Book Review: Our Savage Neighbors by Peter Silver

Terror, violence and mistrust characterize Peter Silver’s thrilling account of Indian warfare in America’s middle colonies during the 18th century.  In Our Savage Neighbors Silver attempts to present the relations between ethnicities in a new light, rejecting the notion that racism drove early anti-Indian sentiment and instead arguing that fear was a prime motivator.  According to Silver, the Indian wars that dominated the 18th century came to influence not only relations between whites and Indians, but relations between the various European ethnicities in Pennsylvania and the other middle colonies.  He breaks down his main theory into three recognizable narratives.  First, he casts the Indian wars as a form of terrorism while outlining the creation of the “Anti-Indian Sublime,” an anti-Indian side of popular culture.  Second, he details how propaganda wars broke out between whites thanks to the budding American fascination with pamphleteering.  Finally, he expertly presents the creation of race-consciousness and modern racism in colonial and early United States history to present a fascinating story that makes us look at early American society in a new way.

Silver claims his book focuses on the middle colonies, and sometimes this is even the case.  But most of the time his effort is spent bringing to the reader the concerns and experiences of the Pennsylvanians. Other places are mentioned only in passing.  It is in the “back country” of Pennsylvania that Irish and German settlers were having trouble with the Indians at the beginning of his narrative.  The first portion of his book is devoted to the experiences of these people, both their encounters with the Indians and their outsider status in relation to other whites in the colony.  In the second half of the book the larger cities like Philadelphia shift to the forefront.  The back country settlers and the city folk had very different experiences with the Indians which helped drive their own conflict.   Pinning a label on Silver’s history proves a difficult challenge.  Within the covers of his work Silver deals with a bit of political history, military history, and a kind of social history.  However, this is not an elitist history.  Though political leaders play a role, the phenomenon of frontier terror and ethnic relations is very much driven by a minority of people pulling the masses into line behind them.  Often the catalysts for events are average people and we learn about their fears, their thoughts and their actions more than anyone else.  In this sense Silver’s work is a social history.  Despite this, extended segments are devoted to people like Benjamin Franklin, the political leaders of Pennsylvania and especially the budding media in Philadelphia.  What concerns Silver are the social reasons whites came to fear the Indians and how the Germans, Irish, and “native” colonial Americans came to consider themselves of one white race.

While much time is devoted to the psychological condition of whites, the Indians are denigrated to boogeyman status in Silver’s work.  Unlike Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country, Peter Silver does not tackle presenting the Indian side of events.  His focus is mostly on white identity in reaction to Indian provocations.  Because of this Our Savage Neighbors cannot be considered a complete treatment on ethnic relations, but it goes a long way toward bettering our understanding of such relations nonetheless.  Much of Silver’s research appears to rely on first-hand accounts of people who experienced Indian attack.  Since very few records would exist on the Indian side of things, Silver should be given a pass for omitting an in-depth analysis of Indian reactions.  When evidence is available, like records of several brutal massacres of Indian families, Silver makes use of them.

Usually these first-hand accounts paint a terrifying image of frontier war.  Silver presents the Indian wars of the 18th century in a new light.  Fear is the driving force behind Indian and white conflict, not simple racism as often thought.    In his introduction Silver notes that “racial thinking had no coherent existence, let alone an independent ability to determine people’s beliefs and actions, before the scientific racialism of the nineteenth century.”[1] In fact it was the Indians first who developed a concept of “redness” to unite their tribes, an idea that probably transferred to white consciousness in later years.  Racism as we would recognize it today didn’t appear until after the American Revolution, when revivalist movements among the Indians would try to force the white people out of their recently acquired lands.

Then what made the Indian Wars such brutal affairs?  Silver argues that it was fear that influenced actions among the whites.  His neglect of the Indian side of events prevents us from safely guessing what the Indian motivations were, but Silver does note that whites would attempt to turn the tables by employing fear tactics of their own.

