A Town In-Between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior (review)
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Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Thomas Penn, Dickinson College, Mid-Atlantic

A Town In-Between: Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the Early Mid-Atlantic Interior. By Judith Ridner. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. 287. Cloth, $49.95.)

The interior town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania was always, according to Judith Ridner, “a town in-between.” Geographically, it was an urban place in a rural area, situated between the urban east and the agrarian west. Culturally, it constituted a migration gateway to the interior, at times accommodating multiple and sometimes competing groups including Native Americans, English Quakers, Germans, and Scots–Irish. Economically, it formed the hub of the colonial fur trade. Militarily, it became a staging and supply ground during two major wars. This between-ness rendered Carlisle “a contested space between east and west, north and south, Europe and America, and Euro-American and Native American” (3–4). The region had always represented a geography of possibilities: for the first Native Americans who situated their villages there, for Thomas Penn and his officials who sought control of the area because it promised access to Philadelphia and the Native communities to the west, for the Scots–Irish colonists who risked hardship to gain personal and material success, for Congress and the Continental Army who used the town to hold prisoners and supply arms, and for the founders of Dickinson College who sought to create an educated citizenry in a major interior town.

A Town In-Between is a rich and deeply researched microhistory of Carlisle in the eighteenth century. The author draws from a wide range of evidence including letters, account books, wills, deed abstracts, personal papers, newspapers, and census records. Ridner’s stated goal is to reconceptualize the roles of such towns in developing the early American interior. She succeeds. Building on the contributions of other scholars including John Reps, Lisa Tolbert, John Frederick Martin, William Wyckoff, Christopher E. Hendricks, Gregory Nobles, and Richard C. Wade, Ridner argues that towns like Carlisle were more than just, as Wade maintains, spearheads of the urban frontier because of their utility and growth potential. While town founding doubtless played a role in colonizing the interior, Ridner argues that Carlisle’s between-ness rendered it more of a hub than a spearhead. As such, Carlisle was “both unique and representative” (10), and her study suggests that towns like [End Page 706] it were critical “to the adaptation of republican politics, metropolitan cultural standards, and proto-capitalist economic practices across the early American interior” (205).

The book includes an introduction and six chronologically organized chapters that cover the town’s founding in 1751; subsequent boundary negotiations; changes prompted by the Seven Years’ War and American Revolution; the founding of Dickinson College and concurrent changes to the regional economy; and economic, political, and social conditions at the close of the eighteenth century. Because they extended proprietary government, served as vehicles for cultural assimilation, and promoted commercial interests, towns like Carlisle were important tools of British colonization. Carlisle was intended to serve as an interior commercial center midway between Philadelphia and the Ohio country. Thus, Carlisle’s founders superimposed its urban grid plan on a rural landscape that had long stood as a place in-between. While the presence of the Susquehanna River had governed early Native American settlement patterns, the area also constituted a major intersection of prehistoric travel routes. Yet Carlisle also represented a series of compromises between the proprietor’s vision and the diverse objectives and cultures of its early inhabitants. Immigration to Pennsylvania and the growing consumer economy connected Carlisle to the surrounding region and the broader British Atlantic world. Major roads such as the Great Road brought colonists into Carlisle and the interior beyond, defining the town as a county hub that linked farmers, markets, meetinghouses, producers, merchants, and consumers.

Carlisle also formed an essential link in the fur trade, which created conflict. The Seven Years’ War brought war-related service activities and people to the town, and population and economic growth ensued. Carlisle became a staging ground as well as a supply and provisioning center during the war. The Revolution fueled a dramatic decline in Carlisle’s fur and...