The Native Ground

"Moving beyond an 'Indians and Europeans' story, DuVal looks instead at competing and overlapping stories involving multiple Native groups who operate from different positions with different strategies and experiences, and incorporate an array of outsiders."—Colin G. Calloway, Dartmouth College

The Native Ground
Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent

Kathleen DuVal

2006 | 336 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $24.95
American History | Native American Studies
View main book page

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. A Bordered Land
2. Hosting Strangers
3. Negotiators of a New Land
4. An Empire in the West
5. New Alliances
6. Better at Making Peace Than War
7. A New Order
8. The End of the Native Ground?

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In the summer of 1673, a Quapaw Indian spotted two canoes full of Frenchmen descending the broad, brown waterway that Algonquian speakers named the Mississippi, the "Big River." When the people of Kappa, the northernmost Quapaw town, heard the news, they prepared to welcome the newcomers. Several Quapaws paddled their own canoes into the river, and one held aloft a calumet, a peace pipe. As the Quapaws hoped, this sign of peaceful intentions, recognized by native peoples across North America, allayed the fears of their French visitors: Quebec merchant Louis Jolliet, Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette, and their handful of companions. As his canoe pulled up beside the Frenchmen, the man holding the calumet sang a song of welcome. He handed them the pipe, with some cornbread and sagamité, corn porridge. After the visitors had smoked and eaten, the Quapaws led them to Kappa, on the banks of the Mississippi some twenty-five miles north of the mouth of the Arkansas River. There, under persimmon and plum trees, the women prepared a place for the visitors to sit among the town's elders, on fine rush mats, surrounded by the warriors. The rest of the men and women of Kappa sat in an outer circle. One of the young men of the town translated for Marquette through an Algonquian language that both of them knew.

The Quapaws' message was clear. They wanted an alliance with the French. From neighbors to the east, the Quapaws had learned of Europeans and the powerful munitions that they traded and gave to their Indian allies. But, as the Quapaw elders explained to their visitors, enemies had "prevented them from becoming acquainted with the Europeans, and from carrying on any trade with them." The Quapaws hoped that Jolliet and Marquette would be the first of many French visitors who would prove steady allies and provide useful goods.

The Quapaws were purposefully shaping the newcomers' understandings of the North American midcontinent and the people who lived there. While the Quapaws demonstrated that they were generous and friendly, they portrayed their enemies as aggressive and dangerous. When the visitors mentioned that they intended to continue following the Mississippi to the sea, the Quapaws knew that such a trip would give their rivals, the Tunicas, Yazoos, and Koroas, the opportunity to influence French perceptions and to forge their own exclusive alliance with the visitors. Therefore, the Quapaws warned their guests that the trip would be extremely dangerous because the Indians to the south "had guns and were very warlike." Swayed by the warning, Jolliet and Marquette turned back toward Canada, where they would convey the Quapaws' description of the remainder of the route to the Gulf of Mexico, without having seen it themselves.

While Jolliet and Marquette believed that they were establishing contact with the native people of this region, the Quapaws' situation was a bit more complicated than they revealed. They were particularly interested in shaping French impressions of and involvement in the region because they themselves had only recently settled there. Apparently, some decades earlier, Iroquoian-speakers had used Dutch weapons to raid Indians to their west, compelling several Dhegiha Siouan peoples—the Quapaws, Osages, Omahas, Poncas, and Kansas—to move west of the Mississippi River. Most had headed northwest from the mouth of the Ohio, but the Quapaws had settled farther south, near the juncture of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. Here, they faced new challenges from native peoples with longer histories in the region who contested the Quapaws' right to be there. The Tunicas, Yazoos, and Koroas to the south and Caddoan-speaking peoples to the west attacked the newcomers for positioning themselves in territory that the older residents still considered their own. Surrounded by rivals, the Quapaws had no access to the English and Dutch arms trade in the East or the Spanish posts in the West and saw the French visitors as their opportunity to shift local power relations in their favor.