Using emotional first- and second-hand accounts Silver makes the fear palpable.  During the wars Indians intentionally employed tactics to terrorize white settlements into submission.  They would often sneak into homes at night and murder isolated families or ambushing farmers or villagers when they were most vulnerable.  After the attacks the Indians would mutilate the bodies and pose them so that their discovery would have the maximum shock value.  They would scalp their victims and dismember the bodies, even putting bodies in trees in awkward positions.  Naturally this would enrage and frighten whoever discovered the bodies.  Instead of reacting with courage and out of a spirit of revenge, settlers grew fearful of the dark woods.  Their isolated and scattered location made them hard to protect, and they were at the mercy of seemingly random Indian raids.  In the 1740s these raids grew constant, overwhelming the frontier settlements and often paralyzing the communities.  In several cases Silver describes how those who murdered Indians were often prosecuted and convicted by their neighbors out of fear of Indian retribution.  Early on there were very few retaliatory raids conducted by whites, and when they were they were ill-conceived, cowardly and inefficient.

The level of fear was ratcheted up by the development of what Silver calls the “Anti-Indian Sublime,” a hatred of Indians stemming from frustration and fear.  The dismembered and mutilated bodies were especially shocking to whites, and the bodies were often put on display as testament to the brutality of the enemy.  Silver argues that this activity became a powerful symbol of a “Bleeding America” that was clearly a victim.[2] There was little heroic defiance in the face of Indian raids, at least in the beginning.  This was also a way to bring the terror to the cities that weren’t attacked.  Where the frontier families suffered and lived in terror every night of a surprise attack, the people in the cities had little reason to fear or expect Indian attacks.  Certainly the raids posed a problem but it wasn’t a personal experience to those in the cities.  The bodies brought some of the message to them when letters and cries for help went unheeded.  It would have been interesting for Silver to investigate why the Indians attacked where they did.  Were the raids random?  Were they retaliatory?  Instead, we jump right in at the beginning of the mid-century wars.

Soldiers cracked under the tension, isolated in their woodland forts, often surrounding by Indian communities for long periods of time.  Even friendly Indians could pose a threat.  Like today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing the difference between “Good Indians” and “Bad Indians” wasn’t always easy.  This put the soldiers under considerable stress and they eventually lashed out against the Indians in several ways.  When violence wasn’t permitted, the soldiers would loudly harass Indians who came into camp or stayed nearby.  During treaty negotiations Indians were driven out by hostile soldiers in defiance of the intent of their officers.[3] This hostility was just symbolic of the greater tensions between the races.  The conflict escalated over time and the rhetoric and violence grew more intense.  Whites turned the tables on their attackers and used terror tactics against Indians.[4] At Gnadenhutten whites mercilessly slaughtered Moravian Indians in retaliation for Indian assaults.  Discerning between the different bands of Indians appears to have been quite a problem for angry whites during this time.

Indians weren’t the only enemy to be confronted.  The second stage of Silver’s argument deals with divisions between the whites in Pennsylvania and the propaganda war that pitted them against each other with the Indian wars as a backdrop. Instead of being a mass movement, anti-Indian sentiment was driven largely by a small portion of the population, a combination of early pamphleteers and Indian-haters.  Increasingly a small part of the people pulled the masses into a more intense anti-Indian attitude.

The white people of Pennsylvania were far from united during this time.  In fact, murders between whites increased during Indian conflict.  The murderers would scalp their victims and claim they were Indian in order to collect rewards offered by Pennsylvania’s governor.[5] Others turned on ethnic groups and accused them of siding with the Indians.  The Quakers especially came under fire for their close and friendly relations with the Indians, especially those Moravians at Gnadenhutten.  Catholics also came under fire, and churches all over Pennsylvania were burned by people who used the climate of fear for political ends.[6] Some stood up to defend the Quakers only to have their own reputations sullied.  Benjamin Franklin rejected the Anti-Indian Sublime in his Narratives of the Late Massacres, turning traditional stories of massacres upside down by casting the whites as the villains.[7]

