Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Beyond the New England Frontier: Native American Historiography since 1965

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Beyond the New England Frontier: Native American Historiography since 1965

Article excerpt

Introduction: In this article, historian Ethan A. Schmidt reviews over fifty years of changing interpretations and scholarship on Puritan and Native American history in New England. This historiographical perspective (referring to the history of the writing of history) offers readers a critical evaluation of nearly two dozen major historians and their works, from Alden Vaughans New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675 (first edition published in 1965) to Kathleen Bragdons twovolume history of coastal Algonquians, Native People of Southern New England, 1650-1775 (second volume published in 2009). Along the way he reviews shifting interpretations of the Puritans, the Pequot War (1637), King Philip's War (1676), and the Salem Witch Trials (1692).

This ambitious and sweeping article begins with a discussion of the field of ethnohistory, which emerged in the 1970s. Ethnohistorians use both written sources (of which Native Americans left very few, but European observers left many) along with non-written sources favored by disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Key to modern ethnohistory is an emphasis on the interaction of Native and nonNative cultures in which both are seen as equally vital to the creation of a shared colonial history. Dr. Schmidt has presented his research at numerous conferences and has published extensively in the field of Native American history.

In his 1989 article, "Some Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians," ethnohistorian James Merrell outlined what he saw as the ultimate goal of the subdiscipline. According to Merrell, ethnohistorians set out not only to provide a more accurate picture of Native American history but also to infuse the larger field of American history with their findings.1 Merrell looked forward to a future in which ethnohistory existed not simply as a narrow subfield but as a tool required for crafting a more exact and useful history of colonial America. "Without the leap of imagination needed to include those Boston [Native American] church-goers or that Princeton Indian in our vision of early America, we have not really understoodhave not really begun to understand-the colonial experience," he argued. Merrell also lamented that many colonial American historians had not made use of ethnohistory as well as the fact that many ethnohistorians seemed uninterested in presenting their findings for a wider historical audience.2

Although progress toward these goals may not have been as rapid as Merrell would have liked in 1989, when one takes into account the work produced over the past half century, one finds many examples of the growing integration of Native people into the overarching narrative of colonial America. From the works of early ethnohistorians like Anthony F. C. Wallace and Nancy Oestreich Lurie, to monographs with a broader focus by Gary Nash, Edmund S. Morgan, and T. H. Breen, to more recent scholarship by ethnohistorians and colonial historians alike, such as Daniel Richter, Gregory Dowd, Theda Perdue, Woody Holton, and Alan Taylor, one can detect considerable evidence of the growing incorporation of Native Americans into our overall understanding of colonial America.3 We can detect this development throughout the various regions of colonial America, and colonial New England is no exception. In fact, the New England colonies provide an especially revealing lens through which to view this continuing integration of Native Americans into the mainstream of colonial American history.

Before examining New England ethnohistorical scholarship over the past fifty years, we must first arrive at a suitable definition of just what exactly constitutes ethnohistory. According to James Axtell, ethnohistory is "essentially the use of historical and ethnological methods and materials to gain knowledge of the nature and causes of change in a culture defined by ethnological concepts and categories."4 In the words of W. S. …

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