Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 - Book Review
This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.
Daniel Usner's Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Economy demonstrates that the idea of the Old South of both postwar and colonial southern history should not obscure historians views of the Deep South before Americans colonized it. We should not read antebellum racism, relationships, and categories back into the deeper past. We need to break down Louisiana - it was not just a massive, boundless territory of scattered Frenchmen. The Lower Mississippi Valley was its own world, if not self-contained at least coherent on its own terms.
"In the responses of Indians, settlers, and slaves to changing demographics and economic conditions between 1763 and 1783, we observe 'frontier exchange' beginning to evolve from a network of interaction into a strategy of survival. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Indians, settlers and slaves had to struggle harder to preserve means of production and exchange that had routinely provided them flexibility and autonomy." 8-9
Benign neglect from the powers-that-be back in Europe had allowed a fluid setting to develop in which a handful of settlers and slaves could hammer out practical economic relationships with the still-substantial local Indian population. Chief among these activities were subsistence agriculture, the deerskin trade, hunting by slaves and Indians, etc. The inter-imperial conflicts of the 1760s precipitated greater European attention to the region. As imperial leaders insisted on directing the settlements' function toward commercial agriculture, the Indians became marginalized, pressed for space, diminished in political leverage and unable to keep up production of skins and other goods for the consumption of local whites, who were busy setting up increasingly restrictive plantations.
The 1720s was the only period of significant in-migration during the French dominion over Louisiana. By the late 20s, immigrants who managed to survive sea travel, disease, and starvation had begun to settle into a stable set of relationships with the local people. The population in 1734 was only half as large as the number who had traveled there. European officials were dismayed that despite best efforts of importing tobacco experts, offering high prices and more, the surviving settlers seemed self-satisfied and happy with the ease of interacting with the locals. There had been tension between these people and "concessionaires," who wanted a large labor force for plantation agriculture, but French importation of slaves in the 20s eased this problem. 43
Relations with the Natchez broke down in the 1720s as the Indians lamented foreign diseases, resented Euro encroachment, and feared that the French wished to reduce them to the status of black slaves. Usner compared the Natchez war (1729-1730) to Powhatan's War in Virginia, New England's Pequot War, NM's Pueblo Revolt, and SC's Tuscarora and Yamasee wars — "a significant impasse." The troubled company gave over its control of Louisiana to the French government. Indian trade continued, but the French had learned that some Indians (like the Natchez) were disposable if they became troublesome. "In order to continue exploiting the labor of a black majority in a colony surrounded by an even larger Indian populace, Louisiana officials and planters had to rely upon their own efforts. They improvised ways to impose a racially divided law and order upon people who crossed all kinds of boundaries whenever it suited their interests." 76
By the middle of the 18th century, most Indian groups at the edge of Euro settlement had become "enclave or refugee communities," largely thanks to disease as well as war.
"But weak connections with the Atlantic economy and a sparse colonial population, in the long run, actually helped buffer Louisiana's relations with Lower MS Valley Indians by containing commercial agriculture within geographical and economic limits. The production of crops and furs for export expanded together at a slow rate of growth. By the 1760s, when new forces entered the region, the frontier exchange economy had come to dominate the livelihood of most Indians, slaves, and settlers." 104
Due to the treaties that concluded the Seven Years' War, France gave Louisiana to Spain, and Britain gained everything east of the MS river above Lake Pontchartrain, making the river the boundary between the two big Euro empires in North America. Both governments began pushing colonization after 1763. "The short-lived revolt of New Orleans merchants and planters against Spanish authority is the best-known but not the only form of economic recalcitrance employed during the transitional period. Settlers, slaves, and Indians accommodated to and resisted the newly emerging economic order by pursuing customary production and marketing practices, which now become more like strategies for survival." (107) Blacks began to use the border to flee from one political authority to another, but imperial officials would cooperate in returning runaway slaves, while traditional subsistence strategies like pilfering and petty trade were suppressed.
The Treaty of 1783 ceded all of Florida below the 31st parallel to Spain and everything else east of the MS to the new US. The period between these treaties set the stage for more dramatic changes that would follow, demonstrating the early consolidation of a plantation and export-driven market economy. The changes initiated between 1763 and 1783 would only accelerate, as racial lines stratified in the plantation system and the fur trade became increasingly monopolized by "a few merchant houses." (274) "Tribes east of the MS confronted larger quantities of alcohol, physical abuse and land encroachment from a rising number of English traders just as their diplomatic leverage began to topple." (268)
Usner insists that the old ways may have been crushed under the heel of the advancing plantation economy in the Lower MS Valley, but they persisted on a small scale long after the "frontier exchange economy" fell apart. As proof, he points to "itinerant camps of Indians selling games and herbs" in the nineteenth century, and African American street peddlers in Natchez and New Orleans. People clung to these old ways to survive since there was little place for Indians in the plantation system and the new order abhorred any black autonomy. He also argues that food, like okra and rice, is the best evidence of lasting traditions from the lost world of the 18th century.