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Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  155 ratings  ·  45 reviews
In Masters of Empire, the historian Michael A. McDonnell reveals the pivotal role played by the native peoples of the Great Lakes in the history of North America. Though less well known than the Iroquois or Sioux, the Anishinaabeg, who lived across Lakes Michigan and Huron, were equally influential. Masters of Empire charts the story of one group, the Odawa, who settled at ...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published December 8th 2015 by Hill and Wang
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Average rating 3.85  · 
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Oct 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, favorites
From 2006-7 I first learned that, yes, even as an undergraduate I could have fun doing work. In fact, I learned this from combining the primary source archives of my then-current job with my capstone thesis, a study of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) as a great power in the wars we often think of as British and French directed in the late 17th and 18th Centuries. I found an immense amount of diplomatic correspondence about the various tribes allied to Britian and summaries of their capabilities and ...more
Dec 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
As soon as Europeans arrived in North America, they planted flags and boldly claimed possession of vast swathes of territory. Over the next several centuries they imagined that the few towns they set up, some scattered missions and outposts, and the travels of some trappers and traders amounted to sovereignty. In their eyes, small in number though they often were, they took the lead parts in a grand, world-historical drama about the winning of a new continent; the bit parts, the non-speaking par ...more
Jun 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating account of how the Odawa Indians managed to maintain a position of independence, near monopolistic control of trade in the Great Lakes region, and influence on both their European and native neighbors. They did so through shrewd negotiations and judicious use of intelligence. For the 200 years preceding the American Revolution, the Odawa were in the middle of global conflict yet managed to stay out of the fight for the most part. Equally impressive was their ability to stay abreast o ...more
Aug 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Very interesting and informative, very well researched and well written. This is a particularly good example of the "new" style of researching and writing about Native American history, the attempt to try to approach it from the perspective of the subject, which was very much the opposite from most American books of the 20th century, which was only to look at the Indian from the white American perspective. Which was why there was such a huge gap between the oral history of living Native American ...more
Elspeth Martini
Feb 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read this book when it first came out and just re-read it for my Native American history course. Not only does McDonnell masterfully frame his historical narrative to put the Odawa firmly at the center of the eighteenth-century pays d'en haut, his prose is crisp, clear, and eminently readable. ...more
Jasper Jimenez
Jul 27, 2020 rated it it was ok
Following in the steps of historiographic studies that attempt to focus on the indigenous portion of Indigenous History, _Masters of Empire_ is one part chronicle of the Anishinaabe, their history, their political system, and the ways which they lived prior to the ubiquitous encroachment of white people; and one part story of white people encroaching into the Ohio valley and the Great Lakes region. The former, to me at least, is far more compelling and enriching than the latter; there’s only so ...more
Ai Miller
This book was... okay? I read it over a very spread out amount of time, which is never good for reading books, but also in part speaks to how this book just didn't grab me. I was convinced by the end that McDonnell was right to identify how the Odawa had been left out of narratives, and I generally believed the power they held over the region. I just got caught up in the details and it made it hard to follow things that were happening. That might be part of the point, but it made for a really di ...more
May 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Michael McDonnell’s book, Masters of Empire, offers a new perspective when reading and interpreting the history of early America. McDonnell focused much of his narrative and analysis on the Odawa Indians that inhabited the pays d’en haut. McDonnell makes the argument that much of early American history and our understanding of it always comes from one perspective; the European or American perspective. What McDonnell does in Masters of Empire is show just how influential and powerful the Odawa In ...more
Jacob Vigil
This was a rich and informative survey of the history of the First Nations people of the Great Lakes in the colonial period, their impact on European empires, and their strategies of survival and resilience.
My main beef with this book is just that it was heavily focused on the political and military details and chronology. I learned a lot about who the leaders were, the battles that were fought, and even the political decision making of the various nations and European powers. But I was hoping
Robert Downes
Nov 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A spellbinding history of Indian power on the Great Lakes

