Since 1991, a new conception of Indian-white relations, known as the “middle ground,” has slowly emerged in Indian and western American historiography, challenging the old and New Western History and Indian history paradigms. The relations between Native Americans and white settlers—the middle ground—served as a gigantic trade zone in which culture became the economic goods of demand.

In the preface to his book, Warpaths, historian Ian K. Steele lists the two reigning paradigms concerning American Indian history over the past century, both two-dimensional. First, from the 1890s to the 1960s, historians and the public at large viewed the Indians as mere obstacles, noble perhaps, but still obstacles to Western progress and civilization. Second, with the advent of ethnohistory in the 1950s and 1960s—and the New Western History in the 1980s—the paradigm has shifted. The story remains the same, but now historians consider the Indians noble, the whites as rapacious invaders. In the words of columnist James Bowman, the new history “can be understood in terms of the maxim: Red man good, white man bad.”[1] In both models, each group remains a polarity to the other.

Since 1991, a new conception of Indian-white relations, known as the “middle ground,” has slowly emerged in Indian and western American historiography, challenging the old and New Western History and Indian history paradigms. Three authors stand out as leaders of this new movement: Richard White, Daniel Usner, and Jay Gitlin. Much less concerned with warfare and conflict, these authors seek to examine all sides in the ethnic, cultural, and racial collisions between whites, Hispanics, blacks, and Indians. In addition to finding conflict, often very bloody, the new studies also find that alien cultures and peoples inventively attempted to find a common cultural, linguistic, and symbolic ground upon which to interact. In essence, all sides created new worlds that were not wholly European, Indian, or African. In these newer studies, warriors and full-bloods give up the center stage to merchants, traders, community leaders, and mixed-bloods (or métis). “Anthropologists and historians in recent years have tended to deemphasize warfare in the relations between Europeans and Indians in the New World,” writes Bernard Sheehan approvingly in a recent review. The “two peoples deal[t] with each other in a variety of other ways.”[2]

As Wilbur R. Jacobs argues, the middle ground concept represents a “certain cross-fertilization” of Turnerian frontier thought, ethnohistory, and the New Western History. Turner and his followers stressed the importance of the Indians as catalysts to unification for whites and obstacles to white settlement. The middle ground recognizes the truth in these, but takes the ideas farther, broadening the study to include reciprocal changes in all groups involved. It remakes Turner’s one-sided frontier into a multi-sided frontier in which cultures merge, accommodate, resist, and create.[3] This essay examines the work of the three most-prominent middle ground historians mentioned above; notes the similarities to both neo-Turnerianism as best represented by John Mack Faragher and to Boltonian Borderlands studies as best represented by David J. Weber; and finally looks at where middle ground studies can proceed.

The Middle Grounders: White, Usner, and Gitlin

Richard White, a historian at the University of Washington, is generally considered the leader of the middle ground concept. In 1991, he published The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. In this well written, nuanced, wonderfully argued, and extensively researched work, White explores the relationships between Indians and Indians, Europeans and Europeans, and Europeans and Indians in the Great Lakes region (known as the pays d’en haut) between 1649, the beginning of the widespread Iroquois invasions, and 1815, the end of the War of 1812 and the death of Tecumseh. Between these two dates, the peoples of the region attempted to find a middle ground in which significant cultural differences could be bridged without resorting to widespread warfare. This is not to say that violence did not occur; it did, and often brutally. Rather, the middle ground minimized warfare, keeping violence at the personal and intimate level. White argues that for the middle ground to work, neither side could militarily dominate nor extract the other. Because of the demographic balance, all were forced to live together which necessitated tolerance.

In a sense, middle ground served as a gigantic trade zone in which culture became the economic goods of demand. White stresses that trade was more than economic; it was also paternalistic, brotherly, and spiritual. When cultural relationships began to break down, the sides involved created rituals as a means to attenuate stress. The French, as the original white participants, were excellent at operating in the middle ground. The British, after 1763, were not so adept as the French. The Americans simply ignored the idea of the middle ground, believing the Indians too exotic. Having the military and demographic might to enforce its will, America considered removal or complete assimilation as the only possible policy alternatives available.[4]

Despite the obvious excellence in his work, the case of White is paradoxical. On one hand, he is clearly regarded as the instigator of the middle ground concept. On the other hand, he is one of the three leading advocates of the New Western History, along with Patricia Nelson Limerick and Donald Worster. As noted above, the New Western Historians present Indians merely as two-dimensional victims in a morality play in which the social sins of Europeans and Americans are exposed and even paraded. “A more immediate result of casting white men as actors is the accompanying diminution of other groups,” writes Glenda Riley in a review of White’s New Western History textbook, published in the same year as the Middle Ground. “Omitted is information about the richness of Native-American cultures that Anglo-American men destroyed. . . . While we may mourn the oppression and exploitation of these groups, they appear here as flat, one-dimensional figures.” Anyone who has read with delight the fullness of White’s Middle Ground can understand the irony in Riley’s review. “He seems to be caught between two personas,” comments Jacobs.[5]

