Saunt on Oberg, 'Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America 1585-1685'

Michael Leroy Oberg
Claudio Saunt

Michael Leroy Oberg. Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America 1585-1685. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. x + 239 pp. $42.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3564-5.

Reviewed by Claudio Saunt (Department of History, University of Georgia) Published on H-AmIndian (January, 2000)

Indians, Frontiersmen, and Metropolitans

In Dominion and Civility, Michael Leroy Oberg argues that English imperialism in Native America was shaped by two conflicting forces. On one side were the "metropolitans," whose progenitors include Richard Hakluyt the Younger, Walter Ralegh, and Thomas Hariot. Embracing humanist scholarship and Christian millenarianism, they envisioned an empire of dominion and civility that fully incorporated Indians. Just as the Romans had civilized the savage and pagan inhabitants of ancient Britain, so too would the English transform the savages of North America. Opposing the metropolitans were the frontiersmen. Shaped by experience rather than by books, they were the products of the frontier, "a world of pragmatism, exploitation, and violence" (p. 49). These Hobbesian colonists were "expansive, commercially minded, and aggressive" (p. 50), and, most importantly, they hated Indians (p. 140). According to Oberg, the history of English Indian policy is the story of the struggle between these two opposing and unchanging forces.

Each chapter of Dominion and Civility reassesses an early stage of colonization in light of metropolitan idealism and frontier pragmatism. Thus, Oberg describes the history of Roanoke as one of frontier attitudes prevailing over metropolitan values. In early Virginia, the actions of aggressive frontiersmen again led to disastrous Indian wars. Though the defeat of Opechancanough in 1646 allowed metropolitans briefly to establish a "peaceful and mutually beneficial protective relationship" between natives and newcomers (p. 211), the metropolitan ascendance was tenuous. Bacon's Rebellion, "the result of a dispute between metropolitans and frontiersmen over the conduct of Indian policy" (p. 206), more securely placed the colony in the hands of metropolitan idealists. Further north in New England, Oberg finds a similar pattern of development. The Pequot War reflected the intrusion of "a world of grim practicality" (p. 112) on metropolitan idealism. Yet in 1677, as the shockwaves of King Philip's War subsided, the establishment of the Covenant Chain between the Iroquois and New York "built a foundation for future efforts to attain the metropolitan imperatives of dominion and civility" (p. 216). Much as Stephen Saunders Webb argues in 1676: The End of American Independence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1985), Oberg believes that Bacon's Rebellion and King Philip's War represent a turning point in which metropolitans retook control of the colonies.

In this age of overspecialization, readers will appreciate Oberg's attempt to synthesize and bring order to the first century of English colonization. Oberg's detailed and lively account is based solidly on primary and secondary sources, and he explains his thesis clearly and never loses sight of the argument. Oberg is at his most provocative in his characterizations of metropolitan idealism and frontier pragmatism, and each one raises a number of questions. In what sense can we say that a single metropolitan intellectual tradition runs from the 1580s to the 1830s, as Oberg suggests in his conclusion (p. 226)? If such a tradition exists, is it inconsistent with the brutality that frequently characterized English-Indian relations?

Oberg begins his book by quoting George Washington on the desirability and difficulty of preserving peace with the Indians. Washington's lamentation is "timeless," Oberg asserts, and it typifies "the experience of metropolitan Englishmen" (p. 1). Yet Washington saw no contradiction between his desire for peace and his belief that the "gradual extension of our Settlements will as certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire; both being beasts of prey tho' they differ in shape."[1] Metropolitans, in short, could be both humane and intolerant. Thus missionary John Eliot, who reflected metropolitan values according to Oberg, shared with his frontier compatriots a disrespect for native cultures. This shared disrespect, as much as the "grim practicality" of the frontiersmen, may have permitted the terrible violence of the Pequot War. In fact, several recent books indirectly challenge the notion that the policies of metropolitans were relatively benign compared to those of frontiersmen. Richard White, Daniel H. Usner, Jr., and Stephen Aron all illustrate that imperial neglect could on occasion be a real benefit to Indians.

Oberg's characterization of frontier values also raises numerous questions. These values are the result of a pragmatic assessment of affairs, he suggests, but we cannot speak of pragmatism without ignoring the particularities of culture, time, and place. Surely not all frontier encounters will lead participants to reason that violence is the best solution to the problem. In fact, numerous residents along the Anglo-Indian frontier developed values directly opposed to the exploitation and violence that pragmatism supposedly dictated. James Merrell shows in Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York: Norton, 1999) that frontier go-betweens, rather than bureaucrats in Whitehall, were responsible much of the time for maintaining peaceful and mutually beneficial relations between Native Americans and colonists. The emphasis on pragmatism also denies Indians a role in shaping frontier attitudes. The Mohegans, Iroquois, and Powhatans all reacted differently to the English and these native peoples consequently elicited varied responses from colonists.

If Oberg's characterizations of metropolitans and frontiersmen sometimes demand qualification, his book nevertheless offers a provocative synthesis of English imperial policy towards Indians. Readers will enjoy the well-crafted narrative. And they will be intrigued, if not entirely convinced, by his analysis of English imperialism.


[1]. George Washington to James Duane, 7 September 1783, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1938), 27:140.

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