Empire by Collaboration: A Collaborative Review

Robert Englebert

Robert Michael Morrissey, Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

I recently had an opportunity to discuss Robert Michael Morrissey’s new book Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country with my senior level seminar on French-Indigenous relations in colonial North America. The following represents the product of our group musings rather than simply my own thoughts, and for full disclosure it is important to note that I am listed in the acknowledgments for his book. Still, I hope that the following will be useful for those seeking to unpack this fascinating new work on Illinois Country history.

The first thing that grabbed us was the wonderful accessibility of the writing. Morrissey has a true talent for word-smithing and this book should appeal to a broad audience. Beneath its prosaic veneer, however, is a remarkably nuanced work that is sophisticated in its engagement with ethnohistory, New France, and Illinois Country history. Indigenous power and agency, imperial power and governance, slavery, environment, and a host of other themes all combine to provide a detailed reinterpretation of the development and emergence of empire in the Illinois Country – a vast region encompassing the Wabash, Illinois, and middle Mississippi rivers.

Instead of treating French colonialism as either success or failure, Morrissey’s primary focus is understanding the changing nature of French colonialism in the Illinois Country. This is very much in line with Jay Gitlin’s The Bourgeois Frontier, which worked to do away with old and tired, but stubbornly persistent notions of Anglo-American exceptionalism à la Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. Morrissey contends that peoples came together to create a remarkably stable colonial culture in the Illinois Country. This was not the “rogue colonialism” that Shannon Lee Dawdy employed in her history of New Orleans.[1] Rather, empire in the Illinois Country was the product of collaborative efforts of colonial and imperial French actors, and Indigenous peoples.

Morrissey coverThe first part of the book deals mostly with the long history of Illinois peoples, going back to before European contact. Migration to Illinois Country, relationships with other Indigenous peoples, and a number of adaptations and appropriations allowed the Illinois to prosper. Delving into the long history of Mississippian peoples, the rise and fall of Cahokia, adaptations and outmigration of the Oneota, and the Midwestern grasslands ecology, Morrissey provides one of the more detailed early histories of the region, pulling from archaeological, anthropological, and environmental literature. In stark contrast to M.J. Morgan’s floodplain focused environmental history of the Illinois Country, Morrissey’s narrative deals almost exclusively with upland prairie and bison hunting, at least as it pertained to the early history of the Illinois.[2]

One of the major contributions of Empire by Collaboration is the way that it reinterprets the Illinois and their relationship with the French. Morrissey argues that the Illinois were in fact colonizers who not only adapted to bison hunting and slave trading, but also came to dominate both. Downplaying a devastating attack by the Five Nations during the Iroquois Wars and demonstrating Illinois strength throughout the Fox Wars, Morrissey effectively shows how Illinois power repeatedly helped to shape wider Indigenous geopolitics and French-Indigenous alliance. This is consistent with a growing body of literature dealing with Indigenous power and sovereignty, such as the works of Kathleen DuVal, Pekka Hämälänen, Brett Rushforth, Michael Witgen, and Michael McDonnell, to name only a few.[3] Interestingly, the first part of the book is not really about collaboration as much as it is about setting the groundwork for eventual collaboration between French and Indigenous peoples in Illinois Country.

In setting up his notion of empire by collaboration, Morrissey attempts to distance himself from Richard White’s Middle Ground by arguing that more than ‘mutual misunderstandings,’ French and Indigenous peoples developed real understandings of each other.[4] Moreover, Morrissey contends that such understandings led to collaborative processes, which were ultimately quite different from the accommodations of the Middle Ground. On the first point we were generally convinced. Jesuit-produced French-Illinois dictionaries were employed to great effect to demonstrate that the French had real insights into, and knowledge of, Illinois societies. Similarly, the detailed examination of intermarriage at Kaskaskia helped to elucidate Indigenous understandings of French society. To his credit, Morrissey is careful not to extend these real understandings too far. For example, he concedes that French desire to integrate the Illinois into French-Indigenous alliance was premised on notions of Illinois weakness during the Iroquois Wars. Real understandings were thus present, but far from ubiquitous, and depended on the specific experiences of missionaries, Indigenous peoples, colonists, and colonial officials.

