Academic journal article Early American Studies

A "Commercial View of This Unfortunate War": Economic Roots of an American National State in the Ohio Valley, 1775-1795

Academic journal article Early American Studies

A "Commercial View of This Unfortunate War": Economic Roots of an American National State in the Ohio Valley, 1775-1795

Article excerpt

On April 4, 1788, Harry Innes wrote to his friend the Virginia congressman John Brown. The letter testified to a long series of applications made since 1785 by local residents and officials of the District of Kentucky to the federal government, their intent being to increase the presence and mandate of federal troops in the Ohio Valley to protect settlers from Native American incursions. Innes, who served as assistant judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature in the Kentucky District of Virginia, observed that federal troops had "seen the Indians cross the Ohio in sight of their Garrisons . . . , & never made an excursion." His complaint emerged in response to an intensifying conflict between settlers and Native Americans in the Ohio Valley that had been festering since the Revolutionary War.1 Native American warriors crossing into Kentucky, Innes claimed, "duly deprived [settlers] of their property" by stealing horses and other livestock, killing or kidnapping slaves, burning homes, sinking boats on the region's rivers, and killing settlers. Already in 1788 Innes claimed that "Merchandise to the Value of above £3,000" had been taken or destroyed.2

During the 1770s and 1780s settler communities and the State of Virginia largely shouldered the burdens of both defending settlements and launching crudely conceived, irregular expeditions against Native American communities.3 Unlike the French and British imperial influences, which had preceded the American invasion into the region, the new western settlers sought to create societies that precluded Native American territorial control and excluded them from economic and political participation.4 The bulk of emigrants sought to write onto the landscape a new economic formula that privileged agriculture over the fur trade and redirected the flow of trade from the St. Lawrence River valley to the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. As the war escalated during the 1780s, Ohio Valley residents looked to a reluctant federal government to provide them with assistance in the conflict. "The position of the Troops on the Ohio and the conduct of the commander," Innes proclaimed, "serve only to evince to us that those Troops never were intended for our protection, but to prevent Settlers on the Federal Lands."5

By writing to John Brown, Harry Innes intended to demonstrate broad Kentucky support for nationally directed efforts to create greater security for the region's settlers and property. Paradoxically, even as Innes argued for greater federal action in 1788, he aligned himself with Anti-Federalists in opposition to the new Constitution, which purportedly sought to strengthen the fiscal and military powers necessary to answer complaints of Ohio Valley residents.6 Innes 's opposition, though, was founded in part on fears that discrete regional interests would stifle any national effort to address the war in the West. "Our interests and the interests of the Eastern states are so diametrically opposite to each other," he asserted, "that there cannot be a ray of hope left to the Western Country to suppose that when once that interest clashes we shall have justice done us."7 During the subsequent decade, federal involvement in the West diminished these concerns.

After the ratification of the Constitution, as Max Edling has demonstrated, Federalists eagerly sought to define federal powers strongly in terms of fiscal and military authority.8 The consequences of Federalist success extended beyond political relationships binding the various states to the national government, especially in the West. There the new federal government utilized its fiscal-military powers to raise an army and force Native American nations living north of the Ohio River to accept United States settlements in the Ohio Valley. These efforts served to address local settler demands as well as national goals to transition the northern Trans-Appalachian West from a borderland region characterized by intercultural exchange to a bordered region defined by the newly created partition between the United States and British Canada. …

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