Detch on Wickman, 'Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast'

Author: 
Thomas M. Wickman
Reviewer: 
Andrew Detch

Thomas M. Wickman. Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast. Studies in Environment and History Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 320 pp. $49.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-42679-4.

Reviewed by Andrew Detch (University of Colorado Boulder) Published on H-War (October, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53974

In a wide-ranging 2018 state-of-the-field essay, James D. Rice notes that most of the scholars at the 2017 William and Mary Quarterly and USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Early American Environmental Histories workshop “did not primarily identify as environmental historians.” Rice takes that fact as an indication that early Americanists have possibly “come to appreciate that the ways in which people live within nature are so central to the human experience that scholars must at least ask themselves whether they should be part of the stories they choose to tell.”[1] Thomas W. Wickman’s Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship that shows all early American historians that we have something to gain by exploring the natural world that humans must always live and fight within.

Wickman argues that early American historians have long overlooked winter in their histories, treating the season as a time when frozen harbors, icy streets, and snow-covered landscapes restricted movement, halted military campaigns, and arrested long-distance communication. In doing so, historians have problematically ignored the ways Native Americans used the winter season to project their power, nurture their communities, and assert their independence. Additionally, if “overwintering” is to be understood as a necessary part of settler colonialism, then historians would do well to recognize the extent to which New England’s colonists (and, presumably, other European colonists who fall outside the geographic bounds of Wickman’s analysis) depended on the adoption of Native American technologies and knowledge to survive and eventually thrive during the winter season.

As the title suggests, Wickman’s book largely revolves around snowshoes. Showshoes were a source of great power in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century northern New England, a fact that was lost on English colonists for nearly eighty years. Wickman explains that many members of Wabanaki communities bore responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the snowshoes that “permitted Native families to journey long distances and therefore to visit kin, form alliances, access trade networks, practice subsistence hunting and trapping, and acquire intimate knowledge of varied winter lands” (p. 54). In contrast, snowshoeless New England settlers rued the winter months as times marked by isolation and immobility. The gulf in technical and ecological knowledge was most apparent during times of war. During the winter months, Wabanakis distanced themselves from the English who could not reach, much less deny access to, lands that were the source of Wabanaki winter power and independence. To push back English settlements, Wabanakis used snowshoes to conduct strategic wintertime raids that targeted livestock and generally terrorized immobilized colonists. Lacking snowshoes and knowledge of the winter landscapes in the American Northeast, English colonists could do little to counter Native American wintertime raids and military campaigns, like the Pequots’ winter siege of Fort Saybrook in 1636-37 during the Pequot War. English settlers, fully aware of their vulnerability during the winter months, were prone to conducting extraordinarily violent spring and summer campaigns, like the Fort Mystic Massacre in May 1637, with the aim of inflicting enough carnage to negate the winter advantages of Native peoples. A similar story played out during King Philip’s War, alternatively called the First Anglo-Wabanaki War in northern New England, and subsequent conflicts between Anglo settlers and Wabanakis in the region.

Though Native Americans proved capable of inflicting damage on English settlements during the winter months, settlers were not entirely powerless. Within the confines of colonial cities like Boston, settlers crafted spaces that were deadly to Native Americans. English laws served to isolate Native peoples in and around Boston while the city itself altered winter ecologies critical to Native American subsistence. The urban legal and physical landscapes thus produced horrifying situations where Native Americans died “unnatural,” lonely deaths during the winter within sight of or confined within the populous colonial city. The definitive shift in the power balance arrived in 1704 when, in the midst of another round of Anglo-Wabanaki warfare, New England colonists adopted snowshoes as a military technology. English “snowshoe men,” though never as capable or comfortable on snowshoes as their Wabanaki counterparts, nevertheless proved to be proficient at challenging Wabanaki claims to winter lands by eschewing direct attacks in favor of patrols that restricted Wabanaki mobility and kept “Native families from accessing their fishing, planting, and hunting sites” (p. 203). By the 1720s colonists had both chipped away at Wabanaki power and independence and gained critical knowledge of the previously obscure landscape. Though settlers expanded across the American Northeast in large part because of their adoption of Native American technology and use of Native American knowledge, colonists rarely mentioned Native peoples in their writings and subsequently eliminated Native Americans from their memories of winter. Instead, their stories privileged “individualistic survival tales and recreational habits.” Native peoples, on the other hand, continue to celebrate “the preservation of indigenous knowledge and the persistence of Native nations over many winters,” viewing winters as a time of autonomy and collective well-being (p. 268).

