Not long ago, early colonial New World history was largely a story about European manifest destiny. Of course, Cortéz beat the Aztecs; of course, Native Americans were almost annihilated; of course, white settlers helped themselves to Indigenous land. Over the past thirty years, though, this “victors’ history” has worn thin. Long periods of native resistance and colonial failure now complicate the picture. The old presumption of inevitability—history read backwards—hides more than it reveals.

If you had to pick a turning point, you would probably start with Richard White’s The Middle Ground (1991) and David Weber’s The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992). “The history of Indian-white relations has not usually produced complex stories,” R. White writes (ix). “Indians are the rock, European peoples are the sea. . . . There have been but two outcomes. The sea wears down...

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