Harvey on Dubcovsky, 'Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South'

Alejandra Dubcovsky
Sean P. Harvey

Alejandra Dubcovsky. Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. 287 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-66018-2.

Reviewed by Sean P. Harvey (Seton Hall University) Published on H-Early-America (March, 2018) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers (Middle Tennessee State University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51164

Communication and Control in the Colonial Southeast

Alejandra Dubcovsky has worked deeply in Spanish and English sources and immersed herself in historical, archaeological, and anthropological scholarship in order to understand how the control of information by indigenous individuals and communities influenced Spanish, French, and English colonization in the American southeast between the mid-sixteenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. The result, Informed Power: Communication in the Early South, is a fascinating and impressive book.

The book sits at the intersection of two important bodies of scholarship. The first, the literature on the American southeast during the contact period, has illuminated the structures of power in the Mississippian world and how European trade in guns and slaves transformed the region.[1] The second is research related to varieties of intercultural communication in early America. Unlike some important works in these areas, Dubcovsky does not center cultural brokers in her analysis. Nor does she focus on the establishment of roads, printing presses, and postal routes, or the collection of knowledge of Native languages as facets of increasing Euro-American control.[2] We have been accustomed to thinking about an “entangled” Atlantic world;[3] but Dubcovsky shows that the different Native communities and imperial projects in the interior were “tangled” in “webs” of communication that Indians controlled (p. 165).

Dubcovsky focuses on “networks,” the “pattern of ties connecting places or peoples,” which were the “products and reflections” of the people who created, maintained, and used them (p. 4). “The study of communication networks,” Dubcovsky argues, “shows the links among peoples who shared no consensus of the physical or political boundaries of their worlds without losing sight of the differences and inequalities among them” (p. 6). In “the multiethnic, multilingual, and increasingly multiracial”  world of the early South, information flowed “through Indian channels … contingent on native geopolitics” (pp. 215, 3). Once established, Europeans frequently took these networks for granted until they failed. Over the course of the book, Dubcovsky brilliantly uses moments of conflict to show us the routes and nodes that connected people to one another, as these networks were continually “made, unmade, and remade” (p. 183).

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 lays out how Native information networks enabled indigenous inhabitants and Spanish newcomers to make sense of La Florida. Dubcovsky begins by addressing the Mississippian foundation and dynamism of Native networks. One of the functions of chiefdoms was to serve as information networks. Paths led from tributary villages to centers of power, such as Cahokia, which at its height between the mid-eleventh and mid-thirteenth centuries possessed ties from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, from the Rockies to the Appalachians. Just as exotic goods could buttress prestige and power, so too could information from distant places. By the mid-fifteenth century, Native networks had become more constricted as newer centers of power, such as Etowah, rose to ascendance but were either unable to establish networks of the breadth of Cahokia’s or were uninterested in doing so. As towns grew increasingly autonomous, greater numbers of people knew more, but increasingly localized, information. That information, moreover, could be conveyed in multifarious kinetic, graphic, and spoken forms: ad hoc gestures and ritualized bodily movements, rock carvings and painted trees, “news whoops,” and lengthier discourse (p. 25).

This was the information landscape that Europeans entered in the 1560s. Dubcovsky then offers a convincing illustration of how Native information practices shaped colonization. Primarily concerned with buttressing his own prestige and power, the Timucua chief Outina publicized an alliance with the newcomers that René de Goulaine de Laudionnère had hoped to keep more covert, leading a rival chief, Saturiwa, to provide the Spanish with information that aided their destruction of Fort Caroline. No corresponding information flowed toward the French Huguenots. Spaniards experienced mixed success at staying informed after establishing San Augustín, occasionally hearing false information and at other times disturbing silence, but also learning of the English establishment of Charles Town in 1670. Recognizing their dependence on Native information, the Spanish created a mission system that they hoped, in addition to its spiritual goals, would also serve temporal goals by functioning as their own communication network. This system was central to Spanish influence in the region, but it could not fully substitute for existing Native networks. Dubcovsky’s examination the Timucua Rebellion of 1656—variously attributed to the governor’s compulsory labor, missionaries’ religious interference, and Spanish courting of Apalachees at the expense of Timucuas—illustrates the significance of particular “sources and paths” in channeling the explanations that the Spanish could gather about the uprising (p. 96).

