Colonial Backcountry Scholarship

Beyond the Pale

An Overview of Recent Scholarship Pertaining to the Colonial Backcountry

When Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his famous address, "The Significance of The Frontier in American History," it is unlikely the young historian could have imagined the impact his concepts would have upon the course of American historical study over the next century. Insipidly received by its audience in 1893, the often maligned "Turner-thesis" has nonetheless been an influential, albeit controversial, force in the study of frontier history. For most of the twentieth-century, Turner's model has been tested, and often rebuked, against the backdrop of the Trans-Mississippi West, but, within the last two decades, many aspiring frontier historians have begun to devote their efforts to the study of the eastern perimeter. Focusing on the Trans-Appalachian frontier of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these historians comprise the mainstream of the rapidly growing field of backcountry history, which seeks to uncover the experiences and perceptions of the diverse peoples who created America's first national frontier.1

This proliferation of backcountry enthusiasts has certainly not gone unnoticed within the historical profession. Their probes into the nature and evolution of frontier communities have helped transform backcountry studies into perhaps the most dynamic endeavor of research and interpretation in recent memory. In fact, scholarship on the colonial backcountry is appearing so rapidly that the academic community is laboring to keep pace with the growth of the field. Investigative essays dealing with the state of backcountry scholarship historiography have recently been published by Gregory Nobles and Albert Tillson, Jr., himself a backcountry specialist, but their reports have already become dated in respect to the blossoming scholarship flying off of university presses.2 Nearly a dozen important backcountry studies have appeared since Nobles and Tillson published their findings (1989 and 1990), and each year the number of relevant works on the topic seems to multiply. Thus, a further exploration of backcountry scholarship is required in order to develop a more complete understanding of the current direction of the field.

The study of the colonial backcountry basically encapsulates the region of settlement which lay just beyond, and, in some cases within, the Appalachian Mountains and its sub-ranges. Within this general demarcation, the vast majority of backcountry scholarship is regional in nature, and constructed along a semi-rigid division between: (a) the northern backcountry, encompassing the frontier regions of New England and upstate New York; (b) the middle region, which includes central and western Pennsylvania, as well as Kentucky and the Ohio River valley; and, (c) the southern frontier, comprised mainly of the backcountry areas of lower Virginia and the Carolina highlands. Within these regional classifications, backcountry scholarship investigates the development of frontier communities, specifically addressing the political, economic, and social elements of backcrountry settlement and their relationship to the more established communities of the east.

Before delving into the world of the backcountry, however, the problem of defining exactly what the backcountry is must be addressed. Of critical importance herein is the relationship between the backcountry and the frontier. Although the two terms imply similar connotations and are often used interchangeably, frontier and backcountry are not necessarily considered one and the same by historians. Rather, the backcountry, loosely defined as a geographically discernible area, makes up a component part of the frontier. The backcountry, thus, is best characterized as the more or less settled regions of the frontier. Representing a larger construct, the frontier then exists as a phenomenon independent of the backcountry, a transition sector between society and the wilderness which is recreated across the historical landscape of American westward expansion.

The term "frontier" has had many connotations and has been the subject of decades of fierce scholarly debate, yet, as a cultural construct, the definition of frontier lies at the heart of backcountry studies. By and large, the majority of recent backcountry accounts base their understanding of frontier upon the model constructed by Howard Lamar and Leonard Thompson in their essay "Comparative Frontier History." Disavowing older interpretations which define the frontier as a boundary or barrier, Lamar and Thompson compare the frontier experiences of North America and South Africa in order to arrive at a new conclusion. They define the frontier as a "zone" comprised of three major characteristics: a defined territory, the presence of two or more different cultures or societies within that territory, and a discernible process of interaction between the societies or cultures.3

This idea of multi-cultural frontier espoused by Lamar and Thompson has caught hold with backcountry historians, the majority of whom adhere to this conceptualization of the frontier as "a zone of exchange between peoples, [and] an area of interaction between cultures." Moreover, these historians attribute to the frontier an ability to influence the development of the backcountry. This influence manifests itself in many of the characteristics which are historically attributed to the frontier, including widespread violence, individualism, and political and class conflict with the East. As Thomas Slaughter avows, "the frontier had a logic all its own" which produced citizens who were "independent actors on the American scene, beyond the pale of some eastern values and many eastern laws. These historians, however, also attach significance to the backcountry itself. The backcountry, which represents Lamar and Thompson's defined territory requirement for the frontier, is treated as an area on the "periphery" of American civilization, where the established institutions of eastern society have yet to fully develop. Thus, as Michael Bellesiles states, the frontier and the backcountry coexist "as an area where diverse cultures meet and interact and as a region not yet consolidated into a larger political unit."4

