INTO THE AMERICAN WOODS: NEGOTIATORS ON THE PENNSYLVANIA FRONTIER, by James H. Merrell, W.W. Norton, 463 pages, 27.95.
When historians focus on the broad sweep of history, they often overlook the contributions of less-prominent figures. With Into The American Woods, James Merrell attempts to rectify this oversight, at least for one American colony. His subjects are the Pennsylvanian go-betweens, an intriguing class of intermediaries who brokered a lengthy peace between William Penn’s colonists and the neighboring Indians.
These part-time negotiators first emerged in the late 1600s. Most were traders, trappers, interpreters, and woodsmen, individuals who were accustomed to navigating the wilderness (both literal and cultural) that separated the native and European worlds. Their tools were simple but effective, dominated by wampum, trade goods, and hard-nosed field diplomacy. Whether German, French, Irish, Delaware, Shawnee, or Iroquois, the go-betweens together were able to fashion a “Long Peace” that lasted until 1750, when regional tensions erupted in the French and Indian War. Even then they labored to end the bloodshed, succeeding finally in 1763. It was their last significant accomplishment. Thereafter, their services no longer valued, the peacemakers faded into obscurity.
Merrell’s tome, the fruit of a decade’s work, is impressively researched and thickly annotated. His prose is vibrant and clear, and he brings the individual go-betweens to vivid life. It is obvious that he sympathizes with his subjects, for he does a splendid job of making the reader feel their triumphs, privations, and aspirations. In giving breath to these forgotten ones, James Merrell has done a great service to anyone who values American colonial history.
Floyd Largent is a Texas-based writer, anthropologist, and historian, with a particular interest in Native-American cultures.