Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America
By Peter Silver, Norton, 406 pp., illustrated, $30
Along the mid-Atlantic frontier, in the mid-1750s, small bands of Indians attacked isolated settlements, killing and scalping homesteaders and their families. They did not leave the mangled bodies where they lay, but whenever possible, dragged them out to the center of the nearest road and propped them up against trees.
These were not random acts of backcountry violence, writes historian Peter Silver in his study, "Our Savage Neighbors," which penetrates searchingly into a dark chapter of Colonial history.
"Most Indian attack groups meant to 'act' in this way," writes Silver, intending for people to feel what it was like "to be tortured and killed." Manufacturing that "[paralyzing] terror . . . was one of the attackers' aims."
Silver's vivid account, with gruesome details taken from contemporary reports, focuses on western Pennsylvania and surrounding territory, beginning in 1755, the year of Braddock's ill-fated expedition, through the French and Indian War to the Revolution.
By the time of these events New England's conflict with its native people -- the Pequot War in 1636-37, King Philip's War in 1675-76, and isolated events like the Deerfield raid in 1704 -- was largely in the past.
When Indian warfare came to the Pennsylvania backcountry, the Indians' terror campaign was such that "the speed and selectivity" of the attacks left country people and local militia with "much to fear but no one to fight."
Scouting parties sent to clear the perimeter of country garrisons "found unnerving signs of having been watched from close at hand" and hearing the Indians' "Death Hollow," an "unnerving" howling, meant that some nearby homestead had been attacked and its people killed.
The scalped bodies were so powerful a symbol of the terror campaign that when a treaty conference was underway at Lancaster, residents of a town that had been recently attacked sent "four of the Dead Bodies to plead their Cause."
The Indians' violence led inevitably to equally violent reprisals by the Colonists. The offer of scalping bounties by the colonial government prompted recruitment of volunteer scalping parties.
"Simply imagining themselves as resolute 'Scalpers,' " Silver writes, "was enough to convert the unwilling soldiers of midsummer  into eager, marching crowds."
The ultimate act of reprisal was a horrific massacre of "praying" Indians at Gnadenhütten, a Moravian mission community in eastern Ohio, in March 1782, of which Silver gives an unsparing account.
Pursuing a Delaware raiding party that had stopped at the village, a volunteer militia force entered the village and rounded up all the Indians, and that night voted to kill the captives.
When the Indians were told of their fate, Silver writes, they sang hymns and psalms through the night. In the morning, the men, and later the women and children, were pulled from the mission buildings, where they were being held, and bludgeoned to death.
Later in the day, the residents of two outlying mission villages were similarly massacred.
Silver, who teaches at Princeton, is interested in the rhetoric surrounding the events of his account. He employs the term "sublime" - familiar to readers of Gothic literature to inspire emotional responses - as a way to understand the hatred of Indians.
"The shadow of the [Gnadenhütten] killings hung for decades" over the region, Silver writes, and in later years it was used to illustrate "the power of prejudice over people's minds," with the shock over the massacre "put to work against the stain of prejudice."
And the region once ripped apart by the effects of prejudice "came to see itself as a shining model of toleration and broad-mindedness" - whose people "probably believed they were ready to welcome Indians . . . if any happened by."
Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.