Within this definition, there are common themes which historians address in their appraisals of the social, economic, and political development of the backcountry, and, as Gregory Nobles has suggested, blur the previously mentioned regional distinctions in favor of a more uniform backcountry experience. Foremost among these themes are the cultural exchange between settlers and Native Americans, the effort to transplant community and family norms to the frontier, the redefining of gender roles, the shift from a subsistence economy to a market-oriented economy, the conflict over land and property rights between settlers and proprietors or absentee landowners, the development of a localized political ideology, and the profound impact which the American Revolution had upon the backcountry. The regional similarities inherent in these themes also illustrate friction with the East, a prolonged pattern of conflict which defined backcountry attitudes well into the nineteenth century.5

Native Americans naturally play a central role in backcountry history. They were already firmly entrenched in the frontier regions of colonial America by the time the first settlers came over the Appalachian Mountains and Native Americans played a diverse and important role in the development of the backcountry. Likewise, the proliferation of European traders and white settlers in the backcountry had measurable consequences for Native American culture and society. Generally characterized as "a meeting of hunters," the two cultures engaged in a dynamic process on interaction and exchange which held important ramifications for the future development of both.6

From the inception of contact, trade played a pivotal role in the interaction of the two cultures. As an inter-cultural medium of exchange, trade tied Native Americans and backcountry settlers together and altered their cultures. European imperial powers were the first to engage in trade relationships with the native peoples of the Trans-Appalachian West, seeking, in the estimation of Eric Hinderaker, to establish "empires of commerce." Based upon the mercantilist ideal that trade ought to be "a one-way flow of wealth, from the margins of empire to its center," these empires of commerce incorporated Native Americans into the European economic sphere as dependents, disrupting their traditional culture and self-sufficiency. The fur trade, among other exchange commodities, subverted traditional Native American economic autonomy and fostered an artificial dependence on European trade goods. While Hinderaker employs this approach for his study of the Ohio Valley, similar conceptualizations have been applied to the southern backcountry. Wilma Dunaway, in her economically driven assessment of southern Appalachia, argues that the fur and slave trade with the Europeans brought the Cherokees into the world-market, which in turn had a detrimental impact on their conventional society. Likewise, trade with the Europeans impacted Native Americans along the northern frontiers of New England, where Richard Melvoin suggests that "Indians were launched into a new economic orbit where trade supplanted self-sufficiency."7

Hunting was one specific way in which Native American culture was altered by trade and European cultural hegemony established. Eric Hinderaker and Peter Mancall have argued that hunting, as a economic function, was redefined by European traders in a manner which was inconsistent with traditional Native American practices. Prior to European intrusion into their world, native peoples had framed hunting within a naturalistic religious domain which reflected their cultural values. From this understanding comes the traditional view that Native Americans envisioned a communal relationship with the animals of the forest and never hunted much beyond the needs of subsistence. European traders, however, destroyed this aspect of native culture by demanding huge quantities of furs and skins in exchange for manufactured goods. As a result, Mancall argues that Native Americans were prompted "to reorient their economic practices, at times with disturbing implications." Native Americans, dependent on European trade, hunted pelt-bearing animals to near extinction, and, in exchange, they received progressively less for their goods, settling for beads, trinkets, and, eventually, alcohol. In the process, Hinderaker and Wilma Dunaway have argued that traditional "status and social authority" among native Americans were reordered by the shift to market-driven economies.8

The disruption of Native American norms was not without its counterpart among the settlers of the backcountry. Early migrants to the frontier often adopted native customs as survival techniques, which usually brought sharp criticism from eastern observers. Hunting again serves as a profound example. Stephen Aron has convincingly shown that backcountry inhabitants turned to hunting to supplement their meager agricultural production, an overt incorporation of native practices which brought screams of derision from Eastern elites, who saw the adoption of hunting as the degradation of civilized society. As Albert Tillson illustrates, backcountry settlers were generally ridiculed in the East as "the dregs of human society who spend their time in murdering wild beasts." Eastern commentators associated hunting with laziness and argued that it kept settlers from engaging in more "civilizing pursuits." The underlying problem, however, was that the adoption of hunting by frontier settlers illustrated to the East that the backcountry was, as John Mack Faragher contends, a "mixed cultural world" where settlers and natives exchanged not only economic goods but cultural trappings as well.9

Moreover, eastern elites blamed the adoption of Native American culture for creating a backcountry filled with "white Indians," a derisive term for the fiercely independent core of backcountry settlers who apparently held very little esteem for their supposed eastern betters. Eastern observers were aghast that these settlers refused to adhere to the agrarian practices of eastern society, and instead wallowed in the excesses of democracy and leisure afforded by what was perceived to be the lack of institutional control in the backcountry. Elizabeth Perkins, among others, contends these degenerated white settlers were thus viewed by easterners as "wild men" living "in a perfect state of war," and that elites were convinced that only the extension of established societal institutions from the East could reverse this degenerative process and return backcountry settlers to civilization."10

Eastern perceptions of the lack of civilized society in backcountry communities were sometimes consistent with the unorganized status of frontier communities, yet these eastern commentators often failed to take into the hardships of settlement. Most backcountry works argue that the settlers who emigrated to the backcountry made every effort to preserve their cultural moorings but were often overcome by the difficulty of constructing communities in the wilderness. Eastern commentators were generally unsympathetic towards this experience and, as a result, tended to trivialize the settlers' struggles. Modern backcountry scholarship has endeavored to uncover the factors at work which influenced backcountry development and brought settlers into conflict with their eastern cousins.