Daniel Usner also deals with the French in the colonial period in his Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783, but expands his coverage to include peoples of African descent in his conception of the middle ground. The Cornell historian uncovers a thriving, multi-cultural frontier society involving many peoples—whites, Indians, and blacks—in colonial Louisiana. These people coexisted through an extensive trade network, created a distinct and racially interdependent culture which both resisted, manipulated, and accommodated the ever-imposing European imperial and mercantilist orders. By looking at the “ordinary folk,” Usner opens a new window from which we can better survey the colonial period. In frontier Louisiana, a society the European powers saw as economically marginal peoples of all colors and backgrounds worked together. They did so out of necessity; survival was not a simple or easy task. Usner labels their interaction “frontier exchange,” defining it as “the form and content of economic interaction between these groups. For too long, ‘frontier’ has connotated an interracial boundary, across which advanced societies penetrated primitive ones. But frontiers were more regional in scope, networks of cross-cultural interaction through which native and colonial groups circulated goods and services.” Every person living in this time and area contributed to the cultural stew. Slaves, besides working extensively in agriculture, worked as boatman, soldiers, hunters, peddlers, and interpreters. Indians produced deerskins for the export economy, provided transportation and military services, and traded food and livestock with colonial residents. Europeans engaged in various entrepreneurial and agricultural enterprises as well.[6]

Historians of the colonial period—most of them like Bernard Bailyn, holding an “eastern-centric” viewpoint—have ignored areas on the periphery. Those historians who took the periphery seriously, such as nineteenth-century historians Frederick Jackson Turner and Francis Parkman, cared little about the real people living there. Rather, they focused on the more dramatic imperial policies. Usner’s important work, using the middle ground concept, also challenges historians of the southern history who view the colonial South as little more than the prelude to the classic “Old South” of the nineteenth century.

Yale lecturer, Jay Gitlin, offers a splendid overview of imperial and colonial rivalry prior to the War of 1812 in his chapter, “On the Boundaries of Empire: Connecting the West to Its Imperial Past,” for the neo-Turnerian Howard Lamar Festschrift, Under an Open Sky. Inspired by Wallerstein’s “World Systems” theory, Gitlin examines the middle ground as the empire’s hinterland. But unlike Wallerstein’s system where the hinterland is peripheral to the larger history of the empire, Gitlin argues that the middle ground is exactly where history occurs—where various peoples interact. At the localized areas, the local “agents of empire” determined a great deal of how the empire itself would play its role. Therefore, Indian chiefs might not only represent their tribe or band but would also serve, for example, as a French Diplomat when dealing with the British. “The cis-Mississippi frontier was not simply the periphery of one empire,” Gitlin explains. “It was the periphery of many. . . . Is it any wonder that local merchants and officials in this arena became extraordinarily skilled at manipulating the complex chain of connections?” The author claims those Indian villages such as Kekionga (modern Fort Wayne) and The Glaize (in current northwest Ohio) were international centers where people used co-created symbols to pass from one group to another.

As with White, Gitlin contends that the French were perfect at maneuvering in the middle ground, obtaining numerous trade agreements with the natives and consistently outwitting the British. British officials traveling in the 1600 and early 1700s witnessed with amazement the French inhabiting every Indian village in the Mississippi Valley. Even after the Seven Years’ war and the political withdraw of the French, French culture and French-speaking immigrants either dominated or played vital roles in the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes regions well into the 1840s.[7]

Intellectual Seeds of the Middle Ground: Turner and Bolton

As Jacobs notes, the middle ground, did not suddenly appear on the historiographical scene. Rather, it is a synthesis or “filling out” of other theories. Its seeds can be found specifically in the works of two turn-of-the-century historians, Frederick Jackson Turner and Herbert Eugene Bolton. Turner’s famous 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” arguably the most influential thesis in American history, essentially relegates the Indian to the roles of unifier for—and obstacle to—whites. In this essay, however, one can also discover at least one half of the middle ground concept.

