Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley

Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley

Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley

Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley


The revolutionary Ohio Valley is often depicted as a chaotic Hobbesian dystopia, in which Indians and colonists slaughtered each other at every turn. In Unsettling the West, Rob Harper overturns this familiar story. Rather than flailing in a morass, the peoples of the revolutionary Ohio Valley actively and persistently sought to establish a new political order that would affirm their land claims, protect them against attack, and promote trade. According to Harper, their efforts repeatedly failed less because of racial antipathy or inexorable competition for land than because of specific state policies that demanded Indian dispossession, encouraged rapid colonization, and mobilized men for war.

Unsettling the West demonstrates that government policies profoundly unsettled the Ohio Valley, even as effective authority remained elusive. Far from indifferent to states, both Indians and colonists sought government allies to aid them in both intra- and intercultural conflicts. Rather than spreading uncontrollably across the landscape, colonists occupied new areas when changing policies, often unintentionally, gave them added incentives to do so. Sporadic killings escalated into massacre and war only when militants gained access to government resources. Amid the resulting upheaval, Indians and colonists sought to preserve local autonomy by forging relationships with eastern governments. Ironically, these local pursuits of order ultimately bolstered state power.

Following scholars of European and Latin American history, Harper extends the study of mass violence beyond immediate motives to the structural and institutional factors that make large-scale killing possible. The Ohio Valley's transformation, he shows, echoed the experience of early modern and colonial state formation around the world. His attention to the relationships between violence, colonization, and state building connects the study of revolutionary America to a vibrant literature on settler colonialism.


In the summer of 1772, a recent Dartmouth graduate, David McClure, set out to bring Christianity to the Indians of the Ohio Valley. As he trudged across the Alleghenies, he met fifteen packhorses headed eastward, hauling cannonballs. the British empire, McClure learned, could no longer afford its garrison at Fort Pitt, and so the imperial ordnance now marched away from the frontier he hoped to civilize. As he watched the horses pass, the young missionary likely wondered what he had gotten himself into. British influence over the Ohio Valley—tenuous to begin with—was waning further, leaving the region’s peoples free from imperial oversight. the West was becoming wilder—or so it seemed.

Like McClure, many histories of the Ohio Valley maintain that imperial weakness bred frontier wildness. the region’s ensuing colonization, one suggests, unfolded “from the bottom up,” driven by the dreams of ordinary colonists who hungered for land and bristled at government meddling. An array of medical and aquatic metaphors conveys the organic force of this migration: tens of thousands succumbed to a “land fever” that made them pour, flood, and surge across the Appalachians. Attitude and impulse also seem to explain intercultural violence: Indians and colonists hated one another, and with no state to restrain them they slaughtered at will. But a closer look calls these explanations into question. Colonists coveted Indian land, but they colonized new areas only where they had some hope of gaining legal title. Horrific violence ensued, but its scale varied sharply over time. When governments ignored the region, relative peace prevailed. When they tried to control it, hostilities escalated. Intercultural hatred persisted throughout but led to war only when government initiatives empowered the region’s inhabitants to fight. Rather than springing from state absence, the horrors of the period stemmed from governments’ intrusive presence.

A gaggle of polities contended for power in the revolutionary Ohio Valley. the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee in the north and the Cherokee nation in the south claimed large and overlapping territories, whERPT

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