Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

OI Books: Borderlands in View

· July 23rd, 2018 · No Comments

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 Lynne Withey

As a historian-turned-publisher, I love the idea of celebrating the Omohundro Institute’s 75th anniversary by celebrating its books. When I was a graduate student, back in ancient times, publishing with the Institute (as it was then) was a lofty aspiration. Today, reading through the list of books, I’m struck by the way it reflects enormous changes in research interests as well as continuities in the subjects that have preoccupied early American historians for decades. I’ve been influenced by so many of these books, including those already discussed in this series of essays, but the one that stands out for me is the work that helped re-kindle my interest in early American history years after I left teaching to pursue a career in publishing: James Brooks’s Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, published in 2002. Surely one of the most celebrated books published by the OI (winner of the Bancroft Prize, among many other awards), Captives and Cousins has had a significant influence in re-shaping our field from a nearly exclusive focus on the British colonies to “Vast Early America.”

Best known for deepening our understanding of slavery through its analysis of captive labor and fictive kinship in the Spanish colonies of the Southwest, Brooks also contributed substantially to other emerging research interests: Spanish colonization in North America, early western history, a renewed interest in imperialism as a driving force behind American colonization (North and South), and the complex interactions among indigenous peoples and European colonists. It was this broader context that fascinated me when I read Captives and Cousins soon after it was published. My research interests had long since moved beyond early American history, the field in which I was trained, but I never gave up thinking that some day I would get back to it. Brooks and a few others got my attention by pushing the boundaries of the field both geographically and thematically.

I began studying early American history as a college student in the late 1960s, immersed in Perry Miller, Edmund Morgan, and—most exciting to me—newly published work on the social history of New England towns: books by Kenneth Lockridge, Philip Greven, John Demos, and Richard Bushman among others. After four years in an equally historic New England town (Jonathan Edwards’s Northampton), I was ready for a change of scene and moved to Berkeley for graduate school (despite some quizzical comments from friends who thought it odd to be studying colonial America on the West Coast). I worked with Robert Middlekauff, heir to the mantle of Miller and Morgan, who would soon publish his magnum opus on the Mathers; read British history because it seemed essential to understanding early American history; and dabbled in anthropology to learn methodologies for studying small towns.

In due course, I wrote a dissertation on Newport, Rhode Island—not exactly Dedham or Andover, but my effort to contribute to the growing literature on New England communities. And then, after a brief stint in university teaching, I left the field, along with many others of my generation who made their careers outside the academy. I worked first in university administration and then publishing, writing biography in my spare time. I retained my interest in early American history, but years of living and traveling in the West changed my East Coast, British focus. Working as a publisher with authors in a wide range of fields—the history of the American west, imperialism, world history, anthropology—helped me see how issues of concern to scholars far afield from my original studies could illuminate those interests.

Traveling in the Southwest, one is constantly confronted with the historical evidence of an early America that looks nothing like the eastern seaboard, yet was colonized by similar impulses: European expansionism, religious fervor, greed for gold, immigrants’ desire for a better life. How had I ignored this history? Although at times I could wax indignant about all that had been left out of my history classes growing up, the reasons were hardly surprising. If “American history” is really US history, then early American history becomes the history of the thirteen colonies that became the United States, and western American history begins after the Mexican War. (It’s not only historians who have this problem; I recently listened to a distinguished Southwestern archeologist complain that his field has for much too long ended at the US border, when in fact, he argues, the ancient southwestern cultures in what is now the US should be seen at the northern limit of Mesoamerica.)

Rubbing shoulders with scholars of empire and world history made me think about early American history as part of European (not just English) expansion beginning in the sixteenth century. Reading David Weber and Ramón Gutiérrez, among the few scholars in the 1990s working on Spain’s North American colonies, introduced me to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century western American history. I discovered Herbert Bolton, who wrote extensively on Spanish colonialism in the 1920s and 30s (mostly at Berkeley, where I managed to learn not a thing about him during my years there). A student of Frederick Jackson Turner, Bolton rejected his mentor’s frontier thesis as an organizing principle for American history, arguing instead that the history of the United States could be understood only in the context of other American nations, south as well as north. He pioneered the study of the US/Mexico borderlands (a term he coined), published countless books, and advised dozens of students. But Bolton’s students focused mostly on the southern side of the border, and his influence had waned among US historians by the 1960s.

