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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 7th, 2004


War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, & the British Empire

by Gregory Evans Dowd

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

The Plains Indians dominate the popular imagination, but the most creative books on the history of Native Americans -- from the epics of Francis Parkman (still the greatest literary artist among American historians) to the more recent works of Francis Jennings and Richard White -- have focused on economic and cultural relations, diplomacy, and warfare among the eastern and midwestern Indian tribes and the British, French, and Americans. Dowd's account of Pontiac's War examines the nearly three-year intertribal uprising, begun in 1763, against the British -- a conflict ranging over what is now Pennsylvania to Arkansas, Wisconsin to South Carolina. Shifting from councils at frontier outposts to deliberations at Whitehall, Dowd elucidates the contradictions in British policy toward Indian sovereignty that helped ignite the conflict (contradictions, he convincingly argues, that continued to define and confound relations between the United States and Native American tribes). His explication of both sides' strategies and tactics in this ferocious struggle (the British used smallpox as a biological weapon against the Delaware; the Indians used terror against settlers to disrupt the British forces' supply lines) is both sober and gripping. And, in perhaps his most original contribution, he skillfully uses the perforce meager evidence to analyze the religious dimension of the Indians' resistance. A stylish writer with a talent for compression, Dowd engages and advances scholarly debates while making the lines of those debates clear to the general reader. His book is the best account of its subject. Dowd shows how cunning British diplomacy exploited divisions among the tribes to stem the uprising, but the contest for the lands from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi wasn't really decided until the United States crushed Tecumseh's pan-tribal uprising in 1813. Readers wanting to put Pontiac's War in its widest context should pair this elegant book with White's sweeping The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815.

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