- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006


By Alan Taylor

Knopf, $35, 542 pages, illus.


H. L. Mencken defined a historian as an unsuccessful novelist, but I should have thought it was the other way ‘round.

For evidence of the strong narrative potentialities of contemporary historians we need look no further than Alan Taylor’s “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic,” a winner of the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes a decade ago that at times is as absorbing as any thriller.

Mr. Taylor’s latest work, “The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution,” does not rise quite to that level of fascination, despite sharing with it several characteristics.

Both books focus on two men, deal with roughly the same geographical area and time frame — central and northern New York in the latter half of the 18th century — are organized along chronological/conceptual lines, are formidably researched and display a breathtaking intellectual understanding.

In one essential respect this book makes me think of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. Historians long ago demonstrated that Pocahontas acted as she did in an effort to help her people, yet the myth of white America persists that she acted out of love for Smith — the myth being but a particularization of a general need to believe that Indians instinctively embraced the white incursion, then and later, as Pocahontas embraced Smith.

So it is in “The Divided Ground.” The popular belief has been that European/American triumph over Indian culture was inevitable and that Indians were limited — even resigned — to nothing more than a succession of delaying actions. This view, says Mr. Taylor, a professor at the University of California at Davis, ignores the extreme fluidity of conditions in the 1780s and 1790s, the fierce Indian resolve and the uncertainty among all parties of the outcome.

Central to Mr. Taylor’s discussion is “Iroquoia,” the territory spreading out from north-central New York inhabited by the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. During the Revolutionary War most Iroquois were on British side, except for Oneidas and some Tuscaroras.

The author organizes his book by tracing the lives of two men, contemporaries who beginning in 1761 attended the same New England boarding school: Joseph Brant, a young Mohawk, and Samuel Kirkland, son of a downwardly mobile Connecticut clergyman.

Brant eventually “thrived as both a colonial gentleman and a Mohawk chief;” Kirkland early on conceived a passion to convert Indians to evangelical Christianity, but ended up contributing to the Indians’ decline by “subordinating his religious mission to political ends,” and to avaricious ones that made him a fairly wealthy man.

“By narrating their lives,” Mr. Taylor writes, “this book examines the making of twin borders that constituted the new United States” — the boundaries between settlers and Indians and between the British Empire and the nascent American republic.

Hence the title. Focusing on Brant’s Mohawks and the Oneidas hosting Kirkland’s mission, the book chronicles the dividing of one amorphous “borderland” — Iroquoia — into two bordered lands, the state of New York and the province of Upper Canada.

Brant, who “embraced Loyalism [to Britain] to serve Mohawk interests,” had a vision of an enduring Indian confederacy between the British Empire and the United States. The Oneida, in particular, preferred to lease rather than sell land, seeking to channel white “settlement in ways that would preserve their control, bolster their boundaries and enhance their income.”

But their and other Indians’ hopes were foiled by a series of steps by British, federal and New York authorities and by speculators that can only be described as a legal double shuffle centering on the doctrine of “preemption.” This was the notion that only the white civil authorities could determine how land got distributed.

The once fluid geographic borders separating the empire and the new republic hardened, squeezing the Indians into a few pockets of reserved land. The Seneca chief, Red Jacket, articulated the Indian opposition in his spirited response to an American declaration in 1796 which announced that Indians now lived within American borders:

“You are a cunning People without Sincerity, and not to be trusted … . for we had thought our Lands were our own, not within your Boundaries, but joining the British, and between you and them.”

The welter — the virtual anarchy — of conflicting land claims is in itself fascinating to read about. As for preemption, it was, in the author’s estimation, little “more than a partisan fiction asserted to dispossess native people.”

At the end, the lay reader can be forgiven for concluding that they were all, plain and simple, Indian-cheaters, almost to a man.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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