- Virginia's Western Visions: Political and Cultural Expansion on an Early American Frontier
Thomas Perkins Abernethy spent his career railing with limited success against the prevailing scholarship on America's westward movement. Both Turnerians and most of their critics viewed westward expansion through the lens of overarching concepts. Abernethy, in contrast, broke western history down into time periods, issues, and regions. In particular, in Three Virginia Frontiers (1940), he explained the settlement of the Appalachians and Ohio Valley as the expansion of a single colony. That volume, however, has been consigned to secondary bibliographies, while scholars and students have continued to search for grand unifying themes.
Recently, though, a group of historians studying Virginia's western marches has revived Abernethy's approach. A landmark Virginia Historical Society exhibit on migration out of the Old Dominion led to Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (2000) by curators David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly. Now L. Scott Philyaw has added another valuable work to the study of Virginia's frontier. Virginia's Western Visions traces the plans Virginia's leaders had for their commonwealth and the continent, exploring the beliefs of gentry thinkers and spokesmen from William Byrd I through John Randolph of Roanoke. Such a focused approach is hardly obscurantist. The relentless push of white Virginians into the interior of the American continent was a key force driving backcountry settlement. Westering Virginians helped bring [End Page 482] on the Seven Years' War, the revolutionary-era struggle for the Ohio Valley, the public land policy of the new republic, and the policy of Indian removal. When Virginia dynasty presidents built the nation's frontier administration, they called on a troop of current and former Virginians to do the job, including Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, William Henry Harrison, William Claiborne, Edward Coles, and others. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's management of the West may not have been a government of Virginia, but it was certainly one largely by and for white Virginians. Virginia's Western Visions provides the kind of concentrated, persuasive analysis of the western ambitions of the Virginia gentry needed to better understand the complex history of the trans-Appalachian frontier.
Philyaw argues that a third pillar should be added to Allan Kulikoff's Tobacco and Slaves (1986) design for the foundation of Chesapeake society—western land. From the earliest days, the Virginia colony's leaders pursued wealth by acquiring land for tobacco farming or speculation. The first perk of political office for governors and legislators was inside access to the land distribution process. After Bacon's Rebellion, the first principle of Virginia's Indian policy became aggressive westward expansion. Up until the Seven Years' War, Philyaw contends, members of the gentry remained supremely confident that they could reproduce the Virginia system from the tidewater to the Pacific.
That confidence was shaken by subsequent events, according to Philyaw. Powerful western tribes like the Cherokee and Shawnee refused to make way for the massive land grants the Governor's Council handed out to gentry cliques like the Ohio and Loyal Land Companies. Virginia's claims ran afoul of Pennsylvania's in the growing settlements around Fort Pitt. The British authorities refused to back up Virginia's expansion into the Ohio Valley after 1763. Ethnically diverse squatters then poured into the administrative vacuum across the Appalachians and balked at deferring to the tidewater aristocracy. After the Revolution, Virginia's leaders agreed to relinquish the Old Dominion's claims to western lands their state could no longer control.
Virginia's leaders remained fairly optimistic about their ability to manage western development in the new republic, however. After the Revolution they pushed for western statehood against northeasterners who wanted to keep the trans-Appalachian region politically and economically subservient. Philyaw points to cracks in Virginians' enthusiasm for the West, however. Jefferson's idealistic plan for western self-government in [End Page 483] the 1784 Land Ordinance was watered down by James Monroe and...