- A COLONY SPRUNG FROM HELL: Pittsburgh and the Struggle for Authority on the Western Pennsylvania Frontier, 1774–1794 by Daniel P. Barr
The western periphery of British colonial America offered the opportunity for wealth and eventual gentrification to those resourceful individuals who successfully overcame the challenges of frontier development. The key to that success lay in physical, economic, and political control of the land, and these, in turn, relied on government that supported local interests. Regional acceptance of and allegiance to imperial, colonial, or national governments rested on that government’s ability and willingness to support the safety and prosperity of the locality. In A Colony Sprung from Hell, author Daniel P. Barr offers an enlightening example of the contentiousness [End Page 150] of political authority at the Forks of the Ohio River, concluding that the fundamental question of political sovereignty within the region ultimately defined the nature of power itself on the American frontier.
Throughout this study Professor Barr characterizes the competition for land rights, war and violence, and the inability of governments to establish stable institutions of power as keys to understanding this contest for political control. Identifying three separate phases in the struggle for political dominion, he divides his narrative chronologically. In Part I, “Competition,” he considers the role of land speculators and expansionists as the colonial governments of Pennsylvania and Virginia competed for political control, with neither able to establish legitimacy. Part II, “Regulation,” discusses the British government’s failure to establish effective authority in the West after the Seven Years War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, or Dunmore’s War. Devastated by attacks during these wars, settlers developed a fierce hatred and fear of Indians, while at the same time learning to distrust distant authorities who seemed unable or unwilling to protect their lives and property. The final section, “Revolution,” analyzes the impact of the American Revolution on the struggle for authority along the Western Pennsylvania frontier, arguing that the federal government succeeded in establishing political control only after formulating a policy for expansion that allowed settlers to direct the process of expansion, with government playing a supporting role. This early concession to “frontier localism,” Barr concludes, set the pattern for America’s westward expansion throughout the nineteenth century.
Control of the “Forks of the Ohio” looms large as the epicenter of the Seven Years’ War, but fades from the mainstream of American history with the political unrest leading to the Revolutionary War. A Colony Sprung from Hell reminds us that the struggle for control of the frontier continued long after France ceded the region to Britain. Providing an important examination of the limits of external power along the colonial frontier, Barr unravels the complex motivations of a population that forced colonial, imperial, and national governments to accept a social contract that left settlers free to function in their own best interests in exchange for their loyalty.
Relying heavily on archival materials Barr unravels the complexity of power and control, offering a fine example of local historical study to illuminate the rich tapestry of colonial history. His crisp narrative provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the political culture that emerged on the western Pennsylvania Frontier, adding to a growing body of regional histories that further expand interpretation of the development of local and national power and authority in America.