Reviews: Colonial Intimacies, Indian Marriage in Early New England

The following reviews are on Amazon.

“Viewing the inhabitants of early New England -natives as well as newcomers -through the lens of marriage, this extraordinary book opens up new vistas onto a time and place we thought we knew, and knew well. Ann Marie Plane’s imaginative use of intractable sources gives colonization a human face; through her tales of love (and lust), of loss (and gain), she gives voice to people long silent, bringing these obscure folk not only to light, but also to life. Colonial Intimacies will change the way we think about New England and early America, about the colonizer and the colonized, and about families from the Puritans‘ day to our own.” –James H. Merrell, Lucy Maynard Salmon Professor
of History, Vassar College

“The research behind this book is excellent. Ann Marie Plane demonstrates a great skill in her elucidation of specific court cases. By doing so, she shows us the real tensions that existed within families, and between families and communities, in the different populations of early New England.”-Peter C. Mancall, University of Kansas, author of Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America

“Plane does a wonderful job of reading closely Indian conversion narratives and court cases for telling hints of how the Puritans transformed Indians into an immoral and inferior subclass residing on the periphery of New England society…This is an innovative and important work, and students of the ethnohistory of early New England will need to have a look.”-Michael Leroy Oberg, SUNY, Geneseo. American Historical Review, December 2001

“In this historiographical context, three genuinely inspired ideas drive Ann Marie Plane’s fascinating study of Native American conjugal relations in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.”-Daniel K. Richter, University of Pennsylvania. Reviews in American History, Vol. 29, No 4, 2001

“Anne Marie Plane’s Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England offers a treasure of evidence and anecdotes about Native American women’s and family history, reflecting years of dedication to researching a notoriously difficult subject.” -Eric Arnesen, University of Illinois at Chicago, Law and History Review, Fall 2003

Edmund Morgan’s “The Puritan Family” explored the structures of the Puritan social and political elites. John Demos’s “A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in the Plymouth Colony” dug deeper to uncover information about the lower social classes in the early American settlements.
Ann Marie Plane’s “Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England” expands upon the two previous works by exploring the social, political, legal, and economic interactions between the European settlers and the indigenous population. The author’s sources encompass a broad spectrum of available materials: court records, travel narratives, religious sermons, essays, and census information all contribute greatly to her probing analysis of native family life. All three books taken together provide a multifaceted view of the earliest English settlements in North America. The only element missing from these three works is an environmental history of the early English colonies, and for all I know someone has already written one.
“Colonial Intimacies” claims the English efforts to help the natives adapt to European lifestyles “often strengthened, rather than loosened, the boundaries between people.” To understand how good intentions created divisions, the study seeks to answer several questions about the effects of colonialism on not only the indigenous peoples but the English as well. The author wishes to discover how the arrival of the Puritans changed the Indian culture, and how the Indians reacted to this intrusion. Too, Plane examines whether or not the settlers were successful in imposing their belief systems, principally the English institution of marriage, on the native population. She concludes that the Europeans, despite strenuous efforts in the years immediately following their arrival, failed to completely convert the various tribes to their style of living. What emerged instead after roughly 150 years of colonialism was a weird hybrid of English common law marriage-called spousals-and pre-colonial Indian relationship forms.
According to Plane’s research, traditional Indian marriage and family structure differed significantly from the European structure. The most important aspect of native relationships “were those of clan affiliation and kinship, not conjugal unions.” Moreover, polygyny, or the taking of more than one wife, was a part of indigenous marriage for certain elite tribal members. Wives held more power in Indian relationships, in terms of providing food and tending the land, than they did in the European household. The divorce process was less important for natives than it was for the English. With the arrival of the Puritans, missionaries went to work at once to fundamentally change the concept of Indian marriage and family. Polygyny, the central role of wives, and kinship relationships became sins that only a shift to the nuclear, patriarchal household of English tradition could expunge.
King Philip’s War of 1675-76 led to a tectonic shift in how the Europeans interacted with the locals. The emphasis on creating thousands of native “little commonwealth” families gave way to an almost disinterested concern about what the Indians did with their lives. Some missionaries still toured the praying towns to preach and convert, still instructed the locals on how to pray and worship, but the increasing presence of African American slaves and the rise of a mulatto class saw the English changing their goals. They now turned from seeking religious conversion toward developing a racial caste system replete with all of the inequalities attendant to that type of social organization. Plane argues quite convincingly that the Indians overtly and covertly fought to retain their social status by having their marriage and family customs legally codified in English courts.
The court case resulting in the emergence of Indian marriage customs as an accepted legal tenet spotlights one of the book’s greatest strengths, namely native agency in the development of seventeenth and eighteenth century New England. Although the author does not explicitly refer to the concept of agency until the last two or three pages of the book, there is little doubt that the indigenous people still created a viable history under the veneer of colonial occupation. Moreover, native agency influenced the colonists. For instance, the first missionary efforts converted many tribal members to Christianity, but these Puritan teachers were forced to examine their own views when converts asked probing questions about this new religion, or when they pointed out that European families often failed to practice the very things the missionaries preached. The interaction between the two peoples forced Puritans to look deeper into their theology than ever before.
One common result of the wars against the native peoples, since documented by dozens of American historians, was the despotic policies the federal government and settlers imposed upon the vanquished Indians. The government viciously suppressed the Dakota Uprising of 1862, ultimately carrying out the largest mass execution in United States history as well as further solidifying the reservation system after this conflict drew to a close. The later wars on the plains also resulted in the internment of the Lakotas on reservations, a process resulting in a fundamental, damaging transformation from a hunter based society to an agricultural lifestyle that eventually paved the way to policies seeking cultural assimilation. Plane’s book is a revelation because she concludes that the Puritans essentially left the natives to their own devices, in terms of family and marriage, after King Philip’s War. An increase in debt peonage and forced labor counts as one measure of repression, as does selling off Indian children into servitude, both of which the Puritans did after the war. But nowhere do the English march the Indians off to reservations, nor do the settlers attempt a systematic cultural assimilation as seen in later eras of American history. The author might have arrived at a deeper understanding of her topic had she examined this unique phenomenon further.

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