As Gregory Nobles has noted, "settlement everywhere on the colonial frontier involved clear attempts to transplant familiar forms of family and community life." Unfortunately, the majority of such attempts seem to have failed, as backcountry communities seldom exhibited the social structures of the more established Eastern communities. Accepted patterns of existence often failed under the test of a new physical environment, and the hardships of frontier life overpowered settlers' attempts to foster community relations. Richard Beeman, in his study of the southern Virginia backcountry, encapsulates this theory when he asserts that "the initial process of community formation....was consistently thwarted by the conditions of the frontier." In the opinion of Joan Cashin, the frontier thus altered accepted standards of community and forged a new understanding.11

A recurrent problem among all the regions of the backcountry was the haphazard nature of settlement, or what George Franz terms the problem of "high geographic mobility." Rather than a structured method of settlement where residents put down solid roots and forged ties with their neighbors, the backcountry was characterized by what Michael Bellesiles calls a "crazy-quilt pattern of settlement."12 This irregularity was present throughout the backcountry, manifesting itself in differing forms from the "posession camps" of Maine to the "one or two family outposts" in Kentucky down to the "sparsely populated" frontier regions of Virginia and the Carolinas. In each region, the "astonishing mobility" of backcountry settlers greatly undermined the establishment of a localized community. With little or no emphasis placed on central community, the public institutions which assisted in the maintenance of society, such as churches and local courts, were not able to assume the same prominence within the backcountry communities that they enjoyed in the East. The result, argues Franz, was the formation of "ad-hoc" communities where the institutions of community structure were "minimal and latent," functioning effectively only in reaction to a crisis or pervasive problem.13

The settlement patterns of families also stretch across regional divides. Most settlers of the backcountry arrived on the frontier as "part of a single, nuclear family" or, more commonly, as a component part of a larger group of individual families. In New England, where the primacy of the family remains at the heart of backcountry settlement, hundreds of families moved to the frontier in an effort to preserve their society of "many independent family farms." Both Alan Taylor and Michael Bellesiles concur that the desire to maintain this traditional agrarian lifestyle propelled families to the frontier regions of Maine and Vermont in astonishing numbers. Family migrations in the middle-region and the South were very similar to those of New England. Elizabeth Perkins's work has uncovered evidence that suggests that it was quite common for groups of families to travel together to Kentucky, as families often migrated in groups out of fear of being attacked along the route by Native Americans. Joan Cashin also portrays settlement of the southwestern frontier as a family driven enterprise, and, although her emphasis on the social aspirations of young men as the principal factor in migration is somewhat problematic, there is a corollary which can be drawn between southerner's desires to perpetuate their society with those of New Englanders and the Kentucky settlers.14

By comparison, while a good deal is known regarding the settlement patterns of families in the backcountry, the work which investigates the efforts of these frontier families to construct communities is limited. The good news is that it appears to be growing. Joan Cashin has attempted to uncover the means by which families created community in the southwestern backcountry, and Alan Taylor has briefly touched on the issue in his discussion of the Maine frontier. The best recent work on this topic, however, has been produced by Elizabeth Perkins with regard to the settlement of Kentucky. Perkins delves into community-building practices in Kentucky, where communities were centered around small fortified clusterings of houses known as stations. This process of "forting up" afforded the settlers a means of protection against attacks by Native Americans, but also provided cohesion between family groups and served as the foundations of future community development, as neighborhoods grew up around these stations. In the process, Perkins claims that frontier migrants "blurred what had become a customary European distinction between military and civilian populations." Thus, the settlers were forced to become assume the duties of both the civilian and military realms by virtue of the fact that they had constructed their homes in the midst of a perpetual combat zone. William Wycoff has also alluded to the realization that the "detailed look and personality" of backcountry communities resulted from diverse experiences of settlement, but, aside from Perkins's work on Kentucky, there is a great deal left to be done with this concept. Specifically, it is necessary to develop a further understanding of the differences and similarities between the fortified backcountry communities which developed amidst the threat of native violence (Ohio valley) and the more loosely organized communities which arose in regions where Native American did not pose a serious threat (New England).15

When Gregory Nobles offered his assessment of backcountry historiography in 1989, he lamented the lack of female perspective in backcountry literature. At that time, few works addressed the settlement experiences of women, but more recent scholarship has begun to address this deficiency. The consensus of these accounts, however, is that life for the average frontier woman was difficult at best. Migration to the frontier stripped women of what Alan Taylor labels "their social and economic networks of female kin and friends." The sporadic nature of backcountry settlement made resumption of this female social infrastructure difficult and worked to increase female dependency. Isolated from other females and alone within the family structure, frontier wives and daughters became increasingly dependent on their husbands and fathers to define their social position. Joan Cashin argues that along the southwestern frontier male and female sex-roles became extreme versions of eastern standards, which unfairly cast women deeper into dependency while men sought personal independence from their families.16

