Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania

Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania

Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania

Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania


In Frontier Country, Patrick Spero addresses one of the most important and controversial subjects in American history: the frontier. Countering the modern conception of the American frontier as an area of expansion, Spero employs the eighteenth-century meaning of the term to show how colonists understood it as a vulnerable, militarized boundary. The Pennsylvania frontier, Spero argues, was constituted through conflicts not only between colonists and Native Americans but also among neighboring British colonies. These violent encounters created what Spero describes as a distinctive "frontier society" on the eve of the American Revolution that transformed the once-peaceful colony of Pennsylvania into a "frontier country."

Spero narrates Pennsylvania's story through a sequence of formative but until now largely overlooked confrontations: an eight-year-long border war between Maryland and Pennsylvania in the 1730s; the Seven Years' War and conflicts with Native Americans in the 1750s; a series of frontier rebellions in the 1760s that rocked the colony and its governing elite; and wars Pennsylvania fought with Virginia and Connecticut in the 1770s over its western and northern borders. Deploying innovative data-mining and GIS-mapping techniques to produce a series of customized maps, he illustrates the growth and shifting locations of frontiers over time. Synthesizing the tensions between high and low politics and between eastern and western regions in Pennsylvania before the Revolution, Spero recasts the importance of frontiers to the development of colonial America and the origins of American Independence.


In January 1765, as Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were busy surveying the line that now bears their names, a morbid “curiousity” led Charles to stop his work and take a journey to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As he later recorded in his diary, it was “the place where was perpetrated last winter, the horrid and inhumane murder of 26 Indians: men, women, and children, leaving none alive to tell.” Mason had to see the site of this depravity to understand it.

The brutal event that drew Mason to Lancaster is now known as the Paxton Boys’ Rebellion. It began in December 1763 when a group of colonists living outside of Lancaster massacred their neighbors, the Conestoga Indians, who resided on a nearby manor reserved for them by the Pennsylvania government. A couple of weeks after their initial assault, the Paxton Boys raided a building in Lancaster that housed the few surviving Conestogas, killing all alive. The murderers became rebels when hundreds of supporters joined them in a seventy-mile trek through the rough winter to Philadelphia, the colonial capital, to defend the Paxton Boys’ actions and protest what they saw as the government’s overly benevolent policy toward Native people. The march was likely the largest political mobilization in the history of colonial Pennsylvania.

Mason was surprised by what he found when he visited. Lancaster was not some lawless frontier outpost, but instead a bustling and vibrant inland port. Its location a few miles from the Susquehanna River, a central artery that in 1763 connected the vast interior of North America to the Atlantic, meant that the town was an important waypoint for the British Empire as it expanded west across the Appalachian Mountains. Lancaster was “as large as most market towns in England,” Mason noted in his diary before leaving. He was right; it was the largest inland town in colonial America.

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