- A Town In-Between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior
Judith Ridner provides important new insights to multiple audiences in her excellent new study of Carlisle, Pennsylvania’s first half-century of settlement. Students of early Pennsylvania will no doubt benefit from this comprehensive narrative of the development of proprietor Thomas Penn’s new administrative seat for his sprawling interior Cumberland County. Generalists in early American studies will also be enriched by Ridner’s deft analysis of how the residents of Carlisle contributed in material ways to such well-known intercolonial and national events as the French and Indian War, American Revolution, Constitutional ratification, and Whiskey Rebellion. Ultimately, A Town In-Between successfully balances the need for intimate detail of local and specialized interest with the forging of broader thematic connections that speak to much wider audiences.
Central to Ridner’s argument for Carlisle’s broader importance was its status as a place “in-between.” Her book does not elaborately theorize this framework, but rather allows its multiple meanings to unfold in the course of her chronological narrative. As Native Americans long knew, Carlisle’s geographic location provided a convergence of north-south trade routes along the Susquehanna River Valley and east-west paths (later roads) connecting Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley with the expanding western frontier. Thomas Penn hoped these geographic advantages would allow him to extend [End Page 86] law, order, and proprietary power in a newly made county seat as well as establish a successful way station for merchants in an increasingly important fur and skin trade with Native Americans. Although contested in his vision (see below), Penn’s town of Carlisle was quickly successful in both accounts. As the French and Indian War broke out with violence at the forks of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, Carlisle’s location “in-between” allowed it to serve as a staging ground for General Forbes’ military efforts to dislodge the French from Fort Duquesne. When violence again erupted during the American Revolution, Carlisle’s crossroads location made it an attractive site to locate a critical depot and manufacturing center for Patriot arms as well as a detention center for captive British and Loyalist soldiers. Following the Revolution, Carlisle remained a significant economic hub as part of the expanding grain trade between the Ohio River Valley and the coastal cities of the eastern seaboard.
Apart from this grain trade, however, the analysis of Carlisle as a place “in-between” during the early Republic becomes strained in the final two chapters of the book. These closing chapters are otherwise strong, describing key aspects of Carlisle’s maturation over time, including its industrializing economy, more refined material culture, development of local print trades and newspapers, and the establishment of Dickinson College—Pennsylvania’s second institution of higher learning. Even Ridner concedes in the final chapter that this maturation showed that Carlisle had developed into a “town of the cosmopolitan east . . . it sat more on the edge of the east than in the middle of the mid-Atlantic” (179). This admission would have been less jarring had the penultimate chapter not been titled “Still In-Between,” as its contents seemed to better describe its transition away from that status.
Another major strength of this book is its excellent analysis of the contentiousness of Carlisle’s residents as conflicting visions of the community’s meaning and destiny clashed over time. This process began with the earliest settlers, predominantly Scots-Irish Presbyterians, who largely ignored the Proprietor’s original town plans, including his preference for a large Anglican church on its central square (Thomas Penn had abandoned the Quakerism of his father). Readers familiar with Gary Nash’s accounts of early Pennsylvania will find this type of proprietary versus Anti-proprietary conflict in early Carlisle very familiar. Even more striking examples of contention within the town itself were seen in the friction between merchants who were enriching themselves through western trade and the farmers and townsfolk who...