The daily life of women was also strained by frontier conditions. By all standards, the living conditions for pioneer women were "primitive," and their daily routine reflected this condition. There existed a general division of labor, especially in hunting communities, where women were bequeathed the lion's share of the work. Their duties included most of the agricultural work which supplemented the hunting-based subsistence economy of the frontier, as well as child-rearing, tending livestock, food production, household maintenance, and even defense of the settlement in times of attack. Women also occasionally participated in limited forms of outwork in an effort to supplement the family's meager economic situation. Wilma Dunaway goes so far as to argue that women in southern Appalachia were exploited by their environment and that the average frontier women was coerced by society into becoming little more than an "unpaid employee of her husband."17

Economic development in the backcountry was linked more-or-less to the growth of a market economy. Most backcountry historians argue that initial settlers, regardless of region, took part in a subsistence economy where the process of exchange was limited. Nonetheless, an interesting alternative view is presented by Wilma Dunaway. Basing her arguments on an economic paradigm crafted from the tenants of the world-systems analysis created by Immanuel Wallerstein and popularized by sociologists, Dunaway contends that subsistence agriculture never truly existed in southern Appalachia C she labels such a conception "the subsistent homesteader myth." Instead, the economy of this region was, from its inception, capitalist in nature and in practice. However, Dunaway's interpretation of the term "capitalist" is rather rigid, as her claims for the primacy of capitalist tendencies often relies upon her narrow assumption that subsistence agriculture could not have existed because "it is not possible for households to survive without any interdependence." Dunaway argues that any such interdependence, no matter how trifling, is evidence of capitalism.18

However, neither Richard Beeman nor Albert Tillson concur with this assertion that a subsistence economy was nonexistent along the southern frontier. Rather, they argue that the shift to an export-driven economy came slowly, after a marked period of subsistence production, and they also assert that this shift did not occur without resistance. Market development, however, had differing effects in the various regions of the backcountry. Moreover, these differences delineated along a more north-south division than other aspects of backcountry development, with certain middling areas of the frontier more closely resembling either the North or the South. Perhaps a prelude of the friction to come in the nineteenth-century, the economy of the northern backcountry evolved along dual lines of subsistence and surplus, while that of the southern frontier became increasingly dependent on the growth of cash crops for the market. In the process, however, both northerners and southerners faced similar problems with respect to privation and questions of land ownership.19

Poverty was a common economic denominator among backcountry inhabitants in the north, south, and middle regions of the Trans-Appalachian frontier. On various levels throughout the backcountry, settlers were suffering under such stringent economic hardships that Thomas Slaughter contends "poverty was the standard." Again, the scattered nature of frontier settlement played an important role in this economic malaise. Most backcountry settlements were extremely rural, consisting of tiny homesteads often separated by miles from one another. The quality of these homesteads was generally quite poor, and the houses themselves were sometimes little more than a "tiny mud-floored and chimneyless cabin." Still, this type of settlement was preferred by settlers over town-based communities, as the majority of backcountry inhabitants were determined to eke out a meager existence from their agrarian toils. Yet, as William Wycoff points out, even when the patterns of settlement were relatively well-organized, there was still no stable community infrastructure with the ability to "control every element of frontier village life or eliminate its uncertainties."20

The downside, for the settlers, was the detrimental effect these "ad-hoc" communities had upon agricultural production. Peter Mancall argues that the lack of community developments hindered food production, as the backcountry initially lacked sufficient mills, stores, and transportation outlets for adequate development of a surplus food market. Michael Bellesiles concurs, arguing that advanced agricultural production was impeded because settlers had to sow their grain by hand and grind their meal using "tedious and time-consuming" traditional methods. One drastic result was that backcountry inhabitants often did not have enough to eat, let alone produce for surplus. Alan Taylor illustrates that many backcountry families included large numbers of young children, who constituted mouths to feed but offered little in the way of labor assistance. Droughts, pestilence, and harsh winters fostered even further levels of economic hardship. A common result, noted by Richard Beeman and Elizabeth Perkins, was that settlers often picked up and left the backcountry C occasionally to return to the East C but more often for another frontier region where economic hardship was perceived to be less severe.21

Partially as a result of the initial squalor of the settlers, economic development in the northern backcountry did not necessarily conform to the standards of a market economy. Alan Taylor, Michael Bellesiles, and Thomas Slaughter are united in their contention that backcountry inhabitants were content with subsistence agriculture and entered into market production only on a limited basis. Taylor argues that northern backcountry inhabitants did so in order to perpetuate "the social order they cherished, a social order of many small but roughly equal farms run by family members." Additionally, these settlers were not willing to risk what little surplus they had in an uncertain market. This mindset brought northern settlers into conflict with eastern elites and absentee landowners, who envisioned an agrarian backcountry which produced surplus agriculture for exchange in the markets of the East. Time proved to be the supreme mediating force. Peter Mancall argues that in the wake of the American Revolution most of the northern backcountry adapted to an "export-oriented economy" and gradually began to participate in the market economy of the East. Most backcountry historians agree with Mancall, arguing that northern backcountry inhabitants did become increasingly dependent on the production of marketable goods such as whiskey, potash, lumber, and export grains, even though the production of these items remained largely secondary to subsistence agriculture until the nineteenth-century. Not unlike their Native American counterparts, backcountry settlers were eventually drawn into a market-based economic system which altered their previous mode of production (subsistence farming).22

