David Silverman is Professor of History at George Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (Belknap Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Thundersticks?
DS: It was the culmination of a number of different things. Honestly, the first important step came when I was working as a colonial interpreter at Jamestown Settlement the summer after completing coursework toward my M.A. at William and Mary. My duties included a daily militia drill demonstration in which I loaded and fired a matchlock musket (something which routinely sent the throngs of boys among the tourists into a frenzy). It took barely a week of practice before I could get off a shot within 25 seconds, which made me wonder about the historical truism that these weapons took a painfully long time to load. I also learned firsthand about the power of gunfire. The interpreter in charge of the muskets showed me metal breastplates and helmets at which he had fired from distances ranging from fifty to a hundred yards. They were filled with baseball- and grapefruit-sized holes. Arrows, whether tipped with stone or metal, would have had no effect on this armor. Indeed, I also learned that arrows were incapable of breaching the gambesons (coats of padded cloth armor) worn by soldiers at Jamestown. This experience put me on the lookout for evidence of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of firearms in Native American life. Over the course of several years researching a dissertation and several books and teaching several classes, the data began to mount.
A couple of other experiences later in my scholarly career convinced me it was finally time to address this issue in book format. The first was reading through the Curwen papers at the American Antiquarian Society, which contains a detailed account of the Indian attack on the English town of Medfield during King Philip’s War. There are a number of anecdotes of colonists peeking out from the shelter of their blockhouse only to suffer a deadly gunshot from Indians firing at quite a distance away. This material made me wonder, yet again, why historians routinely slight the accuracy of flintlock muskets in the face of such evidence.
Another impetus was reading the burgeoning literature on the Indian-English slave trade of the North American Southeast (this was in the late 1990s and early 2000s). It seemed so obvious to me that this trade was fundamentally an exchange of captives for guns in which communities without firearms fell prey to those with them. However, when I began Thundersticks, historians too often muted and even explicitly dismissed the role of guns in this trade based on the old, unsubstantiated truism that flintlock muskets were slow, inaccurate, and valued by Indians primarily for their so-called psychological effect, not their effectiveness as weapons of war.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thundersticks?
DS: Between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, indigenous people across North America used firearms to transform their warfare, hunting, politics, gender roles, ceremonies, and material culture. Though Indians became dependent on guns, powder, and shot to defend their communities, they rarely became politically dependent on Euro-American states because they cultivated multiple sources of trade and diplomatic gifts of munitions.
JF: Why do we need to read Thundersticks?
DS: It is a continent-wide treatment of one of the most fundamental changes in Native American life during the Early Modern era.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DS: I reached this decision during my junior year as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, under the influence of such wonderful professors as Thomas Slaughter, Philip Greven, Paul Clemens, and Calvin Martin. I was inspired by the notion of leading a creative life of learning and mutual intellectual exchange. I also found (and continue to find) it noble to engage in the work of bringing the experiences of everyday people of the past to life. Part of our collective endeavor to have the United States live up to its ideals should involve teaching the public about the dark legacies of colonialism, including historic and ongoing Native American struggles for self-determination and justice.
JF: What is your next project?
DS: I have two in the works. The first is a Wampanoag-centered history of Plymouth colony and the Thanksgiving holiday timed to appear for the quadricentennial of Plymouth’s founding in 2020. The second will examine the roles of Christian Indians in North American colonial empires, and of colonial empires in the roles of Christian Indians.
JF: Thanks, David