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FW: Murphree on Wright, _The Only Land They Knew_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...perhaps some subscribers will find this title of interest...aj wright ... From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List [mailto:H-REVIEW@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 14, 2000
      fyi...perhaps some subscribers will find this title of interest...aj wright

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List
      [mailto:H-REVIEW@...] On Behalf Of H-Net Reviews
      Sent: Wednesday, June 14, 2000 12:04 PM
      To: H-REVIEW@...
      Subject: Murphree on Wright, _The Only Land They Knew_

      Published by H-South@... (June, 2000)

      J. Leitch Wright Jr. _The Only Land They Knew: American Indians in
      the Old South_. New introduction by James H. Merrell. Lincoln:
      University of Nebraska Press, 1999 (orig. pub. 1981). xvii + 372 pp.
      Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $19.95 (paper),
      ISBN 0-8032-9805-6.

      Reviewed for H-South by Daniel S. Murphree
      <dmurphre@...>, Department of History, Florida State

      The Origins of New Indian History in the South

      Over the past two decades, ethnic group interaction in the colonial
      Southeast has been the focus of extensive scholarly investigation. A
      number of historians have reassessed the region and its significance
      by employing anthropological, demographic, ecological, and
      historical evidence previously ignored in many earlier studies.
      Scholars such as Daniel Usner, Patricia Galloway, M. Thomas Hatley,
      and Theda Perdue, to name but a few, deserve praise for their
      accomplishments in redefining interaction between African, European,
      and Native Americans in this setting.

      Yet a decade before most of these individuals began publishing their
      findings, J. Leitch Wright, Jr. established the theoretical model
      upon which recent scholarship is based. Since its initial
      publication in 1981, few works have provided a better application of
      New Indian History methodologies in a comprehensive evaluation of
      the South and its peoples than Wright's most daring undertaking,
      _The Only Land They Knew_.

      In his Introduction to this newly reprinted work, noted historian
      James Merrell claimed that since the book's original publication, no
      scholar has "attempted the sort of synthesis Wright accomplished."
      (p. xi). This is not surprising considering the ambitious scope of
      Wright's endeavor: summarize the evolution of human interaction in
      a 400,000 square mile region during the three hundred year period
      before U.S. independence. Even more daunting, attempt such a study
      using methodologies and materials which most historians at that time
      had little familiarity with or training in how to use. In this
      sense, however, _The Only Land They Knew_ presents a case study in
      the evolution of "frontier" historians during the last

      Wright's earlier research had concentrated primarily on Spanish,
      French, and English interaction in the Southeast, specifically in
      terms of imperial rivalries, mercantilist competition, and global
      warfare. But in light of cross-disciplinary paradigms and social
      trends emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, the author, like many of his
      contemporaries, realized the necessity of broadening his focus.
      Studying all major population groups in the region provided a fuller
      historical picture since "Indians, Europeans, and Africans lived in
      the South, interacting with one another and altering the culture of
      each," (p. xv). To gain a better understanding of this interaction,
      traditional sources had to be supplemented. Like most historians of
      the genre today, Wright began to consult "archaeology, linguistics,
      ethnography, anthropology, oral history, demography, and geography"
      (p. xv). In the end, this approach succeeded in providing a
      revealing overview that closely corresponded to the author's goals.

      The textbook structure of the work, along with Wright's folksy,
      narrative style combine to enliven the content and appeal to the
      expert and novice audience alike. Chapter One delves into the
      pre-contact cultures, lifestyles, population divisions, and
      subsistence patterns, of "Southern Indians," concluding with a broad
      comparison of the original Southerners and natives in other regions
      of North America. Generally absent in similar studies, Wright next
      analyzes the impact of Spanish exploration, missionization, and
      colonization efforts on the indigenous peoples long before English
      settlers arrived in North America.

      More conventional, the next two chapters deal with English
      settlement along the shores of present-day Virginia. European-Indian
      contact in the early Carolinas, another area deserving greater
      treatment, makes up the content of the following section. Digressing
      from the regional framework, Wright then devotes a chapter to the
      impact of slavery on natives in the South, paying special attention
      to how each European power approached the practice and influenced
      its transformation over the decades. The author next revisits the
      topics of native demography, subsistence and day-to-day interaction
      and how they changed after a century of European expansion in North
      America. Insightful chapters on English attempts to convert the
      Indians in the South to Christianity and the settlement of Georgia
      and its impact follow respectively. The author concludes with
      sections devoted to the influence of colonization on both Indians
      and Europeans and the, at that time, little studied genre of African
      American relationships with Native Americans.