Gregory Nobles has pointed out that the historiography of the southern backcountry reveals "a stronger emphasis on economic and social integration" than that of the North. For starters, the southern backcountry was more market driven.23 The desire to produce cash crops for export, like in the rest of the South, was strong among backcountry inhabitants. Backcountry settlers, however, also aspired to rise in the social ranks of the South. Although these settlers began as humble subsistence producers, their goal was always to emulate the great planters of the coastal regions in both economic and social circles. Nonetheless,southern backcountry settlers found their road to social and economic elitism to be filled with obstacles. Richard Beeman argues that the lack of an abundant labor force, requisite for the type of staple crop production the settlers envisioned, the distance from markets, and the inadequacy of southern river systems also posed serious impediments to the development of backcountry planters. Furthermore, the southern backcountry had the added burden of slavery.24

Slaveholding served a dual purpose for inhabitants of the southern backcountry. As Wilma Dunaway argues, it obviously helped alleviate the labor scarcity of the backcountry, but, as Beeman and Tillson contend, slaveholding lay at the core of the socioeconomic designs of aspiring frontier planters. Based on the manipulation of slave labor, which Dunaway argues was capitalist in the extreme, backcountry settlers endeavored mightily to recreate the world of their eastern betters and assume their rightful place as heads of society. Perhaps the greatest approximation of this design was Lexington, which Stephen Aron contends had literally become "a new Tidewater." Despite their accumulation of wealth and property, however, backcountry settlers never truly rose to the same level of social elitism as that of their eastern counterparts in the late eighteenth century. Richard Beeman illustrates that these backcountry aspirants held a greater quantity of land than eastern planters, but they could not match the coastal elites in terms of sheer economic power nor could they socially emulate the planters in manners or distinction. Thus, even the wealthiest backcountry inhabitants emerge in these studies as bumptious planter impostors and they would continue to be so until the southern infrastructure developed in response to their needs in the early nineteenth century. A curious parallel exists between these frontier dandies and the aspiring eastern colonial elite of earlier generations, both of whom made every exertion to emulate a more established social aristocracy (either coastal American or British) but were equally rebuffed by virtue of their geographical proximity to the center of established society.25

Despite the differing pathways of economic development taken by the northern and southern backcountry, they shared one substantial result of advancement: conflict with eastern proprietors and frontier landowners over property rights. As the backcountry became more economically stable, which coincided with a rapid increase in population, the question of land ownership became a hot topic. The majority of backcountry settlers had acquired their property by what Stephen Aron terms the "rights of the woods." Squatting on a desirable parcel of land, these settlers claimed ownership largely by virtue of improvements they made to the property. Such improvements could range from construction of an actual homestead to simply "blazing" trees with a hatchet or tomahawk as an indication of ownership. Conflict arose when it was revealed that many of these settlers' claims were in violation of property deeds held by wealthy land speculators.26

The battle over land ownership basically evolved around the contrary positions of the two antagonists. Alan Taylor summarizes the settlers' position as that of "material assets"and the argument of the landowners as based on "legal right." This analogy can be applied to land disputes throughout the backcountry, as the fundamental issue was almost always the validity of the possession claims of settlers versus the land titles held by the speculators. However, the situation was even more muddied because the surveyors employed by wealthy landowners often logged conflicting claims over the same tract of land. John Mack Faragher illustrates this point in his biography of Daniel Boone. Despite being totally unqualified, Boone spent years as a surveyor in Kentucky, where he botched numerous land titles, including his own. The real blame, however, lay not so much with these incompetent surveyors but with the governing agencies which oversaw land sales, as Faragher contends they allowed haphazard land purchases and "failed to provide adequate procedures for cross checking surveys."27

Resolution of the land quarrel took many forms. In Vermont, it ended without much of a struggle as proprietors quickly sold their claims to settlers at reasonably fair prices because it was publicly recognized that the proprietors' land titles were fraudulent. In the backcountry of Maine, events unfolded very differently, as landowning proprietors tried to legally and forcefully enforce their property claims on settlers. Taking the title "Liberty Men," and later adopting the derisive term "white Indians" as a slogan of defiance, these settlers organized a fervent resistance against the proprietors which had violent ramifications and stopped just short of open rebellion. By and large, however, most of the land disputes were settled within the legal arena as courts recognized the legality of speculators' ownership deeds but allowed settlers to buy back their land at regulated prices. In turn, landowners issued fairly generous terms of sale to new buyers or offered poor residents attractive arrangements for tenancy in lieu of payment in return for their renouncement of possession rights by virtue of improvement.28

