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.

SHEAR Dissertation Prize

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic invites submissions for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize. The Prize will be awarded to an exceptional dissertation pertaining to the history of North America from 1776 to 1861. Within that period, the dissertation may treat virtually any aspect of history, including political, social, cultural, or literary history.

Dissertations successfully defended in calendar years 2015 and 2016 are eligible. To submit a dissertation for consideration, please first send a one-page letter of inquiry accompanied by a brief prospectus, sample chapter, and current CV to:

Robert Lockhart
Senior Editor
University of Pennsylvania Press
3905 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

The deadline for submission of preliminary materials is February 1, 2017.

The prize committee will then invite finalists to send complete dissertations for consideration, and the winner will be announced at SHEAR’s annual conference in July, where a workshop with the prize committee will also be held. The author will receive a publishing contract, and the manuscript will be published as a volume in the book series Early American Studies, cosponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Case for an Electoral “Pause”

Over at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy’s blog, SHEAR members John L. Brooke and Andrew W. Robertson make the case for an electoral “pause” in anticipation of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Here is an excerpt:

[T]hose who view Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency with apprehension should make use of the much-needed “pause” in the presidential trajectory afforded between Jan. 6 and Jan. 20 by the “contingent” election conducted in the House. This hold on the electoral process would allow Republican and Democratic House members additional time to reflect on concerns about Russian interference in the election and Trump’s possible violation of the emoluments clause, either of which might render him unsuitable or ineligible for office. Taking a cue from Hamilton, officeholders and shapers of public opinion could help to steer the House vote. Like Jefferson, Republicans and Democrats might work towards a compromise on basic policy. This might reassure members of both parties that whoever won the presidency would not cause a radical break in foreign policy or renegotiate the national debt.

Crowd-Sourcing a “History Detective” Problem

A few months ago, my friend Richard Flavin (an amateur historian living in Cambridge MA) sent me a message attached interesting scans from early American newspapers, concerning St. Hubertus, a figure about whom I have published (in JSRNC in 2008 and in Religion Dispatches earlier this year).

I didn’t get a chance to look at the documents closely until recently, that is after my friend Rick lost his battle with cancer.

Alas, I have no idea which 18th and 19th century newspapers I am looking at, although I suspect they are from the Boston area (based on reprints from The Globe, and the fact that Rick lived and worked in Eastern Massachusetts.

Can one of you help me identify these newspapers? Images (.pdfs) are here and here.

Joe Wilson

Joseph A.P. Wilson, PhD
Assistant Editor, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.
International Studies Program
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Fairfield University
1073 North Benson Road
Fairfield, CT 06824

Call for Applications: Inaugural SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop

SHEAR is pleased to announce the creation of the SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop and to invite applications for its inaugural session at the annual meeting 20 – 23 July 2017 in Philadelphia.

The journey from first to second book can be a difficult one. From choosing a topic for a second book to finding the time and support to research and write, the structure that guides the writing of the dissertation and first book disappears. Many of us struggle with this transition. We wonder if it makes sense to continue a research trajectory clearly laid out in our first project or to try something entirely new. We search for research support at the same time as teaching and service obligations increase. For some scholars, these difficulties are compounded by the obligations of family and child rearing that can make residential fellowships or long-term travel seem impossible. Yet the second book is an essential step in career advancement: a requirement for the promotion to full professorships or even at some institutions, for tenure. Recognizing the unique challenges of this stage, SHEAR has launched a new program designed to support its members at this transitional point in their scholarly careers.

The SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop will replicate some of the structures of feedback that dissertation writers experience. The goals of the workshop include both practical advice and the motivation that comes from writing for and with your peers. To accommodate the many stages of second book production, the workshop will encourage flexibility in pre-circulated materials. Organized into genre-based groups, the workshop will provide a space for discussion of drafts of book proposals, fellowship applications, chapter drafts, and other documents related to the writing of a second book. A mentor who has successfully published a second book will lead each workshop group.

In 2017, workshops will take place in the afternoon of Thursday, July 20 prior to the plenary session. Committed mentors include: Johann Neem, Matthew Mason, and Amy Greenberg.

To apply to participate, writers of second books should submit via e-mail to Emily Conroy-Krutz ( or Jessica Lepler ( a single .pdf or Word file that contains a one-page CV and a one-page document comprising a description both of your second book project and of the document that you would like to circulate for the workshop. Applications to participate in the workshop should be submitted no later than March 1, 2017, and applicants can expect to hear back by early April.

Accepted participants’ materials for pre-circulation will be due June 15.

Searching for the “Real” Toussaint Louverture

On August 24th of 1802, an elderly man reached the gate of the fort de Joux, in the Jura region of eastern France. Perched atop a mountain like an eagle in its aerie, the fort dated back to the Middle Ages and was now used as a political prison. The man was not just any prisoner: he had until recently been a general in the French army and the governor of France’s largest colony, Saint-Domingue (Haiti). He had also once been a slave. He was Toussaint Louverture.

Louverture’s was a household name by 1802. Born on a sugar plantation around 1743, he had helped organize in 1791 the Haitian Revolution, the world’s only successful slave revolt. He had then defeated armies sent by France, Spain, and Great Britain and made himself governor general for life of the island where he had once been enslaved. Slaves sang his praises throughout the Americas. The British Annual Register named him 1802’s most significant world figure. That year, William Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in his honor. “Every body has heard of Toussaint, the famous Negro general” noted one of his first biographers, the British abolitionist James Stephen, in 1803. The book went through four printings in a year. Other biographies also appeared in France, the United States, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Sweden.

