Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

by Michael McDonnell

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A radical reinterpretation of early American history from a native point of view

In Masters of Empire, the historian Michael McDonnell reveals the pivotal role played by the native peoples of the Great Lakes in the history of North America. Though less well known than the Iroquois or Sioux, the Anishinaabeg who lived along Lakes Michigan and Huron were equally influential. McDonnell charts their story, and argues that the Anishinaabeg have been relegated to the edges of history for too long. Through remarkable research into 19th-century Anishinaabeg-authored chronicles, McDonnell highlights the long-standing rivalries and relationships among the great tribes of North America, and how Europeans often played only a minor role in their stories. McDonnell reminds us that it was native people who possessed intricate and far-reaching networks of trade and kinship, of which the French and British knew little. And as empire encroached upon their domain, the Anishinaabeg were often the ones doing the exploiting. By dictating terms at trading posts and frontier forts, they played a crucial role in the making of early America. Through vivid depictions of early conflicts, the French and Indian War, and Pontiac's Rebellion, all from a native perspective, Masters of Empire overturns our assumptions about colonial America and the origins of the Revolutionary War. By calling attention to the Great Lakes as a crucible of culture and conflict, McDonnell reimagines the landscape of American history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374714185
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 12/08/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 411,334
File size: 23 MB
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About the Author

Michael A. McDonnell is an associate professor of history at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, winner of the 2008 New South Wales Premier's History Prize, and coeditor of Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation-Making from Independence to the Civil War. His work was included in the Best American History Essays 2008 and he won the Lester Cappon Prize for the best article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2006. He has received numerous research scholarships and grants in the United States and Australia and has served as a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
Michael McDonnell is an associate professor of history at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, winner of the 2008 New South Wales Premier's History Prize, and coeditor of Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation-Making from Independence to the Civil War. His work was included in the Best American History Essays 2008 and he won the Lester Cappon Prize for the best article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2006. He has received numerous research scholarships and grants in the United States and Australia and has served as a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Masters of Empire

Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

By Michael A. McDonnell

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 2015 Michael A. McDonnell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8090-2953-2



Standing on the shores of the straits of Michilimackinac or atop the bluffs of Mackinac Island, it is easy to understand why many believed this region to be the birthplace and center of the world. The teeming blue waters of Lakes Huron and Michigan bending away from the narrows both east and westward give an impression that one is standing on a peak of sorts, at the top of the world. Knowledge of where those waters lead only reinforces the idea that Michilimackinac is central. A vast interconnected system of waterways could take a savvy paddler just about anywhere on the continent and beyond. From here, one could travel southwest to Green Bay, St. Joseph's, or Chicago. Short and manageable portages would take you to either the Wisconsin or Illinois River, which in turn empty into the Mississippi. From there, the rest of the continent east of the Rocky Mountains along with the Gulf of Mexico are accessible. Likewise, traveling north from Michilimackinac would take you through Sault Ste. Marie into Lake Superior. From there, the many rivers and lakes that drain into Lake Superior also give access to the north country and even Hudson's Bay. Finally, south and east of Michilimackinac lie Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario and Georgian Bay. Skilled canoeists could take one of many routes across these lakes and quickly find themselves heading down the mighty St. Lawrence River toward the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean. From Michilimackinac, anything is possible.

For the Anishinaabeg of the upper country, the land and vital surrounding waters of Michilimackinac were not only geographically central but also the key to their cosmology. In numerous sacred stories, called aadizookaanag, or grandfathers, Michilimackinac is literally the birthplace and center of the world. Several important doodemag claimed their origins from the region. Mackinac Island was also the native country of Michabous, the Great Hare. Various stories note that Michabous began rebuilding the world with the island of Michilimackinac. And it is at Michilimackinac that Michabous placed the most fish, and taught people how to catch them. But Michilimackinac was also a place of origin in another sense. While Anishinaabe stories emphasize migration from the east, most commentators agree it was at the straits that the split between the nations of what we now know as the Three Fires Confederacy took place. Here, the groups of families, or doodemag, that would become known as Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi diverged. As William Warren wrote in the early nineteenth century, when the Anishinaabeg reached Michilimackinac, they separated into three distinct nations "from natural causes." The Odawa, he wrote, "remained about the spot of their final separation." The Potawatomi moved south, and the Ojibwe headed north and west of the straits. Each saw Michilimackinac as a kind of birthplace. So while they divided at the straits, Michilimackinac remained a central, and sacred, place for all Anishinaabeg across the region.