Backcountry settlers' battle for property rights naturally led to their demand for political recognition and local autonomy. Alan Taylor's Liberty Men of the Maine frontier evidenced a certain political consciousness in their resistance of absentee landowners, a quality which manifested itself in other backcountry inhabitants. Throughout the backcountry, settlers mobilized with the common goals of resisting external control and promoting their political self-interest. This conflict took diverse forms but, across the backcountry, settlers believed their resistance was grounded in traditional law. The "Liberty Men," argues Taylor, believed their resistance was not only legal but that it actually "upheld the state constitution." Moreover, in Maine, as well as other backcountry regions, inhabitants justified their actions as consistent with the "protection covenant" theory of government, a Lockean model of resistance in which the governed retained the right to revolt when the government failed in its contractual obligations to its people, which included refusing to extend representation to the frontier. In the process, these settlers came into conflict with eastern political leaders and local bigshots, who opposed backcountry efforts to create "a less deferential, more localistic, popular political culture."29

Although backcountry political resistance occurred on varying degrees, and occasionally erupted in violence, this Lockean conception of politics was behind the majority of resistance. As Gregory Nobles has noted, backcountry inhabitants did not rally against the extension of control as much as they demanded a more efficient form of government which would be more responsive to local interests. The Paxton boys and whiskey rebels of Pennsylvania resorted to violence for outwardly different reasons, but both George Franz and Thomas Slaughter concur that their political motivations were based on this traditional philosophy. Both groups demanded increased representation in government, not so much to assert their views in the East but as a means of preserving local autonomy against the treachery of "remote central governments." Likewise, resistance in the North and the South exhibited similar traits, where this political ideology of the backcountry influenced the creation of Vermont's uniquely democratic and locally driven constitution and help redefine the traditional functions of political institutions and positions in Virginia and Kentucky.30

Compromise between the localized ideology of the backcountry and the centralized visions of state and federal governments eventually became the mechanism by which the frontier regions were incorporated into the national sphere. At the state level, Richard Beeman has illustrated how the extension of eastern institutions melded with backcountry values to form a "political solidarity" which echoed the larger beliefs of Virginia and the South. The growth of traditional institutions exposed the frontier regions to eastern political ideas and allowed backcountry inhabitants to align themselves with eastern factions. On the national plain, Eric Hinderaker has argued that federal visions of the backcountry were tempered by "the complicated social patterns and tangled histories of the settlers." The United States government's vision of the frontier was thus altered by the demands and expectations of backcountry settlers, many of whom openly threatened defiance of any federal mandates which infringed too heavily upon their local rights. Faced with the possibility of insurrection in the backcountry, the federal government adopted a plan which would bring these dissident settlers back into the national fold by adopting their local interests into the federal agenda in exchange for their allegiance to the government. The resulting compromise transformed the backcountry into a national domain where federal authority, represented by the army, preserved localized interests while maintaining a regional order based upon "the continued voluntary adherence of its citizens." With the political assimilation of the backcountry in the early 1900s, the Trans-Appalachian frontier officially dissolved and the Trans-Mississippi West became the backcountry of the nineteenth-century.31

Perhaps the most common theme in all these backcountry studies is the pervasive influence of the American Revolution, particularly upon the relationship between the frontier communities and their eastern counterparts. Backcountry scholars agree that the tensions between East and West did not originate with the revolution, such conflict had shown its face repeatedly over the previous century, from Bacon's Rebellion to the Regulator movements of the Carolinas. The revolution, however, provided what Thomas Slaughter insists was "an occasion, and a language, for resolving the perennial complaints of wilderness life." In Lunenburg County, Virginia, the events and ideology of the revolution actually diffused regional rivalries and helped forge stable bonds between contending factions. Like other frontier regions, the trials of the revolution, which included answering the Loyalist challenge during the war, brought the southern backcountry into closer contact with the institutions of the east in a cooperative manner. Although East-West antagonisms sometimes renewed after the close of the revolution, the temporary solidarity opened channels of communication which helped pave the way for the future integration of the Trans-Appalachian West into the national landscape.32

Thus, in many ways the American Revolution legitimized the backcountry. As Eric Hinderaker has argued, the revolution began on the seaboard but its legacy lay in the West. National solvency and, indeed, future national growth required that the American insurgents not only secure their frontier territories from the British and the Native Americans, but that they come to terms with the demands of backcountry settlers in order to preserve the West as a future outlet for expansion. Stephen Aron has shown that the revolution created a climate where tens of thousands of settlers poured across the Allegheny Mountains and into the backcountry. Following the revolution, the federal government had to come to terms with this increased frontier population while trying to contain what Michael Bellesiles names "the radical [backcountry] forces unleashed by the revolution." The result was, in the estimation of Hinderaker, the creation of an "empire of liberty" in the West. In order to quell backcountry radicalism and secure the region to the new nation, the federal government made national interests in the backcountry secondary to the concerns of the settlers. Backcountry residents were thus freed from many of the constraints that they had been subjected to by the British government, especially with regard to the appropriation of Native American lands. In turn, the American government adopted a program of expansion and native removal which coincided with the desires of the settlers for land and local autonomy. In so doing, the government gained not only the loyalty of backcountry inhabitants but also took control [militarily] of westward expansion.33

