Daniel J. Tortora. Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 288 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2122-7.
Reviewed by Gary Sellick (University of South Carolina)
Published on H-War (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Cherokees, Colonists, and the Birth of the Revolution?
In recent years, historical narratives regarding Native American borderlands have shifted their focus from traditional, white-centric approaches to the often untold history of indigenous populations themselves. This trend is particularly true of Native American nations that partook in warfare against European or American forces, with authors often chronicling a high-water mark followed by the slow descent into a virtual destruction that tragically accompanies many indigenous histories in North America. Some of these works, such as Colin Calloway’s superb The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995) take a transnational view of Native Americans throughout a vast geographic area, while others focus on white-Indian relationships in a smaller geographic context. It is into the latter group that Daniel J. Totora’s thoroughly entertaining Carolina in Crisis falls.
Following a similar model to that used in Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground (2007), Tortora looks at the ways in which the Cherokee nation and white colonists in the South Carolina borderlands interacted during times of war. Unlike Taylor, whose focus was on the oft-studied topic of the Revolutionary War, Tortora looks at a largely unexplored conflict, the Cherokee War of 1760-61. Often lost within the larger, global Seven Years’ War, the Cherokee War, which was largely localized in South Carolina, according to Tortora not only began the ultimate demise of the Cherokee nation on the East Coast but also sowed the seeds of revolution among white colonists. While some of these claims are overstated in Tortora’s narrative, the Colby College professor’s first major monograph provides a fascinating and well-researched work that highlights an aspect of the southern Seven Years’ War often neglected by more northern-focused scholars.
Tortora uses a wealth of primary sources, including colonial newspapers, correspondence, and the oral testimony of the Cherokee people in order to write a chronological narrative of the Cherokee War and its surrounding era. While Tortora clearly knows the topic intimately, the narrative occasionally is bogged down in the minutiae that often accompanies dissertation-cum-monographs. There are too many names for most readers to remember, and very few of the characters are explored in any detail. The few that are, namely the British governors of South Carolina, are clearly marked as the villains of the piece. This simple characterization loses the nuance of the colonial side of the argument. Tortora is much more successful in his thorough exploration of the complicated Cherokee leadership structure, highlighting the anxiety of puppet leader Attakullakulla, and the frustrated anger of Oconastota, among many others.
Carolina in Crisis gives a strictly chronological narrative of Anglo-Cherokee relations in the American Southeast during the length of the Seven Years’ War. The first four chapters lay the foundation for the war that will follow, providing an all-too-familiar tale of white excess and Indian frustration that was the background to so many conflicts during the colonial era. The fifth chapter is also foundational to the narrative, focusing on the effects of a smallpox epidemic in South Carolina, but at nine pages is underdeveloped, which is unfortunate due to the interesting ideas that Tortora is able to draw from its short length. Chapters 6 through 8 provide the high-water mark in the author’s study of the Cherokee during this period, providing a fantastic insight into both the successes and excesses of the Cherokee offensives of 1760 in South Carolina. The rise is followed by the fall in the next two chapters, which show how Cherokee overextension and British numbers helped turn the tide against the Indian nation. Again, the narrative is well written and shows Tortora’s strength as a masterful storyteller. The final chapter makes one of Tortora’s most original arguments: that the divisions wrought by the Cherokee War in South Carolina caused the divides that would soon lead to revolution in the following decade.
For all of the successes of this work, and there are a good many of them, Tortora has overstretched himself here in two main ways. Firstly, he never convincingly links “the Cherokee Indians to the turmoil that followed in the era of American Independence” (p. 186). While providing an excellent portrayal of Cherokee life and culture, the white colonists are always somewhat two-dimensional in the book. This is particularly true in the final chapter, where Charleston elites are put into one of two groups, either pro- or anti-British establishment. In a book with a modest length of only 280 pages (including endnotes), the nuance of Revolutionary South Carolina is missed, with little of the conflict between lowcountry elites and upcountry settlers studied in any detail. Instead, colonists are painted as increasingly anti-British throughout the book, a fact contradicted by the vicious civil war that would affect South Carolina when the Revolutionary War began in 1775. Indeed, if Tortora would have sidelined the Revolutionary War aspect of his thesis, a more thorough and original focus on the Cherokee nation, at a critical moment in its history, would have been possible.
The second main flaw in Tortora’s work is his focus, or lack thereof, on the titular slaves of South Carolina. Tortora was clearly influenced by Jim Piecuch’s excellent Three Peoples, One King (2008), a monograph that entwines the destinies of whites, Indians, and slaves during the Revolutionary War. Tortora emulates Piecuch’s model in recounting the Seven Years’ War. Unfortunately, while Anglo-Indian relations form the core of his work, Tortora’s focus on slaves in the region is much less thorough. Slavery has an almost spectral place in the narrative, ever-present but largely peripheral to the main action. As a result, scholars of slavery in the southern British colonies may be disappointed by its lack of centrality in the work, particularly given its prominent inclusion in the book’s title.
These grievances aside, however, Tortora has written an original and engaging work in Carolina in Crisis. His use of Cherokee speeches and original correspondence gives the Indian nation a voice rarely heard from this defining moment in their history. The book also provides a grand narrative to a military campaign that was devastating to both white and Indian populations in the South Carolina borderlands, and yet is largely ignored by most scholars of the Seven Years’ War. Tortora should therefore be given credit for finding an aspect of an oft-written-about topic and engaging it in an insightful way. In addition, Tortora’s writing style is thoroughly entertaining, and will engage even the most timid reader. The book would be an excellent course reader for a class on Anglo-Indian relations in the colonial period. Overall, Carolina in Crisis is an original contribution to the history of the Seven Years’ War and should be read by anyone with an interest in this period, and the Cherokee nation in particular.
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Gary Sellick. Review of Tortora, Daniel J., Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756-1763.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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