Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America

By Theilmann, John M. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America


Theilmann, John M., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. By Daniel K. Richter. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 317; $15.95, paper.)

Some years ago most American history textbooks tended to neglect the native inhabitants of North America in the colonial era save for a few often erroneous generalizations. Thanks to the work of Francis Jennings, James Axtell, Colin Calloway, and Daniel Richter, this is no longer the case. Much of the early work in Native American history dealt with specific tribes or problems such as Indian slave holding. Daniel Richter, the director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, provides a synoptic account of Native American history from the first European contacts into the years of the early Republic. Unlike some other accounts that view Indians from essentially a European perspective, Richter consciously tries to examine the history of colonial America from an Indian perspective, hence his subtitle: "A Native History of Early America." As he indicates in his prologue, this approach often entails looking at the evidence with a quite different eye.

Richter provides a chronological treatment of the development of Indian society after European contact. Unlike other histories of early America, Europeans are the incidental players in the author's story, coming on stage only when they have an impact on Indian society. The first chapter describes aspects of Indian life in sixteenth century North America and tries to develop how the Indians must have viewed the first white explorers and colonists. By the seventeenth century, Europeans were beginning to have an ecological as well as an economic and often violent impact on the people. Richter's second chapter deals with how native peoples saw these impacts primarily in New England. The third chapter examines how Indians and Europeans interacted and viewed each other. Three Indians are used to detail this relationship: Pocahontas, Tekakwitha, and Metacom (known to the colonists as King Philip). By contrasting their lives, Richter is able to show that there was nothing inevitable in the encounter of Indians and whites. Pocahontas died disillusioned and far from home. Tekakwitha took on an air of sanctity. Metacom, killed in the last stages of King Philip's War, had been drawn into a conflict not of his making and became demonized in the colonists' perspective.

The standard contemporary account of King Philip's War was written from the white perspective. Finding that the native perspective is more difficult, Richter addresses the issue of the Indian voice in his fourth chapter. One point of entry appears in the accounts of Natick converts to Christianity in New England. Yet, as Richter points out, if we attend to these Natick narratives closely, a much different view of colonial society appears than what John Eliot intended.

The native peoples of eastern North America were part of the imperial Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. They learned from such conflicts as King Philip's War that direct confrontation with Europeans was suicidal. …

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