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Uncommon Sense


By oieahc · August 19, 2021

Ongoing Native Power and Precarious Anglo-American Empires

WMQ 9 min read

By Elspeth Martini


Elspeth Martini is the author of “VISITING INDIANS,” NURSING FATHERS, AND ANGLO-AMERICAN EMPIRES IN THE POST–WAR OF 1812 WESTERN GREAT LAKES” in the July 2021 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.


If Native nations controlled the vast majority of North America above the Rio Grande at the end of the eighteenth century, then the nineteenth century was when non-Native empires finally gained preeminence. Or at least that was my general impression when, as a green doctoral candidate, I came across the British imperial records that sparked the original idea for this article. Unlike the bluster I was accustomed to reading in U.S. records, British colonial officials writing in the 1820s and early 1830s seemed to admit a relative powerlessness in their dealings with Native nations in the Great Lakes region.

I was, by that stage of my training, schooled in the Native American and borderlands histories that had recast early America as a space of Native power and European precariousness. But as a budding historian of U.S. and British imperial policy, I was drawn to the first half of the nineteenth century when, it seemed, the balance of power began to shift with increasing speed against ever-more Native nations, especially east of the Mississippi. These British records suggested something more reminiscent of earlier America. My efforts to figure out these dynamics ultimately became an article about U.S. and British officials as nursing diplomatic fathers in the post-War of 1812 Great Lakes.

The records that originally piqued my interest involved British colonial officials refusing cost-cutting directives from Whitehall to end the long-standing tradition of gifting supplies to Native allies. These colonial officials—from lower-level Indian agents right up to the governor general—adamantly insisted on meeting Native expectations rather than acquiescing to imperial policy. It seemed like an admission of Native power.

Initially I planned to spin these thoughts into a British-focused article that would only be tangentially related to my larger book project, which takes a broader—and in the case of the British, a more global—look at Anglo-American policies towards Indigenous peoples. But I also had U.S. records containing U.S. officials’ imaginings of sinister British plots to influence “the Indians” against the United States; imaginings that seemed even more fanciful given British officials’ preoccupation with limiting the fallout of imperial retrenchments. After deciding to integrate this inter-imperial disconnect, the article began to more directly complement my book manuscript, which includes a more limited discussion of how U.S. and, to a lesser extent, British officials in the Great Lakes region approached Native relations with an eye to what they thought their counterparts were doing across the imperial divide.

The original version of the essay was mostly based on some follow-up research I undertook at Library and Archives Canada. I was particularly enamored with these records because they showed that kinship protocols still shaped Native-British relations at British posts in the 1820s. I presented this first draft at a work-in-progress seminar during my first semester as a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh. Though otherwise light on secondary sources, I leaned heavily on Richard White’s Middle Ground to explain the kinship language of Indian children and British fathers. The advice I received during the workshop, especially from the designated discussants Laura Gotkowitz and Janelle Greenberg, stuck with me. Prof. Greenberg, for example, noted with interest my discussion of nursing fathers—something that I mentioned but didn’t stress in that first draft. Even though the job market, teaching, annual tenure-track portfolios, and other pressing deadlines intervened, when I was finally able to revisit the project, recalling the workshop discussion at Pitt helped me begin piecing together what I hope would be an inter-imperial borderlands narrative that emphasized ongoing Native power and the tenuousness of U.S. and British empire.

In hindsight, the version of the essay I first submitted to WMQ was more a mashup of related but yet-to-be-connected narrative threads than a coherent whole. I reflect on this somewhat sheepishly given how often I stress to my students the importance of a central thesis. But like the mentors who had advised me to send the manuscript off and let the peer-review process play out, the generous WMQ reviewers also saw the project’s potential. As Josh counseled, when confronted with essays lacking a clear central argument, readers often offer their own impressions regarding which themes should be brought to the fore. I was fortunate to end up with a collection of eloquently written reviews with astounding intellectual reach, all offering rich and compelling suggestions for the direction I should take the project. Josh’s advice on how to juggle these ideas was a much-appreciated bonus.  

With all this in mind, I reworked (what I hoped was) a more coherent narrative about post-War of 1812 geopolitics. This partly involved, as per the advice of several reviewers, taking a deeper dive into various fields of secondary literature to better explain the paternalistic yet apparently gender fluid language of kinship diplomacy. Still, it took the further back and forth of the WMQ’s rigorous editorial process to clarify and signpost the essay’s arguments. I am extremely grateful to the WMQ team for all their advice and hard work.       

Working on this article challenged me to wield various tools of historical analysis to which I am not fully accustomed. In particular, it pushed me to integrate gender (with a hint of sexuality) as a category of analysis, something I have less scope for in my more globally focused book. While this took me a little out of my comfort zone, it was nevertheless refreshing to deal with sources that suggested the still-aspirational nature of U.S. and British power. My forthcoming book, in contrast, engages more directly with situations in which Indigenous nations lost the upper hand in their own territories. This presents a different challenge: analyzing how Americans and Britons expropriated vast Indigenous territories while trying not to construe Anglo-American dominance as inevitable. But as I did when writing this article, I continue to keep in mind the historical fact that sovereign Indigenous nations persist in North America. Anglo-American dominance was therefore never fully realized, especially not on the supremacist terms proclaimed by nineteenth-century imperial officials.

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