Historia Nostra: Was the Pays d’en Haut really a Middle Ground?

By Erin Isaac

I remember being intrigued and a bit confused after my first reading of Richard White’s classic work The Middle Ground, which had been assigned for a fourth-year history seminar on French colonial history. My peers, likewise, found the ideas proposed interesting but a bit idealistic. Coming back to this text as a PhD student, the questions that my peers raised on that first reading have stuck with me.

Like Heidi Bohaker’s work on Anishinaabeg doodem, we wondered how White’s assumption of a cohesive or collective identity among Algonquian-speaking peoples distorted his findings, and about how the book’s emphasis on French-Indigenous relations disproportionately emphasized French authority in a landscape where they occupied a relatively minor “space of power” (to use Elizabeth Mancke’s framework) in a region that included numerous complex Indigenous polities.[1]

If you’ve not had the pleasure of reading, either first-hand or in reference, White’s ubiquitous study, allow me to summarize. Or, rather, allow me to quote from the abstract offered by the twentieth anniversary edition:

The Middle Ground “tells how Europeans and Indians met, regarding each other as alien, as other, as virtually nonhuman, and how between 1650 and 1815 they constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world in the region around the Great Lakes that the French called pays d’en haut. Here the older world of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange. Finally, the book tells of the breakdown of accommodation and common meanings and the re-creation of the Indians as alien and exotic.”[2]

It’s not that I think Richard White got it all wrong, although scholars like Michael McDonnell have argued that “as more and more histories are written that face east, rather than west, the evidence is mounting that White was simply wrong.”[3] Rather, I think elements of White’s study have aged poorly, including his belief that communities “shattered” by the Beaver Wars were only able to rebuild themselves with support from a French alliance—an idea Heidi Bohaker, among others, has disproven.

While all books thirty or more years past their publication dates start to show their age, I think the primary issue with The Middle Ground is that it’s so widely accepted and so influential that the book has come to obscure as well as enlighten (as all classics do!).

Mainly, I think those of us who don’t study this region and period of history (and even some of us who do…) forget that White’s concept of a middle ground was applied only to the French and their allies—it was never meant to be applied to those Indigenous nations with whom the French had conflicts or uneasy peace. Most especially among these, the Haudenosaunee.

Additionally, White’s concept in abstract can be used to support the idea that the French practiced a “kinder” colonialism than that exercised by other empires in North America. And yes, like their British and Spanish counterparts, the French were often at war with Indigenous peoples and their imperial objectives in North America were always to control peoples, resources, and territories. The middle ground defined some, but not all, French-Indigenous interactions. As Kathleen DuVal explained,

“[O]nly relatively weak people desired the kind of compromises inherent in a middle ground.”[4]

So, in this month’s episode of Historia Nostra, I’m chatting with Scott Berthelette (Assistant Professor at Queen’s University) about how the history of Fort Frontenac attests to the existence of a Native Ground, to use Kathleen DuVal’s term, in the very region White proposed his middle ground.

Historia Nostra is on Facebook (@historianostrayoutube), Twitter (@historia_nostra) and Instagram (@historianostrayoutube). Follow us there to get updates on what we’re working on and to get notified when new videos go live. Erin Isaac (PhD student, Western University) is Historia Nostra’s creator, writer, and producer. Suggestions, collaboration pitches, or feedback should be directed to erin@historianostra.ca.

[1] Heidi Bohaker, “Nindoodemag”: The Significance of Algonquian Kinship Networks in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, 1600-1701,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 23-52; Elizabeth Mancke, “Spaces of Power in the Early Modern Northeast,” in New England and the Maritime Provinces: Connections and Comparisons, edited by Stephen J. Hornsby and John G. Reid (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2005), 32–49.

[2] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991, 2011), i.

[3] Michael McDonnell, “Maintaining a Balance of Power: Michilimackinac, the Anishinaabe Odawas, and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763,” Early American Studies 13 (2015), 43.

[4] Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 5.

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