The frontier, as a zone of interaction and exchange between divergent cultures, defined the borderlands of America and molded the backcountry politically, economically, and socially. Moreover, as Michael Bellesiles has ascertained, the backcountry regions of the northern frontier shared many of the same characteristics as those of the South and the middle-region, and all were dramatically affected by the American Revolution. This truism notwithstanding, there remain gaps in our understanding of the backcountry. While advancements have been made in the study of community-building and women's roles, much more work needs to be done in these areas in order to provide a more balanced understanding. From a geographical standpoint, the backcountry regions of New England, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Kentucky, the current hot-bed of backcountry research, have been fairly well-chronicled. Curiously absent from these studies are full-length treatments centering upon the lower south, including the frontier of Georgia and Alabama, as well as the upper Ohio Valley, specifically the regions of western Pennsylvania and [West] Virginia.34

On a methodological note, the vast majority of these backcountry works are social history intermingled with economic and political considerations. Uncovering the daily aspects of settlers' lives and community is challenging and necessary work, but a major shortcoming in current backcountry historiography is the lack of military perspective. As Richard Melvoin has suggested, "the major force that challenged the frontier was war." Violent conflict, with Native Americans especially, was an intricate part of backcountry life and had immense implications upon the development of the institutions of the colonial backcountry. Although numerous works consider relations with Native Americans or perhaps discuss the impact of the American Revolution upon the backcountry, there are few works which place martial considerations on an equal footing with social factors. Richard Melvoin's work is an exception. Another is Thad Tate and Peter Albert's collection of essays, An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution. Elizabeth Perkins and Eric Hinderaker also hint at the significance of violence in shaping the backcountry, but barely scratch the surface of its importance. Violence or the threat of violence directly influenced the way backcountry communities developed and the cultural conflict of the frontier helped shape American perceptions of their society, their nation, and the Native Americans against whom they fought. More works emphasizing this aspect of the backcountry need to be produced so that this emerging society, where the prospect of war striking close to home was a near everyday occurrence, can be fully comprehended in all of its facets.35

In retrospect, the social, economic, and political development of the backcountry, which occurred not only simultaneously but also interdependently, although without any set pattern or organization, was something entirely new to the North American continent. This type of overlapping development was a distinctly American experience, and it marked a departure from the colonial world and the dawning of a new age for Americans as they grappled to create a new nation. Within this development, many of the ideals and values which make up American national character were born, setting the stage for over two centuries of our nation's history. This history is comprised of numerous peoples of diverse backgrounds, and recent backcountry scholarship has embraced this multi-culturalism in an effort to develop a more contextual history of the United States.

Moreover, the driving factor which seems to be propelling this surge in backcountry studies is a desire to fill a fundamental gap in American history. The Trans-Appalachian frontier served as a type of proving ground for the frontier experience of the nineteenth-century, yet it has not been the subject of a large and thriving body of scholarship. Thus, historians are working backwards from the voluminous literature of the nineteenth-century frontier in order to rediscover the lessons of earlier frontiers. The colonial backcountry became the first national frontier for the United States, and the experiences of its settlers, institutions, and development had a profound impact on future frontiers. By studying the Trans-Appalachian frontier, it may be possible to ascertain how elements of that experience effected future frontiers.


Aron, Stephen. How the West was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Beeman, Richard R. The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry: A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia, 1746-1832. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

Bellesiles, Michael A. Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Cashin, Joan E. A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dunaway, Wilma A. The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. New York: Holt, 1992.

Franz, George William. Paxton: A Study of Community Structure and Mobility in the Colonial Pennsylvania Backcountry. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.

Hinderaker, Eric. Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1763-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Mancall, Peter C. Valley of Opportunity: Economic Culture Along the Upper Susquehanna, 1700-1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Melvoin, Richard I. New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield. New York: Norton, 1988.

Perkins, Elizabeth Ann. "Border life: Experience and Perception in the Revolutionary Ohio Valley. Ph.D. Diss., Northwestern University, 1992.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Taylor, Alan. Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Tillson, Albert H. Gentry and Common Folk: Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier, 1740-1789. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

Wycoff, William. The Developer's Frontier: The Making of the Western New York Landscape. New York: Yale University Press, 1988.


1 John Mack Faragher, ed., Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and Other Essays, (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1994), 1-3, 11-30.

2 Gregory H. Nobles, "Breaking into the Backcountry: New Approaches to the Early American Frontier, 1750-1800," William and Mary Quarterly 46 (Oct. 1989): 641-670; Albert H. Tillson Jr., "The Southern Backcountry: A Survey of Current Research," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98 (July 1990): 387-421.

3 Howard R. Lamar and Leonard Thompson, "Comparative Frontier History," in Lamar and Thompson, eds., The Frontier in History: North American and South Africa Compared (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 6-10.

