Andrew K. Frank, A. Glenn Crothers, eds. Borderland Narratives: Negotiation and Accommodation in North America’s Contested Spaces, 1500-1850. Contested Boundaries Series. Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 2017. 224 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5495-7.
Reviewed by Matthew Sparacio (Auburn University)
Published on H-War (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Borderlands of Faith, Race, and Violence
What constitutes a borderland? Historians have debated whether or not a borderland should be considered a binary dividing line scattered with specific “contact points” or broad zones of interaction, whether they should be confined to only one region of study or applied broadly to the American colonial experience. The studies included in Andrew K. Frank and A. Glenn Crothers’s new edited volume, Borderland Narratives: Negotiation and Accommodation in North America’s Contested Spaces, 1500-1850, offer refreshing contributions to this debate, illustrating how borderlands can operate as both products and processes of colonization. In particular, Frank and Crothers answer Claudio Saunt’s 2008 William & Mary Quarterly rejoinder against the neglect of scholarly attention west of the British Eastern Seaboard colonies by arguing for the inclusion of the Ohio River Valley, a “region infrequently considered a borderland” (p. 9). The Ohio River Valley, they argue, proved massively important because the diversity of the region was both indicative and reflective of the experiences that shaped what historian and director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Karin Wulf has coined #vastearlyamerica.
As the studies in Borderland Narratives make clear, these products and processes can be defined along religious, racial, environmental, and military lines. Borderlands not only were politically defined but also came to represent important areas “where empires of belief vied for ascendency” in early America (p. 174). Using missionary correspondence in his chapter, Michael Pasquier examines the gray area between the prescriptions of the Catholic Church and the lived experience by missionaries in the diocese of Bardstown, Kentucky, revealing how the latter exemplified the institutional limitations of the former. Missionaries grew frustrated with the false expectations they harbored—shaped in large part by the Jesuit Relations—and priests in Bardstown “struggled to feel at home” (p. 137). The unwillingness of indigenous peoples to readily accept Catholicism compounded this spatial and emotional disconnection, contributing to a spiritual crisis among missionaries who came to view their own lack of apparent success in intercultural proselytism as indictments of their individual failures as Catholics.
If the example of Bardstown highlighted the way borderlands functioned to constrict religious institutions, Philip Mulder’s chapter illustrates how these same environments also served as sites of spiritual opportunity. However, the spiritual opportunities afforded by the Ohio River Valley contributed to denominational factionalism. For example, Presbyterian minister (and affiliate of the Connecticut Missionary Society) Joseph Badger’s acceptance of emotive outdoor meetings brought him into conflict with fellow Presbyterians. Men like Badger who preached a syncretic message that clearly demonstrated genuine concern for native families, however, proved the exception in the religiously contested Ohio River Valley, as Baptists and Methodists disregarded moderation and accommodation, instead demanding complete cultural transformations of both natives and settlers. Taken together, Pasquier’s and Mulder’s studies serve as useful reminders that spiritual fault lines defined borderlands well into the nineteenth century.
Like religious identity, racial identity figured prominently in early American borderlands, shaping communities and everyday life. In his chapter, Frank notes the liminal place of African Americans within the process of Seminole ethnogenesis. In general, African American communities offered the Seminoles tribute for protection, paralleling the “daughter town” phenomenon practiced by much of the native South. Yet by the nineteenth century—and especially after western removal—the decline in African American infusions into Seminole communities galvanized a distinctly “native” Seminole identity that moved away from the multiethnic definition that preceded it.
At the same time racial identity hardened in native Florida, Cyprian Clamorgan’s life highlighted the legal and jurisdictional fluidity present in the borderlands of St. Louis. As Julie Winch shows, exceptional men like Clamorgan could navigate major port cities by claiming status as a free black due to their skin color. They could also potentially weaponize their identity through print culture in order to secure legal outcomes, like when Clamorgan threatened to reveal the racial impurity of many influential St. Louis bloodlines. The case of Clamorgan, himself a product of generations of (mostly unhappy) interracial relationships, demonstrates how “circumstances (and identities) would change swiftly in the racial borderlands for those who had the option to refashion their lives” (p. 205).
Tyler Boulware notes the importance of horses to the many southeastern tribes, reminding scholars that an equine revolution with significant environmental consequences occurred all throughout Native America and not simply among the Plains Indians. In addition to martial purposes, horses (especially the Spanish barb) proved an essential component to the southeastern exchange economy because they allowed for easier hunting. Boulware expands the focus of James T. Carson’s previous work on the Choctaw horse economy to include all the native South, explaining how local environments dictated the borderland trade, resulting in distinctive cultural accoutrements among the various southeastern Indians. Like Carson beforehand, he argues that horses were not exclusively used for masculine endeavors but also significantly altered women’s work. Boulware also brings Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s argument in Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (2006) that animals acted as agents of empire into the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, detailing how Americans often used horses to “compromise treaty lines” (p. 87).
