But to return to our settlers. I must tell you, that there is something in the proximity of the woods, which is very singular. It is with men as it is woth the plants and animals that grow in the forest; they are entirely different from those that live in the plains.
CRÉVECOEUR, Letters from an American Farmer
Since the first eighteenth-century traveler put pen to paper, observers have disagreed about the character of life in the American backcountry. As land seekers pushed west through the Virginia and Pennsylvania uplands into the mountains and rich lands beyond, they became in their critics' eyes a distinctive race, "back-woods men" or "back settlers," a "mongrel breed, half-civilized, half savage," living in squalid huts, and known more for whiskey drinking and eye-gouging than for signs of honest toil. Yet to more sympathetic observers these same settlers were the advance agents of an expanding "republican empire," sturdy yeomen transforming the wooded wastes of Kentucky and Ohio into neat farms and homesteads while struggling to re-create the social and cultural standards of the East. 1
Two hundred years has not resolved this debate. Recent scholarship continues to oscillate between contested realities, paradigms of regression or progression, ennoblement or ensavagement. For historian Bernard Bailyn, the border was a marchland, "a periphery, a ragged outer