Review of the Usner book “Indians, Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy:
The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1763” provides a historical perspective on the economic framework of the frontier life among the native people, the settlers, and the Native American slaves of lower the Mississippi Valley in the southeastern part of the British colonies in North America nearly a decade prior to the War of Independence (1992). The author’s argument in writing “Indians, Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1763” intentionally provides an historical account of the French and Spanish ownership of the Louisiana territory. Usner further argues how the Native American remained the source of the networking created by European settlers in trade specific to food and deerskins establishing the success of the region against the threat from British colonial competition in both Georgia and South Carolina (Usner 1992).
Specific to this region of what later became part of the new nation of the United States, exists a rich and worthy story far different from the economic, political, and cultural story of the British colonies of the Atlantic Coast and one the author intentionally makes clear deserves told. Unger’s own words describes the Mississippi Valley prior to 1763as a “borderland territory for historians as it once was for the English colonies of the Atlantic coast, and its people largely ignored or casually dismissed as mere bit-players in the drama of American development – colorful, no doubt but peripheral and unimportant” (Usner 165). This statement reveals the author’s personal scholastic conviction as a historian the historical facts of the story of this region deservedly has the same recognition as part of the American story as the original 13 British colonies.
Particular to the information that proves personally enlightening is the author’s attention to the role of the Native American peoples’ singular importance to the pre-U.S. ownership, as the central mainstay of both the early French and later Spanish settlers of the region gaining a hold through the deerskin trade. Usner’s insights give a new dimension to other factions south of the Georgia and South Carolina border the British colonies dealt. American history books tell of the collaboration of the British, French, and even Hessen mercenaries with the northern situated Native Americans in battles with one the other but rarely does any information in these writing tell about the French and Spanish to the south.
Particularly significant and enlightening is the author detailing the French and Spanish placing importance on the Native American trade in establishing both political and economically sound foundations. Earlier works by historians provide specific details in biographies of ethnographers such as William Bartram taking place in the region just north of the Louisiana region (Waselkov and Braund 1999) but again, this exemplifies Usner arguing the lack of historical focus on the French and Spanish story (1992).
The focus on the different contributing factors to the economic and cultural roots of this region during the timeframe enlightens about how the interactions among the Native Americans, the Europeans, and the African slaves of the colonial French Louisiana created a specific complexity of these connections. The networking process between colonial plantations, Native American Villages, military outposts, hunting camps, and those towns located at port locations all across the expansive region prior to planting of cotton contributes to a better understanding of the time, the people, and their lives.
The chronological overview of French settlement activities and events from1699 to the Spanish acquiring the West Florida region after the American Revolution is beneficial historically and explains what leads to the next description. Here Usner tells about the altercations and eventual transactions among the residents of the area shaped how Louisiana formed a colonial social system framed on the mutual needs of the stakeholders (1992). The need for firs in Europe found the economic agreement for the deerskin trade with the Native Americans proved instantly desirable because Europe firs were nearly gone (Morris 1999).
Focusing on the commercial aspects of this historical period permits an illumination of the motives of the British, French, and Spanish political engagements in expanding each nation’s empire adding another layer to the historical perspective. In this attention to the commercial activities, this creates a humanistic look at the people in their communication networking and exchanges. History does not have to be just a series of dates, places, and events, but rather this type of writing engages the reader’s imagination providing word pictures about the lives and intentions of these early Americans and a new insight on how Southern society developed as it becomes a player in the historical events prior to the Civil War.
In the variety of history publications about the interactions of trade among the colonists and Native American peoples there is seldom, the extent of the explanation of this process offered in the Usner telling. New concepts he introduces like “dietary frontiers” (Usner 192). The idea of the production and selling of small amounts of food during this era involving the depth of social interaction Usner describes as leading to the distinctly prized and lauded creole diet so much a part of not only the region culture then but also, today. That is historical trivia, which personally provides interesting insights. His explanation of the food exchange activity connected to trade and the process demanded in doing so as the slaves, Native American, settlers, and traders interacted as different types of social groups proves another enlightening way of looking at history.
Other literature substantiating this work connecting the importance of trade with the Native American directly linked territorial expansion by the Europeans proved the success of the English over the French efforts (Ramsey 2008) with the details of “Indians, Settler” on this opening a broader understanding how the internal divisions created weakness among the French in the region. The attention to the detailed demise of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek Native American groups connection to agriculture supplanting the vigorous trade previously nurtured so carefully by the French with these people expands on the overall understanding of the tragedy of circumstances every Native American group in the New World eventually succumbed at the hands of the white European.
The effect of this frontier exchange economy of agriculture affecting the different groups of Native Americans proves another important part of the information provided in this book. The array of other employment options for the Native American once the deerskin trade activity fell further shows the interdependency of the different and distinct cultural groups exemplified by the Europeans, the African slaves, and the Native American peoples contributing to the economics of the region.
In conclusion, this book argument of how this section of what became the United States eventually bound in its own histrionics proves a worthy disclosure of interesting and pertinent facts by Usner. Culturally, economically, politically, and from a humanistic perspective the author creates an invaluable look at this too often neglected part of American history.
Morris, Michael P. The Bringing of Wonder: Trade and the Indians of the Southeast, 1700-1783. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. Print
Ramsey, William L. The Yamasee War: A Study of Culture, Economy, and Conflict in the Colonial South. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska, 2008. Print
Usner, Daniel H. Indians Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783. © 1992 The University of North Carolina Press. Print
Usner, Daniel H. The Frontier Exchange Economy of the Lower Mississippi Valley in the Eighteenth Century. The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Serv., 44:2:165-192. April 1987. Journal
Waselkov, Gregory A., and Kathryn E. Holland Braund, eds. William Bartram on the Southeastern Indians. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska, 1995. Print