Without a doubt there were collaborative processes at play in the Illinois Country. As Morrissey demonstrates, the networks of Indigenous women who married French traders at Kaskaskia contributed to collaborative colonial development. French women who later entered those Native networks of Catholic godparents likewise demonstrate how mixed families were accepted within an emerging French colonial agrarian society. Morrissey’s focus on pragmatic approaches to the code noir also helped to expose the complicated negotiations (possible collaborations) that sometimes superseded imperial dictates regarding race and empire.

Most of the collaborations in the book, however, seem to take place from the late seventeenth century to the 1730s, and mostly in Kaskaskia. Though Morrissey attempts to distinguished the Illinois Country from Canada and the pays d’en haut, questions were raised as to how this was different from Émilie Pigeon’s work on mixed French-Indigenous godparent networks at Michilimackinac or Jean-François Lozier’s work on the mission communities of the St Lawrence Valley?[5] Both similarly argued that collaborative processes were at play.

In dealing with the end of the French regime, petitions were used effectively to draw the reader to issues of governance and empire, and the desire of Illinois Country inhabitants to integrate into new regimes in collaborative fashion. Morrissey points out that petitions were signed elsewhere, but provides few details regarding the regular petitioning of new colonial authorities and regimes throughout the Great Lakes and Quebec. For example, how were petitions out of Kaskaskia and the Illinois Country different from those that Catherine Cangany recently discussed in her history of Detroit?[6]

There was a similar disconnect regarding colonial law and the Illinois Country. Morrissey discussed attempts to anglicize the court at Kaskaskia after 1763, but a broader discussion of law and empire was largely absent. This is particularly interesting given the literature on French legal continuity and pluralism.[7] How did collaborations and law serve to maintain these old ties across time and space and connect people in the Illinois Country to the rest of French North America? This would appear to be all the more important given the continued trickle of migration from Canada after 1763 and the fact that approximately one quarter of Catholic marriages in the Illinois Country between 1763 and 1800 counted at least one spouse born in the St. Lawrence River Valley.[8] These Canadiens saw first hand the effects of the Royal Proclamation, the governorships of Murray and Carleton, and the Quebec Act. Moreover, Illinois Country creoles continued to trade with merchants in places like Michilimackinac, Detroit, and Montreal, and were surprisingly well-informed of attempted and achieved collaborations.[9] At issue was not just governance and empire, but law, family, and the maintenance of socio-economic relationships that had been established from Quebec City to New Orleans – the “Creole Corridor.”[10] Empire by Collaboration is likely to have scholars think hard about the ways in which collaborations contributed to the emergence of empire in these other locales and the relationships that tied them together.

This was without a doubt my students’ favourite book of the term. They were impressed with the depth of research and the quality of argumentation. However, they noted that the distinction between collaboration and accommodation was not always as clear throughout the book as it was in the introduction. If collaboration was simply defined as two or more parties working together towards a common goal, then those common goals seemed elusive at times, especially after the 1730s. My students wondered how the increasing struggles to find common cause from the 1740s through to the 1790s was different from Richard White’s accommodations?

“What became quite clear by the end of the book is that this history was not about a single collaboration. Morrissey exposes a series of disjointed and overlapping collaborations.”

What became quite clear by the end of the book is that this history was not about a single collaboration. Morrissey exposes a series of disjointed and overlapping collaborations, along with ongoing attempts to maintain a collaborative tradition. From the late seventeenth century until the early 1730s French colonists, missionaries, colonial officials, and Illinois found a number of ways to collaborate, which oftentimes contested French imperial notions of empire. However, when French local and imperial agendas coalesced in the 1730s, it created tensions with the Illinois, particularly over war with the Chickasaw, and thus changed the nature of collaboration.

Much of the book from the 1730s onward is about trying to maintain a collaborative tradition and actually speaks more to the challenges than collaboration itself. This seems particularly true for the latter part of the book, which becomes increasingly aspirational in nature, and in this way Morrissey is perhaps a bit more like Richard White than he intends. This takes nothing away from Morrissey’s very detailed and insightful take on the end of the French regime in Illinois Country and the challenges that French creoles and Illinois faced under new imperial regimes after 1763. Rather, it speaks to the potential pitfall of a great title becoming oversimplified and serving as a proxy for what is a very nuanced examination of Illinois Country history – to borrow from Philip Deloria’s argument regarding The Middle Ground in 2006.[11]

There is much to like in this book. Morrissey has produced a complex, and, quite possibly, paradigm-shifting work. It is well written, grounded in Indigenous, imperial, and French colonial history, and destroys old notions of Anglo-American exceptionalism and Indigenous dependency. What’s more, Empire by Collaboration makes one reassess their own work and ask new questions. It is a fascinating book and a must read for those interested in Indigenous, early American, and early Canadian history.