The meeting between the Quapaws and this French party was only one of countless encounters wherein one people attempted to shape another's interpretation of the mid-continent, the region along the central Mississippi River and its western tributaries, the Missouri, St. Francis, White, Arkansas, Ouachita, and Red Rivers. This book particularly centers on the Arkansas River Valley because of its sustained Indian and European diversity. This complicated and contested region experienced waves of successive migrations of Indians and Europeans, from millennia B.C. through the early nineteenth century. At various times, Mississippian chiefdoms, a variety of Caddoan-speakers, Illinois peoples, Quapaws, Osages, Shawnees, Miamis, and Cherokees called the Arkansas Valley home. France, Spain, Britain, and the United States all attempted to make the region and its peoples part of their empires. Surrounded by numerous and changing potential allies and enemies, the various peoples of the region confronted a constant problem in trying to establish a stable set of relations that would secure their rights to live, hunt, farm, and trade in the heart of the continent.

In their negotiations, Indians and Europeans alike sought to control the culture of diplomacy and trade and to define themselves and others in ways that forwarded their own interests. Both Indians and Europeans purposefully constructed and advanced notions of us and them, but these categories were never as simple as Indians and Europeans. Because their lives and livelihoods depended on making distinctions, all were mindful of the differences between, for example, the French and the English, and the Osages and the Shawnees. When new Indians or Europeans arrived, they found themselves recruited by those already there, who sought to teach newcomers their interpretation of the history, customs, and peoples of the region. Which people's vision prevailed depended on their powers of persuasionCverbal, economic, and military.

In the heart of the North American continent, far from centers of European population and power, Indians were more often able to determine the form and content of inter-cultural relations than were their European would-be colonizers. As a whole, Indians outnumbered non-Indians, and every Indian group outnumbered every non-Indian group until at least 1815. Besides their numbers, Indians took advantage of Europeans' lack of information about the region and its peoples to shape their understandings and actions, as the Quapaws did with Jolliet and Marquette in 1673.

Historian Richard White has labeled the colonial Great Lakes region a "middle ground" in which, because no Indians or Europeans could control their neighbors, all had to accommodate the others, together forging new shared meanings and practices, often based on "creative misunderstandings" that allowed Indians and Europeans to hide some of their more incompatible goals and intentions from one another. An aggregation of ethnically and linguistically diverse refugees populated the Great Lakes. Although they based their alliance on their own older beliefs and practices, they needed the "glue" of French mediation and authority to bind them together. In direct contrast, the Arkansas Valley was home to a few large and relatively cohesive tribes from the time the French arrived through the early nineteenth century.

Since the publication of White's masterful book, historians of colonial interactions have tended to assume that Native Americans wanted to construct middle grounds with Europeans. In reality, only relatively weak people desired the kind of compromises inherent in a middle ground. Cohesive native peoples preferred to maintain their own sovereign identities and make independent decisions regarding the ways they ran their societies and the uses to which they put their land and resources. And they wanted to set the terms of engagement with neighboring peoples. For Mississippians, Quapaws, Osages, French settlers, Cherokees, and eventually Anglo-Americans, the Arkansas Valley was not a middle ground but each group's claimed native ground. Each people in the Arkansas Valley, no matter how long it had been in the region, portrayed itself as native and thus deserving of a place on the land. So who were the true natives? That question framed the region's history for two centuries. The term native ground reflects the diverse and contradictory answers to this question as well as the fact that Native Americans, not Europeans, controlled the Arkansas Valley.

Calling the pre-nineteenth-century Arkansas Valley a native ground should in no way imply that native peoples always respected one another's conceptions of sovereignty, land rights, and relations with others. As the Quapaws' meeting with Jolliet and Marquette attests, Indians often used Europeans and their weapons to gain advantages over other Indians. When Indians lost ground, as the Tunicas did in the sixteenth century, Caddoan-speakers did in the eighteenth century, and the Osages did in the early nineteenth century, they lost it to other Indians. Only in the 1820s did Anglo-American settlers outnumber and overwhelm Arkansas Valley Indians.

In the Arkansas Valley from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries, European colonialism met neither accommodation nor resistance but incorporation. Rather than being colonized, Indians drew a successive series of European empires into local patterns of land and resource allocation, sustenance, goods exchange, gender relations, diplomacy, and warfare. Dependency theory argues that Europeans drew colonized places into the global market, benefiting core regions while making colonized peoples dependent on European goods and unable to control their economies and ultimately their political and social systems. This model does not fit the Arkansas Valley because it exaggerates both pre-colonial economic isolation and European colonial control. Before Europeans arrived, the people of the Arkansas Valley already participated in a continental system in which they exchanged necessities and luxury goods and at times altered production to meet demand of their exchange partners. Tenth-century Arkansas Valley farmers who acquired hoes from the Mill Creek hoe-blade industry across the Mississippi depended on exchange in much the same way that their descendants did. Mill Creek hoes, French guns, and British cloth had value and meaning, but Indians of the Arkansas Valley could have adjusted to life without them. The region was made more cosmopolitan for its trade connections but not controlled by them.