I was was hooked from the first page of Michael McDonnell’s “Masters of Empire,” which offers page after page of astonishing revelations of life among the Odawa in the 17th and 18th centuries.
As the title implies, the Odawa (which means “traders” in the Anishinaabek language) controlled the empires of France and England in their struggle for North America and its fur trade. Commanding access to lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron at the M
John Caviglia
I stopped reading this book at 29%, but in all fairness I need to explain why. Though Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America is well done, and interesting, I found my curiosity stimulated enough that I wanted more breadth and depth in the history. And nosing around, I think I found just the book: The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, which I have begun reading ... a classic of its kind, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize ...more
Feb 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Masters of Empire is amazing. Having lived in Ottawa County, Michigan, and vacationed regularly near Cross Village, Michigan (near the center of Ottawa tribal life in the 17th-18th centuries), I had no idea of the importance of the Otrtawa to the politics and economy of early America. Were the Ottawa responsible for the 18th century British victories over the French? Were the Ottawa responsible for the outbreak of the Revolutionary War? How were they able to resist the “Removal” policies that di ...more
Gary Brecht
Mar 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Comprehensively researched in both early French and English sources, Mc Donnall relates the important role played by Anishinabe natives in forming the histories of America and Canada. The Anishinabe were Algonquins, comprised of many tribes like the Ottawa and Ojibwas, who occupied the Michilimackinac and Sault St. Marie straits in the Great Lakes during the early years of European settlement in North America. The author makes a case for appreciating the Native American perspective of events pri ...more
Nov 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This quite a different view of the fur trade. It's about the power and influence of the Indians on the trade in their home areas and their effects on more distant places too. McDonnel explains and shows the ability of the various tribes who are tied by marriage and other economic factors to unite and help or hinder the French, English and the American colonists in their trade efforts in the upper Great lakes and in their wars.
McDonnel has done a lot of research to come up with this needed additi
When Europeans first arrived in the Great Lakes region, they found a complex network of allegiances and conflicts between fairly sophisticated groups who were far less interested in The White Man than in their own politics and rivalries. By considering the area’s colonial-era history from the perspective of the Odawa, who served as power brokers between the Europeans and other native groups but had their own agenda, the author provides a welcome change from the usual view that nothing much was g ...more
Chris Safranski
May 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting read on a lesser-discussed aspect of American history

I bought this book without truly understanding what it was about but I'm glad I read it. I have read countless books on colonial American history and this book provided a view of a Native American group I had learned only little about in previous books. It was interesting to see how a group of peoples influenced American history when the standard narrative is to dismiss them as pawns of the French or English. The book was a bit rep
Apr 26, 2016 rated it liked it
As a longtime Chicagoan and recent transplant to southwest Michigan, I thought it would be good to brush up on the history of the regional native tribes. There is a lot of information in this book and some interesting reformulations of English, French, and American colonial conquest through Indian eyes. It was a bit too dry and textbook to truly captivate me, though.
Alec Gray
Feb 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Fascinating survey of the Indian "empire" in the Great Lakes region of North America that held sway for two centuries, and through complex intra-tribal relations and balancing the empires of England and France survived, until swept away by the Americans. ...more
Andrew Blok
I came to this book because I was looking to learn about the people who lived on and around the Great Lakes before Europeans arrived. This book felt like a good start.

I can't say much about the scholarship that went into this book. I'm not an expert in the field. But, my inexpert read on it is that the research was thorough and careful. The arguments the author put forward seem to follow from good evidence and a fair reading of the sources.

McDonnell's project in this book is to reframe the role
Stuart Berman
Jun 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
What do we really know about American history?

Did you know that various European troops and colonists were insignificant compared to the vast array of native tribes?

Did you know how the Anishinaabe shaped global events and were in part responsible for the American Revolution?

Did you know that the Anishinaabe are the largest North American tribal group still around today?

