John William Nelson, "Muddy Ground: Native Peoples, Chicago's Portage, and the Transformation of a Continent" (UNC Press, 2023)


The birchbark canoe is among the most remarkable Indigenous technologies in North America, facilitating mobility throughout the watery world of the Great Lakes region and its borderlands. In Muddy Ground: Native Peoples, Chicago's Portage, and the Transformation of a Continent (UNC Press, 2023), Texas Tech University historian John William Nelson argues that canoes, and a deep understanding of portages sites where canoes could be carried between waterways, helped secure the region around Chicago as decidedly Native space until well into the nineteenth century. By using the methodologies of borderlands history, ecotone and environmental history, and Indigenous Studies, Nelson demonstrates how the story of Chicago's array of portages runs counter to traditional narratives of the inexorable growth of European and American power in North America from the seventeenth century onwards. Indeed, the more colonizers tried to maintain a grip on this slipper landscape, the more it seemed to slide through their grasp. In Muddy Ground, Nelson takes one of the most written-about American spaces - Chicago - and turns the usual narrative on its head, showing how until settlers could actively change Chicago's landscape, it would remain a place of Indigenous power and historical possibility.

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Stephen Hausmann

Dr. Stephen R. Hausmann is a Mellon Fellow with the National Park Service working for Mount Rushmore National Monument, is the Acting Executive Director of the American Society for Environmental History. Starting in 2025, he will begin teaching as an assistant professor of American environmental history at Appalachian State University.

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