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Colonial Vocabulary

December 5, 2012

From The Wilson Quarterly:


Native Americans number in the millions today, and their colonial-era ancestors often tended large farms and lived in settlements across a broad swath of North America. But you wouldn’t know that from reading most contemporary scholars’ work, says James H. Merrell, a historian at Vassar College.

Merrell, who pioneered a new understanding of Native Americans in books such as The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors From European Contact Through the Era of Removal(1989), argues that even many of the best-intentioned historians cling to a flawed vocabulary that distorts our view of history. Largely inherited from the colonial era, today’s terminology is an obstacle to accurately describing what is now known about early America.

Historians still commonly associate Native Americans with words related to hunting, such as “forest,” “wilderness,” and “wild,” apparently ignoring long-known evidence of Indian agriculture. A Virginia colonist wrote in 1650 of an “immense quantity of Indian fields cleared already to our hand, by the Natives.” An early New England writer admired “diverse acres being clear so that one may ride ahunting in most places of the land.” Colonial armies certainly knew about large-scale Indian agriculture: They seized 70,000 bushels of corn from Cherokee farmers during the Revolutionary War. [More]

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