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  • Imagining and Reimagining Kentucky: Turning Frontier and Borderland Concepts into a Frontier-Borderland

On March 17, 1775, Richard Henderson procured a deed from several Cherokee chiefs for lands that included more than half of modern-day Kentucky. However, questions persisted over the legality of the treaty within the laws of the British Empire and the right of the Cherokee to sell the land. Nevertheless, Henderson’s Transylvania Company quickly moved to settle the land. On May 23, 1775, delegates from four communities, Boonesborough, Harrodsburg, St. Asaph, and Boiling Spring, convened to discuss the creation of a local government. The spring of 1775 served as a critical moment in the history of Kentucky, which Henderson named Transylvania. Transylvania’s existence provoked as many conflicts over ownership as it tried to solve. Although Henderson treated with the Cherokee, other Indian groups viewed themselves as the rightful possessors of that fertile hunting ground. The royal government of Virginia insisted Henderson cease his “illegal designs.” For Henderson, clear political borders existed because he believed in Transylvania’s validity, but few other political bodies or groups agreed.1 [End Page 461]

Transylvania’s short-lived history illustrates the uncertainty inherent in studying polities of unclear legitimacy and contested authority. Conceptualizing Kentucky before its dominance by whites leads one to consider an important question central to historical analysis. What is the best way to analyze spaces of cross-cultural conflict and competing sovereignties? North American historians who focus on early America usually rely on competing terms, frontier and borderland, to describe these contested zones, but it is time to recognize the gradual coalescing of these once-distinct interpretive frameworks. For that reason, the history of Kentucky in the second half of the eighteenth century serves as an example to underscore the limitations of traditional frontier and borderland interpretations and formalize the union of frontier and borderland studies into frontier-borderlands.

Historians have debated the terminology used to define the American West—including early Kentucky—since at least 1893, when University of Wisconsin professor Frederick Jackson Turner first presented his paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. In fact, it was one of Turner’s graduate students, Herbert Eugene Bolton, who prominently rejected his advisor’s narrow conception of the nation-state and promoted an alternative to the frontier thesis. Bolton’s vision of American history did not merely echo the history of Anglo-Americans but called for a story of “Greater America,” a hemispheric narrative that included Indian, European, and, we can imagine, African influences working with and competing against each other. Based on concepts articulated by Turner and Bolton, historical analysis diverged over the twentieth century.2

The dispute over the terms frontier and borderland remains contentious, and their supposed differences continue to drive scholarly [End Page 462] interpretations. Patricia Nelson Limerick led an anti-Turnerian charge that questioned the validity of using the term frontier. Yet, Limerick conceded in 1995 that “in spirit and style, frontier history has become much more dynamic and inclusive, and that fact outweighs the problem of terminology.”3 Despite that concession, frontier studies remain on the defensive while borderlands studies have found a more receptive academic audience in the last twenty years.4 In recent years, two prominent articles have sought to reinforce the differences between frontiers and borderlands. Both sets of authors outlined distinctions between the terms frontier and borderland, with one set viewing frontiers as a binary that reinforces “master American narratives” while praising borderlands for forcing a rethinking of “centrist paradigms.”5 Yet, scholars should not view frontiers as simple binaries and many works confirm the diverse and broad nature of frontier studies in early American history.6

Kentucky provides an excellent case study for examining the merits of using current formulations of both the frontier and borderlands frameworks. Today, historians recognize the modern nation-state (and its internal political divisions) as cultural constructs. Should we define Kentucky (or the United States) as a place with modern boundaries and look backward for its origins inclusive of those borders? The land [End Page 463] itself is millions of years old, but did Kentucky...


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