The Arkansas Valley was remarkably diverse, creating countless opportunities for negotiations over the various groups' identities and relations with one another. As a place where Indians and Europeans from East and West met, this area provides a link between the colonial-era Southeast and Southwest, whose historiographies have been quite separate. In the Arkansas Valley, a score of indigenous cultures vied for dominance with each other and with diverse, but much less populous, European groups. Its history helps to reveal the diversity of native societies, as well as the tenuous nature of European colonization across the North American continent. The region's native peoples demonstrate that there was no single native way. Nor was there a single European way, for European colonists were no more monolithic than Indians. Settlers, traders, adventure-seekers, priests, soldiers, bureaucrats, and wives came from Europe and other colonies with a variety of motives and ambitions, often in conflict with those of other Europeans.

Because of their diversity and small numbers, Europeans could not establish themselves in the Arkansas Valley alone. Rather, they molded their economic, political, and social policies to Indian desires and demands. The French and Spanish tried to construct the exploitative exchange relations that theorists would later call dependency, and they succeeded in brutally exploiting other places, but they failed in the Arkansas Valley. Only a few individual traders over the course of centuries became wealthy. Most simply earned a subsistence by adapting to Indian desires and policies. For their part, colonial governments not only failed to profit from their relationships in the Arkansas Valley, they had to pay dearly for them. If the purpose of overseas empires was increasing the home country's power and wealth by extracting the resources of another land, the mid-continent never fit the bill. Lower Louisiana, with its guardianship of the Mississippi River and its commerce and eventual plantation economy, contributed somewhat to French and Spanish imperial aims, but most of the Louisiana colony proved a financial loss. In fact, before the nineteenth century, colonial efforts across most of the North American West resembled the Arkansas Valley more than they did the eastern seaboard.

Throughout the colonial period, Indians retained sovereignty over the Arkansas Valley. Europeans distinguished between two kinds of sovereignty: property and authority. Individuals or families might own property in land and goods, but their monarch retained authority over all property and subjects within the realm. How much control this authority conveyed was, naturally, a long-standing subject of debate. Employing various justifications—including arguing that lands were vacant, that non-Christians had no right to hold land, or that it was surrendered by Indians willingly or after losing a just war—Europeans attempted to establish both types of sovereignty over the "New World."

From these attempts stemmed a common misperception, which continues today, that pre-colonial and colonial-era Indians had no concept of property rights. It is true that Indians did not own private property, but the general concepts of both property and authority were not alien to them. Property rights simply grant the ownership of certain resources and do not have to include private property. Also, property can be owned by groups, not just individuals. Europeans, especially the English, tended to define America as res nullius, "no one's property," when in fact various groups managed resources as distinct common property, where certain peoples held rights and excluded other peoples. The fact that this exclusion sometimes required force reveals that such rights were, unsurprisingly, contested.

Indians of the Arkansas Valley held sovereignty according to both their own and European definitions. They exercised property rights over most of the region's land and resources and contested control with one another. They wielded authority over the small amounts of land that Europeans held, deciding whether to allow a European the use of a particular piece of land for a military post, farm, or village within their jurisdiction. For example, in the late seventeenth century, the French negotiated with the Quapaw Indians the right to establish a fort at the mouth of the Arkansas River in return for alliance and gifts. But the Quapaws retained the right to manage the surrounding lands, living and hunting on them as they wished and controlling the access of other native and European outsiders. Europeans claimed sovereignty against other Europeans, often successfully, writing their own names across maps of North America, but they were not able to enforce those claims on Indians. In fact, they used Indians to ward off other European claims.

Which European power negotiated and allied with which Indians often determined which Europeans could claim a territory. Europeans gained their sovereignty vis-à-vis one another in part by piggy-backing on Indians' sovereignty. Colonial administrators generally delineated the boundaries of their empires by referring to the native peoples with whom they had forged alliances. French administrators referred to the land "aux Arkansas"Cat the home of the Arkansas (one name for the Quapaw Indians). This phenomenon pervaded early colonial thinking and continued to inform colonial geographies even after Indians had lost their lands. Of course, this type of claim implied recognition of Indian sovereignty.

