University of Chicago assistant professor Matthew Kruer gives “William and Mary Quarterly” lecture on “Colonial Anarchy, Indigenous Power”


Tuesday, Feb. 6, the Omohundro Institute hosted Matthew Kruer, an assistant professor of early modern North American history at the University of Chicago, for a “William and Mary Quarterly” lecture in Blow Memorial Hall. In his presentation titled “Colonial Anarchy, Indigenous Power: ‘Bacon’s Rebellion’ and the Susquehannock Nation,” Kruer sought to reexamine the role of the Indigenous nations in colonial American affairs.

Kruer received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 for his dissertation on “Bacon’s Rebellion and the Wars of the Susquehannocks, 1675-1682.” His dissertation inspired his 2021 book, “Time of Anarchy: Indigenous Power and the Crisis of Early Colonial America, and served as the basis for his lecture.

Several students and faculty members of the College of William and Mary attended the event to hear the visiting assistant professor.

“I’m excited to be here,” David Roulley ’25 said. “I’m here for an extra credit assignment for my class, ‘American History until 1877.’ This is interesting to me too. I like all parts of history.”

Ethan Cooke M.A. ’24, a student in the College history department’s one-year terminal Master of Arts program, was interested in Kruer’s unconventional focus on the history of Bacon’s Rebellion.

“I’ve been increasingly interested in Indigenous power in this sort of context,” Cooke said. “And I thought it was interesting to analyze Bacon’s Rebellion from that perspective because I think Kruer’s right. It has been a part of the traditional narrative, but it’s not necessarily what gets highlighted in the broader historiography. So I think it was interesting to frame it from that direction.” 

Kruer began his presentation with an image of a sketched map. The map, showing an English fort bordering a Susquehannock site, appears at the beginning of a 1676 report titled, “A True Narrative of the Rise, Progresse, and Cessation of the Late Rebellion in Virginia.”  

According to Kruer, “A True Narrative” shaped the common understanding of Bacon’s Rebellion as an unsuccessful colonial revolt that resulted in the intensification of the African slave trade and racial divisions. 

“This framing of Bacon’s Rebellion as the catalyst for the creation of a slave society has dominated the ways that historians think about Bacon’s Rebellion, about this moment in the 1670s as a turning point in the history of race and racism in America,” Kruer said.

In this understanding, however, Kruer felt that the Susquehannock Nation’s role in the rebellion is undervalued. He referred back to the map, showcasing how the Susquehannock site and the English fort took up equal space.

“The sketch doesn’t fit into that black and white narrative,” Kruer said. “So the puzzle became one of the guiding questions when I started my research. I had to ask, ‘Where do Indigenous peoples fit into this pivotal moment of class conflict and racial formation?’ And, ‘How does this story, a familiar story, look when you center the Indigenous people themselves?’”

Kruer stated that Anglo-Susquehannock conflict began in 1675 when an estimated eight to 14 Susquehannock men were caught in the crossfire of an English ambush on a neighboring nation. After this event, a few Susquehannocks resorted to vengeance and this began their decade of raids against the English.

Furthermore, despite the Susquehannock Nation having approximately only 400 members at this time, Kruer iterated that their presence became central in colonial Virginian life.

“Because of their small size and apparent weakness, historians have seldom paid much attention to the Susquehannocks beyond their heyday at around mid-century,” Kruer said. “And yet the Susquehannocks are the focus of the commissioner’s sketch, and they are unquestionably the proximate cause of the Anglo-Indigenous conflict that set off Bacon’s Rebellion.”

The Susquehannock peoples’ sustained attacks against the English challenged the colonists’ perception of the local power dynamic.

“The fear the Susquehannock raids provoked in settlers sparked a political crisis when the Virginia government couldn’t effectively stop or oppose Susquehannock power,” Kruer said.

Through his research, Kruer determined that the Anglo-Susquehannock fighting eventually stopped in 1685 on the Susquehannock Nation’s terms. He ended his presentation with an image of a Susquehannock’s comb, which portrayed the eventual mutual respect reached between the two groups.

“It shows a Susquehannock dressed in a kind of European frock coat that traders brought to Conestoga. And then a settler, wearing a wide-brimmed hat of a Quaker. The two figures stand as equals. They’re mirror images of each other,” Kruer said.

Following the talk, Lucy Knox M.A. ’24 expressed her appreciation for Kruer’s attention to nuance in colonial history.

“I know that [Kruer] uses a lot of methodologies influenced by the history of emotion in his work,” Knox said. “He talks about that a little bit in the talk here. But, I think that’s a really good way of showing the subtlety. And methodologically, that’s definitely something I apply to my own work too so it’s always cool to see other people, you know, moving that forward in the field.”

Josh Murray ’24 was also impressed by Kruer’s presentation. He left feeling inspired to keep questioning the narratives presented in history.

“I guess, the world is really complex,” Murray said. “It’s really important to try to discover the truth and delve into it. Look at primary sources critically, but also appreciate the nuances they offer and be willing to question their ideas about how history works.”


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