des bois with the Illinois" (83).
In the eighteenth century, France's empire-building floundered as it became "drawn into local conflicts that ballooned into expensive imperial wars" (89). Native politics and rivalry tied to kinship and control of mid-continental rivers made France's vision of a unified empire impossible, and, by the advent of the Seven Years' War, the lack of kinship ties led their Illinois and Miami allies to sit the struggle out. After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Great Britain, Spain, and the Indian communities of the Illinois Country sought a future without France. In doing so, they [End Page 528] thrived or stumbled as they came to grips with the continuing influence of rivers and kinship. Places like St. Louis on the Mississippi River became hubs for multiethnic and multi-national families that linked Indian country to European ports.
The arrival of the United States into the waterways of Middle America in the early nineteenth century engaged with, and upended, centuries of European reliance on Indigenous kinship-based alliances. Through land-centered conquest and race-based notions of who could belong in a family, the United States "fractured and reconstituted the [preexisting] kinship networks of the midcontinent" by allying with ambitious and multi-ethnic French families like the Chouteaus of St. Louis to dispossess Indigenous peoples and become masters of the middle waters. "The United States," Lee writes, "supplanted the longtime rules of the midcontinent, not because it brought new imperial strategies to the region but because it perfected old ones" (230).
Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi is lively and masterful. Like Michael McDonnell's Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, Lee's narrative looks beyond the historical concept of the "middle ground" toward a colonial history where the concerns of Indigenous politics and diplomacy rendered Euro-American concerns secondary. Likewise, the book's focus on the importance of waterways and rivers in this narrative offers a wonderful avenue from which to disrupt, or transcend, the calcified boundaries of regional histories. This is a valuable and useful narrative that provides a framework for future historical research.