With just a few exceptions, the book is well organized, well written, and impressively researched. Since Wickman puts Native American-European interactions at the center of the study, he wisely divides the book into eight chapters that are best thought of as four pairs. Odd numbered chapters focus primarily on Native Americans while even chapters examine English settlers. The contrasting chapters effectively highlight divergent winter cultures. Furthermore, the generally chronological structure effectively shows change over time while also illuminating the uneven progression of settler colonialism.

Wickman’s most effective chapters are those that revolve around either snowshoes or warfare. In analyzing the contrasting ways Wabanakis and colonists thought about, produced, and used snowshoes, Wickman successfully connects the particular with the grand, as the best histories of material culture do. For example, the opening chapter illuminates the Wabanakis’ communal production of snowshoes and the centrality of the technology to all manner of winter activities. In contrast, the sixth chapter shows that English soldiers who adopted snowshoes did so because they were legally required to after 1704. Most did not construct or maintain their own snowshoes and only a limited number of settlers used snowshoes for nonmilitary tasks. Similarly, each chapter that centers on a military conflict offers insights into the complex politics of war, overturns dated understandings of the seasonality of colonial warfare, and further highlights critical cultural and technological differences between Wabanakis and colonists. Indeed, Wickman consistently focuses on both battlefields and subsistence lands to show that Native Americans and colonists competed both for space and for access to resources during the winter months.

Though each chapter is insightful, the narrative loses some of its coherence in the fourth and seventh chapters. In the fourth chapter on Boston, Wickman argues that the growth of urban space and the development of colonial laws interrupted Native American subsistence practices and isolated Native peoples, which contributed to a series of “unnatural” Native American deaths. Wickman’s evidence certainly links Boston’s growth with environmental change that disrupted the subsistence practices of nearby Native American peoples. However, though the chapter suggests compelling links between environmental change, colonial laws, and Native American suffering in and around the city, the emphasis Wickman places on a relatively small number of suggestive cases marks a departure from other chapters that rest on more expansive evidential foundations. Furthermore, in that chapter, Wickman occasionally abandons his clear, concise, and informative writing style and instead incorporates unnecessarily opaque terminology. Take, for example, his point that Native American “women’s insistence on performing vital winter labor despite new and unnatural risks prompts critical reflection upon cold-weather contexts of indigeneity, saltwater zones of Algonquian space, and gendered expressions of sovereignty” (p. 152). The seventh chapter similarly draws broad conclusions from relatively few cases. Wickman uses the writings of a few elite New England writers to make intriguing if not entirely convincing claims about widespread alterations to New Englanders’ conceptions of winter. All considered, Wickman certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt since he probably made the most of what is a limited source base. Both chapters are certainly thought provoking, powerful, and important even if they do not have quite the same cogency as other parts of the book.

Overall, the strengths of this book far outweigh any minor critiques. It is a laudably concise, clear, and informative study that will surely promote thoughtful reevaluations of work from scholars in all manner of subfields. The book’s confined geographic focus should by no means deter historians whose scholarship concerns other regions and peoples. As Rice suggests, we would all benefit by reading books like Snowshoe Country to contemplate the ways winter ecologies affected human relationships throughout North America and beyond.

Note

[1]. James D. Rice, “Early American Environmental Histories,” The William and Mary Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2018): 432.

Citation: Andrew Detch. Review of Wickman, Thomas M., Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53974

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