The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.[8] Patricia Nelson Limerick, usually a strident opponent of Turner’s ideas, writes that in his later essays, he espoused studying how whites affected Indians.[9]

John Mack Faragher, editor of the most recent collection of Turner’s essays, uses the concept of the multi-sided frontier, or middle ground, in his biography of Daniel Boone. Perhaps more than any other nonfictional man, Daniel Boone best embodies the early American frontier. He was a brilliant hunter, sharpshooter, trapper, trader, explorer, tracker, and military leader. More than once he outwitted and escaped his Shawnee captors, as well as rescued his daughter from the clutches of hostile Indians. Associated with the settling of Kentucky, Boone is the stuff of legends. Faragher describes a Kentucky frontier in which Indian (especially Shawnee) and white lifestyles mixed to form virtually indistinguishable cultures. The life of both involved hunting, both dressed in a mixture of European and American fashions, both used the same diet and medicines, both were mobile, warlike, and localistic, and in both the women raised and tended the gardens and crops. Even during battles with one another, the belligerents would hassle specific persons on the other side. Boone himself spent many his last years hunting and reminiscing with his closest friends, Shawnees whom he had once battled! Faragher’s Boone comes across very much the Turnerian ideal.[10]

Significant aspects of the middle ground concept can also be found in Herbert Bolton’s Borderland histories. Bolton was a student of Turner’s, and while in graduate school he became enamored with the role of the Spanish in Texas after visiting virtually virgin archives in Mexico City. Much to his excitement, he even found the papers taken from Pike during his expedition to the West in 1806. The Spanish papers convinced Bolton that only an impressive and resourceful “handful of men” had conquered the entire area. Despite the limitations in Bolton’s approach, i.e., his ignoring the lives and significance of the indigenous and Mexican peoples, he opened the study of the West to radically-new perspectives.[11]

The most prominent of the modern Boltonians is David J. Weber, a historian at Southern Methodist. Like the other authors mentioned here, Weber also uses the “middle ground” concept, calling it rather a “frontier zone.” Weber argues that the frontier is the focal point of all history—the place where multiple cultures meet, clash, and exchange. He criticizes the Turnerians for seeing the frontier as a one-sided, east to west phenomena; such chauvinism only blinds the scholar. “Man generally interacts with man as well as with the environment in frontier zones,” Weber writes, “and such interactions contain so many variables, including the historical moment, that the result is always unique.” In the frontier zone idea, he continues, frontiers can exist within frontiers.

Using this approach in his The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846, Weber finds interesting reasons for America’s success in the war with Mexico. During the three decades of political chaos after the 1810 revolution, Hispanics living in the northern Mexican region turned their economic, cultural, and biological sympathies and interests to the Americans. In the entire area Mexico lost, only a few Californios and New Mexicans offered armed resistance against the United States; no guerrilla movements developed after the war. The main forces fighting the United States had come from Mexico City and farther south. Those in the north simply would not fight the U.S. Many if not most of the population in northern Mexico viewed the U.S. as a liberating force.[12]

The Future of the Middle Ground

R. David Edmunds has recently suggested two areas of study for furthering the notion of the middle ground. The first suggestion is to study mixed-bloods, individuals of mixed cultural and genetic lineage. While once regarded as unimportant, mixed-bloods are being reappraised. “Far from being outcasts between two cultures, [they] bridged cultural gaps between these groups and also served as intermediaries between frontier societies and European or American governments.” They were also, he adds, “complex figures, representatives of complex societies, but they were people who controlled their own fortunes and who did much to shape the wealth of their tribal communities.” Edmunds’s second suggestion is to study Indian entrepreneurs, a neglected group that too served as a vital link between cultures.[13] More often than not, prominent entrepreneurs in the Indian communities were mixed-bloods.

White, Gitlin, and Edmunds have all singled out one individual, Jean Baptiste Richardville, who best personifies the late-middle ground. Richardville (1761-1841), son of a French trader and a Miami woman, attained the position of principle peace chief of the Miamis in 1815 and at the time of his death, because of amazing entrepreneurial skills, was reputedly the wealthiest man in Indiana. Throughout his life he walked a fine line between British, French, American, and Miami cultures. Toward the end of his life, he gave up his Catholicism, his European dress, and the English language and lived as a traditional Miami. Yet, not even a scholarly article exists on Richardville.[14]

Another fruitful area of middle ground study is nineteenth-century Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). During the 1800s, thousands of Indians moved (mostly forced) there, creating new homes and communities. For the most part, the federal government left them alone, and these “domestic dependent nations” thrived. Yet, again, few historians have studied these Indians, the sovereignty they enjoyed, or the relative economic prosperity in which they lived. These “civilized” Indians, living in political limbo, clearly constituted a middle ground. They had significant economic ties to neighboring whites, they were western pioneers, and they served as a buffer to the hostile plains tribes.

