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Masters of the Middle Waters

Masters of the Middle Waters

Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions along the Mississippi

Jacob F. Lee

ISBN 9780674987678

Publication date: 03/11/2019

A riveting account of the conquest of the vast American heartland that offers a vital reconsideration of the relationship between Native Americans and European colonists, and the pivotal role of the mighty Mississippi.

America’s waterways were once the superhighways of travel and communication. Cutting a central line across the landscape, with tributaries connecting the South to the Great Plains and the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River meant wealth, knowledge, and power for those who could master it. In this ambitious and elegantly written account of the conquest of the West, Jacob Lee offers a new understanding of early America based on the long history of warfare and resistance in the Mississippi River valley.

Lee traces the Native kinship ties that determined which nations rose and fell in the period before the Illinois became dominant. With a complex network of allies stretching from Lake Superior to Arkansas, the Illinois were at the height of their power in 1673 when the first French explorers—fur trader Louis Jolliet and Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette—made their way down the Mississippi. Over the next century, a succession of European empires claimed parts of the midcontinent, but they all faced the challenge of navigating Native alliances and social structures that had existed for centuries. When American settlers claimed the region in the early nineteenth century, they overturned 150 years of interaction between Indians and Europeans.

Masters of the Middle Waters shows that the Mississippi and its tributaries were never simply a backdrop to unfolding events. We cannot understand the trajectory of early America without taking into account the vast heartland and its waterways, which advanced and thwarted the aspirations of Native nations, European imperialists, and American settlers alike.


  • Masters of the Middle Waters tells a completely new story about the vast center of North America between the collapse of the Mississippian city-state of Cahokia around 1200 and U.S. domination in the 1800s. Lee reveals how kinship and alliance networks and the control of riverways were the keys to power, showing that what happened in this region had repercussions from the Great Lakes and Great Plains to the British, French, and Spanish empires in North America and Europe.

    —Kathleen DuVal, author of Independence Lost


  • 2020, Winner of the Illinois State Historical Society Book of the Year
  • 2019, Winner of the Jon Gjerde Award


  • Jacob F. Lee is Assistant Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University. A historian of early America and the American West, he received fellowships from the Huntington Library, the Newberry Library, and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, for his work on this book.

Book Details

  • 360 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press