Colin Calloway’s The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995) and Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana (2001) explored connections between the American Revolution and the American West. Fenn highlighted how the Revolution exacerbated the transmission of smallpox. For Calloway, it changed the patterns of Native American alliances and led to the internal disruption of many Native American communities. Claudio Saunt also writes about the American West during the 1770s, but his purpose is manifestly to show how it was not influenced by the American Revolution.
Answering Alan Taylor’s important call for colonial history beyond the original thirteen in American Colonies (2001), Saunt’s history searches western accounts from the 1770s for their own historical merit of the actors involved, rather than for relationships to the Revolution. Similar to Fenn’s Encounters at the Heart of the World (2014), Saunt’s work highlights a recent trend in New Indian history that explores Native American communities during the Revolutionary era as those societies viewed their own political positions, despite the famous historical events happening to their east. Saunt uses winter counts, Spanish diplomatic archives, and colonial correspondence to undermine the traditional narrative of 1776, which overlooks the history of the early American West in favor of the deceptively iconic past of Washington, Jefferson, and Paine.
Saunt’s amply illustrated West of the Revolution is consequently an accessible investigation to remedy discrepancies in popular memory, rather than an exceedingly academic analysis like his still-essential examination of generational disputes among the Creek as they confronted altered market relations in A New Order of Things (1999). Saunt explores the history of speculators in Appalachia on the eve of the Revolution. He highlights the history of Richard Henderson over-ambitiously shooting the Cumberland Gap in the spring of 1775 to disrupt the historiographical ideal of American individualism and the [End Page 733] Jeffersonian tradition of the yeoman farmer. West of these well-known environs, Saunt explores distant histories of first encounters between Native Americans and Europeans three hundred years after Columbus.
Triggered by Spanish fears of Russian intrusion upon the North American fur trade during the 1760s, Spanish explorers ventured beyond the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas for the first time, founding the San Francisco presidio in the late summer of 1776. Russians are fundamental to Saunt’s history. For example, he analyzes Captain Ivan Solov’ev’s brutal expansion into Aleut fur trade networks to feed the intensive demand for otter, fox, and beaver furs in Chinese markets. Russian trading, Spanish imperial policy, and continued French and English hunting caused the demise of myriad North American species during this era of transition to European ecological imperialism.
These European rivalries and their effects on ecology are vital to Saunt’s history, but his most exciting achievements in West of the Revolution are his functional narratives of Native America, which make the ruthless repression of the Kumeyaay Revolt of 1775, the Lakota Sioux migration to the Black Hills under the leadership of Standing Bull, the rise of the Osage Empire after the Treaty of Paris of 1763, and Creek attempts at opening trade with Spanish Cuba in 1775 accessible to a wide audience. West of the Revolution may be just the cure we need for the syndrome within American popular memory that remembers 1775 in the twenty miles between Boston and Concord. [End Page 734]
ANDREW KETTLER is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of South Carolina. He researches cross-cultural sensory encounters in the North American borderlands.