The author uncovers the hidden history of the Anishinaabe from the 1600’s up through the War of 1812. This is no dry history bu
Oct 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Intriguing and somewhat groundbreaking new history of indigenous politics and society in the colonial Midwest; if the description sounds a lot like Richard White's classic The Middle Ground, that's because McDonnell covers a lot of the same material from a different perspective; he contends that White, classic though he wrote, denied agency to the native peoples they both study through emphasizing the dislocation of indigenous society with the arrival of Europeans. It's been a long time since I ...more
Jul 01, 2019 rated it liked it
A friend from Minnesota loaned me this book a couple of years ago, and I've been working my way through it slowly, finally finishing last night, after another vacation in the Great Lakes region.

This is history as told from the perspective of the Odawa. The author demonstrates the central role that the nation played in colonial and earlier American history, as they played the French, British, Americans, and other nations off of one another. And did so with greater lasting success than some of the
Jan 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: war, history, race, get-again
draft notes
at p.100 of 329
exciting story of native empires, coalitions, trading, and impact on the french and english traders and settlers.
my only real criticism at this pt is too much restating of McDonnell's theme, ie the Odawa, centered at strategic hub where the Great Lakes, Superior, Michigan, and Huron meet, and their allies and foes (Iroquois and sometimes Dakota) were the primary catalysts for the success and failure for the French and English imperialists, traders, armies, and settlers
Jan 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read this book because it is about Native American Nations, those in the Great Lakes region, I knew little about and because it is written from the Indians' point of view. Regretfully, I still know little about these tribes except that they fought each other and fought the French and the British and were finally subdued (though they survived) by the early white Americans. Almost nothing about native culture. I realize the purpose of the author was to show how the tribes played the Europeans in ...more
Aug 11, 2017 rated it liked it
The author focuses on a politically sophisticated clan of Indians, which he calls the Odawa, otherwise known as the Ottawa, that controlled the region around Michilimackinac through much of the colonial period. The description describes the book as a radical reinterpretation of early American history from a native point of view. However, the story is a monotonous cycle of carrying out warfare, threatening warfare, and playing enemies off against each other, occasionally punctuated by torture and ...more
Dec 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent and thorough review of a few hundred years' of the beginning of American history from the perspective of the Anishinaabeg looking east rather than from the perspective of the colonizers spreading west.

Two small problems: First, the book seemed a bit too long for the amount of material. It often felt like McDonnell had to circle back to discuss the same ideas due to a paucity of sources. Second, there was only a brief epilogue about the post-revolution history. Of course, you can't c
Emily VA
Dec 29, 2019 rated it liked it
One the one hand, this taught me a ton about the history of the native peoples of my state (Michigan) and the way their interactions with European nations and other native peoples lives probably looked from their point of view.

On the other hand, the book often felt kind of tedious... lots of recitations of battles, key figures (almost all men), and repetition of the central themes of kinship networks and adapting relationships to work to the advantage of the Michimilimak (Mackinac) Odawa (Ottaw
Jul 15, 2020 rated it liked it
It was an interesting subject and argument, but stylistically, the writing had some issues. Not sure if this was just an issue of preference on my part, but the sentence construction was too repetitive and unnecessarily opaque for my taste. There were probably 100+ sentences that went like "if it were true the tribe had concerns with the French.... It was then was clear that...." More direct phrasing would make the book more effective. ...more
Sherri Anderson
May 10, 2017 rated it liked it
There was very good information in this book. It was very dry to read through though and a little redundant in parts. It was interesting to read how the Indian population worked the French and the British to help form America as we know it today. I would like to see more books that discuss history from the Indian point of view.
Richard Subber
May 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
McDonnell makes it abundantly clear that the millions of American First Peoples who had established civilizations in North America, before the colonists arrived, did not willingly disappear. Sometimes we forget that American Indians occupied the entire continent at the beginning of the 17th century.
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Michael McDonnell is an associate professor of history at the University of Sydney. He is the author of The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, winner of the 2008 New South Wales Premier's History Award, and coeditor of Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War. He lives in Sydney, Australia. ...more

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