Our Savage Neighbors

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Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. Author: Peter Silver. Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company New York (2008) Peter Silver, author of Our Savage Neighbors, is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University. The first chapter, An Unsettled Country, pretty well tells his purpose in writing the book. He shows “how fear and horror…can remake whole societies and their political landscapes”. (xviii) His focus is on the middle colonies, particularly Pennsylvania, from the beginning of the Seven Years War through the end of the Revolutionary War. In his acknowledgment, Silver thanks a number of sources for their help in writing this book. Among them are Yale Graduate School, Norwegian Nobel Institute, Princeton University, Sterling Memorial Library, Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges, Historical Society of Pennsylvania and a number of Quaker resources. His seventy pages of notes, citing many journals, books, and papers, show the extensive research he did. William Penn brought a group of Quakers from England to Pennsylvania for freedom of religion for themselves and others. Silver describes the immigration of Irish and German settlers who came for religious freedom or financial reasons. They came for free land and became squatters on land owned by Penn and spread out to land claimed by the Indians. Silver describes the chaos between the different nationalities, the religious groups and the Indians. Although a few men tried to bring unity to provide support and protection, Silver states that it seemed it was a “collection of people, all laboring to deepen the trenches between them”. (20) Silver gives many, many examples of the Indian attacks. It sounds as if they might have been the first terrorists. They carefully planned their attacks, leaving behind a trail of mutilated and scalped humans, burned homes and crops, and dead livestock. There was little the settlers could do to protect themselves since they were scattered and had to continue caring for crops and animals. The attacks came swiftly and without mercy. The most basic prohibition in the law of war, prohibited killing people “who could not fight which meant, above all, children and women”. (58) The Indians had no such laws. The few soldiers were just as helpless and terrified as the settlers. As the stories of the attacks spread, everyone was so afraid that even grown men would run instead of fighting to protect their families. This fear did “remake whole societies” as people left the country. (xviii). “Any attack within 25 or 30 miles reliably triggered an avalanche-like, all but universal movement away”. (69) Silver’s description of the refugees sounds like the scenes on television of some modern day war-ravaged counties. Although the settlers were forced together physically by their retreat from the Indian attacks, Silver uses many examples to show they were not together in any other way. In an effort to get protection, they began displaying publicly the mutilated corpses of victims. Over and over, descriptions of the injuries were shown in pictures, poems, stories and what would be the media in their day. They became suspicious of any person or group who reached out to the Indians to try to bring peace or to give them any kind of help. One example was Conrad Weiser, an Indian agent who was meeting with leaders of the Iroquois tribe. A crowd of approximately four or five thousand showed up at his house. He was saved from harm by a rider warning of a (thankfully false) new attack. “Whether the governor, or assembly, or local agents like Weiser were to blame, such outbursts assumed that someone in power must have done the people wrong.” (97) Religious groups also came under suspicion, particularly Catholic and Quaker. There were groups that tried to unite but it usually fell apart because they could not agree on the leader. It was kind of funny to see that it was Indians who first used “White People” as the name for all non-Indians,...
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