In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native American Networks

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Archaeology and Pre-Columbian Exchange
  • Native Lands
  • Communication Networks
  • Continental and Atlantic Trade Networks
  • Kinship Networks
  • Native American Towns and Trail Networks
  • Primary Sources: Eighteenth-Century Cartography

Atlantic History Native American Networks
Chad Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0320


Networks describe how people and places are connected. In Native North America, these connections took the form of kinship, trade, and various forms of alliance—all of which overlapped in ways that make it impossible to analyze one category without considering the others. At a basic level, all of these networks depended on the communication of information, which circulated as fact and rumor across the continent. Varying by region and topography, Native peoples traveled by canoe, foot, and (from the colonial period onward) horseback along trail networks that linked diverse Native American towns and facilitated both continental and transatlantic trade and communication. The study of networks, whether in the form of trade, kinship, or Native-defined alliances, allows historians to transcend typical boundaries of analysis, such as borders drawn by European cartographers. Throughout the 18th century and even into the 19th century, these borders were fictions, as Native Americans continued to control much of the continent. An abundance of archaeological evidence reveals the exchange networks that spread material items and cultural beliefs long before the colonial period. Some of the most well-known pre-Columbian networks involved agriculturalist settlements often grouped under the label “Mississippian,” which thrived along the Mississippi and its tributaries from approximately the 11th through 16th centuries. But other networks crisscrossed the continent, from the Great Plains to the Southwest. These long-existing but shifting networks facilitated the later spread of European trade goods. To varying degrees, following the arrival of Europeans, Native peoples participated in a new system of exchange, capitalism, which commodified the natural world and has drawn considerable attention from scholars. Political power in Native North America was dynamic, organized by kinship networks that were both local and regional in importance. Families belonged to larger groups known as clans, which facilitated connections beyond the village. Typically, Native peoples traced these clan origins to some other-than-human ancestor. Kinship did not necessarily represent biological connections. Through ceremonies, Native peoples created what scholars call “fictive kinship” to create networks across distances and even into Euro-American communities.

General Overviews

In the form of trade and diplomacy, Native American networks figure prominently in general surveys of early American history. Richter 2001 is well-informed on understandings of Native American kinship networks and examines colonial trade and diplomacy from the perspective of American Indians. Richter 2011 develops this approach to include the deep history of the Atlantic world. Calloway 2005 integrates scholarship on Native American networks that existed prior to European contact into a sweeping history of the American West. Benjamin 2009 is a survey of Atlantic history that places Native Americans in a history of transatlantic exchange. Weaver 2014 tells the stories of the individuals who crossed the Atlantic. Taylor 2002 connects a continental history to developments in the Atlantic world. Shoemaker 2004 provides an essential entry point for considering the entangled worlds of Native North America and European colonists.

  • Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians, and Their Shared History, 1400–1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511816604

    An important survey of Atlantic world history. The Atlantic world paradigm sees that ocean as a highway linking diverse people in a shared history that transcends borders. Much of this scholarship has focused on Europe-America connections and also African slavery, but Benjamin makes an effort to include Native North America in this story.

  • Calloway, Colin G. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

    The subtitle references a tendency in American popular memory to imagine the 1803 expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as an exploration into “new” lands, though they were, in fact, very old—a Western version of the Columbus myth of discovery. In a sweeping history that emphasizes migration, interaction, and political power, Calloway narrates the American West’s history from the continent’s earliest populations to 1800.

  • Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    An important work within a scholarly movement to incorporate Native American perspectives into early American history. Rather than a comprehensive survey, Richter examines specific case studies and key moments of transformation from first encounters to the emergence of the United States.

  • Richter, Daniel K. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674061248

    Takes seriously the cultural legacies of “medieval” North America and Europe when considering colonial encounters.

  • Shoemaker, Nancy. A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth-Century North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195167924.001.0001

    A concise yet sweeping exploration of cultural similarities among Native Americans and Euro-Americans during the colonial period, with a focus on the North American East Coast. This work provides a thoughtful introduction to topics covered in subsequent sections of this bibliography: conceptions of homelands, trade, diplomacy, and the limits of cross-cultural exchange.

  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin, 2002.

    A continental approach to colonial America history that has been the standard work since its publication. Native American trade and diplomacy figures prominently throughout the book, which situations the continent’s story in a broader Atlantic context.

  • Weaver, Jace. The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000–1927. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

    An engaging study that argues for the centrality of indigenous people as participants in the Atlantic world. Weaver describes scholarly interest in Atlantic history as originally focusing on European and Euro-American histories, eventually incorporating the history of African slavery, but largely overlooking Native Americans. The chapters explore the lives of slaves, sailors, diplomats, and even celebrities who crossed the Atlantic.

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