Most settlers and Euro-American administrators believed the borderlands to be contested places and sites of political and military significance. Authority was not simply declared, as Rob Harper shows in his chapter on Ohio Valley frontier politicking. He illustrates how coalition building proved a necessary practice in the decade leading up to the American Revolution because “the weakness of formal political institutions made the ‘power’ of individuals contingent upon their relationships with others” (p. 21). This was not an easy endeavor, as many practices stood in the way of coalition building: the diversity of separate communities and the distrust this fostered; different languages to translate; individual agency (or, on a larger scale, outright factionalism); and the agendas of patronage networks. Colonial and native leaders maintained a delicate peace in spite of these factors. However, increasing levels of settler migrations into these lands accounted for the militant about-face of Ohio native leaders, such as Logan (Haudenosaunee) and Guyasuta (Seneca). Native responses in turn required deft coalition building on behalf of Virginia colonial governor Dunmore by men like Daniel Boone and George Croghan. Ultimately, these men relied on maintaining peaceful relations with specific native communities to nominally assert Virginia’s claims to authority. While Harper’s coalition framework is a useful reminder of historians’ (still) prevalent deployment of Richard White’s foundational “middle ground” thesis, it can be further decolonized. If viewed east from Indian country, were not the “lines of ethnicity” and kinship—the “informal networks” Harper classifies as essential to coalition building—already considered by Native Americans as formal and legitimate frameworks?
Efforts at coalition building continued into the nineteenth century, as Rebekah Mergenthal explains, but were driven more by economic necessity than political claims. Recovering the contingency of settlers, slaves, and Native Americans along a thirty-mile stretch in the Missouri River Valley, she outlines the efforts of local whites and Indian interests to bypass federal discouragement of the hiring out of slaves across borders. While the US government feared potential collusion among nonwhites, Mergenthal notes that these groups rarely worked in concert. Native slaveholding preferences gave their western lands “little appeal” to the enslaved looking for freedom (p. 134). Therefore, blacks rarely escaped to Indian country; instead they chose to flee east to Illinois or north to Iowa. Division on this issue was present not only between groups but also within them: there was often disagreement among native peoples, who sought as much distance between themselves and settler communities, and their chiefs, who at times gravitated toward the agendas of missionary groups like the Quakers and Methodists.
Perhaps the most original contribution to this volume, and of special interest to scholars of war and society, is Carla Gerona’s reimagining of the contact period along the Gulf Coast and Texas. Gerona argues for the usefulness in deploying los desaparecidos (the disappeared) terminology associated with the twentieth-century Latin American military coups in Argentina and Chile to the contact era because “disappearances came to mark the borderlands for Spaniards and Indians alike” (p. 97). Relying on early travel accounts to Florida and Texas, Gerona claims that grappling with los desaparecidos became a “known fact of life” in early America (p. 99). War, disease, and forced flight created for both groups new environments that grew increasingly empty and desolate, defined more by the people who were absent than those present. This provocative reinterpretation addresses the main components of the “shatter zone” framework posited by Robbie Ethridge and may also provide scholars a deeper understanding of the individual personal traumas and feelings of displacement that became “the most central and significant factors shaping borderlands” (p. 116). While many chapters in Borderland Narratives speak to the opportunities afforded by these spaces, Gerona reminds us that borderlands also represented sites of loss, disorientation, and anguish.
Borderlands Narratives is an important collection that scholars of early America must take seriously. Its individual chapters are well suited for advanced undergraduate and graduate seminars across a variety of fields, including Native American studies, the history of colonialism, diplomatic history, and environmental history. In particular, graduate students reviewing for comprehensive exams will be hard-pressed to find a more nuanced historiographic primer on frontier and borderlands studies than Frank and Crothers’s introduction to this volume. The contributions in Borderlands Narratives will continue to push historians to reevaluate and question our assumptions about the crossroads of life in #vastearlyamerica.
. Andrew R. L. Cayton and Fredrika J. Teute, eds., Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1998).
. Claudio Saunt, “Go West: Mapping Early American Historiography,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 65, no. 4 (October 2008): 745-778.
. Karin Wulf, “For 2016, Appreciating #VastEarlyAmerica,” Uncommon Sense - The Blog (blog), January 4, 2016, https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/for-2016-appreciating-vastearlyamerica/.
. James Taylor Carson, “Horses and the Economy and Culture of the Choctaw Indians, 1690-1840,” Ethnohistory 42, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 495-513.
. Robbie Ethridge, “Introduction: Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South, ed. Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 1-62.
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Matthew Sparacio. Review of Frank, Andrew K.; Crothers, A. Glenn, eds., Borderland Narratives: Negotiation and Accommodation in North America’s Contested Spaces, 1500-1850.
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