Beyond Borders: Indians, French and Métis and the Making and Unmaking of the Atlantic World

People Involved

Dr Michael A. McDonnell

Project overview

In this new project, I intend to apply this approach to the relationship between Indians, French and Métis peoples in the Great Lakes region of North America and the larger politics of empire.

By using the life of Charles Langlade, a half-French, half-Ottawa Indian as a narrative anchor and a window on to the mixed world of Native Americans, French creoles, and Métis peoples, this project will illuminate the central role played by these communities in constructing, mediating and challenging empires and new nations in North America. In doing so, this trans-national study will help reconceptualize our views of the interrelationships between subjects and citizens and the French, British and American empires and bridge nation-bound narratives that traditionally divide the histories of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

This project will ultimately help us to understand the politics of empire and nation-building in the early modern world from radically different perspectives, and amongst peoples of profoundly different origins, ethnicities, cultures and languages. Such lessons of the past are important today as national and post-colonial boundaries are becoming increasingly unstable in the face of a globalising world, and as non-state communities play more significant roles in the security environment.

Understanding the connection between the small politics of local village worlds with the larger politics of globalisation is essential to enhancing Australia’s ability to engage with the wider global community.

Project Details

In the cooler hours of a late June morning in 1752, a force of about 250 warriors drawn from the powerful and influential "Three Fires" confederacy of Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwa Indians of the pays d'en haut (the upper Great Lakes area of North America) burst out of the woods, attacking a thinly inhabited Twightwee/Miami village at Pickawillany, near present day Piqua, Ohio.

The attackers killed thirteen Miami and captured several Indians and British traders residing with them before the remainder of the village found refuge in a stockade. Not to be outdone, the raiders seized a captured blacksmith, who was wounded, stabbed him to death, scalped him, and ripped out his heart and ate it. As the survivors watched in horror along the stockade wall, the attackers then killed, boiled, and ate the village chief, Memeskia, before melting back into the forest in the direction of Detroit.

This deadly raid at Pickawillany, far from being an isolated incident, has been called the "beginning of the war which was to decide the question of English or French supremacy in North America" because it helped set in motion the events that led to the French and Indian War (or the Seven Years' War in America). The leader was Charles Michel Mouet de Langlade, a half-French, half-Ottawa Indian (Metis) who lived among, traded with, and allied himself to many of the Indians and French of the pays d'en haut but especially the powerful Ottawa community of the strategic Michilimackinac area between Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior.

Langlade and his Indian allies' pivotal role at Pickawillany has been noted by many colonial American historians. But what most have missed is the fact that Langlade and his allies actually played a direct, sustained, and influential role not just at Pickawillany, but for the duration of the French & Indian War and indeed, in most of the imperial conflicts of the latter half of the eighteenth century in North America. Langlade was reputed to be the leader of the ambush that cut down Braddock's expedition in 1755; he most certainly led the largest contingent of Indian warriors at the "massacre" of Fort William Henry in 1757, the infamous event forever immortalised by James Fenimore Cooper, and now Daniel Day Lewis, in the Last of the Mohicans. Langlade was also at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at Quebec in 1759; he was allegedly among the sharpshooters in the woods who brought down General James Wolfe.

Perhaps surprisingly, when he surrendered the post of Michilimackinac to the British, he not only played a part in the last phase of the French Empire in America, but he also began forging new relations with the incoming British. When the new British garrison was seized during Pontiac's uprising (one of the greatest pan-Indian rebellions in North American history in 1763), Langlade and his Ottawa kin rescued the soldiers and officers, and returned them safely to Montreal. Amazingly, Langlade later joined General Burgoyne in his ill-fated campaign down the Champlain Valley against rebellious colonists in the American Revolution, fought against George Rogers Clark in the Mississippi Valley, and raised Indian warriors to fight against American hegemony in the form of General Anthony Wayne in 1794. But perhaps most incredibly, Langlade, who also had extensive trading interests throughout the Great Lakes, eventually settled in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he and his father are, even today, known as the "Fathers of Wisconsin" as the first so-called permanent "European" settlers in the state.

Though various imperial officials at the time recognised Langlade's influence and importance in the latter half of the eighteenth century, historians have been slower to piece together the nature and full extent of the activities and roles played by Langlade and others from the pays d'en haut. Langlade himself has only made cameo and fragmentary appearances in different national narratives; his full story remains elusive.

