Daniel S. Dupre. Alabama's Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South. A History of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier Series. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018. 288 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-02727-6.
Reviewed by Robbie Ethridge (University of Mississippi)
Published on H-AmIndian (April, 2019)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
Telling the Big Story of Alabama's Frontiers
In Alabama’s Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South, Daniel S. Dupre offers a well-written, nicely comprehensive, and inclusive social history of Alabama before and immediately after statehood. Dupre’s narrative begins in the sixteenth century when the Native people of present-day Alabama encountered Europeans for the first time and ends in the early nineteenth century with the removal of the Native Alabamians and the rise of the cotton economy of the Old South. Dupre’s treatment of these three hundred years departs from most conventional state histories in that he places Indians at the center of the historical action throughout the book. By so doing, the consequent colonial complexities of multiple Indian, European, and later American nations vying for the same territory are rendered in the round. Dupre examines all sides of a contest that lasted throughout these three hundred years, documenting the waxing and waning power differentials, with a good dose of how daily life for all was affected and changed over time. Dupre’s focus stays within the territorial boundaries of present-day Alabama, but he is careful to contextualize events in Alabama within the larger history of which they were a part. Hence, one should not be misled by the title—the book is certainly about Alabama, but it is so much more.
Dupre divides the book into three sections: “Beginnings,” “The Imperial Frontier,” and “The Settlers’ Frontier.” Part 1, “Beginnings,” details much about the precolonial, hierarchical chiefdoms of Alabama and the early Spaniards who entered their world in the mid-sixteenth century. Dupre is careful to note, however, that the Spanish endeavors failed and that these initial contacts between Native and newcomer were disruptive, but not transformative.
Rather, the first transformation of Alabama and its people is narrated in part 2, “The Imperial Frontier,” and occurred about one hundred years after the Spanish explorations. Here, Dupre documents the presence of the French on the Gulf, the Spanish in present-day Florida, and the penetration of the English from the Atlantic into the heart of the American South. But “The Imperial Frontier” is mostly about the rise of the Creek Confederacy, one of the largest Indian nations in America at the time. Dupre recounts the collapse of the precolonial chiefdoms of Alabama, and shows how, in the crucible of the commercial trade in Indian slaves inaugurated by the English in the mid-seventeenth century, some of the survivors from the fallen chiefdoms coalesced to form a new type of political and social order—the Creek Confederacy. The confederacy also claimed much of the territory of present-day Alabama, and although smaller indigenous groups resided within those borders, Creek affairs dominated. In this section, Dupre details the complex trade networks; the arrival of Africans and Europeans into Indian country; and shifting political alliances that developed between the Creeks, the French, the Spanish, and the English throughout the eighteenth century. By centering Indian affairs, Dupre rightly depicts Alabama as Indian country—and while not diminishing the role of Europeans, Dupre’s portrait of Alabama at this time demonstrates that the Creek Confederacy, not Europeans, held the balance of power and influence and directly shaped the history of the state.
Finally, part 3, “The Settlers’ Frontier,” narrates the waning of Indian power and dominance and the waxing of American power and dominance. After the American Revolution, the tripartite European contest over Alabama and other southern territories effectively came to an end and with it the trade system that had knit so many disparate groups together into a single social and economic world. America saw southern Indians not as necessary allies and trade partners but as obstacles to westward expansion and settler colonialism. Creek power diminished, but the contest over territorial control grew more intense and deadly. Here, Dupre convincingly centers not the Creeks but American land speculators, men who deviously and duplicitously worked to undermine US and Indian relations, sponsor settler and slave migrations in an effort to disrupt frontier life, and reap massive wealth from legal and illegal sales and outright confiscations of Creek lands. All of this paved the way for the migration of plantation elites into Alabama, the rise of the cotton economy, and the removal of the indigenous inhabitants.
Clearly, Dupre covers much ground in just three hundred pages. Given the scope of Alabama’s Frontiers it should not be surprising that there is much synthesis in it. Dupre cites the appropriate primary sources, but much of his reconstruction rests on secondary scholarship spanning at least two or more decades, which he also appropriately cites. This is not a flaw—rather, these sorts of syntheses, especially ones as well done as this, are welcome additions. Instead of slogging through numerous research articles and monographs, an interested reader can enjoy an easy yet scholarly read that has put all of these secondary pieces together into one compelling and comprehensive narrative.
Nor should the synthesis characterization detract from Dupre’s original contributions. First, Dupre’s insistence on an Indian presence throughout the book is still somewhat unusual and unique in conventional histories. But, as ethnohistorians have demonstrated for decades, including Indians in American history is a necessary component to reconstructing the whole story. Alabama’s Frontiers is a more-than-convincing case for the argument. In addition, Dupre’s treatment of land speculation in the nineteenth century, likewise, offers a unique perspective. The role of land speculators in American westward expansion is not usually highlighted in conventional histories, yet Dupre brings these men front and center and, by so doing, he tells a new, albeit dastardly, story about Alabama, the American South, and Indian Removal. Additionally, in part 3, Dupre takes special interest in two regions of Alabama that attracted American settlers—the Tensaw district of southern Alabama and the Big Bend region of northern Alabama. In both cases, Dupre uses family case studies to tell the story of life on the frontier for these early settlers—the expectations, hardships, fears, opportunities, failures, and successes. He also is careful to put daily frontier life onto the larger historical stage, thereby revealing the structural pushes and pulls that went into the decision making for these families.
Alabama's Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South tells a big story, much bigger than a history of Alabama. It is a story of the struggle between red, white, and black over territory, resources, sovereignty, people, and ultimately America.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amindian.
Robbie Ethridge. Review of Dupre, Daniel S., Alabama's Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
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