A Town in-between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior

A Town in-between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior

A Town in-between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior

A Town in-between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior


In A Town In-Between, Judith Ridner reveals the influential, turbulent past of a modest, quiet American community. Today Carlisle, Pennsylvania, nestled in the Susquehanna Valley, is far from the nation's political and financial centers. In the eighteenth century, however, Carlisle and its residents stood not only at a geographical crossroads but also at the fulcrum of early American controversies. Located between East Coast settlement and the western frontier, Carlisle quickly became a mid-Atlantic hub, serving as a migration gateway to the southern and western interiors, a commercial way station in the colonial fur trade, a military staging and supply ground during the Seven Years' War, American Revolution, and Whiskey Rebellion, and home to one of the first colleges in the United States, Dickinson.

A Town In-Between reconsiders the role early American towns and townspeople played in the development of the country's interior. Focusing on the lives of the ambitious group of Scots-Irish colonists who built Carlisle, Judith Ridner reasserts that the early American west was won by traders, merchants, artisans, and laborers--many of them Irish immigrants--and not just farmers. Founded by proprietor Thomas Penn, the rapidly growing town was the site of repeated uprisings, jailbreaks, and one of the most publicized Anti-Federalist riots during constitutional ratification. These conflicts had dramatic consequences for many Scots-Irish Presbyterian residents who found themselves a people in-between, mediating among the competing ethnoreligious, cultural, class, and political interests that separated them from their fellow Quaker and Anglican colonists of the Delaware Valley and their myriad Native American trading partners of the Ohio country.

In this thoroughly researched and highly readable study, Ridner argues that interior towns were not so much spearheads of a progressive and westward-moving Euro-American civilization, but volatile places situated in the middle of a culturally diverse, economically dynamic, and politically evolving early America.


Why Carlisle? is a question I was asked frequently while I worked on this project. Some people have never heard of Carlisle. Others know it only as a place where Interstate 81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike nearly meet, or they have heard of the Carlisle Barracks, home to the U.S. Army War College and former site of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Still others actually know the town from having sent children to college or going to law school there, and have seen it firsthand. They recall its quaint downtown, historic Dickinson College, and the many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century row homes that line its streets. Yet they wonder about the significance of its history; what larger stories could this charming place possibly reveal about America’s past?

Twenty-first-century Carlisle is a county seat (of Cumberland County) with a population of 18,000. It is a small place. Aside from the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which dwarf it in size, many other towns in the state, including Allentown (where I now live), Erie, and Harrisburg eclipse it, even though they were just hamlets in the eighteenth century. Carlisle also lacks the gritty urbanism of Pennsylvania’s larger cities. To be sure, it suffers from the effects of urban poverty, but it does so on a smaller scale—one that rarely claims headlines.

As I also know from my years of living in Carlisle while a student at Dickinson College, if Carlisle is known for anything today, it is for its nonurban qualities. Visitors and even some residents do not pay much attention to the poverty tucked among the streets and alleys of the northern parts of town or the suburban sprawl on its outskirts. Instead, they notice its charms. Carlisle is a pleasant town in which to stroll, attend college, or settle and raise a family away from the big city. Today’s Carlisle is not really an urban place at all, therefore, but a quaint throwback to a simpler, more serene time. and thus people continue to ask me: why Carlisle? because the town’s early, turbulent . . .

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