- American Confluence: The Missouri Frontier from Borderland to Border State, and: River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi before Mark Twain
Just as the American public turned attention to the Mississippi River at the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, so too have scholars begun revisiting the significance of the river region to the nation. Although both Stephen Aron's American Confluence and Thomas Ruys Smith's River of Dreams present studies of this river, their questions, methods, and approaches present very different but very useful stories of this place.
In American Confluence, Stephen Aron tells the tale of what he calls the "confluence region," or the area surrounding the eastern Missouri, western Ohio, and middle Mississippi rivers, from its earliest Native history to Missouri's first years of statehood. This is a story whose parts have been told multiple times in many ways before; however, Aron attempts to unify the disparate interpretations by re-imagining them within a new framework. Using primarily secondary sources and drawing on approaches from global history, Aron describes a place where intercultural [End Page 338] interaction, accommodation, and cooperation dominated. The word "confluence" refers not only to the joining of rivers but also to the meeting of people. By leaving the boundaries of the confluence region purposefully vague, the author successfully expresses a history of the place more as contemporaries experienced it; moveable, fluid, and changing. The region remained a place of transition for both Natives and colonials, where new trading partners passed through, new arrivals found a home, and new colonial administrators divided and redivided their territorial claims. That is, until the arrival of the Americans.
Thus, the story reverts to the more familiar political history of aggressive frontier expansion at the expense of the accommodationist precedents, which had been carefully and consciously maintained by the French, Spanish, British, Osage, Shawnee, and Delaware. Although the rivers continued to merge, the confluence of people ended. With American hegemony, the borderland disappeared. Without the ability to play one colonial power off another, Native peoples lost power in the confluence region, especially with the flood of Kentucky and Tennessee settlers after the War of 1812. During this deluge, "squatters swept away generations of inclusive intercultural relations" (158–59), a system Aron implies existed as mutually beneficial to natives and colonists alike. Despite the familiar ending, Aron's retelling of the regional events avoids assuming the inevitability of Missouri statehood and American domination, with more emphasis on how the American actions were radical disruptions with jarring effects on the Native and colonial population already in the confluence region.
Although it does not deliver any new research, it is Aron's approach that is most useful for scholars of the region. In some ways this work is an application of Richard White's middle ground theory applied to the region further south. Aron re-envisions the Mississippi Valley historically as a place of exchange and adaptation, describing the confluence region as moving, like other borderlands, from "contested boundaries between colonial domains" to a frontier—which he defines as "a meeting place of peoples"—and eventually to a place of "oppositional border states" (xiii, xvi). During this first change, the Osage dominated; however, their position deteriorated once the region ceased being a meeting place between people and became a meeting point of north, south, east, and west with the birth of the border state of Missouri. By the 1820s, Missouri's border state status, as opposed to its borderland position, had thoroughly reshaped the interactions of the population. Native groups were out-numbered, [End Page 339] overwhelmed, and removed, making way for American farms and plantation slavery. With the region's newfound significance to the expanding American nation, its existence as a borderland and frontier evaporated.
Aron is concerned not only with illuminating the shared experiences between this and other places...