The trouble seems to be that Langlade, and indeed the French, Indian, and Metis mixed communities that made up the village world of the pays d'en haut do not really "fit" into existing narratives and approaches. They were French, and Indian, in an expanding Anglo-American world. They lived lives that extended much further than the confines of nation-based narratives to which historians have long been bound.

Their lives transcended the traditional periodisation to which nation-bound scholars adhere to give coherence to their own narratives. They crossed imperial borders with impunity and they slipped through and across the ethnic, racial, and linguistic categories we have so often imposed on the past. In short, they lived transnational Atlantic lives that defy easy categorisation. In effect, Langlade's life has been fragmented and lost by historians who have been teleologically wedded to tracing the development of new nations.

Even despite a flourishing field of "cultural brokerage" studies, Langlade - a true cultural broker or "go-between" in the current parlance - and others like him have been missed out in both traditional narratives and these newer studies of cultural identity, despite their ubiquity. And, despite a spate of recent calls for historians to move "beyond the nation" and think transnationally, we have few real models of work that really break down traditional historiographic borders. In the early modern history of European expansion, such calls have of late coalesced around an idea to focus on the Atlantic World as a new conceptual framework.

The idea of the Atlantic world is predicated on the interconnections between people and places in and around the Atlantic basin and its riverine tributaries. But while such approaches clearly help us to think about reconfiguring national narratives, and to focus instead on the significant turning points in the lives of ordinary people and especially various "subaltern" groups that could be found throughout this new Atlantic World, few scholars have yet been able to produce work that truly reflects or represents just such an approach.

Perhaps more worryingly, so far the field of Atlantic history has still been dominated by the work of Anglo-American scholars who have been keen to explore the British imperial experience alone, and most often the colonial origins of the United States. Thus the foundational narrative on which this newer approach is based remains for the most part anglo-centric, western facing, and tied to a teleological trajectory that ends with the establishment of the United States and, more broadly, with the development of a racist ideology indiscriminately applied to all Native Americans, and a cultural pluralism in that new nation that extended only marginally beyond the white anglo-American Protestants who apparently created the republic.

The time is right to interrupt this historiographical trajectory and Langlade gives us the key to do so. By using Langlade's quintessentially transnational life as a narrative anchor, then, this project will explore the story of these groups in the pays d'en haut from their origins in the seventeenth century, to their struggle for survival in the mid-nineteenth century.

Such a project will inevitably raise many diverse and, for now, open-ended issues, but among my more ambitious aims for this project, I hope to write a story that will fulfil some of the more sanguine hopes of the proponents of a truly transnational position.

In doing so, the study will also give us a better understanding of fundamental questions that are implicitly and explicitly related to the National Research Priority, Safeguarding Australia: of the roles of ordinary people in the complicated process of making and unmaking new empires and nations; of how profoundly different peoples of diverse ethnic, racial, and linguistic barriers negotiated their roles within those empires and new nations; of the ways in which such diverse peoples negotiated their place and identity across the borders of those empires and new nations; and finally, of the means by which relatively independent, egalitarian societies became dependent, hierarchical, patriarchal and racialised societies, and the consequences for both states and subjects in the early modern Atlantic world, and the global world in which we now live.

Selected Publications

"Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade: Warrior, Soldier and Intercultural 'Window' on the Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes" in David C. Skaggs and Larry Nelson, eds., The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1816 (Michigan State University Press, 2001), 79-104.

Brief Profiles

Dr Michael McDonnell

In his research so far, Michael McDonnell has helped revised radically notions of the role of class, race and social conflict in the creation of the new American republic. In articles in the Journal of American History, the William and Mary Quarterly, and the Journal of American Studies, and in his soon to be published book, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, he has advanced a powerful argument about the intersections between race, class, and gender during the Revolutionary War.

His work shows how conflicts between entrenched elites, a patriarchal-based middle class, and lower class whites not only shaped the military and political outcome of the Revolution, but were also at times more fundamental than racial differences and conflicts within the new state.

Moreover, by taking a bottom-up approach, reading meaning through the actions of those normally and condescendingly deemed "inarticulate" and trying to understand how the small politics of local communities affected the larger politics of Revolution.

He demonstrates that the lines of force ran in multiple directions, and the Revolution, like so many dramatic political turning points, was as much a struggle over who would rule at home as over home rule.
Full profile