Posted in 17th century America, African Americans, gender studies, marginalization, material culture, Native Americans, racism, religion, resistance, slavery, violence

The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast

Lipman, Andrew. The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Merrell, James H. “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 69, no. 3 (2012): 451-512.


James Merrell presents evidence in his article “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians” that shows how many historians continue to propagate a flawed lexicon that impedes understanding of early American history. He points out that “early Americanists are still shackled to a lexicon crafted by the victors in the contest for America, one fashioned to explain, even justify, how things turned out (Merrell 2012, 458).  Merrell urges historians to find new ways to explore this history. Andrew Lipman’s book, The Saltwater Frontier, has been lauded for its new and insightful narrative that refocuses American Indian history away from the land towards the sea. Lipman’s intention was to do just that as evidenced by remarks in his introduction, “By looking towards the sea rather than the land, this book offers a new way of thinking about Indian history and a new way of understanding this all-too familiar region” (Lipman 2015, 4). In order to evaluate this claim, I contemplated what a new way of talking about early America might look like. I also considered places where Lipman succeeded and where he missed the mark.

Lipman asserts that “viewing saltwater as the primary stage of cultural encounters changes our simple narratives of colonization” (7). He acquaints readers with several simplified stories in the book’s introduction and discusses ways that many historians already have successfully challenged pervasive myths of the Great Frontier (8-13). Lipton’s work is built upon the work of other historians, so in many ways, Saltwater Frontier is a continuation rather than a new way of thinking about the frontier. In a particularly telling example, Lipman credits Olivia Bush-Banks and her poem “Driftwood” (1916) as his inspiration for reimagining America’s embattled territory as a sea story: “Her verses articulated the idea that the ocean was a frontier” (12). Poetry and metaphor are extraordinary tools for rupturing closed systems of thought. Unfortunately, most of Lipman’s prose remains within the limits of traditional historical writing, even though he has reimagined contested territory to include the ocean. In order to devise a truly new way of talking about early American history, Lipman could have infused his historical writing with meaningful creative insights such as his “Driftwood” example. Instead, his work is bounded within the academic norms of his genre.

Saltwater Frontier is “primarily about how three things—seafaring, violence, and Atlantic geopolitics—shaped one place” (14). All three of these topics are endemic to a male worldview. Lipman offers an extensive reading list for those interested in learning more about this time period through the lens of gender, slavery, religion, etc. Indeed, authors must select which information to include and leave out in order to create a coherent narrative; however, some of the particular choices Lipman made relegated his narrative to sit within the hegemonic ranks. Why show preferential treatment for the male propensity for conquest and domination? Of course, writing a book about “Indians and the Contest for the American Coast” would be near impossible without such a focus. So the question becomes, if Lipman wanted to meet Merrell’s challenge to talk about early American history in a new way, why did he choose to write a book that remains rooted in a dominant perspective? The answer to this question may be tied to another of Merrell’s insights.

Merrell referred to something that he called “cartographic mind games.” In essence, maps are tools of the elite that help to control how people view the world. Quoting Gregory H. Nobles and others, Merrell asserts that maps “often represented the world not as it really was but as the mapmaker (or, more to the point, the mapmaker’s sponsor) wanted it to be. Thus maps became important instruments of imperial policy” (Merrell 2012, 483). Maps and language are tools used to represent reality. Most academics are severely restricted within the confines of their professional fields (especially newly minted academics, such as Lipman). I would not go so far as to assert that historians at the top of the field and academic publishers intentionally manipulate the field. Nevertheless, they are the driving force as well as a part of the academic history apparatus. Academics have been trained to think and speak about the world in particular ways and are censured or rewarded accordingly. Perhaps, someday, Lipman will return to his “Driftwood” inspiration and find new ways to explore the territory.