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No Theme Left Unturned: National Geographic’s Barkskins

Long-time readers of Concerning History will know that I will watch anything to do with empire, no matter the era or location, so when Heather and I saw a commercial for National Geographic’s new miniseries, I didn’t mind that we couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot or even, really, what history it was going to be telling. It was set at the edge of a New World Empire; that was good enough for me. Little did I know what a historical feast awaited us.

Barkskins, based on a novel of the same name by Annie Proulx, focuses on the New French town of Wobik in the seventeenth century. Far up the St. Lawrence river and situated at the intersection of French and British imperial ambitions, the citizens of this small woodland settlement must negotiate a complex web of relationships between their own government, local merchants, hostile and friendly native tribes, and the looming specter of the Hudson’s Bay Company, steadily encroaching from the north. The brutal murder of a frontier family at their homestead brings all these parties into open conflict, and Wobik will never be the same.

The sheer number of historical themes present in Barksins makes it a delight for any student of frontier or colonial history. Indentured servitude is quite literally the first lens through which the viewer sees Wobik, as a pair of friends enter the settlement and are contracted to work for Msr. Trepanie, an eccentric gentleman that lives some distance from the town and has an understanding with local tribes. New France’s lack of women is also at play, and a shipload of women arrive to serve as wives for men who have received dispensation from the King (one of whom proves to be Msr. Trepanie). The presence of both hostile and friendly tribes, centrality of Jesuit missionaries to negotiations and societal structure, ambiguous status of mixed-race individuals; even obscure medieval French history in the form of Trepanie’s Cathar beliefs is on display.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Barkskins is it’s ending; billed as a limited series, the only confirmed season ends right before its climax: a combined attack of Iroquois and Hudson’s Bay agents that aims to wipe out the entire town. If not further seasons arrive, Barksins may go down as one of those oddities that litter the graveyards of television: full of promise and historical value, but abandoned before it could reach its full potential. Regardless of its future, however, I cannot recommend Barksins highly enough for those interested in this period. It is rare to see true colonial (as opposed to American Revolutionary) history given such a meticulous treatment, let alone colonial New French history. Seize it while you can!

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