Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America — A Review

Adam Nadeau

Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015)

Michael A. McDonnell’s Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America is a wonderfully researched microhistory of the Michilimackinac area from the mid-17th to the early 19th century. Situated around the Mackinaw Straits that connect Lakes Huron and Michigan, early modern Michilimackinac was home to a series of multiethnic Odawa and Ojibwe settlements that controlled the trade of that vital part of the Upper Country between what is now northern Ontario and the US state of Michigan. The cosmological centre of the Anishinaabe world and the historical place at which the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi are said to have diverged, Michilimackinac was a key strategic location in controlling access to the American interior, allowing passage west from Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron into Lake Michigan, the Illinois Country, and Upper Louisiana. Highly skilled canoeists, the Michilimackinac Odawa dominated the Canadian fur trade after the Haudenosaunee dispersal of the Wyandot in 1649 removed the latter as intermediaries in the exchange between the Western Nations and New France.

Sustained Odawa contact with the French began with the arrival of the first Anishinaabe furs in Montreal in 1654, and Odawa wars against the Haudenosaunee through the 1660s greatly mitigated the threat posed to Canadian commerce by the Iroquois–Anglo-Dutch trade at Albany. This opened the Great Lakes to French voyageurs who were able to travel directly to summer markets at Michilimackinac, where aboriginals traded pelts trapped as far west at Lakes Superior and Nipigon. By 1683 the French established a post at the Straits, which the sieur de Cadillac wrote was the “centre, as it were, for all the rest of the colony,” the place from “whence everything is distributed” (51). Located at the far end of a seasonal round trip from the St. Lawrence Valley, the Odawa at Michilimackinac carried on a provisioning trade that included canoe manufacturing and repair and the sale of fish and locally grown foodstuffs to European and indigenous traders moving across the Lakes. In fact, the indigenous residents of Michilimackinac were such effective merchants that they felt no particular inclination to hunt and instead lived comfortably off the profits of commerce alone.

A north-facing aerial photograph of the Straits of Mackinac. Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA. 1994. Wikimedia Commons

A north-facing aerial photograph of the Straits of Mackinac. Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA. 1994. Wikimedia Commons

The Anishinaabeg at Michilimackinac wielded a vast regional influence by positioning themselves at the centre of long-distance kinship networks that incorporated various branches of Algonquian-, Iroquoian-, and Siouan-speaking peoples. And the Anishinaabeg purposely drew the French into these networks, first inviting traders from Canada to overwinter at Michilimackinac in 1665. Once Europeans immersed themselves into the Upper Country they became reliant on indigenous expertise, and many voyageurs to Michilimackinac depended on the labour of Anishinaabe women whose marriage to Frenchmen in turn provided their families with privileged access to trade goods. But in spite of a French presence at the Straits, McDonnell describes a community at the centre of a world still firmly indigenous: the French were only there, he writes, “because the Anishinaabeg wanted them there” (17, 52). It was, for instance, the Michilimackinac Odawa rather than the French who served as the chief mediators of disputes among Upper Country Algonquians, so much so that the late 19th-century Odawa historian Andrew Blackbird recorded that every nation in the vicinity deposited a peace pipe at Michilimackinac for the purpose of conflict resolution. The Odawa proclivity for diplomacy also extended to their dealings with Europeans, as they consistently played rival empires against each other. In order to extract more favourable terms from the French, for example, the Anishinaabeg regularly entertained trade with the English and even threatened an Odawa-Haudenosaunee alliance, which the Jesuit historian Pierre Charlevoix feared “would suffice to oblige all the French to leave Canada” in a single campaign (80).

In addition to revealing Michilimackinac as the main nexus of western trade, Masters of Empire’s most enduring contribution is likely to be McDonnell’s rendering of the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion as a series of Anglo-Indian Wars in which the Odawa were at the centre of “a pan-Indian effort to roll back English advances and restore an older equilibrium” (161). McDonnell even argues that the Seven Years’ War that spanned the globe between 1756 and ’63 was a repercussion of the First Anglo-Indian War and the actions of Anishinaabe warriors against a Myaamiaki community at Pickawillany in June 1752—not those of a young George Washington against French soldiers near the Youghiogeny River in May 1754, as the standard interpretation goes.[1] Britain’s victory over the Bourbons in Europe was preceded by her peace with the Anishinaabeg in the Treaty of Easton in October 1758. And although Britain may have inherited France’s claims to America, McDonnell reminds readers that British forces had only made it as far west as Niagara before Canada was surrendered. Since much of the Upper Country was left unconquered, western occupation would have to take place on aboriginal terms. Superintendent of Indian Affairs William Johnson mistook Detroit as the centre of western trade, however, and the British were unable to produce the gifts required by the Odawa in order to sustain commerce at Michilimackinac. This provoked a Second Anglo-Indian War from May 1763 to July 1766, in which the Odawa ogimaa Pontiac led an uprising against British outposts with the intention of forcing imperial officials to recognize indigenous sovereignty. In another calculated move, the Michilimackinac Odawa showed their ability by protecting the British garrison at the Straits against the Ojibwe, even though they too experienced years of the same neglect as their Anishinaabe kin. Britain then had to renegotiate her tenancy at Michilimackinac, and Parliament allocated an additional £20,000 a year to Indian Affairs. The Odawa were “not bad politicians,” Johnson concluded. Their method of diplomacy, he wrote, was one “so exactly correspondent with that of the most Civilized Nations” of Europe (243, 270).

