- Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania by Patrick Spero
Spero’s Frontier Country is an ambitious book that aims to revise our understanding of early American frontiers using the history of colonial and revolutionary Pennsylvania as a case study. Spero poses a bold challenge both to the traditional, Turnerian view of the frontier as a safety valve and to more recent conceptions of it as a borderland.1 He argues that these analytic categories fail to account for eighteenth-century conceptions of the frontier as “a zone that people considered vulnerable to invasion,” where settlers “feared onslaught from imperial rivals and other enemies” (6).
In the ten chapters that follow, Spero analyzes just how the frontier as defensive zone worked in practice by offering a detailed, chronologically based examination of key events in Pennsylvania’s eighteenth-century history. His examples range from small, anecdotal incidents of violence between settlers and Native peoples, which he unpacks as mini–case studies, to larger-scale, sustained episodes of violence, including Pennsylvania’s various eighteenth-century border wars with Maryland, Connecticut, and Virginia; 1760s uprisings of Paxton Boys and the Black Boys (which he elevates to a rebellion); and the American Revolution and Whiskey Rebellion. In each case, he demonstrates how either violence or the threat of violence, mostly from outsiders and particularly from Native Americans, inspired bifurcated responses. When settlers and Native peoples felt threatened, they most often demanded protection from the government in the form of intervention—most often military intervention. Those governing the colony and state, mean-while, generally tried to respond, but they did so mostly to advance their own agendas to make policy, establish the rule of law, and claim territory. [End Page 272]
Spero’s research is grounded mostly in traditional print and manuscript collections. Given the geopolitical focus of his work, his reliance on the colony’s official published records and the many unpublished collections of writings by political, military, and diplomatic leaders makes perfect sense. His primary interdisciplinary methodologies are the digital text-mining techniques that he employs to trace the frequency of the word frontier[s] and map its occurrence over time and space. Four charts and three maps (all but one appearing in the book’s coda), offer visual representations of the data, which Spero uses to situate Pennsylvania’s history in a broader geopolitical and global context. A small, generally unimpressive companion website, mappingfrontiers.com, duplicates the book’s charts and maps and provides more detailed representations of the data. Spero also shares his data sets in downloadable Excel spreadsheets on the site.
Frontier County represents an enormous amount of research and analysis. Spero has done admirable work in the archives, locating new materials that revise our understanding of Pennsylvania’s early history, particularly events like the Black Boys’ Rebellion. By narrating Pennsylvania’s early history from the vantage point of its frontiers as defensive zones where fears ran high and violent conflict was always near, his book puts the final nail in the coffin of the long-standing idealized portrait of William Penn’s “Peaceable Kingdom.” As with any ambitious work, however, some loose ends remain. Spero makes a strong case for frontiers as defensive zones in Pennsylvania, but he confines his discussion of Pennsylvania’s representativeness to his introduction and coda. Although he also goes a long way toward debunking Turner’s notion of frontier as safety valve, he does little to challenge Turner’s emphasis on the primacy of the white male frontiersman. To be sure, Native peoples are definitely agents and victims in Frontier Country, and a few women also make an appearance, but the focus of this book remains on the white male frontiersmen and the provincial and state leaders who made Pennsylvania into a keystone of a white male republic. Nevertheless, anyone interested in early Pennsylvania or the history of the American frontier will find much to admire in this important book.
1. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of...