Though it is now little more than a backwater border town between Canada and the United States, Michilimackinac also rapidly became central to European empires in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was in the first instance a critical node in an extended and expansive French fur trade that sustained empire in the New World. In hindsight, European posts such as the one established at Michilimackinac in the 1680s seem to symbolize the inevitable expansion of European imperialism. From a tiny and struggling settlement along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, the French quickly used bases like Michilimackinac to explore, trade, and claim the entire pays d'en haut and beyond, stretching west to Lake Winnipeg and including the Mississippi Valley down to the Gulf of Mexico. In this story, the post at Michilimackinac was an important site — but only one of a string of holdings that suggested French dominance over this region. These posts were the basis upon which the French claimed much of inland North America by the end of the seventeenth century.

Yet a closer look at this story from Anishinaabe perspectives reveals a different tale. For the importance of Michilimackinac to the Anishinaabeg would have far-reaching consequences for European imperialism. From the start of the French venture in North America, events at the straits helped shape developments along the St. Lawrence River and beyond. Native groups, including the Anishinaabeg, quickly enmeshed the arriving French in a world of Indian warfare that almost consumed them. Yet even in the midst of the destructive wars with the Iroquois in the seventeenth century, the Anishinaabeg — and especially the Odawa — created an important link between the French to the east and thousands of Indians to their west. That crucial role helped save the struggling French colony. Subsequently, the Odawa effectively forced the French to build an empire to protect the trade they coveted while they maintained their own key position in the expanding trade. As much as Michilimackinac was central to their world, by the end of the century the Odawa also made it essential to the French. Yet, as important as it became to Europeans, Michilimackinac was, and would remain, Indian country. Never in a position to coerce the Anishinaabeg, the French were dependent on the hospitality and goodwill of their more numerous neighbors and hosts.

* * *

Along with its geographic centrality and its historic and cultural importance, there were other good reasons why many Anishinaabeg chose to make Michilimackinac home. Foremost among these were its hospitable climate and rich natural resources. The Lakes moderated the temperatures along the shores around Michilimackinac, leading to shorter winters and milder temperatures than points farther north and even in central Michigan to the south. That climate fostered a broader base of natural vegetation, with a mix of coniferous and deciduous forests in the region. Maple, beech, birch, hemlock, and fir could be found near black spruce, tamarack, and cedar stands. It also made the straits one of the more northerly points with a potential to grow corn, since on average there were up to 140 frost-free days at Michilimackinac.

The transitional climate at Michilimackinac induced the Anishinaabeg who stayed at the straits to practice a mixed form of subsistence based on and around this important location. The Lake effect helped moderate the temperature enough to plant corn in the summers, but it was not quite warm enough to rely on corn all year round, or sometimes even from year to year. Thus the Odawa had to supplement their subsistence activities. They did this by moving in smaller family groups during the winter, mainly south toward the Muskegon and Grand Rivers, where they could find a wide variety of game, including black bear, raccoon, squirrel, deer, and moose. But they could also source rich stocks of mink, otter, marten, muskrat, and beaver, all valued for their fur and their flesh. In the spring, the leanest time of the year, Odawa families would begin to regather to collect the sap from maple trees for sugaring and to make and repair canoes from birch bark. Moving back to their permanent villages a little later in the spring, most of the community was involved in preparations for the spawning season of the lake sturgeon, which lasted for approximately two months until the warmer weather of the summer. This was followed by the planting season, supplemented with the gathering and drying of berries, which intensified as the autumn approached.

