Preston, David L.: The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308|
|Issue:||Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 3-4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783 (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Preston, David L.|
Preston, David L. The Texture of Contact: European and Indian
Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783. Lincoln,
NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. x + 408 pages. Cloth, $45.00.
In The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers' of Iroquoia, 1667-1783, historian David Preston offers a nuanced, thoroughly researched analysis of European and Indian relationships on the frontiers of the Iroquois confederacy. Where previous scholars have described nearly unremitting conflict, Preston finds a world where violence was not inevitable and where daily interactions between the French, English, Iroquois, Dutch, Hurons, Abenakis and others were generally characterized by peaceful co-existence. While he acknowledges the bloodshed that did take place, Preston argues that in their focus on the actions of imperial elites, earlier historians have missed the important local relationships that dominated daily interaction on the frontier. Cultural negotiations took place not only in formal diplomatic meetings but also in the mundane acts of securing food, shelter, and land. Ironically, as Preston demonstrates, the very closeness of the intercultural relationships that were formed on the frontier made the violence of the mid-nineteenth century all the more devastating, as "both Indian and European settlers understood the war as a profound betrayal" (p. 149). The fighting was not between strangers who failed to understand cultural difference, asserts Preston, but between neighbors who had long-lasting, complex relationships.
The backcountry of Pennsylvania and New York is familiar ground to historians with an interest in European/Native American relations, and the narrative of racially charged violence has been a focus of numerous studies in the past. Where Francis Jennings saw an unrelenting invasion of European imperialists in The Invasion of America (1975), James Merrell identified a network of semi-professional cultural brokers mediating peace and war in Into the American Woods (2000). Most recently, Peter Silver's excellent Our Savage Neighbors' (2009) found the beginnings of racial consciousness being forged in the crucible of frontier violence. By examining local records that many historians have long overlooked, Preston is able to bring a fresh perspective to the field. What emerges is a sophisticated analysis that takes into consideration the variable conditions in settler communities on the frontier.
Significantly, Preston includes both Native Americans and Europeans as "settlers," since migration to the region in the eighteenth-century was especially fluid and allowed for a continual influx of new residents. For example, the Mohawk community of Schoharie, which served as a refuge for many Native Americans who had been displaced during the late seventeenth century, also became a center for Palatine Germans who had originally been brought to the region to secure pitch and tar for the Royal Navy. In 1712, the struggling German-speaking settlers approached Mohawk leaders in Schoharie and sought permission to settle in the Native American community (p. 78). According to Preston, this act was significant in two respects. First, it demonstrates that the European settlers acknowledged that the Mohawks were the legitimate landowners, not the government of New York. Second, it marked the beginning of a shared community, where daily interaction between Native American and European settlers fostered a generally peaceful co-existence. Preston does not ignore the sporadic violence and cultural misunderstandings that took place during this period, but successfully shows that systemic violence was not inevitable.
After carefully establishing the close ties between settler communities of Natives and Europeans, Preston reveals how it all unraveled and descended into extraordinary violence during the Seven Years' War. The author's focus on comparative local history allows him to account for important variations in experience: While some settler communities in New York were virtually unscathed, Pennsylvania witnessed some of the worst bloodshed of the war. Preston argues that historians who explain the violence on European settlers' irrational fears and racism are missing the actual interactions between Natives and settlers leading up to 1755. The origins of the dispute were ultimately about land ownership, but the root of the problem was not that Natives and Europeans did not understand the other side's notion of property; after many years of interactions, they were quite familiar with the different cultural expectations. Rather, as Preston argues, each side came to resent the other's different ideas. As this resentment grew, the Pennsylvanian government saw an opportunity to break the potentially dangerous alliance of Native settlers and European squatters on the frontier and assert greater authority over the region. The mixture of local resentments and imperial desires merged to destroy what had been decades of relatively peaceful co-existence.
The Texture of Contact is an important book that will shape discussions of Native American history, the backcountry, and the Seven Years' War. While he occasionally stretches a metaphor to a breaking point, Preston writes with confidence and clarity, taking readers from a remote backwoods trading post to a royal governor's office and giving each its due in shaping events. In his skilled hands, the daily work of eating and drinking with neighbors takes on a new significance; a ruptured intimacy, not cultural misunderstanding, best explains the violence that ravaged the backcountry in the eighteenth century. By closely connecting local history to imperial events, Preston provides a model of scholarship that will serve other historians well in the future.
Melanie Perreault, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
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