Prior to The Middle Ground's publication (1991) most histories of Indian-white relations were quite simple- either Indians were conquered by invading Europeans or survived conquest. Instead, White argues for a "middle ground" in his analysis of European contact with the Algonquin Indians, beginning with the French. Neither the French nor the Algonquins were strong enough to achieve their ends through force, so they had to find another way to gain the cooperation of the other side. Gift giving and exchange were crucial parts of the relationship, cementing ties between the two peoples. Both sides needed each other- the French competed against the British as imperial rivals while the Algonquins faced the Iroquois Indians, who the British supported. Frenchmen took Indian wives and produced children of mixed descent. Through compromise, a society was created that was neither completely Indian nor European. It was not an ideal place; there were Indian murders and violence committed against the French.
Of course, this society could not last indefinitely. The cost of supplying presents to the Indians proved too high to the French, and British naval blockades in wartime reduced the supply of trade goods. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, opened the trade of the Great Lakes region to both Great Britain and France. Over time, British traders slowly eroded away French influence among the Indians. Native Americans in the Ohio Valley could play the British and the French against each other as the Europeans competed for influence among different tribes. However, in 1763, following their defeat in the Seven Years' War, the French lost all of New France and withdrew from the pays d'en haut. The Great Lakes Indians faced the British (who struggled to sustain the previous French relations with the tribes) and encroaching Anglo American settlers, many of them from Virginia (whom the Indians grouped together as the "Big Knives"). The American colonists, of course, were expansionists who wanted the Indians out of their way. Consequently, most Indians were British allies during the American Revolution. With victory over the British in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, the Americans were now the only major group of white people left in North America, and they regarded the Indians of the former pays d'en haut and elsewhere as savages who could not share any common meaning with them.
The Middle Ground is an excellent book that should be on any top list of United States history titles. Richard White performed an exhaustive but incredible amount of research in primary sources (original materials), including those in French and Canadian archives. He also connects events in the Great Lakes region within the larger scope of what was happening in the American colonies. For example, he discusses how the rum trade (which produced violence) devastated Indians as British traders were forced to rely on alcohol heavily due to American boycotts of British imports during the 1770s prior to the Revolution. Many readers might be surprised to learn that the American military presence in the Ohio Valley was weak in the early years of the Republic and that Native American tribes defeated the United States Army in several key battles during the 1790s. White's book is not just a story of Indian-white relations, but also how cultures interact with each other. He quotes anthropologist Eric Wolf: "Human populations construct their cultures in interaction with one another, and not in isolation." Since 1991 other books have been published on certain aspects of the pays d'en haut region in more detail, including relationships between Frenchmen and Native American women. However, White's conclusions will likely continue to shape the course of Native American Studies and historical scholarship.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.