In part 2, the focus shifts to the conveyors of information. Beginning in the 1670s, Charles Town-based traders forged a new kind of network that differed considerably from that which the Spanish had knit together through missions. This English system, however, which centered on the exchange of guns and other goods for deerskins and Indian slaves, grew unevenly. Indeed, the Carolina assembly blamed Spanish success in destroying Port Royal in 1686 on a “want of a speedy communication of the allarum” (p. 116). That failure only encouraged efforts of Carolina traders to extend their connections still further, with peoples such as Apalachicolas and Yamasees. Besides the destruction they wrought on Native communities, the wars of the slave trade destroyed Spanish networks even as they bolstered those of Carolina, which led to what Dubcovsky calls the “race to network Apalachicola” in 1685-86 (p. 130). As the author demonstrates, both conveying and receiving information entailed a degree of performance. The former displayed one’s connections, and thus one’s power, and it provided an opportunity “to express … intentions and expectations;” the latter could demonstrate respect for the gift of an ally, but dependence on that information risked “expos[ing] … vulnerability” (p. 137). Using the travels of several Europeans as case studies, Dubcovsky maps these Native networks and highlights the limited ability of the Spanish to utilize them. It is here that the author presents the clearest glimpses of the personalities of those who sought, and occasionally of those who conveyed, information. As the cheeky Carolina trader Henry Woodward sought to establish reliable trade, for example, Antonio Matheos tried to force Apalachicolas to convey what they knew about the English and forego further exchange with them. The determined but destructive Spanish official failed. So too did the officer Marcos Delgado, whom Mobile Indians blocked from traveling further west in his effort to find a reported French post. When Apalachicola men offered information to Europeans, as when Nisquisaya helped Woodward or when Pentocolo assisted Matheos, it was to heighten the security or prosperity of their villages, not to aid any imperial projects.

Part 3 focuses on the disruption of networks in the Yamasee Wars (1715-17) and the attempt to reconstitute them in its aftermath. “For South Carolinians,” Dubcovsky writes, “the Yamasee War began as an abrupt end in communication. The networks of trade and information that had enabled South Carolina’s exponential growth, suddenly stopped working” as Yamasees and their allies, uneasy at Carolina’s growing power and mindful of their own potential vulnerability in the slave trade, began killing traders (p. 159). The neutralization of these nodes of information, in turn, exposed the weakness of the colony and the danger of relying on expansive but tenuous connections based solely on economic interests. Unregulated trade also led to conflicting messages, which frustrated the Indians who traded with Carolina and “bound …together” its network (p. 163). In this conflict, Yamasees maintained connections to Ochese Creeks and many others, but not with Catawbas and Cherokees, who chose to remain connected with Charles Town instead. Carolina survived, but during and after the war, Cherokee and Creek, Spanish and French networks all spread while those of the Yamasees and the English shrank. Carolina sought to establish new independent networks running through newly built forts and centered on heavy-handed diplomacy in the 1720s, and the Spanish increasingly relied on well-positioned and well-compensated informers. When the War for Jenkins’s Ear broke out in 1739, neither side controlled the information it wished. At the same time, African slavery grew increasingly central to Carolina’s economy (and eventually to that of Georgia), while the significance of Spanish Florida as a haven for escaped slaves grew as well, especially after the Spanish built Fort Mose in 1738. As Dubcovsky notes, Spanish use of networks through Indian villages remained effective enough that Carolina slaves were aware that freedom could be found in Florida. That information catalyzed the Stono Rebellion in 1739, an event that Georgia governor James Oglethorpe learned about through a trader.

