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, even though the “murder all the white People” is not a bit funny. (115) Silver, also, shows that the Indians were not the only “savage neighbors”. The attacks on Indians by the whites could now be excused because the Indians had murdered family members. They could kill, scalp, and rob Indians without much fear of being caught or punished. A play based on real life, written by Indian fighter, Robert Rogers, showed how two hunters happened upon two Indians.
As they talked, both told of how Indians had murdered some family members, so it was logical to them to kill the Indians, scalp them and robbed them of the guns, hatchets and furs. The “victims’ furs were a fantastic windfall”. (129) Threats and attacks on neutral Indians were common among soldiers. Indians lived near the forts in order to trade. Soldiers were constantly afraid and “garrisons spent more time dreading attack than undergoing it”. (130) The soldiers had no way to know if there were spies among them, which made them suspicious of all so sometimes they just killed them all.
Even when the killing never happened, the threats, bullying, drinking and bragging by both whites and Indians kept the fear going. When war was declared in seventeen hundred fifty six, a bonus was offered by the governor of Pennsylvania for Indian scalps. Not much came of it at that time but when the Pontiac War began in seventeen hundred sixty three, a letter written by John Elder, a Presbyterian minister “found that his neighborhood had no appetite for fighting Indians”. (163) The scalp bounty was increased and it brought a flood of “scalpers”.
Once again fear changed the landscape as Indians who had been friendly for years were killed or left to keep from being killed. Because many whites lived near the friendly Indians, they left too, because they felt their protection was gone. The whites began surprise attacks on Indians in their homes, killing and scalping and burning the cabins, an imitation of what the Indians did. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that the Indians who did the killing did not stick around but disappeared into the woods. Even Philadelphia did not escape the effects of the war.
Moravian missionaries brought Indians into the city and they were housed and fed with government funds. Frontiersman marched on the city and it seemed there would be a huge fight, but the leaders of each group managed to talk, and it ended with some printed pamphlets listing the frontiersman complaints. The chief complaint was the lack of financial help for them while the Quakers allowed Indians to stay in the city at public expense. This pamphlet led to what Silver describes as a “paper blizzard as if a cannon had fired ten thousand sheets of paper, all twisting and fluttering down over the city”. 190) Silver turns his attention to the changes in the “political landscapes” in the chapter titled The Quakers Unmasked. The flood of printed materials moved into politics and proved that dirty politics did not begin recently. In turn just about every religious group and nationality was attacked, with the Quakers bearing most of the blame game. The Germans were generally not very interested, but attacks on their character spurred them to action and with other voters they unseated eight of the assembly members, one of them Benjamin Franklin.
It was still not democracy but the politicians had learned that the common people could make a difference. The end of the Seven Years War brought the beginning of the Revolutionary War and with it, the dread of another Indian War. “This dread was coupled with a doggedly open-minded hopefulness that all the continents’ inhabitants-Indian, American, and even French Canadian-might find themselves naturally united against what it was felt they all had reason to see as Britain’s long history of oppression. (229) The British had condemned the French for enlisting the Indians in their fight with them and now they were doing the same thing. Many Indians did join in the fight. Silver does not write a typical history book. His focus is not on the Seven Years War or the Revolutionary War as a whole but mostly the part involving Indians. He emphasizes the anti-Indian attitudes and the insistence of the colonists on sending troops to fight the Indians instead of the British. When the peace treaty with the British was signed, there were celebrations in many areas of the country.
In western Pennsylvania, there was no celebration for peace had not come there. There were Indian attacks the same week the treaty was signed. One journalist wrote, “What would they gain by a peace with us? …By war they obtain plunder from our settlements”. (262) Just as Pontiac’s War had extended the Indian War after the Seven Years War, they now faced the same situation. Those under attack demanded action. When action did come, he describes in chilling detail the attack on friendly Indians. It was not a rush of emotion caused by death of family, but a two day, two town massacre.
While the attack was condemned and there were calls for punishment, the men sent to investigate decided it would be better to just let it go. Another attack ended badly for the attackers. They ran into heavy fighting and a colonel in the army named William Crawford was captured and tortured to death. The newspapers made sure that all the terrible details were kept before the public and the cries for “heavy expeditions against Indian towns grew shriller”. (263) While part of it was for revenge, some of it was the desire for the land the Indians claimed.
The Ohio Valley was a rich, fertile land and once the Indians were displaced, it would be easy to take over. The soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War were promised land and it had to come from new territory. In his conclusion, Silver shows the part that prejudice played in the events he has related. Pennsylvania was a melting pot of nationalities and religions. Throughout the book, he showed the prejudice directed at almost all at one time or another. The fear and hatred of the Indians brought them together in a very loose way but it took time for the memories of the things they had endured to be wiped out.
Silver does accomplish his goal of showing how fear can change society. The stories of all the groups of people and the individuals he singles out make it more personal instead of just something that happened in history. It is easy to see why there was such fear. The textbook account of the Seven Years War is a clear story of what started the war and how it ended. It helped a lot in understanding this book. (101-108) Silver does a lot of skipping around between the years of the war and the different groups of people, and there isn’t a definite time line, which makes it hard to follow.
For instance, on page fourteen, he suddenly jumps from the problems between Irish, German and Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania to five Eskimo missionaries who went to Germany and finally came to Pennsylvania and witnessed to a group of Indians. His detailed descriptions of the horrors of the attacks were very unpleasant to read and the pictures of supposed British cannibalism hard to see. This book would not be helpful to anyone looking for a basic book on the Seven Years War. Brooke Rogers