In every instance reviewed here—from White to Weber to Edmunds—the concept of the middle ground has broadened historical understanding of a variety of geographical areas and disparate time periods, from the earliest European contact to the end of the nineteenth-century. Many historians—Edmunds, Mary Young, Helen Hornbeck Tanner, and Daniel K. Richter— have argued the middle ground is the wave of future Indian and western historiography.[15] While predicting the future is impossible, they are probably not exaggerating. The New Western Historians have exposed the faults of Turner, but have failed to provide a viable alternative. Ethnohistorians have done wonderful jobs of showing the Indian viewpoint of things, but they have failed to place the Indians into a larger American context. The middle ground simply takes the best of all three groups, adding a deeper, richer understanding of the past and, most important, of those actors who participated in past.[16]

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1. Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), preface and chapter one; Jay Gitlin, “Comments,” William and Mary Quarterly 51 (October 1994): 730; and James Bowman, “A Few Reservations,” Reason (August/September 1991), 49. Bernard W. Sheehan explores the idea of Indian as victim in his “The Indian as Victim and Exemplar,” unpublished paper.

2. Bernard W. Sheehan, review of The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 26 (Summer 1995): 124.

3. Wilbur R. Jacobs, “Comments,” William and Mary Quarterly 51 (October 1994): 733.

4, Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). For a comprehensive and intellectually-stimulating view of American perceptions of the Indians in the early Republic, see Bernard W. Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian (1973; New York: W.W. Norton, 1974).

5. Glenda Riley, review of “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West, in Western Historical Quarterly 23 (May 1992): 224; and Wilbur R. Jacobs, review of “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West, in Pacific Northwest Quarterly 83 (April 1992): 62. The book in question is Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), especially chapters 1-4. For the New Western View of Indians as merely victims, see Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 17-32.

6. Daniel H. Usner, Jr., Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1992), 6; and Daniel H. Usner, Jr., “The Frontier Exchange Economy of the Lower Mississippi Valley in the Eighteenth Century,” William and Mary Quarterly 44 (April 1987): 165-92.

7. Jay Gitlin, “On the Boundaries of Empire: Connecting the West to Its Imperial Past,” chapter in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, ed. by William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 71-89. See also Jay Gitlin, “Empires of Trade, Hinterlands of Settlement,” chapter in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. by Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha Sandweiss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 79-113.

8. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays, ed. by John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 33.

9. Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World,” American Historical Review 100 (June 1995): 697-716.

10. John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Henry Holt, 1992).

11. See Donald E. Worcester, “Herbert Eugene Bolton: The Making of a Western Historian,” chapter in Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians, ed. by Richard W. Etulain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1991), chapter 7; David J. Weber, “Turner, the Boltonians, and the Borderlands,” American Historical Review 91 (February 1986): 66-81; Arnoldo de Leon, “Whither Borderlands History? A Review Essay,” New Mexico Historical Review 64 (July 1989): 349-60; and Gerald E. Poyo and Gilberto M. Hinojosa, “Spanish Texas and Borderlands Historiography in Transition: Implications for United States History,” Journal of American History 75 (September 1988): 393-416. See also Gilbert G. Gonzalez and Raul Fernandez, “Chicano History: Transcending Cultural Models,” Pacific Historical Review 63 (November 1994): 469-97.

12. David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), 277; and David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992). Others use the “frontier zone” concept as well. See Leonard Thompson and Howard Lamar, “Comparative Frontier History,” chapter in The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared, ed. by Leonard Thompson and Howard Lamar (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 3-13; Jack D. Forbes, “The Indian in the West: A Challenge for Historians,” Arizona and the West 1 (Autumn 1959): 206-15; and Jack D. Forbes, “Frontiers in American History,” Journal of the West 1 (July 1962): 63-73.

13. R. David Edmunds, “Native Americans, New Voices: American Indian History, 1895-1995,” American Historical Review 100 (July 1995): 717-40; and R. David Edmunds, “Coming of Age: Some Thoughts upon American Indian History,” Indiana Magazine of History 85 (December 1989): 312-21. For Indian entrepreneurs, see David Dary, Entrepreneurs of the Old West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); and Terry Anderson, ed. Property Rights and Indian Economies (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992). The late John D. Unruh, Jr., discussed the role of Indian entrepreneurs along the Oregon Trail in his The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1979).

14. Edmunds, “Native Americans, New Voices,” 731; Gitlin, “On the Boundaries of Empire,” 79; and White, The Middle Ground, 450, 452, 495, 496.

15. Mary E. Young, “The Dark and Bloody but Endlessly Inventive Middle Ground of Indian Frontier Historiography,” Journal of the Early Republic 13 (Summer 1993): 193-205; Daniel K. Richter, review of The Middle Ground in William and Mary Quarterly 49 (October 1992): 715-7; and Helen Hornbeck Tanner, review of The Middle Ground in Ethnohistory 40 (Winter 1993): 113-6.

16. Sheehan warns that one should not exaggerate the “notion of Indians’ control over the process of change.” In many cases, they were simply overwhelmed by European and American culture: “What the argument misses is the terrible devastation that overtook native societies, for some with startling swiftness, but in the long run for all of them.” See Bernard W. Sheehan, review of Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 25 (Winter 1995): 508.

The featured image, “Native American Treaty” (1908) by Roman Fekonja, is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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