Captives and Cousins helped re-establish the greater Southwest as a critical region of study for North American historians. Brooks was part of a trend to push early American history west and western American history earlier, and to make Anglophone historians recognize the importance of the Spanish. His work has been influential in part because he tackles issues that have been central to early American history for decades—slavery, European/Native relations, territorial conflict, the transition from colonies to nation—and demonstrates how they played out in a region initially colonized by Spain, a nation with religious and cultural traditions markedly different from the those of the English. But if his themes have preoccupied historians for decades, his method and frame of reference were new. Brooks shifts the focus of analysis from colonizers to indigenous populations and from conquest to interaction, cultural exchange, and diplomacy, an approach pioneered by Richard White writing about the “middle ground” of the upper Midwest and continued by Eric Hinderaker writing on the Ohio Valley and Alan Taylor on the eastern Great Lakes region, as well as many other scholars since.

The Southwest borderlands is a particularly fruitful territory for this type of analysis because of the many different groups that occupied the region—Pueblo and Plains Indian tribes, Navajos, Apaches, Utes, Comanches, Spanish colonists, French traders, eventually American settlers—and their isolation from European centers of power to the east and south. Throughout the colonial period, Spanish and Natives enjoyed relatively equal positions of strength and the latitude to develop their own systems of economic and cultural exchange. Despite enormous cultural differences, they shared certain customs of honor, kinship, captivity, and servitude, which formed a basis for negotiating what Brooks calls “solutions to the crises of the colonial encounter” (31). Most critically, both Spanish and Natives had long traditions of slavery that predated contact and shared certain characteristics: taking captives as spoils of raids on foreign territory, adopting them into families, and ransoming or exchanging captives (especially women and children).

In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Southwest, these shared customs spawned a system of slavery and exchange in which captives were usually assimilated into their captors’ communities but retained their “foreignness.” They were treated as kin but also as servants, subject to exchange or sale. Captives often functioned as intermediaries between cultures, helping to broker diplomatic relations and facilitate the expansion of trade networks. Brooks explains how this system developed over more than two centuries in three regions with distinctly different environments: the Great Plains, the plateaus and deserts west of the Rio Grande, and the mountains between them. Captive labor was the most visible element in a system of social and political relations among groups of more or less equal power, forming the basis for a society that was often violent but also interdependent. In the process of analyzing this system, showing how colonists and Natives negotiated shifting power relations and promoted economic expansion, Brooks gives us both a sophisticated analysis of cultural interaction and a rich history of groups long relegated to the margins of early American history.

When I first read Captives and Cousins, at a point when I had just started to explore the history of the Southwest, the book offered me an entirely new perspective on early American history. Over nearly two decades since then, many more scholars working in every region of North America have expanded the boundaries of early American history and our understanding of indigenous cultures, “facing east from Indian country,” as Daniel Richter put it. Recent work on the Great Plains, the Southeast, the mid-Atlantic, and New England— together with those now-classic works on the intellectual and social history of Britain’s Atlantic colonies—have created a much richer picture of early North America.

Lynne Withey is Director Emerita of the University of California Press and currently chairs the Board of Directors of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. Her books include Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams (1981, 2001); Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific (1987); and Grand Tours and Cooks Tours: A History of Leisure Travel (1997).

For Further Reading

David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven, 1992)
Ramón Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Palo Alto, 1991)
Herbert Bolton’s best-known works include The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest (New Haven, 1921) and Rim of Christendom, his biography of Eusabio Francisco Kino (New York, 1936).
Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge, UK, 1991; 2010)
Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley (Cambridge, UK, 1997)

Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York, 2007). And see also his American Colonies, the first survey to include ALL the American colonies. (New York, 2002)
Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of North America (Cambridge, MA, 2003) and Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge, MA, 2013).

Among the many recent works on colonial/indigenous relations, I’ve found the following especially interesting:
Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill, 2007)
Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia, 2006) and Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York, 2015).
Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven, 2009)
Claudio Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of the American Revolution (New York, 2015)
Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia, 2012)

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