The book’s virtues stand out, especially Dubcovsky’s creative and useful reconceptualization of connections among diverse peoples in the southeast. Occasionally, the need to identify diverse individuals and groups and to explain multitudinous contexts submerges the analytical thrust of Dubcovsky’s narrative, but only rarely does the focus on information seem to obscure deeper dynamics, as could be argued with respect to religious-military divisions in Florida or the actions of Carolina traders in opening connections to peoples farther west. Rather, the author's deep research lends weight to her interpretations and a plethora of well-chosen examples provide striking instances of these dynamics at work.

One might have hoped for more attention to particular facets of communication in a book about information networks, especially because one finds in its pages so many tantalizing clues. Dubcovsky makes the interesting point that, etymologically, European languages associated “news” with “novelty,” while in Timucua and Muskogee it seems to have been associated with “discourse;” but the significance of this difference is left unelaborated (p. 44). Dubcovsky makes the valuable point that language was not merely a function of ethnic identity, but could also be a product of power as regionally dominant peoples imposed their own tongues as languages of trade or politics. The medium of communication “revealed who was in control” (p. 30). Yet, the spoken language used in particular exchanges rarely comes to light. The fault usually is in the sources, but the value of her insight makes the reader miss that information all the more. Dubcovsky stresses that alliances frequently transcended linguistic similarities, but the broader significance (if any) of perceived linguistic relationships is left unexamined. The Yamasees provide a case in point. Dubcovsky notes in one place that their language was “possibly Muskogean, but there is also evidence of Timucua and Guale influences;” but shortly thereafter she states that it “resembled the Hitchiti”, a Muskogean language (pp. 110, 112). Given this uncertainty, it is not clear what significance we should find in Yamasees seeking alliances with distant linguistic relations (as linguists have characterized them) at Coweta and Cussita, the most influential towns in the region.  Finally, given her engaging discussion of stone and deerskin maps in the opening chapter (pp. 11-13, 23-25), and the subsequent glimpses she provides of a Timucua chief named Lucas organizing an uprising through written letters (p. 90), and a Yamasee and Creek delegation using knotted strips of deerskin to represent autonomous towns to the Spanish (pp. 171-72), one might have hoped for a sustained discussion of graphic practices and their role in the networks under consideration. The power of Dubcovsky’s analytical framework and the richness of her interpretations make the reader—at least this reader—hungry for more.

It is only fitting. In Dubcovsky’s book, the importance of information was universally acknowledged, but the aims of conveyor and receiver seldom aligned. Informed Power makes a successful case that studying information networks provides a compelling way to understand the interconnection of diverse Native groups and the interconnection of competing imperial and colonial projects. Most fundamentally, Dubcovsky has demonstrated that scholars must understand alliances, both among Natives and between Natives and Europeans, not merely in terms of war and trade but also in terms of information. Those networks could take varied forms. There were advantages and disadvantages to a network that was circumscribed but strong, just as there were to one that was extensive but tenuous. Even amid intensifying colonization, between the 1650s and the 1730s, Europeans continued to rely on the Native circuits that crisscrossed the southeast.


[1]. Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 1500-1700 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall, Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009); Joseph M. Hall, Jr. Zamumo’s Gifts: Indian-European Exchange in the Colonial Southeast (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Robbie Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[2]. For recent reviews of this literature, see Sean P. Harvey and Sarah Rivett, “Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World,” Early American Studies 15, no. 3 (2017): 442-73; Alejandra Dubcovsky, “Communication in Colonial North America,” History Compass 15, no. 9 (2017), DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12408. For examples, see James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York: Norton, 1999); Matt Cohen, The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Katherine Grandjean, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Sean P. Harvey, Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015). For a compelling examination of Native control of information farther north, see Jon Parmenter, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010).

[3]. Eliga H. Gould, “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as Spanish Periphery,” American Historical Review 112, no. 3 (2007): 764-86.

Citation: Sean P. Harvey. Review of Dubcovsky, Alejandra, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51164

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.