Analysis – The Only Land They Knew

The Only Land They Knew: The Tragic Story of the American Indians in the Old South (J. Leitch Wright, Jr., The Free Press, 1981) – excerpt: The Original Southerners.

True knowledge of the intricate workings of the pre-contact southern Indian civilization is elusive to grasp.  Despite this limitation, author and historian J. Leitch Wright, Jr. looks beyond historiography to put together a convincing and alternative picture that contradicts the oft-accepted stories of primitive, promiscuous and violent natives.  Instead, Wright paints a picture of a thriving and organized Indian civilization well on its way to achieving potential on par with Aztec and Inca civilizations. (p. 66)  He suggests that the Indians may have had a much larger influence on earlier colonial society than was once thought.

To achieve this perspective, Wright weaves together evidence from archaeologists, linguists, folklorists and ethnologists to go beyond the skewed viewpoints of early European settler accounts of lazy, simple and dangerous Indians.   Wright mentions radiocarbon data that indicate that Indian civilization had been advancing for over 10,000 years prior to European contact.  Wright also focuses on anthropological evidence from the Mississippian Period to extrapolate the potential cultural, political, economic and social advances within Indian society.  Evidence examined included pottery, textiles, tools, town excavations, mounds and more.

As the tidal wave of European settlement washed ashore in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Indian population did not diminish nor did it become assimilated immediately.  In fact, Wright makes the case that Europeans were highly influenced by Indian agricultural knowledge, community organization, town fortification and structure design, and linear heritage.  He also illustrates the community structure of Indians congregating in cities and towns rather than rural areas, negating the idea that Indians were purely agriculturalists.  Indians “usually lived in towns and had their fields in the countryside.” (p. 55) This evidence reveals a separation of major political and economic life within the city centers from the agrarian holdings in the countryside, much like what we see develop later in the growth of the Virginia colony.  Wright also uses evidence of mounds in city centers with political and religious buildings on top of them, revealing an organized societal structure and labor system.

Many early European colonies and settlements also reveal such communal organization, with political and judicial business in the towns near waterways, and agricultural plots in the rural lands. Yet the difference between the two lies with the purpose of agriculture in the two societies.  “Capitalism, the profit motive, and the Protestant work ethic were largely foreign to the aborigines” (p. 62)  Indians worked the lands as least as possible, only for subsistence for themselves and the entire community.  Settlers viewed property through the European profit-oriented lens.  Yet, even settlers noticed the sedentary ways of the Indians.  They stayed loyal to tobacco for years, as it required the least work and yielded the most profit.  Wright argues that even the matriarchal nature of the Indian community may have also had a residual presence in the early African slave communities.  Finally, settlers also adopted Indian agricultural planting techniques and seasonal crop choices.

With Wright’s conclusions, one might even find themselves considering what may have occurred if European diseases had not been so destructive to the Indian population of the South at the time of contact.  Would African slave labor have been necessary?  Would settler-Indian agricultural, political and social relations have been much more cooperative and less confrontational?  Would the fabric of today’s racial tensions be woven between white and Indian instead of between white and black, or be virtually non-existent?  Wright’s conclusions are effective in convincing us that the Indians of the South were both far more advanced and primarily responsible for some of the early socio-economic structures adopted by early colonist settlements.  English colonists learned to survive and prosper thanks to the Indians.  In return, the English presence stifled a burgeoning society on the doorstep of potential greatness.  Nuances of what survived remain in the South today.

Posted in History - Pre-Civil War South.