- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

AT THE EDGE OF EMPIRE:

THE BACKCOUNTRY IN BRITISH NORTH AMERICA

By Eric Hinderaker and

Peter C. Mancall



Johns Hopkins University Press, $49.95, $17.95 (paper), 201 pages

REVIEWED BY EVAN HAEFELI

With this book, the backwoods can finally take their place as a central factor in early American history. In this brief but authoritative account, Eric Hinderaker and Peter Mancall bring coherence to the history of the Appalachian and trans-Appalachian west, the region at the “back” of the coastal British colonies. This was the land where settlers like Daniel Boone began to set up new settlements and develop a new, distinctively American way of life.

The authors fashion their account by merging the expanding work on the backcountry (to which they have each been leading contributors) with the flourishing field of cross-cultural frontier studies, expanding their focus to include the history of Native Americans, and even 16th-century Ireland.

The result of Mr. Hinderaker’s and Mr. Mancall’s work is a deeply ambivalent portrait of the American frontier that never quite escapes the fundamental conflicts it describes. In “At the Edge of Empire,” the authors strive to reconceptualize the backcountry as a process.

In their words, by “‘backcountry’ we mean the territory that lay beyond the core settlements of mainland English colonies, and generally also beyond the control of an often weak imperial state. The backcountry was not a fixed place; its location and meaning shifted over time.” The result is a handy narrative of English colonizing activities that unfortunately tends to revive the old Anglo-centric image of frontier history, though without the old prejudices.

Historically, the backcountry was not the sort of process the authors aim at but a rather specific place. My Oxford English Dictionary finds the first use of the term backcountry (actually “back lands”) in William Penn’s 1681 “Account of Pennsylvania,” where it refers to the lands beyond the Delaware River Valley. Only after the founding of Pennsylvania introduced an infusion of settlers from all over northwestern Europe into the hills and dales of the Appalachia did the backcountry emerge as a distinctive region in colonial America.

But this process did not really begin until the early-18th century. It is a story of European colonists moving into and transforming vast and heavily depopulated forestlands into productive agricultural and even industrial land. The strongest parts of this book are those addressed to this traditional version of the backcountry.

As Mr. Hinderaker and Mr. Mancall know, the backcountry experience is easily conveyed through the life of Daniel Boone. Born in Pennsylvania in the early-18th century, he moved down to western North Carolina as a youth, and finally over the mountains into Kentucky as a man, just as the Revolution broke out along the coast. In his final years he crossed over the Mississippi into Missouri.

Boone rejected the consequences of his actions, which opened up Native American lands to colonial development and repopulation by predominantly white settlers, but this makes him no less a part of the process. Whether or not the backcountry followed him over the Mississippi River is a question this book, which stops in 1776, leaves open.

It is hard to see where 16th-, or even 18th-century Ireland fits into this picture. Indeed, references to Ireland cease after the first chapter as the story moves to the North American mainland. In America, the authors make efforts to point out the moments of exchange and coexistence between natives and newcomers, but basically they recount the familiar story of disease, war, depopulation, and dispossession. Here is the greatest difference between the “backcountry” of Ireland and America. Ireland’s natives were able to survive and largely reclaim their “backcountry.” America’s did not.

While the authors are sensitive to the complexities of the history they are describing, they still portray it from an English perspective. Native peoples and other Europeans (except for the Dutch who have a brief cameo appearance in New Netherland) enter the picture only as they get in the way of the expanding English settlements. Frontier conflicts are personalized through the experiences of English colonists like Mary Rowlandson and John Williams, who wrote about it, rather than their Indian and French foes, who did not. This does little to transform our vision of the past.

In their effort to break down the provincial image of the backcountry the authors have overreached themselves. The backcountry as a concept cannot explain much more than the backcountry, that distinctive 18th-century region of British settlement that was west of the coast and east of a Mississippi River the British did not control. But this is a significant achievement in and of itself.

Perhaps the biggest lesson this book offers is that there was a strong imperial component to the backcountry experience. This may explain why the narrative and analysis of this book only really take off in the period surrounding the Seven Years War. That was when British imperial officials began to take notice of what was happening out west, and they did not like what they saw.

To most mid-18th-century Britons the further one got from London the more one seemed to be in a backwater, a place where civilization was reduced or diminished, where cultural accomplishments fell away rather than blossomed. Kentucky, in this mind-set, was not much better off than Mongolia.

British officials loathed the backcountry for they feared they could not control it. And in the end, it was the backcountry that brought down the first British Empire. After all, it was competition over the region that drove the British Empire into its climactic confrontation with the French. The actions of land-hungry colonists like George Washington turned the confrontation into a shooting war that soon spanned the globe.

The Seven Years War made Britain the master of North America east of the Mississippi but left it with a series of fiscal and administrative problems. Britain’s clumsy efforts to resolve these problems produced the series of confrontations that provoked the American Revolution, which left Britain’s once mighty Atlantic empire with little else but Canada, Jamaica — and Ireland.

Thereafter the British turned to Asia, where they developed a new, and more controllable, empire ruling over people quite unlike Daniel Boone and places that bore no resemblance to the backcountry.

Mr. Hinderaker and Mr. Mancall successfully challenge the negative reputation that has clung to the backcountry. They demonstrate that is was an economically vital part of colonial American society. They argue that much of what British observers saw as negative, such as the absence of strictly enforced forms of religious worship, marriage, work, and land tenure, were experienced as freedom from oppressive constraints (at least by the male patriarchs who benefited most from it).

Thanks to the authors’ impressive scholarship we now understand how a place once despised as a “backcountry” quickly became the dynamic frontier of economic and social development in the United States.

Evan Haefeli is assistant professor of history at Tufts University.

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