Jeffers on McDonnell, 'Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America'

Michael A. McDonnell
Joshua J. Jeffers

Michael A. McDonnell. Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2015. Maps. 416 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8090-2953-2.

Reviewed by Joshua J. Jeffers (Middle Tennessee State University) Published on H-Midwest (November, 2018) Commissioned by Patrick A. Pospisek (Grand Valley State University)

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In this deeply researched and engagingly written narrative, Michael A. McDonnell returns the Odawa and their ancestors at Michilimackinac to their rightful place in the history of the Great Lakes region. A key location for controlling access to the American interior, Michilimackinac was the political and cosmological center of Anishinaabewaki, the Anishinaabe world. Like recent works looking at Shawnee, Dakota, and Mandan history, McDonnell’s book situates the Odawa at Michilimackinac at the center of their own history, making clear that we cannot understand the history of early America without comprehending Indian Country on its own terms.[1] Moving beyond a history of “mutual dependence between natives and newcomers to think about a history ... that emphasizes strength and expansion in the midst of empire,” McDonnell argues that the Odawa at Michilimackinac “helped precipitate critical turning points” that “reverberated across the Atlantic and helped alter world history” (pp. 15, 19, 33).

At the center of a vast network of kinship and trade, the Odawa at Michilimackinac wielded enormous influence that extended into surrounding Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan peoples. “Though the French liked to claim the role of peacemakers and mediators,” writes McDonnell, it was the Odawa who brokered peace and set the terms for European access in the upper Great Lakes (p. 16). Thus, the French were in the pays d’en haut “because the Anishinaabeg wanted them there” (p. 52). By allowing the French to maintain a post at the straits in exchange for generous provisions, presents, and offers of alliance, the Odawa purposely drew the French into their networks of trade and alliance, and the French came to rely on Indigenous connections and expertise “for their very subsistence” (p. 15). Close relations with French traders offered the Anishinaabe access to French trade goods and enhanced their status in the region. This influence along with their strategic location made them integral to “a sprawling but indigenous trading system,” which enabled them to insist on their own terms in dealings with missionaries, traders, and colonial officials (p. 27).

Perhaps the most enduring contribution of Masters of Empire is its periodization of colonial North America and in particular the interpretation of the causes and origins of the Seven Years’ War. While emphasizing the attack on the Miamis at Pickawillany as the opening salvo of the war is not new, McDonnell’s reinterpretation of the events immediately following that attack, in particular the lack of an English response, provides the context for a view from Indian Country that offers a new perspective on how “Native Americans in the pays d’en haut helped trigger and profoundly shape the contests that would define the geopolitical landscape of North America” (p. 273).[2] While Memeskia (Old Briton, Le Demoiselle) led a group of Miamis that was more anti-French than pro-British, the lack of a response from the English for this blatant attack on one of its Indian allies was interpreted by many Natives living in the Ohio Valley-Great Lakes region as both a sign of weakness and evidence that the English coveted Native land and sought alliances merely as a way to achieve that end. As a result, a wave of anti-British sentiment spread across the region. Recognizing this shift in attitude, pro-French leaders at Michilimackinac seized the moment to argue for an all-out offensive against the English. Raids began as early as 1753. Even more significant, however, during the early summer of 1754, as George Washington stumbled his way toward the annals of history at Jumonville Glen, “some twelve hundred delegates from at least sixteen different nations from across the pays d’en haut” met at Michilimackinac and declared the opening of what McDonnell labels the “First Anglo-Indian War” (p. 165). By the following summer, and especially after Braddock’s Defeat on July 9, 1755, Native war parties attacked settlements along the entire Allegheny range, emptying the Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland backcountries of European settlement. Pennsylvania was cleared of white settlement all the way to Carlisle. Though Britain and France would not officially declare war until 1756, as McDonnell makes clear, “Native Americans made it inevitable” (p. 169).

In this view, Native Americans fought in what we now call the Seven Years’ War or French and Indian War for reasons that did not always overlap with those of the French. In many ways, what we now call the French and Indian War was more like two parallel and concurrent wars: one concerning European imperial aspirations and one concerning Native efforts to temper and channel those ambitions to their own ends. For Natives living in the pays d’en haut, the goals of the First Anglo-Indian War were to curb the growing power and expansive tendencies of the English, while restoring a balance of power between the English and French. Having, in their estimation, achieved these goals by 1758 and sealed their successes in the Treaty of Easton of that year, the First Anglo-Indian War ended. With most Natives no longer at war, however, the English were able to win a series of victories ousting the French from North America. As the British attempted to take the place of the French in the pays d’en haut, it was British ignorance of Native power and politics in the region that triggered the Second Anglo-Indian War, often referred to as “Pontiac’s War.” This war was intended to rebalance power between Native Americans and the English and “might be seen as the first war of American independence in North America” (p. 216). The Second Anglo-Indian War resulted in the Proclamation of 1763, which served as “a declaration of Indian sovereignty, designed to appease the Indians” (p. 231). This declaration would lead to a drastic transformation of the relationship between the Crown and its colonies, setting in motion a chain of events culminating in the American Revolution.

In taking us from pays d’en haut to the Old Northwest, Masters of Empire also reorients our understanding of the regional history of the Ohio Valley-Great Lakes. Not only does the work highlight the region’s historical diversity, but it also makes clear the Indigenous context that informed regional development during this entire period. While Richard White’s Middle Ground drew attention to the communities of the pays d’en haut and offered a new perspective on the sociopolitical development of the region, it also “alienated” the Native communities of the pays d’en haut “from their historical context” (p. 333n6). Far from shattered peoples who needed French “imperial glue” to keep them in “orbit,” it was the council fires at Michilimackinac that determined the role and extent of the European presence in the pays d’en haut.[3] The French, the British, and the Americans, each in their turn, stumbled into the region “only dimly understanding its politics,” and historians, McDonnell argues, “have largely followed suit” by missing or underestimating the power, influence, and central importance of the peoples at Michilimackinac (p. 328). In their efforts to establish claims, French, British, and later American governments drew and redrew boundary lines across the region. As McDonnell points out, while these boundary-making exercises belied the social and political relationships that structured power in the region, they also subsequently translated into historiographical boundaries that reified these artificial European borders, thus further contributing to the elision of the political influence emanating from Anishinaabewaki.[4] By “rely[ing] less on European words and more on Native actions,” McDonnell provides a view from Michilimackinac built on “the longer-term context in which [Europeans] interacted with their Native counterparts” in the region (p. 14). Thus Masters of Empire represents a valuable contribution to a historiography that is breaking down what we might call the historiographical tribalism left by the imperial past.[5] This historiographical heavy lifting aside, McDonnell has provided a highly accessible and thoroughly researched history that scholars of North America and especially anyone attempting to understand the evolution of this region from pays d’en haut to the Old Northwest to the American Midwest will be wrestling with for some time to come.


[1]. Sami Lakomaki, Gathering Together: The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600-1870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); Stephen Warren, The Worlds the Shawnees Made (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and Elizabeth A. Fenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People (New York: Hill and Wang, 2014).

[2]. R. Douglas Hurt, The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 35; and Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), 28-32.

[3]. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 2, 159.

[4]. For an insightful critique of these historiographical divisions, see Robert Englebert and Guillaume Teasdale, eds., French and Indians in the Heart of North America, 1630-1815 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), xi-xxxiii.

[5]. For another excellent example of this historiographical development, see Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

Citation: Joshua J. Jeffers. Review of McDonnell, Michael A., Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America. H-Midwest, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL:

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