4 Richard I. Melvoin, New England Outpost: War and Society in Colonial Deerfield (New York: Norton, 1989), 283; Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 62; Stephen Aron, How the West was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 2-3; Michael Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Independence on the Early American Frontier. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

5 Nobles, "Breaking into the Backcountry," 643.

6 Aron, How the West Was Lost, 5-6.

7 Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1-2, 46-77; Wilma A. Dunaway, The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 23-50; Melvoin, New England Outpost, 34-37.

8 Hinderaker, Elusive Empires, 66-71; Peter C. Mancall, Valley of Opportunity: Economic Culture along the Upper Susquehanna, 1700-1800 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 54-70; Dunaway, The First American Frontier, 34-39.

9 Aron, How the West Was Lost, 13-27; Albert H. Tillson Jr., Gentry and Common Folk: Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier, 1740-1789 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1991), 10; John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1992), 18-23 (quotation appears on p. 19).

10 Elizabeth Ann Perkins, Border Life: Experience and Perception in the Revolutionary Ohio Valley (Ph.D. Diss., Northwestern University, 1992), 201-202; Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, 63-64; Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 1-2.

11 Nobles, "Breaking into the Backcountry," 648; Richard R. Beeman, The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry: A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia, 1746-1832 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 13; Joan E. Cashin, A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 61-72.

12 Two notable exceptions are second and third settlements of Deerfield, Massachusetts, and the development of western New York. Both were "atypical" of normal frontier settlement in that they were planned in advance and the settlement was well-executed. Melvoin, New England Outpost, 58-69; William Wycoff, The Developer's Frontier: The Making of the Western New York Landscape (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 4-16.

13 George W. Franz, Paxton: A Study of Community Structure and Mobility in the Colonial Pennsylvania Backcountry (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1989), 7-8; Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 46-51 (quotation appears on p. 46); Alan W. Taylor, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement of the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 28; Hinderaker, Elusive Empires, 195-199; Beeman, Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 8-9, 16-21, 30-31

14 Wycoff, The Developer's Frontier, 108; Taylor, Liberty Men, 61-62; Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 35-36; Perkins, Border Life, 106-109; Cashin, A Family Venture, 32-52.

15 Taylor, Liberty Men, 62-66; Cashin, A Family Venture, 61-77; Perkins, Border Life, 112-137 (quotation appears on p. 113); Wycoff, The Developer's Frontier, 130-131.

16 Nobles, "Breaking into the Backcountry," 650; Taylor, Liberty Men, 71; Aron, How the West Was Lost, 26-27; Cashin, A Family Venture, 99-102, 108-112.

17 Wycoff, The Developer's Frontier, 118-119; Aron, How the West Was Lost, 26-27, 34-35; Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 54; Dunaway, The First American Frontier, 117-119, 188-190.

18 Dunaway, The First American Frontier, 123-145 (quotation appears on p. 123).

19 Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 46-47, 58-59; Taylor, Liberty Men, 76-77; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 10; Beeman, Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 34.

20 Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, 66-71 (quotation appears on p. 66); Taylor, Liberty Men, 71-73; Wycoff, The Developer's Frontier, 126.

21 Mancall, Valley of Opportunity, 172-173; Bellesiles, Revolutionary outlaws, 54-53; Beeman, Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 67; Perkins, Border Life, 93-94.

22 Taylor, Liberty Men, 75-85; Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 54-48; Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, Mancall, Valley of Opportunity, 228.

23 Albert Tillson contends that despite the economic and social aspirations of southern backcountry inhabitants, the economy along the frontier of Virginia remained "small-scale" and locally-based well after the Revolution. Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 10-11.

24 Nobles, "Breaking into the Backcountry," 656; Beeman, The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 34-37; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 10-11; Cashin, A Family Venture, 199-121.

25 Dunaway, The First American Frontier, 108-115, 134-136; Beeman, Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 60-96; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 16-19; Aron, How the West Was Lost, 124-149 (quotation appears on p. 126).

26 Aron, How the West Was Lost, 102-104; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 59-62; Taylor, Liberty Men, 24-29.

27 Taylor, Liberty Men, 24-29; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 59-62; Hinderaker, Elusive Empires, 247-249; Faragher, Daniel Boone, 240-242.

28 Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 41-44; Taylor, Liberty Men, 89-208; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 62; Aron, How the West Was Lost, 122-123; Perkins, Border Life, 210-219.

29 Taylor, Liberty Men, 109-112; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 45.

30 Nobles, "Breaking into the Backcountry," 666; Franz, Paxton, 272-273; Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, 127-131; Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 138-141; Perkins, Border Life, 228-240; Beeman, Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 43-51, 80-84; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 64-77.

31 Beeman, Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 214-218; Hinderaker, Elusive Empires, 226-227, 268-269.

32 Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, 31-32; Beeman, Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, 141-142; Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk, 101-137.

33 Hinderaker, Elusive Empires, 227-228, 268-270; Aron, How the West Was Lost, 192-194; Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 257-259.

34 Bellesiles, Revolutionary Outlaws, 2.

35 Melvoin, New England Outpost 284; Thad Tate and Peter J. Albert, An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1985).