White Savage

Book Review – White Savage

I recently had the chance to re-read White Savage by Fintan O’Toole.  It’s published by the State University of New York Press I suppose because it’s considered on local interest, local to New York that is.  But it’s the story of the life of William Johnson who while he lived most of his life in colonial New York had a vast impact on nationwide events prior to the Revolution.  Indeed the book’s subtitle is William Johnson And the Invention Of America.

Of course 99% of American who be hard put to place his name today.   In the pre-Revolutionary America however, he may have been the best known and most admired of men.  An Irishman who converted to the Church of England in order to obtain preferment under the British crown as a young man he settled west of Albany on the Mohawk River and set up as a fur trader and landlord farmer.  Understanding how key a relationship with the Indians was, in particular the fierce Iroquois Confederacy whose individual names still today are war cries – the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onandaga and Tuscarora – and who’s lands the fur trade had to transit, Johnson set out to become an Indian himself.  Immersing himself in the lore and code of the Iroquois.  Indeed he was so successful at this that eventually he became the most influential Iroquois of all.

At the same time he pursued a European career as a master trader and behind the scenes politician.  He also operated as a general commanding British forces and when in the French and Indian War Braddock was killed and defeated in the wilderness and Shirley never accomplished his mission of taking Niagara from the French  Johnson gave America and the British Empire it’s one victory at the battle of Lake George.  For which the king made him a baronet.  Later he took over command of British forces laying siege to Niagara and captured the post by leading the Iroquois in an ambush of the French relieving column.

In examining his life and times O’Toole offers a quite different view of the Indians, especially the eastern Indians.  Read the book yourself but here are a few of the lessons the book offers.

  •        By 1700 there were no Indian artifacts being made.  Everything they used was produced by Europeans and traded for.  The famous Iroquois long houses for example had doors fastened with metal hinges.  Iron pots had replaced pottery.  Stone knifes by iron and steel knives, stone tomahawks by iron hatchets.  Everybody had a musket or rifle and bows and arrows little used etc.
  •       Indians might be unbelievably cruel but would never betray a friend.
  •       The Indians were at least as good a shot as the white long riflemen.  And very discriminating buyers, an Indian would often fire a hundred shots from a rifle before he purchased it making certain that the musket ball went exactly where he wanted to send it.
  •       The famous Roger’s Rangers (which Johnson first organized) weren’t that good when compared to the Iroquois.
  •       Indian communities were so tight knit, that Johnson stated quite unequivocally that felt the loss of one of their own much more deeply than whites.  When his own father died in Ireland and the word spread, Iroquois traveled hundreds of miles through the worst weather to console him.
  •     The color and designs of body paint didn’t have all that much significance.  They had favorites but in general just liked dressing up.
  •     The role of rum was very important to the fur trade because the wants of Indians were otherwise very simple.  A not so subtle point which reminds one of the British cultivating opium addiction among the Chinese because otherwise the Brits had nothing Chinese wanted to buy.
  •    A lot of people, including Indians in the eighteenth century bought and sold other people.  Indians often bought captured Indians whom they called “Panis” and had no problem buying black slaves from whites while whites of course bought and sold both blacks or Panis.  White also bought and sold indentured white servants and to a considerable degree treated them like slaves.  Blacks could sometimes find refuge among Indians though and in one instance at least a successful black among the Indians bought a white girl for his own use from other Indians.
  •    Communication among Indians was incredibly well organized.  Word could spread from eastern New York to village on the far side of the Great Lakes fifteen hundred miles away  much faster than British or French military posts.  They were great gossipers, indeed raised it to an art form.

There’s a lot more in this book which will refine your understanding of early American development and Indians, so I hope you read it.  And that it leads you to other reading on this topic.