Thundersticks by David J. Silverman


Thundersticks: Firearms And The Violent Transformation Of Native America is the story of trade between the white man and the Native Americans. Trade is what made colonization possible, so what did the Indian tribes trade? Guns. Lots and lots of guns. The book details how the Native Americans used guns to transform their culture. They used guns to hunt, which they traded with the Spanish, French, British, and Americans for more guns. The Indians used the guns to dominate other Indian tribes and capture slaves that they traded for more guns. The Indians played various colonial governments off each other to get more guns, gunpowder, and ammunition. They never settled for inferior weapons and often were the driving force for better weapons. Silverman shows the Indians never were caught under-armed in their wars with the white man. His research shows dozens of military letters complaining to the government that the Indians were better armed than the soldiers. The idea of Indians running around with tomahawks, bows and arrows is anachronistic. There are so many gun battles (civil wars) covered in the book, you can’t help wonder if guns didn’t kill more Indians than disease. Once guns found their way to one tribe the relative power between tribes would go out of equilibrium, until the other tribe(s) would arm up. This equilibrium would go out of balance often due to: new gun technology, slaving, tribal warfare, proxy power of the European powers supporting each tribe, and disease. Time and time again the European governments tried to control the gun trade and thereby the tribes, but they failed.. even when they had monopoly power. The Native Americans always found a new source(s), often on the black market, often by the officers sent to control the gun trade. It’s a wonder the colonies managed to get foothold, but the guns were a double-edged sword. One might be tempted to see the gun trade precipitating the Revolutionary war, as the colonists were fed up with the British failure to disarm the tribes.

Silverman doesn’t cover the complete history of Native Americans and the gun trade but picks out geographic areas and eras to illustrate the role of the gun trade in North America. While reading the book, I noticed a lot of parallels to the tribal warfare in the Middle East.
It is a fascinating book. I learned a lot, and it changed how I look Indians. I recommend this book and hope Silverman writes a sequel to fill in some of the holes.

377 pages

Amazon Instant Preview of “Thundersticks”


Introduction: What Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull Knew [1877 The Iglala Lakota (Sioux) surrender in South Dakota. Living in North Dakota, I was hoping Silverman would cover the Sioux tribe(s) in more detail, but I understand he couldn’t cover everything in one book.]

  1. Launching The Indian Arms Race. [Early 1600s, illustrated how quickly Indians took to the new technology. The Iroquois used them to dominate all the nearby tribes.]
  2. A Vicious Commerce: Slaves And Alliance for Guns. [Late 1600s, The Westos and other SE tribes. This went on until the other tribes armed up and the African slaves became more profitable.]
  3. Recoil: The Fatal Quest for Arms during King Philip’s War [1675, The Mohawks and other New England tribes.]
  4. Indian Gunmen Against The British Empire [1763, Pontiac’s War]
  5. Otters For Arms [1780s, Tribes of the Pacific Northwest]
  6. The Seminoles Resist Removal [1835, Florida]
  7. Indian Gunners In A Wild West [Early 1800s, Comanches, Wichitas, and other tribes in Texas, Mexico, and the southern plains]
  8. The Rise And Fall Of The Centaur Gunmen [Early 1800s, Blackfeet, and other tribes in Montana, Canada, and the northern plains]
  9. Epilogue: AIM Raises The Rifle [1973 Wounded Knee, South Dakota]

Excerpts From The Book

During long-running sieges of fortified settlements, the lengthy twenty to thirty seconds it took to fire muskets by conventional European methods was a problem for both attackers and defenders. To reduce this time, Indian gunmen often measured powder by the handful rather than by the canister. They might spit a slug into the barrel from a mouthful of lead bullets or drop in several balls of small caliber without any wadding. Holding the musket upright and knocking the butt against the ground then settled the shot upon the charge without having to use a rod. Next, raising the musket to a horizontal position, tilting it on its side, and giving it a rap, sent powder from the barrel through the touch hole into the pan, thus priming it. The weapon was then ready for firing. This method shaved off precious seconds from reloading, though it also compromised the reliability of the charge and the accuracy of the shot. Native people obviously thought the trade-off was worth it, for they routinely used these shortcuts in battle when their very lives were at stake. By the mid-to-late 1640s the Iroquois as a whole, and not just the Mohawks closest to Fort Orange, had enough guns to oufit the majority of their adult warriors. Dutch, French, and English sources alike agree that the Mohawks alone, never mind the rest of the Iroquois.
page 30

Of course, the southeastern Indians’ adoption of guns carried even greater cost, which was on of the underlying morals of the story. There is no way to calculate the exact number of Indians killed and captured during the gun violence of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but the figure certainly ran into the high tens and even hundreds of thousands of people. To make matters worse, smallpox stalked the routes of slave raiding and gun running, preying on populations that were malnourished and traumatized by the predatory violence and clustered into defensive fortifications, which rendered them more vulnerable to communicable diseases. The overall effect was a population decline of some two-thirds between 1685 and 1730, from an estimated 199,000 people to some 67,700.
page 90

Yet even as late as 1769 Black Boys (“Brave Fellows”) were a problem for anyone, including the army, trying to ship munitions to Indians through Western Pennsylvania. The government found itself in quite a quandary. Arming Indians might keep them at peace, but that also meant fighting colonial vigilantes, Whereas giving in to the vigilantes demands risked inciting the Natives to War. As had always been the case, colonial and imperial authority never appeared weaker than within the context of a gun frontier.
page 150


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