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The Indians' New World: Catawbas and their…

The Indians' New World: Catawbas and their Neighbors from European Contact… (1989)

by James H. Merrell

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This book is an expanded version of an article in WMG. James Merrell "The Indians' New World: The Catawba Experience" WMQ 41:4 (October 1984), 537-65.

This article, published 2 years after the author's dissertation in 1982, captures the essentials of book published a few years later. Starting with the basic premise that the world of native populations was as much transformed by contact as any Europeans', this article examines changes wrought by contact on the peoples of the Virginia and Carolina Piedmont. For the Indians, Merrell identifies three stages in which the new order arrived - European microbes, trade and then settlement. The result was that Indians as well as white settlers and black slaves lived in a new world as a result of contact. Because the peoples of the Piedmont had so much in common it is useful to take this regional view. After 1700, these peoples were drawn together by cultural affinities amidst their common plight to a region on the border between the two Carolinas to form the Catawba Nation.

Turning first to the impact of disease on the Piedmont peoples, he describes the visit of Hernando de Soto to the region in 1540 and the deserted towns he found where native people had already suffered the ravages of disease. Once the English colonized in the late 17th century disease began it take its toll again, with major disease cycles every 20 years. Merrell frames the narrative Indians' suffering with a discussion of the impact of disease on white settlers in the lowlands, where the Chesapeake swamps constituted a death trap for the Europeans. Native peoples were especially slow to develop resistance (and it might be pointed out, they were not replaced by new immigrants from overseas). The impact was wide ranging and devastating, as it deprived them of their elders who were the bearers of wisdom and of practical skills. The decrease in population also made it difficult for tribes to hunt and farm. As a result of this demographic pressure, many tribes migrated to the Catawba Nation.

No mere catalog of migrations and mergers can begin to convey how profoundly unsettling this experience was for those swept up in it. While upcountry Indians did not sail away to some distant land, the, too, were among the uprooted, leaving their ancestral homes to try to make a new life elsewhere. (p. 545)

Moving to new lands meant leaving behind sacred monuments and farming land and hunting territory that the Indians knew intimately. Intensely local, the social fabric of these communities was also torn asunder. Like white colonists and black African slaves, the Piedmont Indians also had to deal with unwelcome diversity. The displaced natives gathered together around the Catawba Nation as a result of similarities in language and culture, but there were still major differences that cause tensions within the Nation. Over time, this attenuated, but it was a jarring experience for all concerned. Through common experience, the Nation was formed.

European trade entered the region after disease. Trade in guns, kettles and alcohol worked their changes on the culture. Initially, alcohol was consumed as part of ceremonies and rituals, but it soon burst those boundaries to cause sickness and death. The major impact from other, less directly negative, trade goods was that the native peoples never learned how to manufacture them for themselves and hence became embroiled in the world market as producers of raw materials and consumers of finished goods. This relationship fostered dependence on Europeans which give them power over native peoples. Native craft skills quickly eroded and were forgotten. Warfare soon erupted over use of hunting lands used to procure deerskins and slaves for the Europeans. In 1715 when the Yamassee's convinced the Catawba to attack South Carolina settlements, all trade goods were cut off. When the trade was restored, the Catawbas had learned their lessons. For that point forward they played Europeans off against each other (English vs. Spanish) to their own advantage.

The final wave was that of the planters. Unlike the traders, who had profited through commerce with the Indians, planters saw the Indians as competitors. They had no reason to work with the Indians and were constantly in conflict. Planters sought to "improve" the land by clearing the forests, erecting fences, buildings and roads, etc. "Unruly, angry, intoxicated - Catawbas and Carolinians were constantly at odds during the middle decades of the eighteenth century." (p. 557) As the Indians were hit by cycles of disease, their numbers shrank. The colonists numbers continued to grow as more Europeans move to the Piedmont as planters. It was only through Catawba accommodation to the new conditions, by making compromises and trading with the planters that the Catawbas survived as a people. Settling down on a reservation in the 1760s, they exchanged goods and services for European merchandise. During the Revolution, they joined the colonial side and began increasingly to call their Chiefs by the European appellation General. They also began to claim that their Generals were elected by the people. As patriots and democrats, they became acceptable to the new American nation. Rendered harmless in the 19th Century, the Catawbas "had become traders of pottery but not deerskins, experts with the bow and arrow but not hunters, ferocious warriors against runaway slaves or Tories but not against settlers." (p. 562) Adopting external postures that allowed them to maintain their own tribal heritage in private, the Catawbas reached an accommodation with white settlers which resembled the compromises made by African slaves.

Dana Nelson's Review of Indians' New World

James Axtell's Review of Indians' New World

Other Readings:

*Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York, 1991).

Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade (Berkeley, Cal., 1978).

James Axtell, Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America (New York, 1992).

Peter H. Wood, "The Changing Population of the Colonial South: An Overview by Race and Region, 1685-1790," in Wood, et al., eds., Powhatan's Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast (Lincoln, Neb., 1989), 35-103.

Daniel Richter, Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992).

Daniel K. Richter, "Whose Indian History?" WMQ 50:20 (April 1993), 379-93
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
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Full title (1989): The Indians’ new world : Catawbas and their neighbors from European contact through the era of removal.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 039396017X, Paperback)

"A superb account of the extraordinary story of the Catawba Indians... A brilliant and thorough history of a people who have, until this book, lacked a voice." —Wilcomb E. Washburn, Smithsonian Institution, in North Carolina History Review

"This stunning history of the Catawbas—and their black and white neighbors—sets a new standard for the field. Merrell's book bristles with new insights and skilled decoding of difficult evidence. After reading this book, all those involved in teaching early American history should want to alter their perspective." —Gary B. Nash, University of California, Los Angeles

"The Indians' New World is closely argued from an astonishing amount of evidence, and it is lucidly written.... It emphasizes the ingenuity and strength of will by which the Catawbas coped with disaster and preserved their identity as a people. Only a genuine scholar and fascinating writer could have paid tribute as James Merrell has done." —Francis Jennings, Director Emeritus, D'Arey McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian, The Newberry Library

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:49 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

This eloquent, pathbreaking account follows the Catawbas from their first contact with Europeans in the sixteenth century until they carved out a place in the American republic three centuries later. It is a story of Native agency, creativity, resilience, and endurance. Upon its original publication in 1989, James Merrell's definitive history of Catawbas and their neighbors in the southern piedmont helped signal a new direction in the study of Native Americans, serving as a model for their reintegration into American history. In an introduction written for this twentieth anniversary edition, Merrell recalls the book's origins and considers its place in the field of early American history in general and Native American history in particular, both at the time it was first published and two decades later.… (more)

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