August 20, 2018
OI Books: The Invasion of America and Me
13 min read
Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
by Daniel Mandell
I first encountered Francis Jennings’s The Invasion of America early in graduate studies at the University of Virginia. Unlike Christine DeLucia, I cannot remember that precise date (sometime in mid-1981), nor why I picked it up, but there is no forgetting its effect. In the first half of the book, Jennings broadly examined how first European rulers and then American intellectuals created a deceitful and destructive depiction of Native Americans, and then used that false construction to justify their subordination, dispossession, and near-extermination. In the second half, he applied those lessons in a slashing, no-holds-barred reexamination of New England’s origins from first English settlement to King Philip’s War, including a scorching scornful takedown of puritan saint John Eliot. In college I had been involved in Native American studies, and at Virginia had become interested in colonial social history and the newish New England town studies. It was not surprising that I was captivated by Jennings’s passionate, revisionist view, and went on to other recent works on early New England encounters. It now seems strange that there were so few: a handful of articles, Alden Vaughan’s New England Frontier (1965), and James Axtell’s The European and the Indian (1981).
“Fritz” Jennings’s life certainly shaped his iconoclasm. After a childhood in the coal-mining town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, he attended Temple University, taught in Philadelphia high schools, served in the Army’s HQ in England during World War II, and after the war got involved in union organizing—and became a HUAC target and was forced to resign from his teaching position. He then got the Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania and taught at a couple of small colleges before becoming in 1976 the director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Jennings wrote two other major works, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire (on the Covenant Chain) in 1984, and Empire of Fortune (on the Seven Years’ War) in 1988, but the quality of his writing seemed to decline without the Institute’s editorship. I saw him once before his death in 2000, in an overcrowded conference session: he was holding forth while holding out a wampum belt and looked a lot like Santa Claus, complete with a white beard and cherubic smile as he told us what the belt said about Euro-American deceit and aggression.
While the fiery brilliance of Invasion was very attractive, ironically one of its shortcomings soon became significant. At the end of my first year at Virginia, I decided to write my MA thesis on the experiences of Jonathan Edwards during his “exile” in Stockbridge from 1751 to 1757. But after hitch-hiking to the town (I knew nothing of research fellowships) and delving into its records, what grabbed my attention instead was that it was clearly an Indian town before, during, and after Edwards’ residence. So I wrote that history, ending with its takeover by English settlers in the 1760s. For some reason, I also looked into Natick, the earlier Indian mission town which marked John Eliot’s efforts, and noticed in the few published documents that Indians were still prominent there through mid-eighteenth century. Rereading Jennings, I was struck (like DeLucia) by his conclusion that, in the wake of King Philip’s War, “[d]emoralized and dispirited remnants of formerly large Indian communities sank ever deeper into subjection and debauchery.” (325) That was clearly not true of either Stockbridge or Natick, and I wondered about other surviving Indian towns. This was a story that needed to be told, and that drove me to write my dissertation on those two and two other Indians communities in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, then Behind the Frontier (1996), and finally Tribe, Race, History (2008), along with a string of articles on Natives in the region from 1700 to 1900. I was not alone: Jean O’Brien finished her dissertation on Natick (later published as Dispossession by Degrees) two years before I completed mine, and as I finished that first book the tide of prominent scholarship on New England Native Americans—though still mostly on the seventeenth century—was swelling. Since then the library of works on Indians in the region has become quite large, including many more books dealing with Native peoples after King Philip’s War.
Jennings’s work had other significant flaws that inspired scholars. He assumed that Natives and English shared a materialist motivation for trade and other needs. While that approach was useful in countering romantic distortions, those embracing his call to use conceptual tools from anthropology and other disciplines soon showed how Indian preferences were shaped more by symbolic, non-materialist perceptions, especially during the first century of their encounters with Europeans, providing more nuanced accounts of Native changes and developments. Although his angry battering of John Eliot—he depicted the puritan missionary as a Machiavellian hypocrite scheming for money and power—along with his generally shallow view of puritanism, was briefly seductive, it soon proved a flawed caricature. Yet as with his conclusion about Indian “remnants,” the effort of grappling with Jennings’s views forced the rest of us to dig more deeply into the motivations and significance of that missionary along with other colonial religious efforts. Ironically, while Jennings’s savaging of Eliot was certainly iconoclastic for the 1970s, I would find similarly scathing attacks on puritan leaders in stories by New England women writers published in the 1820s.
Such flaws and the evolving scholarship is why I largely put Invasion aside, although I continued to use pieces in teaching; it worked particularly well in my American historiography course, since students continued to love his writing, his thesis was crystal clear, and the work was clearly a product of the time (with the disillusionment of Vietnam and prominent Native activists including the American Indian Movement) and shaped by his experiences. (Alas, one student liked the book so much that they kept my copy and I had to get a new one.) Then a new project redeemed Jennings’s scholarship for me. I went back to the seventeenth century to edit and annotate an exhaustive volume of treaties and conferences from the region, and as I read the documents alongside Invasion I became increasingly impressed by his depiction of “The Deed Game” (128-45, 254-297) played by Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut against both the Narragansetts and Rhode Island. Those sections, I found, were not only imaginative and original but also stunningly accurate. Similarly, his argument that King Philip’s War was “a congeries of conflicts” rather than “a racial showdown” (298) became the scholarly consensus, and in writing a book on the war I found it clearly supported by the evidence.
The Invasion of America was a milestone in the scholarly shift to placing Natives at the center of colonial American history. In my spring 1981 UVa colloquium on Early American Social History we read nothing about Native Americans, and no one in the department was interested in that vast topic. Today such a thing is inconceivable: there are numerous faculty positions today in early America focused on Native history. The book challenged many paradigms of Native American history and colonial New England, and inspired a flood of scholarship that has further transformed our understanding of Native-European encounters and that region in particular. Eager graduate students now need months to read all of the works published just on New England Indians and, as DeLucia’s fine review of Invasion shows, they continued to be inspired by Jennings’s masterpiece.
For Further Reading
Alden Vaughan, New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675, 3rd ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995)
James Axtell, The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Daniel Mandell, Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).
Daniel Mandell, Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780-1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)
Jean O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650-1790 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Christopher Miller and George Hammel, “A New Perspective on Indian-White Contact: Cultural Symbols and Colonial Trade,” JAH 73 (1986): 311-28.
Hillary Wyss, Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).
Daniel Mandell, ed., New England Treaties, Southeast, Vol. 19, Early American Indian Documents: Treaties and Laws, 1607-1789 (Baltimore: UPA-LexisNexis, 2003).
Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998).
Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018)
Daniel Mandell, King Philip’s War: Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).
Daniel Mandell is professor of history at Truman State University, Missouri, where he has taught since 1999. His current project, tentatively titled The Lost Tradition of Economic Equality in America, 1600-1880, will probably be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in early 2019. You can find him on Twitter as @MandellDmandell.