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Autonomy and Archival Absence: Native Nations in the Post-Revolutionary Lower Mississippi Valley

September 14, 2017


Anthropology Department: Sheldon Scheps Memorial Library, Room 457 Schermerhorn Extension

Event Type: 

Elizabeth Ellis, New York University


During the Revolutionary Era, the Lower Mississippi River Valley underwent not only a political upheaval but also massive social and economic changes. In the 1760s the region was an Indigenous dominated borderland with a sparse and dependent French colonial population. While the Choctaws were by far the most powerful polity, no single nation dominated the region and many small nations such as the Tunicas, Biloxis, Houmas, and Pascagoulas thrived by leveraging diplomatic relationships and taking advantage of the fluidity of this borderland. However, by the 1790s waves of Spanish and American settlement had transformed the region into a nascent plantation economy. This paper examines the impact of this geopolitical transformation on Indigenous polities during the decades following the American Revolution. 

By comparing the actions and discourses of Native individuals from large nations with those of smaller Native polities, it becomes clear that, while these Indigenous communities were all striving for autonomy, they envisioned very different futures and kinds of relationships with this onslaught of non-Native newcomers. This paper concludes by investigating the sudden disappearance of smaller nations, like the Tunicas, Biloxis, and Pascagoulas, from diplomatic records during the 1780s, and challenges the standard narrative that posits population collapse and community decline as the explanation for this archival silence. 


Elizabeth Ellis is an assistant professor of history at New York University. Liz’s current book project investigates the histories of Louisiana’s small Native American polities during the eighteenth century. Her work analyzes the ways these nations shaped European colonization efforts and influenced the lives of all of the inhabitants of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Unlike many of the larger Indian nations of the Southeast, these “petites nations” did not coalesce or confederate into larger polities during the eighteenth century. Rather, these nations sought alternative military, diplomatic, and economic strategies that would allow them to simultaneously preserve their autonomy while wielding sufficient regional influence to protect their homelands and communities. Her work examines the interactions among these petites nations, including the Chitimachas, Tunicas, Bayagoulas, Houmas, Ofogoulas, Tensas, and Biloxis, and their relationships with larger Native polities and the French, Spanish, British, American, and African peoples who settled in Louisiana. Prior to joining NYU, Liz was the Barra Postdoctoral Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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