Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Michael Cresap and the Promulgation of Settler Land-Claiming Methods in the Backcountry, 1765-1774

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Michael Cresap and the Promulgation of Settler Land-Claiming Methods in the Backcountry, 1765-1774

Article excerpt

Frontier settlers, a population consisting largely of poor and uneducated families, were the group most successful in establishing themselves and their cultural spatial conceptions in the North American backcountry during the final years of the colonial period. Settlers on the whole paid little heed to formally mapped boundaries, and even those inscribed on the landscape by official land surveys were often disregarded if the surveyed land was not actually occupied. It was the efficient, extralegal, and decidedly imprecise ways that they claimed space that helped make settlers such a dynamic, successful, and destructive force on the frontier.1

Their ad hoc settlements and general unruliness made them a constant source of trouble for both Native Americans and British officials, two groups that had worked to establish racial separation through such treaties and formal boundaries as the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763. Not only were many settlers active Indian haters who robbed and killed Native Americans, but they also did so in Indian country - land that Native Americans considered theirs by political, racial, and divine right. Although individual settler homesteads provided Indians with visible and relatively easy targets for violently reclaiming their lands, the sheer number of settlers was quickly proving overwhelming, and Native Americans appealed to the colonial and British governments for succor. Indeed, authorities were usually glad to assist Indians in evicting settlers from Indian country. Not only did settlers occupy lands that wealthier whites coveted, but officials also feared that the disruptive behavior of backwoodsmen would provoke a general Indian war.2

This article argues that the informal land claiming methods of poor backcountry settlers on the mid-Atlantic frontier were not limited to that marginalized group alone. Both middling and wealthy land speculators appropriated the settlers' practices for claiming land because they offered them a competitive advantage in the intense struggle to own western space. Historian Stephen Aron has argued convincingly that "the line between pioneer and profiteer blurred" as trans-Appalachian settlers began acquiring and profiting from land claims in a manner usually associated with absentee landlords. Yet, this blurring of class lines was not merely a one-way process in which elite standards were taken up by acquisitive lower class settlers. Influential changes spread from the bottom up as well. The methods that poor frontier settlers used to claim land shaped those of more elite speculators in their own efforts to get rich off the West.3

The life of Michael Cresap (1742-1775), a prominent frontiersman from the Maryland- Virginia border, exemplifies how settler land-claiming methods spread throughout different tiers of mid-Atlantic frontier society during the 1760s and 1770s. To be sure, Cresap was not the only individual responsible for bringing about this shift. Yet, focusing on the influence of one man is useful because it provides concrete examples of how, when, and why this change occurred, details that can be lost in studies that attempt too broad an overview of such cultural changes.4

In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, Cresap was "of the regular pioneer type" of the late colonial backcountry: ardently independent, desirous of acquiring western lands without regard to formal conventions, and "inclined to regard any red man, whether hostile or friendly, as a being who should be slain on sight. " Although Cresap did indeed embody these traits, it is inaccurate to conflate him with frontiersmen in general. He stood apart because he enjoyed the benefits of familial wealth, formal education, and several important connections to high society. Though he was not unique in this regard, he was nevertheless remarkable because he had a foot in two social and cultural worlds - that of frontier settlers and that of the educated elite. He was experienced in the land-claiming methods of both squatters and gentlemen. …

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