The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1973, Volume 19, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Dispossessing the American Indian: Indians and Whites on the Colonial Frontier. By Wilbur Jacobs. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. Appendices. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 240 pages. $7.95.

Reviewed by Dennis E. Berge, Professor of History, California State University, San Diego. Professor Berge, Chairman of the Department of History, teaches a course on the Westward Movement.

In recent years historians of the American Indian have launched into an era of reinterpretation that has brought the subject of Indian-white relations under more critical examination than it has had since Helen Hunt Jackson’s Century of Dishonor was published over ninety years ago. The wave of concern over United States Indian policies that followed the appearance of her exposé soon faded, but has emerged again within the broader context of civil rights movements and a populace sensitized to the role of ethnic minorities in American life. Revisionist studies have found a ready market in this setting, and while some have been of exceptional merit others have been what the historian William T. Hagan has labeled frankly as “potboilers designed to cash in on the current wave of interest.” This book by Wilbur Jacobs falls somewhere in between these extremes.

Based upon wide ranging research and thoughtful analysis, Dispossessing the American Indian falters conceptually and suffers from a breakdown in organization and continuity that weakens its effectiveness as a major study. As Jacobs explains in his introduction, he constructed the book by organizing previously published essays dealing with eastern American Indians or other native races — particularly Australian or from New Guinea — around given themes. The first group of essays deals with the background and early stages of Indian-white contacts in colonial North America, while the second focuses upon Indian-white conflicts from the early period of the French and Indian War through Pontiac’s Uprising — or a span of eight years in time. The last section, which Jacob’s entitled “Final Perspective,” contains one essay which discusses British attitudes and policies toward eastern Indians; a second comparing the fate of native populations in Australia, New Guinea, and North America; and an Epilogue assessing the major contributions of Indian cultures to the American heritage. The general effect of these essays is that of uneven coverage and quality, and lack of a general theme. It would have been more appropriate, in fact, if Jacobs had chosen a subtitle indicating that his book was a collection of essays.

Despite these weaknesses, it does not follow that Jacobs deserves to be taken lightly as an historian of the American Indian. Throughout his essays he argues persuasively for a greater recognition of the valuable features in the cultures of American Indians, and although he undoubtedly leans too far in his determination to portray the virtues of native Americans he nevertheless supplies a corrective to the neglect so many writers have shown this subject in the past. Jacobs also calls attention to the importance of commercially-oriented interests and policies on the part of dominant American society in the destruction, not only of the American Indian, but of the very continent on which we live. Unless we alter our values, he argues, and perhaps learn to borrow from the value systems long accepted by American Indian societies, the destruction of our environment could well become complete. It is difficult to quarrel with Professor Jacobs on this point.