The Middle Ground and its posts: Edward Watts, ‘The Midwest and the Middle Ground’, Middle West Review, 2, 1, 2015, pp. 117-122
Excerpt: It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since Richard White announced that, after the end of the War of 1812 in 1815, throughout the pays d’en haut, the “middle ground” of the upper Great Lakes and Mississippi basins, the Americans “arrived and dictated.” White’s book largely concerns itself with the century and a half leading up to this, so it is not the fault of The Middle Ground that, in these last twenty-five years, historians of the Old Northwest have complicated, problematized, and elongated this transition without intrinsically breaking from its basic narrative of American arrival and the middle ground’s erasure. That is, they show that it was a complicated transition, taking as long as a century, and that the before-and-after binary White suggests was in fact characterized by entanglement and overlapping prior to the final marginality and vanishing of the Creoles.
The two books under review here contribute to this post-Middle Ground narrative in very important and very different ways. While both address Wisconsin’s transition from Catholic Francophone fur-trading region to Protestant Anglophone agricultural-commercial state, Lucy Eldersveld Murphy’s Great Lakes Creoles takes a microhistorical approach while Bethel Saler’s The Settlers’ Empire is macrohistorical in its method, framing the transition to statehood in the global terms of settler colonialism. While each displays some of the flaws intrinsic to its method and scope, each represents a valuable contribution to the ongoing post-Turnerian reinvention and revivification of regional midwestern history catalyzed by White.
For a text addressing the precision of muthiethnic and multigenerational family histories in Prairie du Chien, the imprecision of Murphy’s title represents microhistory’s tendency to overreach when it comes to transposing the archive of a single community over an entire region: Prairie du Chien is on the upper Mississippi—nowhere near the Great Lakes—and its middle ground era fur trade network ran through New Orleans, not Toronto or Montreal. This misdirection, however, is soon a forgotten distraction as Murphy begins to unfold what represents over a decade of painstaking work among the records of this French village.
Murphy begins within the middle ground narrative: “Enormous change came to the old fur trade communities of the Midwest, as the War of 1812 clamped U.S. sovereignty onto the borders of Wisconsin and Michigan.” However, her concern is “What this meant for the residents … [who] became minorities in their own communities” (6). In regard to racial history, she wonders “why the mixed ancestry peoples south of the Canadian border did not develop an identity as Métis?” (7). While it is a historiographical commonplace to say that the dominant American racial formulaic is binary—the one drop rule, for example—it is another to see it taking place in real time as court records, marriage and divorce documents, wills and testaments, and property deeds gradually yet unilaterally write the francophone Métis, French, Ho-Chunk, and other mixed race populations out of the community founded along the improvised and somewhat libertarian ethos of the pays d’en haut.
While Murphy does at times identify some of the paradoxes of French colonialism, for the most part, pre-1815 Prairie du Chien represents a model of multiracial and multiethnic cohabitation. However, by dividing the light-skinned Creoles with French names from their more identifiable Indigenous neighbors and relatives, Murphy’s Americans divided to conquer: “After the conquest, the United States intended to give individual land titles to Euro-Americans, and they did. … Newly and uncertainly dominant, the young United States needed these creoles, people on the margins between Indian and white worlds, to help them achieve the critical mass of population that would allow them to dominate and control the other peoples of the Midwest” (63). By tracking the experiences of certain Creole families through a series of generational transitions, Murphy demonstrates how later, their utility in removing the Indians having passed, they too were gradually marginalized as Americans, becoming more confident in the methods of dominance and colonization.
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