SOPHIE WHITE. Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. x, 355. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4437-3.

JAMES H. MERRELL. “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience.” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, 4 (October, 1984): 537-565.

A quarter century has passed since the historian of Early America, Richard White, articulated the concept of the “middle ground” as a geographic, cultural, and temporal space of mutual accommodation between Native American and European peoples on the North American continent. In first introducing this idea through a case study of the pays d’en haut or Great Lakes region, White described it thus: “The Middle Ground is the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages. It is a place where many of the North American subjects and allies of empire lived. It is the area between the historical foreground of European invasion and occupation and the background of Indian defeat and retreat.” While neither of the two works under review here use the phrase “middle ground,” both of them are attempts at tackling the same underlying question of mutual accommodation and the spaces in-between. Both of them use specific case studies—the Catawba of the Carolina piedmont and the Illinois of French colonial Louisiana—for exploring the ways in which native peoples adapted to European colonization and, conversely, the ways in which those adaptations were received by colonizers.[1]

James Merrell wrote his article, “The Indians’ New World,” seven years before White published The Middle Ground. Nonetheless, he was already proposing the idea that spaces or “worlds” are at once physical and cultural, and that change was a process signified by more than just geographic displacement. In particular, Merrell lamented that a tradition of Early American historians, from Frederick Jackson Turner to Daniel C. Littlefield, operated with the assumption that the “New World” was “a geographic entity bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pacific on the other.” This physical definition of the “New World” served to marginalize Amerindians, “who crossed no ocean [and] peopled no faraway land.” So, to bring Native peoples back into the picture of Early America, and to give them equal focus alongside European and African migrants, Merrell proposed a new definition of worlds. He asked his readers to think “instead of a “world” as the physical and cultural milieu within which people live and a “new world” as a dramatically different milieu demanding basic changes in ways of life.” This re-definition of worlds as cultural and physical spaces that demand accommodation foreshadowed the idea of the middle ground.[2]

Merrell’s re-definition of “worlds” as both physical and cultural spaces supported his thesis that “native Americans lived in a world every bit as new as that confronting transplanted Africans or Europeans.” To prove this thesis, Merrell explored the case of the Catawba Indians of the Carolina piedmont from the settlement of the Carolinas by British colonists in 1670 through the beginning of the nineteenth century. As he shows, what came to be called the Catawba Nation started as an amalgam of native ethnicities or tribes with only a loose cultural association. European colonization forced these different peoples to confront a “New World” defined by disease, technology, and foreigners. Merrell traces the ways in which the modern Catawba Nation emerged out of their navigation of this new world. Piedmont peoples consolidated as a single entity on the Carolina border by the early-eighteenth century. Then, their ancestors shifted from a strategy of resistance to accommodation in the 1760s, a move symbolized by an adoption of republican government and a support of the continentals during the Revolutionary War. While this history of their “adaptation to white settlement was both painful and prolonged,” it also resulted in their ability to maintain aspects of their traditional life and achieve a measure acceptance in the eyes of Americans. The Catawba accommodated to their “New World” in specific ways and, in return, succeeded in fundamentally changing the way they were viewed by their Anglo-American colonizers.[3]

In at least one respect, the Catawba are an extraordinary case study in Early America. As reviewed by Merrell, their history speaks to both the power of native accommodation and the inevitable failure of the middle ground. On the one hand, the Catawba had success “clinging to their cultural identity and at least a fraction of their ancient lands.” They were not, for example, one of the southeast Indian nations relocated beyond the Mississippi in the 1830s; their reservation still stands on the border of the two Carolinas. On the other hand, Merrell concludes that any similarities between the Catawba peoples and their European and African neighbors were “as superficial as they were essential.” The Catawba people did not continue to inhabit a middle ground. Rather, they rehearsed an outward accommodation as armor to protect an inward “cultural isolation.” They “kept their Indian names, and sometimes their language, a secret from prying visitors.”[4]

In her recent book, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians, Sophie White offers a different portrait of native accommodation and the middle ground. For her case study, she investigates French colonial Louisiana between the years 1673 and 1769. French colonial Louisiana was a vast territory that included both the Illinois Country of Upper Louisiana around the Great Lakes region and the province of Lower Louisiana based around the port city of New Orleans. Most historians, like Richard White, have chosen to study these two areas separately; however, Wild Frenchmen is not just another isolated case study of native accommodation upon a given middle ground. Rather, White ultimately wants to revise our understanding of the process of racialization in Early America. She believes that combining Upper and Lower Louisiana in one study will allow her to examine a historical process of racialization—the gradual hardening of racial categories—“at the crossroads of New France and the French Caribbean.” The result is a study of native accommodation to colonization that compares Illinois Country, where ideas of race were initially mutable and a middle ground was ostensibly achieved, with Lower Louisiana, where race was more rigid and fixed.[5]

Overall, White’s study highlights “the uneven development and fractured character of the process of racialization in North America.” Her book challenges the conclusions of scholars like Guillaume Aubert, who have argued that interracial unions between Indians and Frenchmen were seen as universally threatening in the French Atlantic by the 1700s. Aubert wrote, “Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, colonial authorities throughout the French Atlantic world had repeatedly indicated that they believed sexual interactions between French men and African or Indian women not only jeopardized the establishment of social order in the colony buy also threatened the racial integrity of the French colonial population.” But White demonstrates that this was not true in Illinois Country, a middle ground Aubert overlooked in his study. Contrary to statements made by French officials like Jean Baptiste du Bois Duclos, Indian women in Illinois Country had succeeded in becoming “Frenchified” in direct accordance with the crown’s policy of assimilation. In Wild Frenchmen, White uses French material culture to prove that “Frenchification” was indeed successful in Illinois Country, thus becoming a foil to both Aubert and Duclos.[6]

