Thursday, April 05, 2012

Book Review: The First Frontier by Scott Weidensaul

Slightly off topic:

Recently I read The First Frontier:  The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, & Endurance in Early America, by Scott Weidensaul (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).  We tend to think of the American frontier as the Western United States, west of the Mississippi to the Pacific Coast.  As Weidensaul discusses in detail the first frontier was actually the East Coast, where Europeans initially settled.

Weidensaul starts by presenting evidence that some European communities, specifically some small fishing communities in Portugal and Britain, were well aware of the American continent long before there were established settlements.  In the past 20 or so years this has become a more accepted historical theory.  Further on in the book Weidensaul gives some apocryphal evidence that Native Americans visited Europe; a fascinating story that I had not heard of before.

The early European visitors brought new diseases that wiped out a large percentage of the Native American population so when settlers arrived it seemed the land was almost uninhabited.  This also contributed to unrest and shifting loyalties and tribal boundaries among the Native Americans.

Weidensaul writes well and presents detailed information, both the big picture and individual stories, about the interactions between settlements, ethnic groups among the Europeans, conflicts among native tribes and, of course, conflict between the Europeans and Native Americans.  Cultural misunderstandings accounted for a lot of unavoidable fighting.   The book ends just as the revolutionary movement was getting started.

Pennsylvania played a dominant role in this story; and not just the Walking Purchase, but a great many other interactions and altercations.  The book opens and closes with the Hochstetler family in eastern Pennsylvania.  I was fascinated by the map of Indian trails in Pennsylvania on pages 286 and 287.  I sat down with a road map and compared it to the trail map.  Many of the Philadelphia area roads that I looked at match up almost exactly with frontier trails.  Certainly some of that is dictated by geography, but driving along a state road this evening and realizing that pathway had been traveled for 300 years or more added depth to an otherwise uneventful trip, and a sense of greater connection to the area's past.

Anyone interested in colonial, Pennsylvania, Native American, or early American history will enjoy this book.  On a more personal level I appreciated the way Weidensaul integrated the stories of individual women and groups of women into the story.  They weren't set aside as something different, but folded in to the larger narrative.  Hannah Duston, who was taken captive by Native Americans shortly after giving birth, managed to escape, but then went back to scalp her former captives, presents some interesting moral questions.

This book would make an excellent gift for friends or family who enjoy history.  Since buying it to read myself I've bought two other copies for birthday gifts.

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