For the last couple of crucial weeks before the winter, usually about late November, different doodemag, such as the Kiskakon and Sinago, worked together to catch and dry as much lake trout, herring, and especially whitefish as would sustain them in the coming months, before dispersing again in smaller family groups for the winter hunt. Fishing was thus one of the most important economic activities of the Odawa. While they were at the edge of the practicable growing season for corn, the Odawa had access to one of the richest fisheries in the Lakes. Several Frenchmen claimed that the waters around the straits alone could support ten thousand people at Michilimackinac. It was the spot "most noted in all these regions for its abundance of fish." So much so, one priest noted, that the Indians call this place its "native country." The Jesuits believed that fishing was the main reason the Odawa stayed at the straits.

The significance of fishing was also reflected in the importance of the canoe to the Odawa in the upper Lakes. They were renowned for their skills on the water. Using the abundant birch and cedar trees in the transitional zone of the northern Great Lakes, the Odawa had long mastered the art of making hardy canoes that could handle the often turbulent waters of the larger lakes. These craft were essential not just for fishing but also to facilitate Anishinaabe seasonal mobility around the Lakes. The Odawa in particular were well known and admired for their ability to travel across the Lakes. While others undertook canoe travel along the rivers and edges of lakes, few dared venture across the open waters out of sight of land as did the Odawa. They were one of the few groups in the region who did not fear the vast open waters of the Great Lakes. This mastery of the canoe thus put the Odawa in a good position to dominate the Lakes. It would be a key element in their future success.

Certainly, their canoe skills combined with the rich natural resources of Michilimackinac meant that many of the Anishinaabeg became adept traders over time. Usually well provisioned, and often bearing their own surpluses, they were able to exchange goods over long distances across the Lakes. The Anishinaabeg had long acted in this role. Before 1600, they were eager to trade small surpluses — which included beaver skins, fish, and manufactured reed mats, baskets, and tobacco pouches — both to their more mobile neighbors to the north and to the thickly populated agriculturally based Huron peoples to the south. Taking advantage of their neighbors' needs and their own mastery of the Lakes' waters, Anishinaabeg in the central region, and particularly the families that would become known as the Odawa, served as middlemen between different nations.

* * *

It was only natural, then, that with the arrival of the French in the St. Lawrence Valley, the Anishinaabeg were eager to extend their trade relations for the new goods on offer from Europe. Eyeing the success of the Spanish in Central and South America, the French dreamed of a new world empire of their own. Beginning as early as 1534, the French explored the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River, even planting a colony at Cap- Rouge (Quebec) in 1541. France wanted to set up new colonies and find a direct route to the riches of the East Indies via the ever-elusive Northwest Passage. The French also sought to protect their homeland by extending their borders and enriching their war chest through overseas exploration. But bitter cold, few enticements, and conflict with the local Indians ended these early efforts, and the crown was soon distracted by devastating religious wars that tore the country apart in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

During this period, it was French fishermen who continued quietly to expand the frontiers of France's overseas claims. Norman and Breton fishermen who had long exploited the teeming cod stocks off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland began pushing farther westward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of less crowded waters. As they did so, the Indians they met while drying or salting their fish on Canadian shores plied them with furs in return for the iron knives, axes, kettles, and pots and beads and cloths that the French offered. Eventually, the furs themselves became the basis for trading expeditions farther up the St. Lawrence, as merchants sought out Indians before other ships could compete. Over time a village called Tadoussac, located where the Saguenay River flows into the St. Lawrence, became a customary spring meeting place for thousands of Algonquin, Etchemin, Montagnais, and French traders. When the broad-brimmed beaver felt hat became fashionable in Europe in the latter part of the sixteenth century, it was only a matter of time before the French began again to lay more formal claim to North America.