Like both Merrell and Richard White, Sophie White believes that worlds are not just physical but also cultural spaces, and that historical change is a process rather than simply an event. This is why White decided to frame her study of native accommodation through the lens of material culture as a physical expression of one’s identity. “Material artifacts,” according to White, “did not simply reflect discourses about difference and race…they [also] helped to produce them.” In the first three chapters, which compose Part One of Wild Frenchmen, White traces Native-French accommodation through religious conversion, sacramental marriage, and material culture. In these chapters, she emphasizes how a cast of Native women and their mixed-race descendants, like Ignon Ouaconisen and Marie Rouensa, became “Frenchified” by embracing colonial trends in architecture, furniture, furnishings, living arrangements, and especially clothing. In making these accommodations, native women became living or embodied testimony that Indian identity was malleable. As with the Catawba, choices made by women in Illinois Country to “Frenchify” changed the ways in which they were seen by white Frenchmen, who harbored fears that intermarriage would lead them to become “wild.” The second three chapters, which compose Part Two, switch the focus to Lower Louisiana. Here White shows how Indian, mixed-race, and white people all practiced “cultural cross-dressing” to maneuver in the racially strict climate of New Orleans and its hinterlands. In these sections, as in others, White emphasizes a difference for whites, whose adoption of native customs is a “temporary and reversible mutation or metamorphosis” similar to masquerade.[7]

Throughout Wild Frenchmen, White draws on an impressive array or source material and finds some very unique ways in which to make her arguments. For example, her first chapter draws upon the scattered estate inventories or probate records of the 57 cases of interracial marriage that were recorded in Illinois Country to showcase the degree to which native women assimilated to French material culture. Here, everything from images of French garments engraved on copper-plates to buffalo robes used as bedspreads become evidence of successful cultural accommodation. Other chapters explore detailed cases of Indian and mixed-race women and men who transgressed boundaries. Three chapters about such figures— on Marie Rouensa, Marie Turpin, and Jean Saguingouara—provide intimate perspectives on the ways in which native people’s negotiated race in colonial Louisiana at a time when ideas about race were different from one region to the next. One of these stories particularly succeeds at encapsulating White’s main arguments. This story is about Marie Turpin, a French-Indian girl who was born in the Illinois Country but moved to New Orleans to join the Ursuline Convent. Although a woman of status in Upper Louisiana, a place where identity was fluid and many native peoples had achieved “Frenchification,” Turpin could only achieve second-class status in the convent of Lower Louisiana, a “space of racial constraints.”[8]

As White argues, an official crown policy of Frenchification for indigenous American peoples “remained valid in the Illinois Country” long after it had been abandoned as a viable principle in other parts of the French empire. Overseas territories from New France to Saint-Domingue to Mauritius had given up on the idea that native peoples would become Frenchified through intermarriage, the adoption of French manners, and religious conversion. All the while, this expression of a middle ground continued in Upper Louisiana, where ancestors of indigenous women like Marie Rouensa were still raising mixed-race children in the midst of the Seven Years War. [9]

Taken together, White and Merrell both seek to explore the question of indigenous adaptation to European colonization; however, they are not telling quite the same kind of a story. Merrell tells the story of a native culture that adapts as a whole, and White focuses on native individuals who adapt at the expense of their traditional culture. As Merrell summarizes, “poverty and oppression have plagued the” Catawba throughout their history, but the Nation has nonetheless survived, maintaining “a distinctive way of life rich in tradition and meaningful to those it embraced.” Meanwhile, native women in Illinois Country survived the first century of European colonization—and some of their ancestors might still remain in that region today—but the Illinois culture as a whole did not fare the same. Rouensa had to disown her two “savage” sons because they wanted to live according to their native customs, like à la façon du pays or marriage of the country, and the rest of the Illinois people were relocated beyond the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. [10]

Wild Frenchmen shows a group of individuals who were able to take advantage of a unique location and transcend their birth, religion, and ancestry, ultimately becoming accepted in colonial society. But they could not take their culture with them like the Catawba did. And French colonists might indeed have been, as White concludes, sufficiently convinced by the presence of this handful of “Frenchified Indians” that they “slowed the spread of racialization;” but slowing the spread of racial conquest is not the same as stopping it. And why should scholars today care about the existence of any historical middle grounds if they could not do the latter? In the early 1990s, Richard White articulated the concept of the middle ground as a zone that was never intended to survive. As he wrote, the middle ground was not just a geographic and a cultural space of accommodation; it was also a temporal one, located somewhere “between the historical foreground of European invasion and occupation and the background of Indian defeat and retreat.” In keeping this quote in mind, perhaps the works of Merrell and White are similar in the respect that they require readers to revisit the point of White’s middle ground. They require us to ask whether a middle ground ever existed; and, if it did, does it even matter if the end result was still “Indian defeat and retreat?”[11]


[1] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), xxvi.

[2] James H. Merrell, “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience,” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, 4 (October, 1984): 537-538.

[3] Ibid. 537, 558, 562.

[4] Ibid. 562-563.

[5] Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 12, 14, 150.

[6] Guillaume Aubert, “’The Blood of France’: Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World, The William and Mary Quarterly, 61, 3 (July, 2004): 477-478; Sophie White, Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians, 32.

[7] Ibid. 2, 20, 209, 146, 227.

[8] Ibid. 52, 55, 175.

[9] Ibid. 230.

[10] James Merrell, “The Indians’ New World,” 562, 564; Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians, 231-232.

[11] Ibid. 231-232; Richard White, The Middle Ground, xxvi.