Interview with Tom Arne Midtrød, Author of the Summer 2023, Free Access EAS Article

Figure 1. William Johnson’s house on the Mohawk River was the site of intercultural conferences during the Seven Years’ War. “Old Fort Johnson,” (23 September 2020). Photograph. Wikipedia Commons.

Why did you choose to research your topic? What interested you about the topic?

I came to this research topic while teaching an upper-level undergraduate course on war and violence in early North America. In the class, we spent some time reading a series of articles on the question of whether—or to what extent—Native Americans were subjected to genocide (or a series of genocides) during the period of European and Euro-American colonization. One of the topics in the literature was the relationship between genocide and ethnic cleansing. During our classroom discussions, I began to see strong parallels to phenomena I had seen  during my own research into Indigenous societies in the Hudson Valley. In that region, widespread hostility to Native people spurred government agents to attempt to remove local populations from their homelands, an initiative they partially justified as a protective measure during the Seven Years’ War. As I argue in my summer 2023 Early American Studies article, the situation in the Hudson Valley illustrates the interplay of the threat of genocide (or extermination) perpetrated by ordinary colonials and governmental efforts at ethnic cleansing (or removal).

What do you think is the most interesting source you looked at as part of your research?

I think I would choose an opinion piece published in September 1754 in the New York City newspaper the New York Mercury. Written in the wake of an Abenaki attack on a colonial settlement on the Hoosic River in the upper Hudson Valley, the piece opens with a simple appeal for the provincial government of New York to make better preparations for defense. But then, the pseudonymous writer “Philopatris” launches into an angry tirade against French and Native Americans,  producing an unhinged rant by its conclusion. Apart from the comedic value in the writer’s hyperbolic rhetoric, which includes a warning that false Native allies of the British—”those we call Friend Indians”—might “make an Attempt on our Metropolis” and leave New York City “in Ashes,” the paranoid ravings in this piece illustrate the intense distrust many colonials in the mid-Atlantic region had of their Indigenous neighbors. This distrust was a central component of the ethnic cleansing program I argue took place in the Hudson Valley region during the Seven Years’ War.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your article?

I would like readers to gain an appreciation of how governmental officials could exploit unsanctioned violence perpetrated by ordinary colonials to remove unwanted Native populations, but also see the limitations on the colonial state’s power to accomplish these goals. My findings suggest that government agents not only exaggerated the animosity of ordinary white settlers (most common colonials never loathed their Native neighbors as much as the government claimed), but also that the government’s sway was limited by the means on which it came to rely, particularly Native diplomatic relationships, such as Britain’s alliance with the Iroquois Six Nations. Colonial agents could try to exploit Indigenous diplomatic systems, but they could never fully control them, which is one of the reasons why the ethnic cleansing project in the Hudson Valley region ultimately failed to meet the expectations of its backers (or at least remained incomplete).

Tom Arne Midtrød has a PhD from Northern Illinois University. He is associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Iowa.

Read Midtrød’s article “’A People before Useless’: Ethnic Cleansing in the Wartime Hudson Valley, 1754–1763” in EAS’s Summer 2023 issue.