The European use of alliances to establish colonial claims reflected a native realityCconnections conferred power, and isolation could bring disaster. Often, what Indians found most interesting about Europeans was their connection to the manufacturing centers of Europe. Two of the central peoples of this study, Osages and Quapaws, employed connections for their own benefit in quite different ways. The Osages took advantage of French exchange to build their own trading empire, expanding onto new lands and casting out native rivals. In contrast, the Quapaws built alliances with a wide variety of Indian and European peoples in order to increase their own stability in a contested place. In the process, they became the people to whom newcomers had to go for the ceremonies that would establish legitimate rights to local land and resources. Rather than weakness, interdependence was a form of power. A people with no links of interdependence could be in trouble, as Europeans quickly discovered.

In suggesting that native peoples in the Arkansas Valley retained power over the land and over their interactions with Europeans, I do not mean to retreat into an older perception of Indians as timeless and unchanging. Neither do I suggest that European empires had no effect. On the contrary, Indians and their homeland changed dramatically over these centuries. The diseases that struck the continent in the 1500s and continued to hit Indian populations in waves for the next three centuries transformed the Americas. But Europeans did not control disease, and it did not doom Indian occupation of the Americas. Surviving Indians whose communities had been devastated had to respond, changing their living arrangements and at times even their cosmologic understandings of the world, but they did not give up their world. They formed new societies, melding aspects of older ones. Native peoples coped with traumatic changes in creative ways that, paradoxically, served to reconstitute native concepts of order, geography, and human relations. Imperial competition, gunpowder, and steel were also unprecedented in native experience. But Arkansas Valley Indians directed the course of change and held more control over the methods and volume of goods exchange than did Europeans.

The Arkansas Valley provides a rare view into a world largely governed by native terms of organization and epistemology. Rather than the concepts of individual land ownership that Anglo-Americans would introduce in the nineteenth century, earlier residents defined the region in relational terms. Politics involved establishing friendly and reciprocal relations and negotiating the responsibilities of friendship. Newcomers had to accept defined places in a hierarchic system of real and fictive kinship, becoming part of familial networks and responsibilities, affecting everything from trade to land use. Most Indians in this era were comfortable with multiple layers of land rights. One group might have the exclusive right to farm a region, others could hunt there seasonally, and still others had no rights there at all.

These ways in which Indians defined the land in turn shaped European divisions. For example, eighteenth-century Indians and Europeans grudgingly respected the Osage ability to defend their well-defined hunting territory against rival hunters and anyone attempting to trade with those hunters. In contrast, Indians paid no serious attention to French or Spanish admonitions to prevent British traders from operating west of the Mississippi. Native Americans did not consider their homelands part of European empires, and a local French commander with a handful of soldiers knew well the vacuity of colonial claims.

For historians, the concept of borderlands has yielded important insights into both European-American ways of defining and conquering new lands and Native American understandings of and reactions to those processes. However, seeing the Americas as places where whites gradually imposed borders can obscure the fact that Indians constructed and contested their own borders, geographic and metaphoric, long before Europeans arrived. For example, by the time Hernando de Soto visited the Arkansas Valley in the 1540s, the border between the Mississippian chiefdoms of Casqui and Pacaha was so stark and mutually recognized that neither of their chiefs had ever crossed it. Without the power to enforce their own sovereignty in the Arkansas Valley, Europeans settled for simply carving out rights within native notions of layered occupations. The United States was not the first political entity to enforce borders in the Arkansas Valley, just the first non-Indian one.

This story of one contingent place contributes to a reorientation in thinking about colonialism itself. Early American history is too rich for the old narrative that presumes the inevitability of European colonial success. That colonial narrative implicitly assigns an exotic status to native peoples while too easily identifying with (even if criticizing) European rationales. My work seeks, in effect, to exoticize the Europeans and show how Indians incorporated them into their native-dominated, if contested and unstable, world.

This reorientation turns well-known concepts of colonialism on their heads. Like borderland, the word native becomes slippery as new groupsCincluding Quapaws, French, Africans, Osages, and CherokeesCsettled in the valley and raised subsequent generations. When newcomers arrived, previous residents sought to establish themselves as the "natives" in hopes of persuading others that they were authorities on the region with a right to live there and to direct its future. Warlike takes on new shades of meaning when Mississippian peoples used it for their enemies and Quapaws applied it to Tunicas, as does savage when employed by Cherokees talking about Osages. Even the "Indians" and "Colonists" of my book's title set up a false dichotomy because Indians controlled the destiny of European immigrants, and successful expansionists were usually Indian.