      Wright is especially adept at promoting new approaches to
      understanding intercultural exchange. By pointing out that "Ponce de
      Leon, Florida's discoverer, was almost as much a West Indian as an
      Iberian," and emphasizing the influences of Caribbean settlement on
      other early colonizers, the author makes a valid case for
      reevaluating exploration of the South (p. 32). Rather than
      originating from a purely Spanish background, many sixteenth century
      imperialists approached the New World from a vastly different
      European-Caribbean perspective. Regardless of their nominal
      designation, these initial immigrants, as well as growing numbers
      from England, Scotland, and Ireland, helped transform native
      lifestyles to a remarkable extent, long before the existence of "The
      Thirteen Colonies". By the time eighteenth-century settlers arrived
      in North America, the natives they encountered had already
      experienced European influences for decades, a fact often obscured
      in earlier studies. As Wright points out, though eighteenth-century
      colonists remarked on the exotic nature of the Indians' attire, body
      tattooing, and facial decorations, "in all probability the paint
      [used by Indians] had not come from local berries and nuts but had
      been shipped from London" (p. 219). The exotic savagery that the
      settlers perceived actually emanated from both native and European

      More indicative of later historiographical trends are Wright's
      observations on native modes of adaptation to European expansion.
      The author offers a brief, but illuminating, discussion on the
      emergence of "tributary" Indians living among the early English
      outposts in Virginia (pp.92-93). Though Wright credits these
      bi-cultural natives with less autonomy than later historians, he
      does point out the important role of such individuals in overall
      interaction between Europeans and Indians, a role more carefully
      explored in Merrell's works regarding the Catawbas. Wright's
      examination of slavery and Indians provides an interesting
      perspective on contemporary understandings of the institution in
      North America. Claiming that both natives and Africans experienced
      the process of enslavement by Europeans in similar manners, he
      concludes at one point that among other commonalities, "[t]heir
      Middle Passage differed only in that their ships sailed in opposite
      directions..." (p. 130). While such a statement should ignite much
      debate among scholars, the author's overall contention, that it is
      impossible to understand "much of the history of the Southern
      Indians since the first discovery, without considering Indian
      slavery," remains unassailable (p. 125).

      Equally thought provoking is Wright's general assessment of
      "Southern Indian" societies in the years just before Removal.
      Despite their worsening relationships with Europeans, he asserted
      that overall, the native populations "had achieved a measure of
      stability" (p. 280). Unlike in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early
      eighteenth centuries, when "pandemics had disrupted village life,
      warriors had been turned into commercial hunters and slave catchers
      (or their victims), and hostilities were common with both white
      settlers and aboriginal neighbors," native peoples in the South
      after the American Revolution "were far more settled than in earlier
      times" (p. 281). Though many may doubt the validity of such a
      conclusion, Wright's perspective deserves consideration. Implied is
      the idea that scholars should not always view native perspectives
      during the colonial period as dependent on relationships with
      colonists, or even on the presence of European Americans.
      Evaluations of trends and events affecting Indian cultures must not
      obscure the often unrelated evolution of native viewpoints and
      societal foci. Just as colonists did not consider the role of
      Indians in all aspects of colonial society, natives often viewed
      their culture through viewpoints absent of outside cultural

      Wright omits much detail and only briefly covers certain aspects of
      Southern society during the colonial period, an unfortunate
      necessity in these types of general examinations. Nevertheless,
      certain omissions raise questions. Though the author correctly
      emphasizes the important role of slavery in native cultures, he
      provides no information on the practice among the Indians prior to
      European arrival. The logic and meaning of slavery to indigenous
      peoples is ignored, leaving the reader with the erroneous impression
      that natives understood enslavement in much the same way as
      Europeans. Also surprising, considering Wright's regional specialty,
      is the relatively brief consideration of the Floridas, especially
      during the eighteenth century. Possessing a much smaller European
      population than the Atlantic colonies, the Floridas offer a unique
      window into ethnic interaction in an environment dominated by no
      single group. The author analyzes the region during the early
      exploration period, but only emphasizes Spanish-Indian
      relationships, largely disregarding the added dynamic of English and
      French competition in the region. On that note, the French presence
      in the South is barely examined at all, again misleading readers'
      understanding of European colonization in the South. Failing to
      document French settlement in the lower Mississippi River valley and
      gulf coast hinterlands distorts the motivations of all peoples in
      the region in terms of intercultural trade, diplomacy, and warfare.

      Any minor complaints are far overshadowed by the impressive
      presentation of the subject matter and Wright's overall legacy. His
      approach to the region and its peoples, in both this work and
      others, has influenced numerous scholars and students. Important for
      the information provided in its pages, this study is a valuable
      historical document in itself. Future historiographers will no doubt
      refer to _The Only Land They Knew_ when marking the dividing line
      between Turnerian and New Indian approaches to the South.

      Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work
      may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
      is given to the author and the list. For other permission,
      please contact H-Net@....
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