A historian examines how Indian war from the 1750s to the 1770s remade the social and political landscape of America’s middle colonies.
Early on, the challenges of the New World reinforced an ultra-orthodoxy among the overlapping cultural, linguistic and religious constituencies among European immigrants, heightening their mutual distaste and creating obvious difficulties for political and public life. A special scorn was reserved for backcountry settlers, dismissed as thoughtless, shiftless, no better than the Indians they stupidly provoked. Though he alludes to events in nearby colonies, Silver (History/Princeton) focuses on remarkably diverse Pennsylvania to explain how the fear and shock aroused by Indian attacks during the Seven Years’ and Revolutionary War changed all that, breaking down shared stereotypes. Instead, the political debate began to center on the suffering of the country folk, testing the loyalties of any thought in sympathy or, worse, collusion with “our savage neighbors.” Making liberal and judicious use of the historical record—pamphlets, sermons, petitions, news accounts, private correspondence, poems and plays—Silver demonstrates how the emergence of “the anti-Indian sublime” ennobled and empowered the previously downtrodden, casting them as victims of unspeakable horrors. This anti-Indian campaign—rhetorical and martial—drew the Europeans together, diminishing prejudice among them even as it hardened after the wars into a recognizable racism toward the tribes. Though not as compulsively readable as John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994), Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006) and Benjamin Woolley’s Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America (2007), Silver’s account is nevertheless full of engaging stories that serve his provocative thesis well.
A delight for historians and a worthwhile challenge for the general reader.