After the French planted a fur trading post at Tadoussac in 1600, the explorer Samuel de Champlain — the so-called Father of New France — pushed upriver and landed at Quebec in 1608. By establishing a permanent base there, Champlain hoped to forestall the summer traders who plied the shores of the lower St. Lawrence. The "colony" was, in some sense, merely a trading factory and warehouse for storing furs and trade goods. But it was nevertheless in the middle of Indian country. He was there at the sufferance of numerous and powerful groups that ringed the tiny French outpost.

A year after Champlain established the post, delegates from the even more numerous Huron Confederacy also visited him. Living between the north shore of Lake Ontario and the southern shores of Georgian Bay, the Huron (or, as they are also known today, the Wendat, or Wyandot) numbered as many as twenty to forty thousand in densely settled permanent villages. Prolific horticulturalists, the Huron thrived in what is now southern Ontario. They had plenty of surplus corn and additional food to trade with other Indian nations and the struggling French, but they were more sedentary than their northerly neighbors, the Anishinaabeg, and so lacked easy access to the furs the French craved. Fortunately, although the Huron were Iroquoian speakers, they enjoyed good relations with the Anishinaabeg. This was in part because at least some Odawa doodemag, including most notably the Kiskakon, lived near and intermarried with the Tionnontaté (Petun, or Tobacco, nation, a people closely related to the Huron confederacy).

Drawing on these relations, the Anishinaabeg from farther north were eager to take advantage. As one early French account noted, the Odawa would intercept Huron trading parties returning home from the St. Lawrence. They did so expressly for the "purpose of bartering with the Hurons," with whom they spent a few days "trading and doing business." In turn, the Odawa traded away some of these goods with Indians "of different regions who came to their village." The Odawa simply took advantage of their location and waterborne mobility to become middlemen in a sprawling but indigenous trading system across the Lakes.

* * *

The ability and initial willingness of the Anishinaabeg to act as intermediates in early French-Indian trading ventures had far-reaching and devastating consequences for both their neighbors and the fledgling colony along the St. Lawrence. Quickly recognizing the French lust for fur, the Anishinaabeg were in a good position to satiate it by bringing the thick northern beaver pelts down from the colder regions of the pays d'en haut. Initially trading furs via their more numerous neighbors, the Huron, and relations among the Algonquins and Montagnais farther to the southeast, the Anishinaabeg helped Samuel de Champlain dream that his efforts to establish a colony at Quebec in 1608 to monopolize the inland fur trade were not in vain. To keep the settlement alive, and to make the vulnerable commercial outpost work, Champlain eagerly sought out the friendship and trade of these and other Indian nations. In turn, they were happy to exchange their pelts for the valuable goods and arms the French offered.

But there was a catch. The Huron and allied Algonquian nations, including the Anishinaabeg, all made it clear the French would have to prove they were worthy trading partners. Even before the French arrived, they were locked in a deadly conflict with the powerful Iroquois League — the Haudenosaunee — who dominated the region southwest of the French settlement on the St. Lawrence. Perhaps as many as twenty thousand people from five separate nations (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) had created a League of Peace and Power that rapidly expanded their hunting territory on the eve of the arrival of Europeans and claimed the region upstream from Quebec. The Huron and their Algonquian allies risked the wrath of the Iroquois when journeying to Quebec to trade. They soon made it clear to Champlain that he was precariously positioned between them and their longtime rivals in the Iroquois League. In return for their trade, Champlain would have to demonstrate his worth.


Excerpted from Masters of Empire by Michael A. McDonnell. Copyright © 2015 Michael A. McDonnell. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Maps viii

Introduction: Old Stories and New 3

1 Recentering Michilimackinac 21

2 Defending Anishinaabewaki 59

3 Expansion 91

4 The Balance of Power 124

5 The First Anglo-Indian War 160

6 The Second Anglo-Indian War 198

7 Reorienting Empire 240

8 Dependence 272

Conclusion: Persistence in an Era of Removal 311

Notes 331

Acknowledgments 383

Index 387

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Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. I suggest this for anyone who enjoys reading about Native American history.