- Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley by Rob Harper
"I have learnt from experience," wrote the colonial governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, in December 1774, "that the established Authority of any [End Page 150] government in America, and the policy of Government at home, are both insufficient to restrain the Americans" (Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., Documentary History of Dunmore's War [Madison, Wis., 1905], p. 371). Such characterizations of backcountry colonists abound in the historical record and in frontier historiography. The presence of land-hungry, Indian-hating frontiersmen and the absence of state power to control them provide a convenient explanation for the hostilities that marked Indian/white relations in the nation's formative years. Rob Harper, however, explains things quite differently in his new book, Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley. Governmental intervention, not its absence, he contends, triggered the large-scale violent conflicts that erupted in the Ohio Valley during the Revolutionary era. Drawing on a wide array of colonial records, travel accounts, personal papers, and legal sources, Harper challenges previous histories of the region to construct a "new and more nuanced understanding of revolutionary Anglo-American colonialism" (p. 5). In his formulation, the intercultural violence in the Ohio Valley was not a result of insufficient governmental restraints, as Dunmore and others claimed, but was instead a consequence of "the unsettling process of state building" (p. 21).
Harper's argument hinges on timing. His study is divided chronologically into chapters—most focusing on only one or two years—that reveal a pattern of periods of relative peace on the Ohio frontier interrupted by intermittent episodes of intensified violence between 1765 and 1795. Harper effectively links this pattern of stability and upheaval to the ebb and flow of governmental influence over the region. Some manifestations of that influence were obvious and direct, such as the military mobilization for Dunmore's War. Others were more subtle: the organization of county militias, the issuance of government contracts, and the distribution of western land grants. But no matter its form, state intervention proved to be the crucial element that turned smoldering antipathy into violent conflagration. Both colonists and Indians desired governmental sanction for their actions and required governmental support in order to launch coordinated attacks on one another. Without official backing, frontier conflicts remained localized, personal disputes that were usually resolved through compromise and accommodation.
Governmental influence, however, did not mean control. Although state support was a necessary precondition for the systematic brutality carried out in the Ohio Valley, frontier residents redirected that support to serve their own ends. Taking advantage of competing British and American claims of authority and "the region's chronic jurisdictional confusion," colonists and Indians were able to choose which assertion of state power best suited their goals (p. 37). Frontier warfare, though fueled by governmental resources, quickly escaped the control of colonial officials, who raised feeble objections to their allies' "'Savage Conduct'" while conveniently ignoring the state's role in enabling it (p. 104).
Unsettling the West is notable for its richly detailed retellings of Revolutionary events in the Ohio Valley (though nonspecialists may find themselves wishing for a program to keep track of the many players). By broadening the definition of government, Harper is able to connect what appear to be disparate instances of conflict and coalition-building to a messy political process of state building. At times, that broadened definition can seem stretched to the point [End Page 151] where any example of intercultural bloodshed becomes an outgrowth of government intervention. But this is a minor criticism about emphasis, not a refutation of the book's powerfully argued central thesis. Unsettling the West represents a significant historiographical contribution—one that upends Frederick Jackson Turner-styled constructions of independent frontiersmen, defiant Indians, and their irreconcilable differences to reveal the state-sponsored violence at the heart of the Revolution in the Ohio Valley.