Indian conflict also opened a new theater of war between the people and the Pennsylvania Assembly.  Indian war was a much more exciting and useful political tool than debates over the use of land which had dominated politics before the wars.  In this way opponents of the Assembly used anti-Indian rhetoric to weaken their opponents and gain the political upper hand.  Naturally the German allies of the Quakers would come under fire as well.  Being “outsiders” in society made them prime targets until somebody realized they constituted a large voting bloc that could be wielded as a weapon.  Until that time, some argued that “the best solution was to cut out all German participation from the public sphere.”[8] Articulated by one of the early pamphleteers, Reverend William Smith, this movement would further isolate the ethnic Germans, even going so far as to take away their right to vote.  This incident shows just how divided the ethnic communities were and how intense their battles were becoming.  Rhetoric like this eventually came back to bite anti-German press once the language barrier was broken down by German translations.  By that point it was decided that the Germans should be pre-empted to oppose the Quakers and their pro-Indian attitudes.  Clearly the political battles and the violence on the frontier involving a minority of citizens was used to draw hesitant colonials into supporting the vigilante raids, murders and political destruction of the Quaker community.  From then on the reactions of whites to Indian raids would be carefully watched to determine which side their loyalty lay.  Stereotypes abounded.  Indians were brutal monsters, Quakers were seen as opponents to European civilization, and the Irish and Germans felt ignored by the government.

Silver notes that “Europeans would fall out among themselves further, looking inward at a supposedly Indian-tainted elite for traces of guilt instead of outward at more obvious enemies.”[9] Early on in his book Silver states that contrary to conventional wisdom, having so many ethnic communities living close to each other in Pennsylvania didn’t make them more peaceful neighbors.  Instead they retreated inward into their communities and eyed outsiders with distrust.  The Irish and Germans on the frontier felt that the elites in Philadelphia were ignoring their suffering, and many in Philadelphia blamed the settlers, especially the Irish, for provoking the Indians by constantly encroaching on their territory.  Interestingly, when the conflict hit a fever pitch the settlers fled their small towns and sought shelter among higher population densities in the cities.  The process of distrust started all over again according to Silver, leading to more inter-white conflict.[10]

Silver’s argument holds water, but he inadvertently admits an exception later in the book.  Moravian Indians were driven into conditions similar to a reservation in central Philadelphia and were initially met with extraordinary hostility.  The longer they were there, however, the more peaceful their interactions became.  Fear and anger turned into curiosity and for a brief time peaceful coexistence within Philadelphia.  Silver tried to make a definitive statement that living in close quarters bred conflict but he never really builds a strong enough argument to stand up under scrutiny.  Indeed, before long their close proximity and having a common enemy would eventually drive the whites together into a greater awareness of their own whiteness.

The development of this concept of whiteness is the third pillar of Silver’s original premise that fear drove ethnic relations in the mid-18th century.  As previously mentioned, the Germans and Irish often felt neglected by their government.  There was a language barrier between the Germans and the other colonists which kept both groups isolated and distrustful of one another, which left the Germans virtually ignored as a voting bloc.  It wasn’t until the rhetorical battles against the Quakers and the Assembly and then the translation of English news into German that their voting potential was harnessed.  Opponents of the Assembly who felt it were too soft on the Indian issue made sure to exploit the Irish and German feelings of abandonment.  These two ethnic groups on the frontier were cast in the role of victims of brutal Indian assaults and they began to identify more with one another than they had before.  The Assembly was cast in the role of villain with its opponents rallying into a united front.  The back country began to demand more of a say in government, which Silver notes led to a birth of direct democracy.[11]

