Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America

Prof. David J. Silverman, for the 2019 Alfred E. Golz Memorial Lecture, traces the profoundly transformative and irredeemably destructive history of the Indian firearms trade across North America, from eastern tribes’ earliest contacts with European traders through the Plains Wars of the nineteenth century. Guns quickly became an essential tool for Indian hunters, but, more, importantly, they allowed well-armed tribes to plunder, conquer, and enslave their neighbors. Arms races erupted across North America, intensifying intertribal rivalries and solidifying the importance of firearms in Indian politics and culture. Even as American tribes grew dependent on guns manufactured in Europe and the United States, their dependence never prevented them from rising up against Euro-American power. The Seminoles, Blackfeet, Lakotas, and others remained formidably armed right up to the time of their subjugation. Far from being a Trojan horse for colonialism, firearms empowered American Indians to pursue their interests and defend their political and economic autonomy over two centuries.

David J. Silverman is Professor of History at George Washington University, whose current work is a Wampanoag-centered history of Plymouth Colony and the Thanksgiving holiday. His previous books include Ninigret, Sachem of the Niantics and Narragansetts: Diplomacy, War, and the Balance of Power in Seventeenth-Century New England and Indian Country (2017) with co-author Julie A. Fisher, Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (2010), and Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871 (2007).

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