Review Essay: Frederick Jackson Turner’s Captivity of the American West

By Kaylie Schunk


Brooks, James. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest

            Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Barr, Juliana. Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas

            Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Rushforth, Brett. Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France.

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.


Every work about the American West seemingly begins by presenting its challenge to Frederick Jackson Turner—the historian who created the field itself. Turner’s exclusion of native peoples is certainly incorrect and an oversight.[1] However, it is telling how Turner’s perception of the frontier and its implications continue to influence historical scholarship as historians of the American West continue to struggle to fully shed Turner’s influence. Through the examination of captivity as a form of mutual exchange and diplomacy between Europeans and natives, the works of James F. Brooks, Juliana Barr, and Brett Rushforth demonstrate the importance of native diplomacy as Europeans accommodated to the dominant indigenous groups of New Mexico, Texas, New France, and the Caribbean.

Turner’s grandiose statements about the native-less West were challenged decades later by his own student, Herbert Bolton. Unlike his predecessor, Bolton believed in studying the history of other nations to fully appreciate the American history. Bolton insisted that Turner’s nationalistic approach to studying the United States was the reason for “a nation of chauvinists” because Americans were not destined to settle the West.[2] Rather, the United States’ history was “a thread out of a larger strand” of the world’s past.[3] With Bolton’s specialty being Spanish-America, the American West’s study of multinational borderlands exploded with materials related to the Spanish in the American continent and Mexico.

Brooks, Barr, and Rushforth ascribe to Bolton’s position about the importance of comparative European studies on the American continent to fully gauge American history’s complexities. However, their arguments defy Turner and Bolton they acknowledge natives as key players to European colonialism and that comparative studies of European influence on the American continent should not be limited to areas of Spanish occupation. While Barr and Brooks do frame their studies in Spanish territories, Rushforth combines the approaches of borderlands and transatlantic history by tracing French interactions with the indigenous peoples of Pays d’en Haut and comparing it to the institution of slavery in the Caribbean and France.[4]

Recognizing Turner’s and Bolton’s influence on these works, Rushforth, Barr, and Brooks reject Turner’s reticence to acknowledge native groups by incorporating native peoples within Richard White’s paradigm of mutual accommodation. White argues that indigenous-European relations are rooted in compromises. However, they present an imbalanced version of this model as each monograph demonstrates the natives’ dominance in these power relations. Brooks, Barr, and Rushforth agree that the presence of dominant native groups forced Europeans to accommodate for the sake of diplomacy and survival. Brooks and Barr combat the inevitability of conquest over the indigenous by illustrating that it is actually through the Spanish’s accommodations to the natives’ kinship-based customs, which enables the Europeans to survive and prosper in these otherwise formidable lands. Brooks argues that borderland violence can be explained by mutual economic need as it “kept peoples and resources flowing across the cultural barriers.”[5] Despite Rushforth’s and White’s studies both revolving around the Great Lakes region, Rushforth’s study shows the most nuanced approach to White’s thesis. While Brooks and Barr cited that the indigenous groups were dominated the Spanish, the two groups still make an effort to accommodate one another. This is not the case in Rushworth’s depiction of French-indigenous relations as the natives often used their political stature to manipulate their French allies to prevent them from trading with other indigenous peoples.

Barr cites the Spanish’s inability to fully understand captivity’s importance in indigenous cultures as the main contributor to their inferior power status, which is seen by the differing attitudes of Europeans and natives towards captivity.[6] European misunderstanding was also seen in Rushforth’s depiction of the French. When Father Louis Hennepin was a captive of the Sioux, he wrote that he could never fully understand his place in the society as both a captive and an adopted son of the natives.[7] Hennepin believed that he deserved more respect if he was truly a kinsmen of the Sioux people. The approaches to captivity differed between the Europeans and natives, which is exemplified by Father Hennepin’s confusion. Each work emphasizes the lack of differentiation between slaves and captives in native societies, unlike the dissociation of slaves from members of society in European cultures. Barr addresses Brooks and concurred with his “pointed comparison of [the] Spanish’s more rigid racial codifications of the enslaved Indians” unlike the range of positions for captured natives in an indigenous captor’s society. Rushforth echoes this distinction as he notes that the French’ inflexibility toward slavery contributed to the use of race as a classification of difference. This works engages with the evolution of captivity and slavery in the Americas as it uses comparisons with the Caribbean to argue that Europeans brought the distinction of race into American slavery. Race was not the foundational distinction of difference between native peoples. Instead, indigenous communities welcomed captive incorporation to integrate their culture and language, which strengthened their current society.

