Early America as Indian country

Daniel Richter

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Flip open any textbook on early American history and you’ll find tales of Europeans riding roughshod over Native Americans. The stories involve bloodshed and battle, with Indians usually playing the part of the losers.

Now turn east, away from the West’s invasion-conquest model, and a more nuanced picture emerges.

In “Facing East From Indian Country” (Harvard, 2001), Penn Professor of History Daniel K. Richter writes a new history on how Native Americans interacted with European settlers. This time Native Americans take center-stage as skilled adapters.

The book won Richter the 2001-2002 Louis Gotschalk Prize of the American Society of Eighteenth Century Studies.

Richter said he was not interested in telling a story that took the European settlers and their expansion west as its starting point.

“An invasion-conquest model is still one that faces west,” he said. “It sees the important actors as the invaders.”

But trying to understand how early Native Americans understood the Europeans’ arrival proved challenging. The Indians left little record of their encounters.

“[I had] to go with the lack of evidence, which is a scary thing to do for a historian,” said Richter.

Taking hints from archaeology, Richter learned that Native Americans had contact with European goods before having ever laid eyes upon the settlers. The names they called the Europeans—axe makers and wood makers—underscores this material relationship.

Yet trade was not the only European import. Disease—like smallpox, which wiped out half the Iroquois and Huron confederacies in the 1630s—also shaped Indian encounters with the settlers.

Although the Indian communities which Richter explores differed from each other, they felt the Europeans’ arrival in similar, devastating ways.

But here’s where the story turns. Instead of submitting, these early Native Americans reorganized and regrouped, seeking ways to incorporate the Europeans into their world.

“I think people are surprised at the lack of emphasis on violent conflict, bloodshed,” said Richter. “[But] I have a different kind of tragedy in mind, one that is more subtle because of missed opportunities and misunderstandings.”

When facing east, Pocahontas, an iconic Indian figure in early American history, is no longer the “sexy savior of Jamestown,” said Richter. She now becomes a woman embroiled in the intricacies of diplomacy who shrewdly does what her father wanted her to do and enters into a political marriage.

“I’m constantly trying to turn these stories around and say, Okay, what are they trying to tell us about Native Americans,” said Richter.

But Richter’s book is more about how to construct an alternative history than about what that history is exactly. “I wanted to resist a kind of ‘just the facts, ma’am’ story,” he said. Richter said his stories only offer examples of how Indians contributed to early America.

Beyond the good Indian who just wanted to help the colonists and the brave Indian who resisted and went down fighting are the overlooked Indians who sought to renegotiate a world with Europeans, said Richter.

“[I show] people trying to get by as best as they can,” said Richter. “This is more inspiring than people who go down in flames.”

Originally published on March 7, 2002