The early conflicts between whites faded into background noise as the Indian wars increased in intensity.  Once the United States won independence from Britain the British became the new focal point of American anger along the frontier, which allowed the Pennsylvania whites to put their differences behind them to a degree, though many accused their neighbors of secretly being loyal to the British and Indians.  Silver dismisses the idea that living in close proximity to one another doesn’t necessarily breed familiarity, and he makes a strong argument for this throughout his book.  It wasn’t until years of fighting a common enemy had made them see a value in uniting together that they began to think of themselves consciously as whites opposed to the red race.[12] In a way the whites adopted the Indian belief that the Creator had created the races separately and intended them to live separately.  This was a shift in their thinking to view the Indians as not only culturally different but racially different as well.  Both Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia and Philadelphia’s American Magazine articulated theories about from where the Indians descended.  Jefferson took the curious route of explaining that early Europeans could have easily reached North America in the centuries before the traditional discovery of America.  American Magazine took a decidedly less scientific route, claiming that the Indians descended from “the race of cursed Cain.”[13] The whites began to think about how one could move between these diametrically opposed races.  Some said that the Indians were only different because of what they environment had made them.  Poverty especially had a way of darkening the skin, they said.  Others argued that your race was determined by choices you made.  Those that rejected the “white” way of living could become Indians before long, but an Indian would have a harder time becoming a white.  The barriers between the races that would become so prevalent in the 19th century were being constructed in the post-Seven Years War era.

The racial tone also took on a decidedly more hostile sound.  Those pamphleteers in the cities didn’t have to co-exist with Indians like the frontier towns did.  These writers led the way in anti-Indian rhetoric and made sure to cast the Indians in as bad a light as possible.  They simply felt no need to restrain their actions and by writing anti-Indian pieces they made sure public feeling turned against the Indians to a greater degree than ever before.  Silver goes on to prove his point by using the words of those who lived it.  Benjamin Franklin noted that the only crime the Indian race committed was being red in the eyes of the back country, and Franklin clearly opposed such racial judgment.[14] By the end of the century race had become the chief difference between racially conscious whites and Indians, and whites had abandoned the idea of a Middle Ground advanced by historian Richard White.

In all, Silver presents a solid argument in Our Savage Neighbors.  His greatest flaw was in how he presented the Indian side of events.  Presenting a one-sided account inadvertently casts the Indians as villains.  Silver does describe horrific massacres by the whites and through his writing condemns how back country fighters and pamphleteers hijacked the policy of the Pennsylvania people in order to hunt Indians, but the lack of Indian coverage leaves the reader wondering what their own motivations might have been.  A work like this might have done well to consult a book like Looking East from Indian Country by Daniel Richter.  His subtitle “How Indian War Transformed Early America” really indicates that he is narrowly focused on those people we traditionally consider Americans in early accounts: the white people.  Otherwise, his research and theories are convincing and his use of first- and second-hand accounts of massacres, terror and hatred make for compelling reading.  Secondary reading of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia really serve to prove his point.  Neither discusses ethnic relations in too great of detail, but Franklin appears very much as Silver describes him, a defender of the Quakers in the face of anti-Indian fervor.  Jefferson’s piece is a bit more interesting, if even briefer.  Jefferson dismissed the principal complaint of the Indian:  “That the lands of this country were taken from them by conquest, is not so general a truth as is supposed.”[15] He went on the describe how land was lawfully acquired by treaty, completely ignoring or misunderstanding the cultural element of what those treaties may have meant to the Indians.

One could easily see how fear drove those living on the frontier into an anti-Indian fervor thanks to Silver’s adept reading of primary sources.  Similarly we can see how fear could evolve into hate and from there into budding racism.  From a wave of Indian terror attacks, to divisions between the white communities and the birth of racism in America, Silver’s work is compelling to the last detail.


[1] Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors, New York, 2008, xxi.

[2] Ibid., 92.

[3] Ibid., 131.

[4] Ibid., 137.

[5] Ibid.,, 162.

[6] Ibid., 98.

[7] Ibid., 87.

[8] Ibid., 193.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Ibid., 112.

[11] Ibid., 225-26.

[12] Ibid., 115.

[14] Silver, 203.

[15] Jefferson, 221.

 

 

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