Colin Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis & Clark

Calloway writes a broad narrative of native peoples in the West within a carefully constructed methodological framework. First of all, Calloway insists that the history of the west cannot and did not begin with American discovery of the West. He criticizes many historians for beginning their studies of western America or studies of Indian nations west of the Mississippi with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Instead, Calloway sees the history of the American west as extending back thousands of years. He takes care to incorporate scientific, archeological, and anthropological sources into his research, and draws heavily on Native American oral traditions to give a sweeping narrative of the histories of America’s native peoples from their supposed crossing of the Bering Strait through European contact.

Calloway builds upon Cronon’s Changes in the Land in that he sees the history of American Indians (particularly before contact, but even into the eighteenth and nineteenth century) as one inextricably tied to the history of ecologies – land and land use, flora and fauna, a myriad of animal species, and, perhaps most importantly, the lack of and then importation of European diseases. In this way, he questions claims that the American West did not have a history before 1800 or so. For Calloway, that history- the history of Native Americans – was one tied to valleys and canyons, riverbeds, forests, corn, buffalo, salmon, and beavers.

Lastly, Calloway wants to problematize our definition of what “the West” means. On the one hand, he takes an almost Turnerian view of the west by seeing the history of the West as one fundamental to American history. Both in his broad international sweep and in his expansive time frame, Calloway is very much writing the history of the West as an epic history. But he writes against Turner by calling on his reader to rethink simplistic definitions of expansion. Throughout his study, Calloway argues that the story of the American West is not a simple one of expansion from east to west. European Americans, moreover, were not the only ones migrating – the history of the American West was one of constant movement and expansion. Over thousands of years, Native American migration moved north to south, west to east and back again, crossing borders and continents and adjusting subsistence practices to the ecological conditions of different areas.

In terms of content – there is a ton to be covered here, so I am going to bullet some of what I thought were the most important points, and try to summarize chapters very broadly:

  • American Indians were pioneers thousands of years before European-Americans were. While some came across the Bering Strait from Asia and settled throughout the continent, there is archeological proof that native people were here before that migration. Migration was continuous and fluid – Indian nomadic groups moved around constantly and seasonally, adjusting to ecological changes and seasonal hunting and gathering cycles. Certain groups fought and others merged constantly. As evinced by oral traditions, native groups had complex relationships with animals; indeed, their lives were often shaped around the running of the salmon or the buffalo jump, where Indian men would spend days herding hundreds of buffalo off of a cliff in order to claim their meet and skins in bulk. The emphasis here is on organic ecosystem relationships
  • Major changes happened about 10,000 years ago, when corn starts being farmed. We see a rather fast shift (about 5,000 years) to more sedentary agricultural societies. This first happens in the southwest, then the Mississippi valley, then on the Great Plains – though I’m simplifying it, obviously there’s more overlap. Towns and large chiefdoms develop, as does more ritualized religion (because farming is fallible, depends on rain, need someone to pray to), and more politics/warfare develops as well. Exchange economies develop, as chiefdoms grow surplus crops. It is important to emphasize, though, that this isn’t a total replacement of hunting/gathering with sedentary farming – oftentimes the two supplemented each other, or, if one were failing, a group would rely more heavily on the other.
  • Spanish Conquest – this chapter is full of minute detail about various Spaniards checking out America – from Tampa bay up to South Carolina, over to Arkansas, then all the way to Arizona and New Mexico. Frankly, I didn’t take in much of the detail
  • The broad gist of it is that the conquest was slow but violent, that the conquistadores came looking for riches that they never found, that violence often broke out b/c Spaniards expected Indians to clothe, feed, house them and their men and Indians finally get fed up.
  • Also KEY is that Spaniards came over during period of change – climate changes, migrations, population changes, social changes. They made changes themselves too. Wasn’t a one-way, conqueror/conquered dichotomy.
  • Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 – Pueblos are able to join together and join other tribes in expelling Spaniards for 12 years – most American Indian historians portray this as single event in history of Native American west, but when we move past anachronistic borders and look at Mexico, this is one in many skirmishes over Catholicism that one contemporary calls an “epidemic” of rebellions. Pueblos are finally reconquered in 1692, though they make another failed attempt in 1694, etc. They are reconquered by Vargas who reestablishes stronghold of Catholic missionaries.
  • Also important to note entrance of French, France and England declare war on Spain 1719 – Spain suffers military defeats in Southwest as French start to encroach – they begin to pull $/resources out of New World
  • French relationships with Indians were more subtle, more “middle ground”-ish than Spanish or English – but they were colonial pursuits nonetheless – plans to conquer a continent using Indian resources and claiming Indian land as their own.
  • More to come on horses
  • More to come on borderland wars
  • More to come on beginning of annihilation of western Indian populations.
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