Though all his contemporaries agreed that Louverture was an extraordinary man, they disagreed on what his life actually meant. To his admirers, he was the Washington of his race, the new Spartacus, or even the Messiah. To his detractors, he was a murderer and a fraud. Some of his enemies faulted him for being too close to white planters; others accused him instead of being too friendly to them. He was the liberator of the black slaves; he was their oppressor. Napoléon Bonaparte, the first Consul of France, initially hoped to ally himself with Louverture and wage a common war against Britain and the United States; but he then concluded that Louverture was a traitor to France and sent a massive expeditionary force to unseat him. And so it was that in 1802 Louverture was captured and exiled from Haiti to the French port of Brest, and ultimately to the fort de Joux.

Louverture’s carriage passed through the first layer of fortifications, a tunnel dug directly into the rock. A moat and a drawbridge followed, after which the carriage halted in the medieval castle’s main courtyard. Louverture was led up a flight of stairs, through a gate, another courtyard, another gate, another courtyard, and yet more gates still until his journey ended deep in the fort’s innards. His cell was narrow, low, and dark. Because Louverture had many sympathizers in France and they might help him escape, the cell’s only window was obstructed by iron bars, bricks, and storm shutters. Not even as a slave had Louverture’s freedom been so restricted. “Isn’t it like burying a man alive?” he wondered. It was. He never left Joux alive.

Because Louverture’s record was so controversial, his first priority after reaching Joux was to defend his actions as governor. He set out to write a document often described today as his “memoirs.” He dictated early versions to a secretary and then penned a final version, 16,000 words long, entirely in his hand. This was a monumental effort for a man who had never been formally educated and who had only learned how to read and write proficiently in his fifties. Because nineteenth-century autobiographical accounts by slaves are rare, and because many of them were mediated by third parties, this text, written by history’s most important slave, was unique in many respects. But it raised more questions than it answered about the significance of Louverture’s life. Throughout, he described himself as a loyal servant of the French colonial empire, ignoring or distorting the many instances in which he had charted a quasi-independent course for Haiti. He generally avoided the salient issue of the Haitian Revolution, slave emancipation, and he wrote almost nothing about his pre-revolutionary life, though it had represented five sixths of his life. “I was a Slave, I dare to announce it:” this passing comment was the only reference to his time as a slave in the text. He never had a chance to clarify his views. In the weeks that followed, Bonaparte ordered his papers and writing materials confiscated in an effort to silence him. Louverture died of pneumonia in April 1803, taking his secrets with him.

Because of Louverture’s byzantine career and his willingness to obscure his record, his life has remained a matter of debate ever since. Scholars even disagree on basic facts like his birth date (no baptismal record has been found); the significance of his last name (which he adopted during the Revolution); his final resting place (his body has been lost); and his physical appearance (portraits of him vary widely). Mostly, they disagree about the meaning of his historical legacy.

In the nineteenth-century United States, Louverture was cited as a model by radical abolitionists like John Brown, who studied Haitian revolutionary tactics when preparing his raid at Harpers Ferry; but also by moderate abolitionists who viewed him as proof of the intellectual potential of black freedmen; and by pro-slavery apologists who appreciated his willingness to force black laborers back to the fields after their emancipation. Early Haitians were surprisingly critical of Louverture, whom they faulted for falling short of outright independence; many now idolize him as a founding father of the nation. The French initially denounced his autonomist agenda; they have now adopted him as a hero of their own revolution. In academic circles today, he tends to be regarded, often unquestioningly, as a one-sided herald of the abolitionist movement, an attitude that is seemingly respectful but also simplistic and even patronizing because it obscures the complexities of the Revolution he had to navigate and the skill he displayed in doing so. His multifaceted politics, which made him uniquely successful during the Revolution, have also contributed to his posthumous success: everyone can find a Louverture they like because there were so many Louvertures in the first place. He is a Rorschach test, on which people project their own beliefs.

Finding the “real” Louverture is trickier. Writing about slaves is usually difficult because history is written by the winners, so planters dominate the archival record. In Haiti, uniquely, it was the slaves who won, so documents by and about Louverture are accordingly plentiful, almost overwhelmingly so. Unfortunately, they are dispersed in dozens of archives, and until recently there were only two major biographies in English, one by C.L.R. James dating back to 1938, and a more recent one by Madison Smartt Bell that was based on limited original research. It took me ten years and trips to twenty-some archives in Europe, the Caribbean and the United States to explore Louverture’s papers.

We are only now beginning to rediscover the many facets of Louverture’s life. In recent years, I and other scholars have made many surprising discoveries. He was a devout Catholic and a family man, but he also had two wives, sixteen biological and adopted children, and many white mistresses (a habit that reflected his love-hate relationship with the white community). He obtained his freedom long before the Revolution and then purchased and rented some slaves, one of whom was the future emperor of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines; but he also helped manumit many friends and family members. He was the mastermind behind the world’s most successful slave revolt in 1791, but he also restricted the rights of field workers after their emancipation. He undermined a 1799 plot to export the Haitian slave revolt to Jamaica for fear of offending his British trading partners. He was at once committed to the principle that all men have an innate right to be free and intent on making abolition work, even if that meant quashing some of the hopes raised by his revolution in the name of expediency.

In the end, Toussaint Louverture was the consummate pragmatic idealist, whose life remains an inspiration to all those who try to reconcile the purity of their ideals with the messiness of the real world.

Philippe Girard is professor of history at McNeese State University and is the author of Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (Basic Books, 2016).