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FW: Review: Murphree on Wright, _The Only Land They Knew_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi...aj wright ... From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington Sent: Tuesday, June
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 27, 2000
      fyi...aj wright

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...] On
      Behalf Of H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington
      Sent: Tuesday, June 13, 2000 1:05 PM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: Review: 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 University

      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 influences.

      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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