Negotiating with the Neighbors: Native and Euro-Americans on the Edge of Empires

AHA Session 66
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
David J. Silverman, George Washington University

Session Abstract

This panel focuses on Native and Euro-American peoples who lived as neighbors beside, and within, various empires of the Atlantic World between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. It explores how these peoples negotiated their relationship with these empires, in order to protect and advance their own interests, and challenges scholarly assumptions about the irresistible march of European and American empires in the New World at the expense of those around them. Whether they were attempting to secure support for new colonial projects, justify claims to land titles, or maintain diplomatic ties in newly acquired territories, empires had to constantly acknowledge or incorporate the rights and interests of their neighbors in order to expand their influence. Native and Euro-Americans proved adept at playing different imperial interests off against one another, ensuring their methods and approaches were taken seriously by imperial agents, and even at integrating themselves into imperial institutions to advance their causes from within.

In the seventeenth century, Native Americans took advantage of the long distances between imperial capitals and their colonies to ensure the local officials relied on them for their manpower and goods, and for conferring political legitimacy. When rival empires flexed their influence into a given region, as the Scots did in the Spanish-dominated late-seventeenth-century isthmus of Darien, Native groups were able to balance the goals of each against one another, as both groups of Euro-Americans simultaneously sought to contest the other’s political influence with the Natives. In the eighteenth century, as imperial institutions became more established and elaborate, Native and Euro-American neighbors turned away from violent means of settling their disputes and, as in colonial Maine, sought to integrate their legal customs to ensure the interests of both groups were protected against rival Native or Euro-American groups who had designs on their lands. In the nineteenth century, as European colonies revolted to become independent American states, conflict often broke out again between Native and Euro-American neighbors, but both groups proved capable, as in the Ohio Country, of altering their tactics to confront the burgeoning power of powers like United States to ensure their sovereignty was not vanquished, but merely modified within the constraints set by the new power in the region.

This panel will demonstrate, then, that the expansion of empires in the early modern world happened in concert, rather than in contestation, with the interests of their Native and Euro-American neighbors. Although empires ultimately managed to ensure those around them accepted degrees of sovereignty at a level below that than they might have ultimately desired, their success was not one driven by overpowering imperial conquest and the reduction of those in their way, but of a series negotiations with their neighbors on the edge of their empires.

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