Review

When Native Americans were arms dealers: A history revealed in 'Thundersticks'

In the years after the American Revolution, Seminole Indians built an arsenal of weapons acquired from Cuban and British traders that allowed them to defend their lands as an alternate and well-armed Underground Railroad in what was then Spanish-controlled Florida. To the horror of Deep South elites, the Seminoles shielded and supplied guns to Panhandle communities of Black Seminoles, small villages peopled by plantation runaways, intermarried tribal members and freed slaves of the tribe themselves.

“Together they resolved to keep white Americans and their slave catchers out of Seminole territory,” historian David Silverman writes in “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America.” “An alliance of militant Indians and black maroons supported by European resources was the materialization of a nightmare that had haunted white southerners ever since the seventeenth century.” 

Written in an accessible and at times swashbuckling style, the book is in many ways a retelling of the U.S.’ Indian Wars from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with a twist. It cracks the mystery of how Colonial-era Native American tribes came to master a continent-spanning, gun-running network  in smoothbore flintlock muskets, often decades in advance of European settlement.

For the most part, Silverman avoids anthropological explanations for Native American tribes’ fascination with guns — save for the book’s title, which comes from a literal translation of the Narragansett word for gun, pésckunk. To explain the indigenous arms race that once gripped the continent, Silverman uses military history and political economy to chip away at Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” narrative, in which Europeans with superior weapons technology marched triumphantly through the Americas.

Instead, Silverman uncovers a history in which Indians quickly cornered a gun market, shocking European and American militaries with the breadth and superiority of their arms, most of them made in Britain or France. This indigenous arsenal explains why the Seminoles were able to repel the U.S. Army over three wars, spanning 1816 to 1858. Unable to best the tribe on the battlefield, the American military resorted to scorched-earth techniques — burning Seminole villages to the ground, destroying cattle herds — to starve the Seminoles and drastically reduce their population.  

In contrast to a military that relied on the bureaucracy of purchase orders and shipping caravans to distribute its arms, the Seminoles’ decentralized backwoods armory lay scattered across the humid peninsula in dry, bark-lined underground caches. The tribe made  dugout canoe runs to Cuba to restock guns while raiding Florida sugar plantations for their lead-lined vats, which were melted down for ammunition. As the wars raged on, tribal leaders set up pseudo peace talks with military officials as a ruse to have their younger warriors sneak off into the bushes to buy guns from the opportunistic traders who followed U.S. military campaigns. Most notorious, tribal warriors seized muskets from the battlefield dead.

Among North American tribes of the colonial period, the Seminoles were far from alone in one-upping colonial powers to master a multinational supply network of arms. Silverman calls this phenomenon “a gun frontier,” a nimble, intertribal network of trade that created an arms race on the American continent, often decades before the arrival of sizeable numbers  of Euro-American settlers

For instance, Spanish settlers newly arrived in Taos, N.M., in the 1770s were humbled  to realize  that the Comanches of the Southern Plains were not only fearsome horseback warriors but also the region’s sole purveyor in guns, powder and shot. Less powerful tribes — Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee and Wichita — served as middlemen for the Comanche, crisscrossing the continent as goods brokers for American merchants back east and French fur traders to the south. These middlemen tribes ferried everything from buffalo robes to   slaves, to be traded in exchange for muskets and flintlocks.

None of this ends well, of course. During the 19th century, warfare with whites and smallpox outbreaks decimate tribal numbers just as settlers start streaming into the West en masse. But that story is well known and often told.

Far lesser known is the chain of political and economic events that led the gun-rich Iroquois to drive out rival tribes and establish a vast empire across the Great Lakes in the 17th century. Or how the Nootka built a gun-running fiefdom on Vancouver Island that gave them the economic might to push out Russian traders and establish an “otters for arms” fur trade with British outfits that enabled new trade relationships with  China. It’s why a German naturalist, writing in 1802, was awestruck “that one can now buy the best English arms on this part of the Northwest coast of America more cheaply than in England.”

It’s worth noting that Silverman didn’t stumble on a new trove of documents to write “Thundersticks.” As his end notes demonstrate, all the evidence has been right there under our eyes for centuries, in expedition narratives, ship manifests, military correspondence and the testimonials of Euro-Americans who spent time as captives of American Indian tribes. It just required a prolific synthesizer who saw the big picture — that the gun frontier “was a creation of Indian savvy and power, not white American Manifest Destiny.”

Sanchez has written for the Village Voice, the Stranger and the American Prospect. He is a contributing writer to Pasatiempo, the weekly arts and culture magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America

David J. Silverman

Harvard University Press: 400 pp., $29.95

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