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Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America

Cover: Thundersticks in HARDCOVERDavid J. Silverman is an award-winning professor of history at George Washington University. He is the author of the new book, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America.
Between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, indigenous people across North America revolutionized their lives with firearms. The implications of this intervention, however, are complex, resting on how Native people incorporated guns into a vast range of their military, political, social, cultural, and economic activities.

The revolutionary potential of firearms extended from their destructive power, something historians have routinely downplayed. It has become commonplace for scholars to contend that firearms were attractive to Indians mainly because of their so-called psychological effect, referring to the terror and amazement produced by their pyrotechnics. Supposedly, early modern firearms, particularly the smoothbore, flintlock muskets which predominated until the early nineteenth century, were too inaccurate, slow to load, unwieldy, and fragile to supersede the bow and arrow. Indigenous people judged otherwise. They made the musket their weapon of choice in close-range ambushes, sieges of fortified settlements, and even hunting. The emergence of rifle technology in the mid to late eighteenth century, and of breech loaders, repeating rifles, and six shooter pistols in the mid nineteenth century, only accelerated this trend. Natives eagerly sought firearms not because they were dazzled by the technology. Rather, they realized that differential access to guns had become a key determinant in the rise of some Native peoples, and the vulnerability of others to captivity, enslavement, dispossession, horse raiding, and death, specifically the Five Nations Iroquois, the slave-raiding tribes of the Southeast (Westos, Savannahs, Creeks, and Chickasaws), the Osages of the Missouri-Mississippi confluence, the Comanches of the southern Plains, the Blackfeet of the northern Plains and Rocky Mountain West, the Nootkas of Vancouver Island, and the Sitka Tlingits of the Alaskan panhandle.

Arms races erupted across Native America as indigenous people came to terms with the military potential of firearms, the implications of which are best understood through the lens of political economy. Indeed, a people’s stockpile of arms and access to economic resources became mutually reinforcing. Without guns and ammunition, it was difficult to defend and expand the group’s hunting grounds, trade routes, and targets of captive raids. Likewise, without these economic resources, a people could not acquire weapons to defend themselves and pursue their economic interests.

Consequently, Native polities cultivated arms trade with multiple sources to ensure dependable flows of munitions at low costs, even in the event of war with the societies of those suppliers. Sometimes the arms dealers hailed from different nations, such as England, France, the Netherlands, or Spain, or different colonies of the same nation, in the case of the English provinces of the Atlantic seaboard. In other times and places, munitions came from one or more Native groups playing the role of middleman between colonial markets and Indians of the interior, as in the cases of the Wichitas of the southern Plains and the Crees and Assinboines of Canadian subarctic and Plains. The point of cultivating so many trade partners was to prevent foreigners from turning the people’s dependence on firearms into political and economic weakness.

Indian polities used commercial and military leverage to shape these relationships to their advantage. They warned gun dealers that they would take their trade elsewhere unless they received gunsmithing, powder, and shot on acceptable terms. They threatened gunrunners who did business with them not to supply their rivals. Traders who bent to these demands often found themselves with customers so loyal that they could be trusted to repay large extensions of credit, even in the absence of formal legal mechanisms to enforce these agreements.  Gunrunners who ignored the Indians’ conditions suffered a loss of business, at best, and sometimes the loss of their lives. Such tactics were basic to the intertribal and Indian-colonial weapons economy throughout its lengthy history.

The widespread success of Indians at building and maintaining large arsenals of firearms reveals the high degree of interdependence between Indians and Euro-Americans. This interdependence stemmed from a number of factors.  For one, Indians were the main suppliers of the colonies’ beaver and otter pelts, deer skins, and buffalo robes.  The fur trade was big business in nearly every colony in its opening decades and, in some cases, throughout its existence.  Some fur trade enterprises had influence in the upper ranks of colonial and imperial government; thus, Indians sold valuable resources to weighty interests.  What they insisted on receiving in exchange, above all else, were munitions and gunsmithing. The Indians’ Euro-American trade partners could either meet this demand at reasonable cost or lose their Native customers and risk turning them into enemies. Colonial and imperial authorities, knowing all too well about the high cost of warring against Indians, responded by making gifts of munitions and gunsmithing a routine part of their diplomacy with them.  Oftentimes, presents of these goods and services were so common that powerful Indian groups no longer had to pay for them to any significant degree.

The Euro-American inability to control the Indian arms trade should serve as one of the prime examples of “rogue colonialism” (coined by Shannon Lee Dawdy) in which colonists of all ranks pursued their own gains, often illegally, in opposition to the directives of central authorities and against the security of their neighbors. Even during periods of Indian-colonial warfare, Euro-American states struggled to cut off their Indian enemies from munitions, as in King Philip’s War, the Tuscarora War, Pontiac’s War, and the Second Seminole War. There were always traders who refused to abide by such restrictions, despite the risk of capital punishment.  Most startling were examples of government officers and military men who turned to the black-market trade with Indians to line their own pockets. Government could seem fictional when it was incapable of preventing its own people from arming their enemies. To the limited extent that colonial states managed to reduce Indian military supplies during times of war, it was usually by enlisting the help of Indian allies, largely by plying them with arms.

Indigenous dependency on the technology of Europe and the United States never rendered them politically or economic dependent on colonial or imperial states. Most Indian nations remained well armed right up to the moment of their subjugation to Euro-American authority. In some instances, they wielded better guns and were better shots than the colonial forces that confronted them. To the extent that Indians held back the colonial tide, it was in part because of, not despite of, their adoption of firearms. Gun dependency was not a Trojan horse for colonialism.

The importance of firearms to indigenous fortunes meant that guns also became an essential part of Native cultures, including gender systems. Indigenous people incorporated firearms into ceremonies ranging from coming-of-age rituals to burial. They imbued firearms with supernatural associations, decorated the weapons to express these ideas, and fired celebratory volleys to honor their deities. They also used guns to express their notions of gender. Guns grew so essential to masculine achievement that, in many times and places, an Indian man was rarely if ever seen abroad without a musket and ammunition bag slung over his shoulder.  Among the Blackfeet, capturing an enemy warrior’s gun became the greatest honor a man could accomplish in battle. Learning to make basic gun repairs and mold lead shot, never mind shooting guns accurately, joined the list of things a Native man needed to know. By contrast, Native women rarely used firearms, even when their lives were in peril, based on the principle that women were meant to give and sustain life but not take it.  However, women did participate in the material culture of firearms, using their expertise in leather working, sewing, and beadwork to produce gun bags, ammunition pouches, and war shirts. These were new ways of expressing longstanding gender roles.

This history of guns in Indian country demonstrates how indigenous people used firearms to reshape their world during the age of colonialism. Some Natives, for greater or lesser periods of time, used guns to accumulate wealth, power, and honors, which is to say, to become ascendant.  Such stories offer an important counterpoint to the still widespread assumption that First Nations generally plunged into a downward trajectory of death, land loss, and impoverishment at contact with Euro-Americans. Thundersticks challenges the notion that a disadvantage in arms somehow accounts for indigenous people’s ultimate subjugation to Euro-American authority. Native economic power, business sense, and political savvy determined that was not the case. However, it is equally critical to acknowledge that gun-toting Indian groups nearly always arose at the expense of other Natives, sometimes many others.  Just as the story of the United States should not be told simply as the triumphant rise of a democratic nation of liberty loving people, neither should the advantages Indians wrested from colonialism overshadow the costs. Capturing the full range of Native experiences with firearms helps us to grasp the dynamism and darkness of colonial America viewed from Indian country.