In Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America
(The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), David J. Silverman
argues that Indian societies adopted firearm technology not because they were visually impressive or culturally significant (though they were both), but simply because they killed more efficiently. Using his concept of the “gun frontier,” Silverman, a professor of history at George Washington University, shows how contact between Natives and those Europeans willing to trade weapons for furs and other goods fundamentally altered the politics and power dynamics of a given region. Thundersticks
draws on case studies from a broad sweep of time from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century, including the consolidation of Iroquois power, King Philip’s War, the otter fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, and the ascendency of the Blackfeet in the mountain west. Each story underscores the point that guns could both undermine colonial power as well as cause catastrophic conflict between Indian societies. Firearms changed Indian societies in innumerable ways, but when the gun trade lagged, so too did an individual polity’s power. Silverman’s book is a complicated, nuanced, look at how post-contact North America has long been a wildly interconnected place, and how it became a continent filled with blood and smoke.
Stephen Hausmann is a doctoral candidate at Temple University and Visiting Instructor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of race and the environment in the Black Hills and surrounding northern plains region of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.