New Reda book explores forgotten diversity in Midwest history
With Thanksgiving approaching, the United States will be awash once again in images of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down to share a meal.
That image of races working together in the early days of American history wasn’t isolated to one dinner, but was frequently an outgrowth of the commerce and culture of early America, according to Illinois State University Associate Professor of History John Reda.
The author of the new book From Furs to Farms: The Transformation of the Mississippi Valley, 1762-1825, Reda knows the commercialization of Thanksgiving can be off-putting, but he notes a lesson is there. “It doesn’t work to reject the entire idea of Thanksgiving, because for a time white settlers and the Native Americans did get along, and were able to work together,” said Reda. “A lot of problematic things happened just before and just after, but at that time and place it happened pretty much the way we think it did.”
In the book, Reda explores the history of the former French colony known as the Illinois Country, which would now encompass the states of Missouri and Illinois. He examines the first enterprise between white settlers and the Native Americans—the trading of fur pelts. “History isn’t always driven by political events, or wars and treaties,” said Reda. “Those things are important, but it also has to do with how people live and make their livings.”
Although racial awareness existed between European settlers and Native Americans in the days before the American Revolution, Reda argues it was a secondary distinction. “They had a much greater awareness of religion and culture. You were Christian, or you were not. You were a European, or you were not. Racial differences weren’t as pronounced,” he said. “There had always been a hierarchy and conflict, but there also had been a much greater toleration of people living together amid each other and the mixing of races.”
By the late-1700s, the animals that provided pelts began to run out, as more white settlers were arriving. “These new settlers didn’t care about the fur trade or trading with Native Americans,” said Reda, who added their interest was in commercial farming. “The story moves from people who made a living from animals living on the land to people making their living from the land itself.”
Many of the new settlers harbored resentment from the battles of the Seven Years War. Known in the American colonies as the French and Indian War, it pitted several Native American tribes and French settlers against British settlers. “Now you have people who have so many hard feelings and memories,” said Reda. “Previously, white Europeans and Native Americans had been able to say, ‘there are friendly or hostile whites’ and ‘friendly or hostile Native Americans.’ By the mid-1700s, the default position became that it was too dangerous to wait and decide if someone was hostile or not. Attitudes began to harden and a binary idea evolved that you were either white or you were not.”
Reda hopes From Furs to Farms: The Transformation of the Mississippi Valley, 1762-1825 will help create a broader picture of the early days of the Midwest, and a culture of interaction that can be easily forgotten in American history. “Sometimes it feels like when we learn about Native Americans, we jump right from Pocahontas to Sitting Bull,” said Reda, who grew up near the Des Plaines River in the Chicago area. “White settlers didn’t just spread across a predominantly empty land. There is a rich history in every area that was filled with a whole array of different people. While the story almost always ended with violence, in many places, particularly today’s Midwest, Native Americans and white settlers, for a time, worked together, created a culture, a commerce, and a way of life.”