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Masters of Empire

Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

Michael A. McDonnell

Hill and Wang

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ISBN10: 0809068001
ISBN13: 9780809068005

Trade Paperback

416 Pages



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Winner of the Robert M. Utley Prize

In Masters of Empire, the historian Michael A. McDonnell reveals the vital role played by the native peoples of the Great Lakes in the history of North America. Though less well known than the Iroquois or Sioux, the Anishinaabeg, who lived across Lakes Michigan and Huron, were equally influential. Masters of Empire charts the story of one group, the Odawa, who settled at the straits between those two lakes, a hub for trade and diplomacy throughout the vast country west of Montreal known as the pays d’en haut.Highlighting the long-standing rivalries and relationships among the great Indian nations of North America, McDonnell shows how Europeans often played only a minor role in this history, and reminds us that it was native peoples who possessed intricate and far-reaching networks of commerce and kinship. As empire encroached upon their domain, the Anishinaabeg were often the ones doing the exploiting. By dictating terms at trading posts and frontier forts, they played a crucial part in the making of early America.

Through vivid depictions—all from a native perspective—of early skirmishes, the French and Indian War, and the American Revolution, Masters of Empire overturns our assumptions about colonial America. By calling attention to the Great Lakes as a crucible of culture and conflict, McDonnell reimagines the landscape of American history.


Praise for Masters of Empire

"A fresh—and important—perspective on the history of colonial America . . . Like all fine works of history,Masters of Empire will force readers to think hard, this time about how much influence and power Indians had in colonial America—and about when and why they lost it."—Glenn C. Altschuler, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

[Masters of Empire] makes a compelling case for the overwhelming power of the Anishinaabeg tribes of the Great Lakes region throughout the Colonial period.”—The New Yorker

“In Masters of Empire, historian Michael McDonnell describes a long-running history of contact, conflict, and collaboration among native peoples, English settlers, and French traders that took place in the region controlled by native peoples known collectively as the Anishinaabeg . . . the research and analysis are stirring on their own. Instead of chronicling a simple Revolutionary War story that culminated a unified new nation, McDonnell’s book attempts . . . to complicate the way we understand both our country’s birth and its forebears (and, not coincidentally, its current inhabitants). We can only hope that someday our children’s children will learn about Fort Michilimackinac alongside the Old North Church.”—Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

"[Masters of Empire] is thankfully a work of genius . . . History has until now had it that Indians were pawns or pieces moved about and wielded by various colonial empires. McDonnell shows us—with painstaking research and incredible insight—that the Odawa and allied Great Lakes tribes dictated the terms of trade, forced the colonists into unadvantageous alliances and created their own empire that still remains. In the course of his analysis, he shows us that the forever war of the Great Lakes was waged by political design: By keeping the balance of power between the French and the British, and later the British and the Americans, the Indians themselves functioned as a kind of swing vote. A little pressure here, a little room there, and they swung the course of history in major ways, including but not limited to the Seven Years War, the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War . . . The miracle of this book isn't simply these bold and counterintuitive claims but the ways in which McDonnell has mined the archives for evidence to back them up. He has done the hard historical work of poring over treaty records, council meeting records, journals and receipts, and rendered it all in gorgeously understated prose. The facts sing, and the tune is one anyone interested in Colonial North America—and, for that matter, why the United States is what it is today—will want to hear. Masters of Empire is a master class in how to do history right. If anyone is at all interested in knowing how to ‘help’ Indian people, they would do no better than following McDonnell's example: trying (and succeeding) in seeing our history and our actions as representative of smart, savvy, thinking actors in our own lives. This is an astounding book.”—David Treuer, Los Angeles Times

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Read an Excerpt



In the early hours of a June morning in 1752, the Ohio Valley erupted in violence. At Pickawillany—a Miami Indian village and fortified trading...

About the author

Michael A. McDonnell

Michael McDonnell is an associate professor of history at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, winner of the 2008 New South Wales Premier's History Award, and coeditor of Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

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