Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830

By Graebner, Norman A. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830


Graebner, Norman A., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830. Edited by Andrew R.L. Clayton and Fredrika J. Teute. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 380. $49.95, cloth; $18.95, paper.)

This volume comprises a scholarly and instructive introduction to the new frontier history, as it has evolved over the past quarter century. For Frederick Jackson Turner, who established the earlier pattern of frontier history in his famed 1893 essay, pioneers subdued the continent in a vast triumph of American character and civilization. More recently, most students of the American frontier, including all who contributed to this volume, find Turner's approach flawed in its ethnocentrism, triumphalism, male bias, and linearity. The new scholarship perceives the frontier as less a line or boundary than a zone of interpenetration between two distinct societies, one usually indigenous, the other intrusive. The frontier process began with the arrival of intruders; it ended with the establishment of white hegemony over the zone. The processes of settlement over vast stretches of land, the emergence of towns and cities, the development of water and rail transportation, the burgeoning production of grain and livestock, and the expansion of commerce remain essential elements in the evolution of any frontier region. But the new approach emphasizes conquest and displacement of native populations over pioneer settlement and achievement, and environmental degradation over progress.

This volume is limited in time and space. It touches frontiers from New York's Mohawk Valley, central Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas to the Mississippi during the period from 1750 to 1830. Its concern is not the westward moving frontier, but a series of chronological "contact points" where two or more cultures collided to create the elements of invasion, coexistence, conflict, and displacement. James H. Merrell's long essay on Shamokin, an Indian village in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna country, analyzes an early and somewhat typical frontier clash. When the first Moravian missionaries arrived in September 1745, the village's fifty dwellings housed some three hundred Delawares, Tutelos, and Iroquois, speaking three languages. From the outset, the Indians, joined by local fur traders, resented the white intruders, but the bitter conflicts in Shamokin, fueled by liquor, were largely among the Indians themselves. Despite the apparent chaos, residents of the community developed a shared language and a satisfactory coexistence that included Indian hunters and local traders, marked by better houses and enclosed fields for livestock and farming. It was a scene of intense activity and exchange-a genuine inter-cultural community. Still, without intermarriage there was no complete amalgamation to eliminate the underlying racial tensions. With the burning of Shamokin, the outbreak of war in 1755, the building of Fort Augusta at the site in 1756, and the burgeoning presence of settlers in the region, the cultural and racial conflicts soon placed all Indians in the category of enemies. For the Indians, Fort Augusta became a source of fear and hostility. By the early 1760s the Indians began to disappear; a decade later they had been forgotten.

Stephen Aron applies this pattern of inter-cultural relations to the early Ohio frontier. …

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