- The Landscape of Life on the Mid-Atlantic Frontier
Explorations of intercultural relations in the Mid-Atlantic colonies have produced some of the best recent work on early America, including two Bancroft Prize-winning works: James Merrell's Into the American Woods and Peter Silver's Our Savage Neighbors. In many of these works, historians have cast cross-cultural relations in the Mid-Atlantic region in terms of declension, a narrative that often ends with unfettered violence, as embodied by the Paxton Boys' Rebellion in 1763. Kevin Kenny in Peaceable Kingdom Lost and David Preston in Texture of Contact join these scholars in studying the nature of Indian-white relations on the Mid-Atlantic borderlands. Kenny's work largely conforms to the historiographic consensus forged over the course of the last decades, while Preston aims to challenge this established narrative. While much in their respective analyses seems divergent, their two works combine to provide a more complete—and complicated—portrait of life in the Mid-Atlantic colonies.
In clear and crisp prose, Kenny's Peaceable Kingdom Lost brings to bear more than a generation of scholarship on Pennsylvania to offer a pointed critique of Pennsylvania's expansionist history. Kenny's grand narrative of Pennsylvania's history contrasts starkly with William Penn's vision for his "holy experiment." Kenny writes of a colony founded upon a great promise that, through poor policy, greed, and ineptitude, ultimately caused Indian disillusionment and civil strife. For Kenny, the Paxton Boys' massacre of the Conestoga Indians in 1763 symbolizes how the colony had abandoned Penn's founding vision.
Preston's Texture of Contact challenges the declension narrative, forcing [End Page 30] readers to think beyond strict dichotomies of Indian-white hatred and its inevitability. Instead, his comparative community study suggests that there were many small, independent peaceable kingdoms composed of settlers and Indians within the Mid-Atlantic (that is, New York and Pennsylvania) and New France. He suggests that Indians and settlers could establish harmonious cohabitation when guided by their shared humanity and free from the pressures of imperial governments but that "modern readers so conditioned to believe in inevitable conflict between whites and Indians must struggle to understand this innocence" (p. 71).
While their works have significant interpretative differences, the two historians share similar approaches to understanding the past. Both authors start from the same premise: that the violence of the Revolutionary era was not inevitable and that seventeenth-century colonial enterprises offered a world of possibilities, including cross-cultural peace. Following the lead of a generation of historians, both Kenny and Preston pay particular attention to the interests and needs of Native communities. They both conclude that, over the course of the eighteenth century and especially after the Seven Years' War, these possibilities narrowed in Pennsylvania until Indian-white relations were marked by hatred and violence. The main difference between Kenny and Preston is in the stories they choose to tell in the years between British settlement and the American Revolution.
In Peaceable Kingdom Lost, Kenny documents Pennsylvania's history from William Penn's first treaty with the Lenni Lenape to the relentless violence that defined Pennsylvania's northern frontier during the era of the American Revolution. In between, he covers all of the major political and social problems the colony faced, including the Walking Purchase, the influx of new settlers and their demands for land, the violence of the Seven Years' War and the political controversies it caused, the Paxton Boys' massacre, the movement for royal government, and the violent anarchy in the back counties that precipitated the Revolutionary War. For Kenny, the Paxton Boys' massacre was the result of processes begun long before 1763, and the unpunished actions of the rioters shaped the nature of Indian-white...