Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire

For ages before any historical record and up through the end of the seventeenth century, the Five Nations of the Iroquois were sovereign over the territory they called their own in what is now New York State. By the end of the eighteenth century, the United States of America, representing the white European immigrants and their descendants who were its citizens, were sovereign. This much most of us know. But in the roughly 100years between, the Iroquois engaged the rising British—soon to be American—Empire in a complex dance of economic, political, and cultural accommodation, in which neither side had the power to dictate terms to the other, and modes of existence and exchange were alternately shared, tolerated, and resisted in ways that were just as often cooperative as conflicted. This is the much less well-known story that Gail MacLeitch illuminates in Imperial Entanglements.

Central to this story is the Seven Years War (1756-1763), which precipitated a change in Britain’s orientation toward its North American colonies and therefore toward their Iroquois allies, and the person of William Johnson, who served as the primary liaison between the British and the Iroquois for almost thirty years.

MacLeitch’s efforts mark an important contribution to the regional history of New York. Additionally, while the pattern of cooperation giving way to conquest through years of increasing demand for land and resources will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Native American history, the Iroquois experience in the late colonial period is unique and deserving of wider interest as a comparative study. In the Southern colonies and New England in the seventeenth century, Anglo-Indian relations turned overwhelmingly violent soon after white settlement—witness the wars with the Powhatan (1622) and Wampanoag (1675) confederacies, respectively. By the nineteenth century, racial attitudes and imperial ideologies had crystallized into the policies of Indian Removal in the East and the reservation system in the West; for many Americans, peaceful coexistence was no longer considered a live possibility. But in the eighteenth century, the Iroquois’ cultural flexibility, martial prowess, and geographic and geopolitical situation allowed them to maintain a degree of autonomy and a culture that, while not unchanged, was at least changing on terms that they could negotiate for themselves. MacLeitch’s subject matter should net a large audience.

But her writing style will limit that audience considerably. This work is decidedly academic in tone, rife with such jargon asothering, commodification, and gender, a noun used as both past and present participle. Though the processes she describes encompass many remarkable stories and truly fascinating characters, the book is not narrative or even chronological in structure. Instead, the organizing principles are the social history lenses of race, class, and gender.For the first century and a half of the colonial era, “Iroquoia” was what MacLeitch calls a “culturally ambiguous human landscape” (150). It was not entirely harmonious, but the Iroquois had a group identity based on flexible and inclusive notions of kinship and they were desirous of European trade goods. And while many English thought of the Iroquois as primitive and heathen, they had not yet developed a racial ideology to account for these shortcomings and they needed Indian allies for their economic and military aspirations. In this environment, intercultural exchange and cooperation were more common than violence and exploitation. But MacLeitch convincingly demonstrates that as the British expulsion of the French in the Seven Years War and the decline of the eastern fur trade led to more competitive relationships, both sides quickly began to develop racialized discourses to conceive of the other as inherently separate and incompatible.

While class makes its appearance throughout the book, the excellent economic chapters focus more broadly on the Iroquois absorption into a monetized, transatlantic commercial network. Gradually through the century, the Iroquois transitioned from subsistence farming and hunting on communally held lands to hunting furs for market, selling and renting land, laboring for wages, and purchasing imported goods with cash. For the most part, they did this voluntarily and shrewdly, making the most of the changing economic opportunities around them. But it led inevitably to cultural turbulence and ultimately to a loss of their autonomy as they became dependent on foreign currencies and markets while the markets were simultaneously becoming less dependent on them for furs, labor, and land. MacLeitch makes clear that the fundamental reasons for the Iroquois loss of sovereignty were economic.

Her sections on gender, however, are not nearly so clear. It is easy enough to understand that the traditional Iroquois kinship system was matrilineal and that Iroquois women did all of the farming and child-rearing while men were usually away hunting and making war, and that clan matrons traditionally had a large voice in diplomacy and politics. And it is clear enough that this traditional balance changed as the Iroquois adapted to the imperial system and the market economy. But the author wants to stretch her gender theory to include all hierarchical arrangements, discussing the “gendered” nature of the relationships between the British and the Iroquois, between the Iroquois and other native peoples, and even between older and younger Iroquois males. She even seems willing to contradict herself to try to make her gender model work: First she argues that British soldiers tolerated female camp followers as laundresses or consorts, while for Iroquois warriors battle was a strictly male pursuit that the presence of women could only contaminate; later, she argues that Johnson transgressed Iroquois gender traditions by barring Indian women from the camps which he considered a wholly masculine terrain (144). All of this might be comprehensible enough to readers with a deep background in gender theory, but anyone else will find it confusing.

The Iroquois experience of the eighteenth century is an incredible story of persistence and accommodation in the face of cataclysmic change. It is also a story of great importance, both regionally and comparatively. It is somewhat unfortunate that MacLeitch chose not to present it simply as a story, letting the interpretive lessons rise naturally from the evidence.By choosing instead to adhere so rigidly to an interpretive framework, she might lose some otherwise interested readers. Nevertheless, her book is a meticulously researched and extremely valuable contribution to understanding the history of a people and their place.


Maj. Ryan L. Shaw,

United States Military Academy at West Po