On the Beach: Andrew Lipman's The Saltwater Frontier

Reviewed by Mark Meuwese


At a time of year when many New Yorkers spend their days at the beach, it may be fitting to ponder Andrew Lipman’s fascinating new book, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (Yale University Press, 2015). Lipman, who teaches history at Barnard College of Columbia University, recently won a Bancroft Prize for this, his first published book, and it is an impressive and entirely well-deserved accomplishment. The young scholar approaches the subject of Europeans encounters with the Algonquian-speaking peoples of coastal New York and New England in a wholly novel way. Instead of situating the story of intercultural relations on land, as historians traditionally do, Lipman demonstrates that the actual stage and struggle for power was decided on coastal waters. Additionally, he convincingly shows that the histories of coastal New York and southern New England share many commonalities, and need to be treated as one region.

This approach is very interesting and forces us to rethink the history of New Netherland and coastal New York. The first three chapters are especially strong in revealing how European-indigenous encounters were shaped by the maritime environment. The Algonquian peoples of coastal New York and southern New England organized their lives around the shore because of the rich marine life, especially shellfish, cod, and whales. Their reliance on maritime resources made them expert coastal navigators, evidenced in their use of various watercraft, including the small birch-bark canoes used for riverine travel, and large dugout canoes, which carried up to forty people, for voyages out to sea. Although the Dutch and English had the advantage of large ocean-going ships, their slow-moving and deep-hulled vessels were often at a disadvantage against the better-manueverable indigenous watercraft in local coastal waters. Not surprisingly, both the Dutch and the English frequently employed Algonquian canoe men to carry messages and letters across the region. Since European shipbuilders were in short supply, many colonists also owned indigenous-made canoes for their own transportation needs.

For several decades in the early seventeenth century, the Dutch and the English precariously clung to the coast, while the Algonquian groups controlled the waterways, as well as overland travel. The Europeans heavily relied on the indigenous they captured to obtain more intelligence about the region and its peoples. The most famous example from this period was Squanto, a Patuxet from the Cape Cod area, who played a vital role for the Plymouth colony in the early 1620s. (A lesser known Dutch experiment with two captured Algonquian brothers from the Manhattan area ended in bloodshed when one of the men turned against his captors.)

A more peaceful way in which Europeans and the indigenous interacted was through trade in wampum, the polished purple and white seashells that were harvested on the beaches of Long Island Sound by Algonquian women and children. Wampum, or “seewant” as the Dutch called it, had multiple uses in indigenous communities, from the elaborate necklaces worn by sachems to the diplomatic gifts used to cement alliances. Dutch traders quickly recognized the value as a way to obtain more animal pelts from indigenous hunters in the North American interior.

This mutually beneficial relationship was violently shaken when the English and Dutch colonies began to compete more aggressively for control of the coastal region in the mid-1630s. The Connecticut River Valley, which gave access to Indigenous fur suppliers in the interior, became especially contested. Among others, Puritan farmers from overcrowded coastal Massachusetts eagerly sought the fertile valley. Caught in between the Anglo-Dutch rivalry were the Pequots, one of the dominant Algonquian sachemships of southern New England. Puritan authorities used the murder of two Englishmen as a pretext to launch a punitive expedition against the group, which ultimately led to the notorious torching of their village on Mystic River in May 1637. Hundreds were killed.

After the Puritan colonies established control of the Connecticut River Valley, Dutch officials in Manhattan and in the Republic looked for ways to strengthen the now-vulnerable colony of New Netherland. Willem Kieft, the director of New Netherland, hoped to do so by asserting more control over the many indigenous communities surrounding Manhattan. Kieft’s strategy backfired, however, and the result was a disastrous war that lasted for five years and only ended after the Dutch, with English assistance, massacred several Algonquian villages. By discussing the Pequot War and Kieft’s War as one episode, Lipman shows how truly devastating these two wars were for the Algonquian. While over one hundred European colonists were killed, the Pequots and other indigenous around Manhattan lost more than one thousand.

The maritime aspect takes a bit of a backseat in Chapter Five, where Lipman discusses how the Algonquian peoples survived and manipulated the Anglo-Dutch rivalries that culminated in the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664. Some of the Algonquian sachems proved very adept at spreading rumors of a Dutch-Indigenous conspiracy against New England during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654). Lipman also shows that the Dutch were ill-prepared to confront English aggression, because of their inability to establish stable peaceful relations with their Algonquian neighbors. The English finally established full control of the coastal region after the defeat of the Wampanoags and Narragansetts during King Philip’s War (1675-1676). As Lipman shrewdly notes, instead of the indigenous warriors driving the English into the sea, more than a thousand Algonquians were dispersed as slaves across the Atlantic, mostly to the Caribbean.

The last chapter of Lipman’s book contains a fascinating discussion of how the saltwater frontier entered a new era after this war. Although they had suffered catastrophically from diseases and other colonial wars, the Algonquian communities of coastal New York and New England adapted by becoming actively involved in offshore whaling activities that took off in the 1670s. Because of their expertise as fishermen, swimmers, and navigators, Algonquian men were employed in dangerous colonial whaling expeditions, which Lipman shows operated along similar lines as the fur trade. Algonquian men were paid out depending on the number of whales caught, and they were encouraged to purchase goods on credit, especially liquor and textiles. This labor system, which Lipman describes as virtual slavery, gave indigenous men employment but at a high price.

Lipman ends his monograph on a positive note, arguing that the Algonquian communities of the saltwater frontier survived through participation in whaling, by embracing evangelical Christianity, and by their involvement in maritime trade during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Just as the Dutch and English created Atlantic worlds through overseas expansion, the coastal Algonquian groups of New York and southern New England likewise used their connections to the sea as a way to incorporate new ideas and peoples—an important reminder that the indigenous peoples did not simply disappear from New York history after their colonial subjugation by the Dutch and English.

Lipman’s book may not be light summer reading for the beach, but it deserves to be read by anyone interested in the history of colonial and maritime New York.

Mark Meuwese teaches history at the University Winnipeg, deep in the interior of North America and far away from the saltwater frontier.