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

In Masters of Empire, the historian Michael A. McDonnell reveals the vital 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 the straits between those two lakes, a hub for trade and diplomacy throughout the vast country west of Montreal known as the pays d’en haut.

Highlighting the long-standing rivalries and relationships among the great Indian nations of North America, McDonnell shows how Europeans often played only a minor role in this history, and reminds us that it was native peoples who possessed intricate and far-reaching networks of commerce and kinship. As empire encroached upon their domain, the Anishinaabeg were often the ones doing the exploiting. By dictating terms at trading posts and frontier forts, they played a crucial part in the making of early America.

Through vivid depictions--all from a native perspective--of early skirmishes, the French and Indian War, and the American Revolution, Masters of Empire overturns our assumptions about colonial America. By calling attention to the Great Lakes as a crucible of culture and conflict, McDonnell reimagines the landscape of American history.

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This is a sweeping and majestic analysis of the colonial Great Lakes, which places the Odawa people at the heart of a new understanding about how the French and later, the British were thwarted in their attempts to shape and control this region.
— Susan Sleeper-Smith, Professor of History, Michigan State University
In clear and compelling prose Michael McDonnell renders a complicated world accessible, a marginalized region central, and a neglected history essential.  Rethinking pivotal events from indigenous centers like Michilimackinac rather than from colonial capitals like Boston or Williamsburg, Masters of Empire provides an important perspective for a richer understanding of early American history.
— Colin G. Calloway, Dartmouth College
It is thankfully a work of genius ... History has until now had it that Indians were pawns or pieces moved about and wielded by various colonial empires. McDonnell shows us — with painstaking research and incredible insight — that the Odawa and allied Great Lakes tribes dictated the terms of trade, forced the colonists into unadvantageous alliances and created their own empire that still remains.
David Treuer, Los Angeles Times
This revisionist history makes a compelling case for the overwhelming power of the Anishinaabeg tribes of the Great Lakes region throughout the Colonial period.
The New Yorker
Insightful and evocative, Masters of Empire compels us to rethink colonial America by restoring native peoples to the center of the story.  Along vast waterways in the heart of a continent, natives controlled the intrusive but weak officials and traders of distant empires.  Mike McDonnell brilliantly recovers and deftly narrates a tale of resourceful persistence by the Anishinaabeg.
— Alan Taylor, University of Virginia, author of The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies
With elegant prose and a keen eye for detail, Michael McDonnell brings to life the dynamic world of Great Lakes Indians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is Native-centered history at its best, revealing how the Odawa and their neighbors not only controlled their own destinies in the face of colonialism, but also shaped the fabric of American life for many generations. A powerful story expertly told.
— Brett H. Rushforth, College of William and Mary, author of Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (2014).
In recent years scholars have begun to argue that the center of America’s historical gravity should shift from the East Coast to the heart of the continent. Michael A. McDonnell’s Masters of Empire makes an important contribution to that reorientation. Piecing together the story of the Anishinaabeg in general and the Odawa of Michilimackinac in particular, McDonnell offers a new perch from which to view ‘the course of human events’ during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thereby making a powerful case for Michilimackinac’s joining Boston, Philadelphia, and other, better-known capitals vital to understanding America’s past.
— James H. Merrell, Professor of History, Vassar College
In this tour de force, Michael McDonnell brilliantly shows how the Anishinaabeg of the Upper Great Lakes played a crucial role in the run-up to the American Revolution.  This “Native-driven” history will send historians scurrying to revise their interpretation of imperial and Native rivalries in the mid-continent west of the Appalachians.
— Gary Nash, Professor Emeritus, UCLA