Robert Englebert, with the assistance of the members of HIST 410.

Robert Englebert is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, University of Saskatchewan. You can find him on Twitter @englebert_r.


[1] Shannon Lee Dawdy, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[2] M.J. Morgan, Land of Big Rivers: French & Indian Illinois 1699-1778 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

[3] Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent, Early American Studies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008); Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Michael McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2016).

[4] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1600-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[5] Émilie Pigeon, “Vernacular Catholicism and the Fur Trade: Baptisms at Fort Michilimackinac, 1741-1786,” in De Pierre-Esprit Radisson à Louis Riel: Voyageurs et Métis (Winnipeg: Presses universitaires de Saint-Boniface, 2014), 105–24; Jean-François Lozier, “In Each Other’s Arms: France and the St. Lawrence Mission Villages in War and Peace, 1630-1730” (PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2012).

[6] Catherine Cangany, Frontier Seaport: Detroit’s Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[7] Evelyn Kolish, Nationalismes et conflits de droits: le debat du droit prive au Quebec, 1760-1840 (LaSalle, Quebec: Hurtubise HMH, 1994); Stuart Banner, “Written Law and Unwritten Norms in Colonial St. Louis,” Law and History Review 14, no. 1 (1996): 33–80; Margaret Kimball Brown, History as They Lived It: A Social History of Prairie Du Rocher, Ill. (Tucson, AZ: The Patrice Press, 2005); Malcolm J Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); Donald Fyson, Magistrates, Police and People: Everyday Criminal Justice in Quebec and Lower Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2006); Michel Morin, Decroix, Arnaud, and Gilles, David, Les Tribunaux et L’arbitrage En Nouvelle-France et Au Québec de 1740 à 1784 (Éditioins Thémis, 2011); Donald Fyson, “The Conquered and the Conqueror: The Mutual Adaptation of the Canadiens and the British in Quebec, 1759-1775,” in Revisiting 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Perspective, ed. Phillip Buckner and John G. Reid (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012); Michel Morin, “The Discovery and Assimilation of British Constitutional Law Principles in Quebec, 1764-1774,” The Dalhousie Law Journal 36, no. 2 (2013): 581–616; Donald Fyson, “Minority Groups and the Law in Quebec, 1760-1867,” in Essays in the History of Canadian Law: Quebec and the Canadas, ed. G. Blaine Baker and Donald Fyson, vol. 11 (Toronto: Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2013), 278–329; Carl J. Ekberg and Sharon K. Person, St. Louis Rising: The French Regime of Louis St. Ange de Bellerive (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

[8] Robert Englebert, “Beyond Borders: Mental Mapping and the French River World in North America, 1763-1805” (PhD Dissertation, University of Ottawa, 2010).

[9] Robert Englebert, “Merchant Representatives and the French River World, 1763-1803,” Michigan Historical Review 34, no. 1 (2008): 63–82; Robert Englebert and Nicole St-Onge, “Paddling into History: French-Canadian Voyageurs and the Creation of a Fur Trade World, 1730-1804,” in De Pierre-Esprit Radisson à Louis Riel: Voyageurs et Métis, ed. Denis Combet, Gilles Lesage, and Luc Côté (Winnipeg: Presses universitaires de Saint-Boniface, 2014), 71–103.

[10] Jay Gitlin, The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders & American Expansion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[11] Philip J. Deloria, “What Is the Middle Ground, Anyway?” The William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2006): 15–22.

Latest Comments

  1. Bonnie Huskins says:

    Robert: Kudos to your senior seminar students for producing such a useful roadmap to this interesting monograph. The publisher should consider using your “group musings” to promote the book, for they have made me consider adopting it as a text in my colonial North America course. If this book does lead to a paradigm shift, your senior students will have contributed to it.

  2. Lara/Trace says:

    I am very grateful to see this review!

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