With the removal of France from the continent in 1760, indigenous polities could no longer play the French and the English against each other and instead moved to “strengthen their mutual Compacts and alliances,” as Johnson put it (243). In the Treaty of Paris three years later, however, Spain acquired Louisiana west of the Mississippi, and many French traders simply crossed into Spanish America to avoid falling under the jurisdiction of the Royal Proclamation. By opening lines to the Spanish, the Odawa were able to push the British for a return to the political economy they enjoyed under the French regime. Governor Carleton was thus forced to adopt the role of Onontio and Canadians were allowed to continue trading to the Upper Country. Even then, the Odawa at Michilimackinac took note of the American crisis of the 1760s and ’70s and suggested to British officials that the French could take back the interior “with great ease” due to the divisions among English settlers (260).

McDonnell CoverYet for all their attempts to play the colonists against the metropole, the Revolutionary War made it clear to the Anishinaabeg that they were better served in alliance with British imperial forces than they were with American colonial governments. The Quebec Act’s reservation of the interior to the administration of the Crown’s representative in 1774 rebuffed the interests of colonial land speculators, and for a full year after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, the Continental Army pursued a war of extermination against the Western Nations with the intention of seizing the Ohio Country before a peace was negotiated.[2] Following Americans’ occupation of Michilimackinac under the Jay Treaty in 1794 the Odawa there continued to draw on British support, and with the outbreak of war again in 1812, Britain was quick to reclaim the Straits before the Treaty of Ghent returned the Anglo-American border to the status quo ante bellum two years later. As they had always done, the Michilimackinac Odawa continued to utilize their central place in expansive kinship and trade networks to avoid the Indian removals that devastated so many indigenous communities during the early decades of the American republic. Petitioning for American citizenship and buying up property to become the legal owners of their land, the Anishinaabeg of northern Michigan were granted the right to permanent settlement in the state in 1855 and won recognition from the United States federal government in 1994.

The Upper Country presented in Masters of Empire is not quite the middle ground of mutual accommodation Richard White uses to describe Franco-indigenous interaction in the Ohio Valley.[3] Rather than the mutual dependency White sees further east, McDonnell finds at Michilimackinac a relationship of French dependency upon the Anishinaabeg, a stark reminder that it was aboriginals and not Europeans who dictated the terms of long-distance trade in early modern continental America. For the French and English of northeastern North America, Michilimackinac was the gateway deep into a continent that was overwhelmingly indigenous. To the northwest, lay what the French believed was an endless variety of Ojibwe- and Cree-speaking peoples that remained largely un-“discovered” by Europeans until the mid-18th century.[4] In the Illinois Country, meanwhile, French inhabitants were required to deepen their understanding of Mississippian culture in order simply to collaborate with the indigenous polities there.[5] Farther south, Europeans met with a myriad of aboriginal peoples along the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers with whom they were purposely drawn into indigenous patterns of land and resource allocation, goods exchange, and diplomacy and warfare.[6] And in the Southwest, the Comanche empire actively “forestalled Euro-American intrusions . . . well into the late nineteenth century.”[7] This was hardly unique to the British imperial experience in America, however. In southern Asia, Britain likewise acquired governance over indigenous populations with long-standing political traditions. In 1765, the English East India Company assumed the imperial revenue, or diwani, of Bengal from the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II and subsequently sought to redefine British political ideas and institutions according to an imagined ancient Indian constitution.[8] When faced the with the challenge of governing these new territories, administrators in London passed a series of bills enlarging the imperial power of Crown representatives working with indigenous elites to impede the cultural, demographic, and environmental devastation threatened by private interests in both Britain’s American and Asian empires.


Adam Nadeau is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick. His current research examines Parliamentary legislation and its changing effects on imperial governance in eighteenth-century British North America and Asia.

[1] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001).

[2] Barbara Alice Mann, George Washington’s War on Native America (2005; repr.,Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[3] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[4] Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

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

[6] Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[7] Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 1.

[8] Robert Travers, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India: The British in Bengal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Featured Image: Louis Nicolas, The Codex Canadensis, 1675-82 (detail). Library and Archives Canada.

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