Captivity certainly was vital to native-European relations, regardless of whether or not the Europeans understood that at the time. But Barr, Rushforth, and Barr disagree as to why it was actually significant. Rushforth and Brooks acknowledge captivity’s connection to their patriarchal societies’ values. Honor unified these diverse cultures. Brooks argues that the “shared understanding of honor out of traditions both indigenous and European” were shown by the practices of exchange and redemption. Rushforth concurs by stating that “no honor was more important to a young[, native] man than capturing slaves.”[8] This relates to men being the external voices and actors for their communities while women retained the home. Men of the Spanish, French, and native cultures saw their role as protectors of their societies as they acquired honor for themselves and their communities. These shared principles enabled a common ground between natives and Europeans.

Yet, their approach to native women and captivity is vastly different. Brooks and Rishforth perpetuate the traditional female roles within the home. The link between native men’s and women’s interest in captivity was that the women “crafted their halters [so] the warriors [could lead] them home like pets” for the women to domesticate these new slaves.[9] Oddly, Rushforth and Brooks emphasize the importance of men over women in their analyses of two different European societies’ interactions with natives—New France and Spain’s New Mexico. However, Barr disagrees as she studies the Spaniards like Brooks. The importance of native women captives is the focal point of Barr’s work. She posits that women are key to these cross-cultural relations because of their gender role, symbolizing both peace and war, was what enabled more successful relations between the Europeans and the Spanish’s survival in the region.[10] While all three works acknowledge native women’s domestic role, Barr’s monograph stands alone as the only study of native women’s influence on indigenous-European relations outside of the domestic sphere.

While Barr has the most unique argument, Rushforth’s study is the most balanced. His use of linguistics is key to filling the silences of the Algonquian peoples. He incorporates their native language to strip terms of their connotation of Euromerican dominance, and more importantly, he breaks down native dialects to demonstrate the cultural importance of slavery. This contrasts with Brooks where he includes language, mostly Spanish, only so that the reader may understand the work’s general, historical context. Rushforth includes linguistic analysis of French and Algonquian side-by-side to equally assess the two cultures. Language is a means of giving the natives a voice that is separate from European materials. However, it could equally serve as a means of understanding the French’s culturally attitudes toward native peoples and captivity. Barr’s handling of language is the most problematic. Unlike Brooks who attempts to use original Spanish sources, Barr only uses Spanish materials when English translations are unavailable or there’s a discrepancy in the translation. Certainly this technique is more convenient, but it opens up the possibility of misinterpretation—similar to the Spanish subjects Barr is studying.

Rushforth, Barr, and Brooks represent the radical changes of the American West field since the days of Turner, while they represent historians clinging to these past historiographies. Unlike Turner’s frontier, these monographs recognize the existence of Native Americans. Indigenous people were not only present on the American continent but were the dominating forces over their European counterparts. The degree in which these native peoples were dominant over the Spanish and French is not clear, according to Barr, Rushforth, and Brooks. Their different approaches to gender roles explains the lack of consensus. While Brooks and Rushforth emphasize the importance of honor in European and indigenous patriarchal societies, Barr insists that native women had the symbolism of peace and war encoded into their beings due to female gender roles. These works do not resolve the female natives’ role in captivity. However, Barr does state that Europeans inferiority was due to their inability to understand the cultural and political implications of captivity. Brooks and Rushforth provide greater balance to their historical narrative as they utilize statistical data and linguistics, while Barr often avoids the evaluation of original Spanish sources.

Kaylie Schunk is a senior at Miami enrolled in the joint History BA/MA program.

              [1] Frederick Jackson Turner, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1994), 32.

              [2] Herbert Eugene Bolton, “The Epic of Greater America.” The American Historical Review 38, No. 3 (April 1933), 448.

              [3]Ibid., 449.

              [4] Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 135.

              [5] James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest

              Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 214.

              [6] Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 8.

              [7]Rushforth, 17.

              [8] Rushforth, 4.


              [10]Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 2.

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