'Into the American Woods': tribal sophistication

February 07, 1999|By Thomas Raup | Thomas Raup,Special to the Sun

"Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier," by James H. Merrill. W.W. Norton. 320 pages. $24.95.

Northwestern University professor James Merrill's "Into the American Woods" examines the contacts between Pennsylvania's colonial government and the tribes populating the great woods between the Delaware River and the territory that would become Ohio. It begins when William Penn became Proprietor of "Penn's Woods" in 1682 and ends in the late 1750s, when frontier relationships had disintegrated into the Seven Years War.

The material is presented from the vantage of go-betweens who moved between Philadelphia and Indian villages scattered throughout the vast territory. Some were Indians, others were European settlers. Some were marvelously successful, others not.

Merrill's research, 109 pages of notes for 320 pages of script, is truly impressive for a period when writing skills of the players were marginal-to-nonexistent. He presents the material without moral intonations; atrocities committed by both side are plainly stated, as are an off-color joke by Indians or tidbits about native sexual customs.

The pages are filled with tales that document little known peacekeeping achievements on the frontier through the early 18th century, as well as the later downhill course of relations between colonials and natives. The text is rich with quotations from records Merrill uncovered. (In 1728, an envoy reported to Philadelphia that the tribes were "in a destracted Condition ... It is all our Opinions ... that the Governor's pressence pritty Speedily is absolutely necessary at Conestoga to Settle Affares amongst the Indians.")

Much has been said, in caricature form, about Native American use of peace pipes and wampum. But I doubt if anyone before Merrill has provided so authoritative a depiction of the sophisticated protocols used by the Eastern tribes at formal negotiation councils.

Those customs exasperated George Washington during the frontier war, but had been taught in earlier years by go-betweens to the Pennsylvania colonial officials. The Quaker William Penn, who natives remembered as having once pronounced that settlers and Indians would "forever hereafter be as one Head & One Heart, & live in true Friendship & Amity as one People," had set the precedent of using the native customs for his meetings.

There is an uncanny similarity between the native negotiation customs and the mediation process taught in legal circles today: an informal phase during which participants get a feel for the opposition, sense hidden agendas, and commit themselves to the negotiation process (a day of greeting, smoking, food, rum); a formal statement by one side (a chief, belt of wampum in hand, ceremonially speaking); a delay to show respect, then a reply, civilly stated; informal meetings to narrow the disputes; a gathering to cement the deal; a closing to express good will.

The organization of this book could be more user-friendly. If the reader wants to retrieve a particular reference, the search will be frustrating. That said, "Into the American Woods" should receive much of the acclaim earned by Merrill's first book. "The Indians' New World," which won three significant library awards. It will appeal to colonial history and Indian buffs, to Pennsylvanians, and also to my colleagues in the mediation business.

Thomas Raup is a former trial judge in north central Pennsylvania. He teaches in the political science department at Lycoming College in Williamsport, and practices law as a mediator affiliated with Philadelphia based ADR Options, Inc.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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