Thursday, July 25, 2013

Robin Beck's "Chiefdoms, Collapse and Coalescence in the Early American South"

Robin Beck is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and assistant curator of Eastern North American Archaeology in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Chiefdoms, Collapse and Coalescence in the Early American South, and reported the following:
Each of my six chapters opens with a brief vignette that situates the reader in time and space and that presents an episode that is pivotal to--or in some way captures--the chapter that follows. As it happens, page 99 falls on the vignette that opens Chapter 3, The Stranger Indians:
May 1656

Defeat had not come often to the men of Virginia, but the weight of it settled over them now as they pushed away in their boats from the falls of the James, demoralized and shaken. Edward Hill had set out for this western frontier with his makeshift militia--more than a hundred Englishmen with their Pamunkey allies--to make a decisive show of force against the newcomers, the stranger Indians, who had appeared like apparitions out of the deep, inscrutable woods that stretched to the north, south, and west. They had met on the falls of the James, where the strangers sent their leaders forth to negotiate with Colonel Hill and his militia, who welcomed the foreigners into their camp. Later, and on the colonel’s command, his men had cut down these guests without warning or mercy, a clear lesson to the newcomers and other would-be claimants to this land that it was not for the taking. In times past such lessons, when imparted by Englishmen, were rarely challenged. But this time the strangers had imparted a devastating lesson of their own, driving the Englishmen back to their boats in a furious rage and shredding their Pamunkey Indian allies by the banks of a stream called Bloody Run. As the men of Virginia pushed toward home, the falls of the James behind them, none could have foreseen the consequences of their retreat.
When Spanish explorers first penetrated the American Southeast during the mid-1500’s, they described a precolonial, native world of river valleys thickly settled with large towns, powerful chiefs carried about on litters by their subjects, sacred temples atop high earthen mounds--and supporting it all--vast fields of maize. This was the world of the Mississippian culture, which once stretched from modern Oklahoma east to the Atlantic Ocean, from Wisconsin south to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet by the time the earliest English explorers reached the interior South just over a century later, this world was in ruins. From its ashes sprang the new world of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Catawbas, a world based not on maize and the human labor needed to farm it but on guns and commodities--namely animal hides and Indian slaves. By focusing on the native peoples of the Carolina Piedmont, those whose descendants would forge the Catawba Indian Nation, my book aims to explain both how these changes unfolded and why they unfolded in the particular way they did.

Those strangers who appeared so suddenly on Virginia’s frontier in 1656 were a group of Erie Indians expelled from the shores of Lake Erie by the Iroquois. They soon became known as the Westos, and for more than two decades their name would strike fear in native towns and villages across the Native South as they captured hundreds--if not thousands--of Indian slaves for the Virginia and Carolina markets. Their arrival would ignite the Indian slave trade and smash the Piedmont’s Mississippian chiefdoms, turning the entire region into what anthropologist Robbie Ethridge calls a shatter zone. Page 99 captures that moment in my book when before turned to after, when the world as it was turned irrevocably into something else.
Learn more about Chiefdoms, Collapse and Coalescence in the Early American South at the Cambridge University Press website.

See the July 2013 New York Times article, "Fort Tells of Spain's Early Ambitions," which reports the recent location by Robin Beck and colleagues of a 1567 Spanish fort during excavations at the Berry site, a fort and a site that play significant roles in Chiefdoms, Collapse and Coalescence in the Early American South.

--Marshal Zeringue