Book Reviews -- Away, I'm Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement by David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1893 at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner first articulated his famous thesis about the significance of the frontier in American history. No single formulation has had a more enduring influence on the writing of American history. For the past hundred years, scholars have been debating its merits, testing it in case studies, and scrutinizing it from new, less Eurocentric and less gendered perspectives. But it has continued to occupy an important place in the construction of the American past, to one degree or another shaping the very frameworks historians have used to organize their thoughts about that past.

To mark the centenary of the Turner thesis, the Virginia Historical Society, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, organized a major exhibit on Virginia and the westward movement. This handsome volume is the catalog for this exhibition, which opened on 6 October 1993 and will close on 31 May 1994. The volume is divided into two parts. The second and somewhat longer part lists the 200 exhibit items, many of which are pictured and about three-fourths of which--155--are accompanied by an informative commentary that contextualizes the object and spells out its significance. This section is introduced by an extended essay using the Virginia experience as a basis for serious evaluation of the Turner thesis. Together these two sections contain 264 illustrations, 13 of them in color, and 19 modern maps.

Providing a lucid synthesis and a cogent interpretation of a vast amount of information covering the more than two and a half centuries from Virginia's founding in 1607 to the American Civil War, the introduction is conceived and written at a high level of analysis that most readers will yet find accessible. In three sequential sections, the authors describe the sources, movement, and effect of migration to, within, and from Virginia. They focus not just on the European settlers but also on the African and, to a considerably lesser extent, the Amerindian populations, and not just on the core area of Tidewater Virginia but also on the several adjacent regions that took shape during the colonial era.

Better than any other piece of writing known to this reviewer, this long essay succeeds in showing the magnitude and special character of Virginia's contribution to the settlement of the West. "By far the most populous state in the American confederation" in 1790 (p. 59), Virginia over the next seventy years "had the largest emigration of any American state" (p. 119). In 1850 there were more than 200,000 white Virginians in the slave states and more than 180,000 in the free states, and Virginia exported more than 500,000 slaves to other slave states between 1790 and 1860.

Convincingly, the authors argue that a modified germ theory of the kind David Hackett Fischer used in his recent book Albion's Seed works far better than the Turner thesis to explain the Virginia experience. Following many historians who have written since Turner, they deny that the frontier was the site for the creation of a wholly new society and instead emphasize the many cultural continuities between old seaboard societies and those formed in the West. Wherever they went in large numbers, to Kentucky or Ohio, to Alabama or Illinois, to Texas or Missouri, Virginians, the authors show with a variety of telling illustrations, carried their values and their patterns of settlement, social organization, labor, law, political organization, and architecture with them. …