However, in the nineteenth century, the most successful expansionists were of European descent. These immigrants from the British colonies moved west across the Mississippi River for much the same reasons as earlier newcomersCeconomic opportunities, freedom from subordination, and the land that could provide both. But in contrast to earlier newcomers, most of these settlers did not forge ties of trade or alliance with previous residents. They wanted the land for themselves, and their unprecedented large numbers and their ties to the military and economic might of the United States allowed them to resist incorporation into local ways. They rewrote history, as others had before them, this time making the mid-continent their exclusive native ground.

The Anglo-Americans who moved to the Arkansas Valley in the 1820s were unprecedented not only in their numbers but also in their refusal to negotiate ways of sharing the land. Before the nineteenth century, each people in the Arkansas Valley tended to believe in its own cultural superiority. The people of the Mississippian town of Pacaha thought they were wiser than their neighbors in Casqui. Colonial administrators considered voyageurs (independent French traders) as "the scum of the posts." The Spanish believed they were better organized than the French. Eighteenth-century Osages considered their men stronger warriors than the British.

In contrast, during the early nineteenth century, Anglo-Americans came west with a developing ideology of their own innate, biological superiority. Negating the old ways, they initiated a future in which one people would claim exclusive ownership of the mid-continent. After the War of 1812, these settlers came in numbers large enough to overwhelm the region's inhabitants. They came seeking individual and family independence, but it was their ties to the East that granted them the military and economic power to reject the earlier patterns of cross-cultural relationships. As citizens in the American republic, they persuaded the federal government to muster its resources on behalf of their dreams of landholding and citizenship.

Yet, as certain as these nineteenth-century colonizers were of the permanence and justness of their dominance, they proved historically contingent too, as subsequent generations of Quapaws, Osages, and Cherokees have in no way disappeared, physically or culturally. Not an exclusively white man's country after all, the Arkansas Valley, like the United States generally, continues to debate, negotiate, and litigate over issues of land and culture. Today, Indian rights to host and profit from gaming on their reservations stand as a new kind of layered occupation of American land.

It is tempting to let the tragic Indian removals of the 1820s and 1830s and the rise of the cotton South obscure the centuries in which Indians dominated the region. Of course, if we look for signs of Indians' losing ground, we can discover declensionCdevastating population loss due to disease, the decline of women's economic and political power, the increasing importance of European symbols of authority such as medals, the eventual loss of land. But if we look more closely and lay aside the well-known story line of colonialism in general and nineteenth-century United States expansion in particular, the picture changes. Even historians who study the colonized may, in their search for resistance to colonialism, miss occasions when "colonization" was a claim at which the "colonized" would have scoffed. Of course, in certain places at certain times colonization meant brutal control, and armed rebellion or more subtle forms of resistance were the only ways to fight it. But in most places, natives and newcomers together constructed their relations. And in the Arkansas Valley, native peoples did not simply affect Europeans. For nearly three centuries after Hernando de Soto's visit, Indians remained the primary agents; they called the shots.

The story of colonial America is not European triumphalism and the imminent emergence of the American nation-state. Nor is it evil colonialism versus righteous but futile resistance. Such simplifications belittle three centuries of interaction and negotiation over space and culture among a large variety of peoples. Like early American history in general, this study concerns groups of people negotiating and fighting over the present and future (and sometimes the history) of the continent.

Europeans recorded most of the sources for this study. Even oral histories that involve the colonial past were transcribed by anthropologists who were either not Indian or not of the tribe telling the oral history. However, by examining a variety of sources over a multi-century time period, I have attempted to correct for the individual biases of particular observers and the cultural biases associated with particular eras. Long letters from bored commandants exiled to a place that they saw as the end of the worldCthese serve as extremely useful accounts of Indian activities and rhetoric. Similarly, archaeology, travelers' and missionaries' accounts, and the smatterings of available oral history all have their shortcomings, but together, I think, provide enough of a picture of the native Arkansas Valley to illustrate the nature of cross-cultural interactions there, particularly when observed with the tools of ethnohistory. Throughout, translations from French and Spanish are mine unless otherwise noted.