How Despised Backwoods Became a New Frontier

Article excerpt


With this book, the backwoods can finally take their place as a central factor in early American history. In this brief but authoritative account, Eric Hinderaker and Peter Mancall bring coherence to the history of the Appalachian and trans-Appalachian west, the region at the "back" of the coastal British colonies. This was the land where settlers like Daniel Boone began to set up new settlements and develop a new, distinctively American way of life.

The authors fashion their account by merging the expanding work on the backcountry (to which they have each been leading contributors) with the flourishing field of cross-cultural frontier studies, expanding their focus to include the history of Native Americans, and even 16th-century Ireland.

The result of Mr. Hinderaker's and Mr. Mancall's work is a deeply ambivalent portrait of the American frontier that never quite escapes the fundamental conflicts it describes. In "At the Edge of Empire," the authors strive to reconceptualize the backcountry as a process.

In their words, by "'backcountry' we mean the territory that lay beyond the core settlements of mainland English colonies, and generally also beyond the control of an often weak imperial state. The backcountry was not a fixed place; its location and meaning shifted over time." The result is a handy narrative of English colonizing activities that unfortunately tends to revive the old Anglo-centric image of frontier history, though without the old prejudices.

Historically, the backcountry was not the sort of process the authors aim at but a rather specific place. My Oxford English Dictionary finds the first use of the term backcountry (actually "back lands") in William Penn's 1681 "Account of Pennsylvania," where it refers to the lands beyond the Delaware River Valley. Only after the founding of Pennsylvania introduced an infusion of settlers from all over northwestern Europe into the hills and dales of the Appalachia did the backcountry emerge as a distinctive region in colonial America.

But this process did not really begin until the early-18th century. It is a story of European colonists moving into and transforming vast and heavily depopulated forestlands into productive agricultural and even industrial land. The strongest parts of this book are those addressed to this traditional version of the backcountry.

As Mr. Hinderaker and Mr. Mancall know, the backcountry experience is easily conveyed through the life of Daniel Boone. Born in Pennsylvania in the early-18th century, he moved down to western North Carolina as a youth, and finally over the mountains into Kentucky as a man, just as the Revolution broke out along the coast. In his final years he crossed over the Mississippi into Missouri.

Boone rejected the consequences of his actions, which opened up Native American lands to colonial development and repopulation by predominantly white settlers, but this makes him no less a part of the process. Whether or not the backcountry followed him over the Mississippi River is a question this book, which stops in 1776, leaves open.

It is hard to see where 16th-, or even 18th-century Ireland fits into this picture. Indeed, references to Ireland cease after the first chapter as the story moves to the North American mainland. In America, the authors make efforts to point out the moments of exchange and coexistence between natives and newcomers, but basically they recount the familiar story of disease, war, depopulation, and dispossession. Here is the greatest difference between the "backcountry" of Ireland and America. Ireland's natives were able to survive and largely reclaim their "backcountry. …