Muddy Ground

Native Peoples, Chicago's Portage, and the Transformation of a Continent

By John William Nelson

288 pp., 6.125 x 9.125, 10 halftones, 2 maps

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7520-6
    Published: September 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7519-0
    Published: September 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7521-3
    Published: September 2023

David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History

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Awards & distinctions

2024 Superior Achievement Award, Illinois State Historical Society

Honorable Mention, 2024 Jon Gjerde Book Award, Midwestern History Association

Shortlist Award Recipient, 2024 Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award, The Newberry

In early North America, carrying watercraft—usually canoes—and supplies across paths connecting one body of water to another was essential in the establishment of both Indigenous and European mobility in the continent’s interior. The Chicago portage, a network of overland canoe routes that connected the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds, grew into a crossroads of interaction as Indigenous and European people vied for its control during early contact and colonization. John William Nelson charts the many peoples that traversed and sought power along Chicago’s portage paths from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, including Indigenous Illinois traders, French explorers, Jesuit missionaries, Meskwaki warriors, British officers, Anishinaabe headmen, and American settlers. Nelson compellingly demonstrates that even deep within the interior, power relations fluctuated based on the control of waterways and local environmental knowledge.

Pushing beyond political and cultural explanations for Indigenous-European relations in the borderlands of North America, Nelson places environmental and geographic realities at the center of the history of Indigenous Chicago, offering a new explanation for how the United States gained control of the North American interior through a two-pronged subjugation of both the landscapes and peoples of the continent.

About the Author

John William Nelson is assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University.
For more information about John William Nelson, visit the Author Page.


"This groundbreaking study brings to light the importance of Indigenous space at a crossroads of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains."—Western Writers of America's Roundup Magazine

"Muddy Ground is a brilliant synthesis of Indigenous and environmental history, illuminating the importance of Chicago as a crossroads linking the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. Nelson provides a compelling narrative showing how first Indigenous people, and subsequently the American settler state, mastered space and mobility in order to make this muddy space a gateway to the west."—Michael J. Witgen, author of Pulitzer Prize–finalist Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America

"This amazing new book reconsiders Chicago as an early American place. Framing Chicago as the continent's most important portage, Nelson recenters early American history around the swamps and wetlands of the future metropolis, exploring important currents in Indigenous history, borderlands history, environmental history, and the history of colonialism."—Robert Morrissey, author of People of the Ecotone: Environment and Indigenous Power at the Center of Early America

"This book helps to shift the paradigm in how we understand the long history of Indigenous space, its conquest in the nineteenth century, and the ramifications ever since."—Kathleen DuVal, author of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution