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  • Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley by Rob Harper
  • Philip N. Mulder (bio)
Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley. By Rob Harper. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. xviii, 250. $45.00 cloth)

Rob Harper's eloquently told stories, constructed from reams of accounts, letters, papers, and other sources, reintroduce Ohio's residents in the eighteenth century. Unsettling the West brings us into multi-cultural towns and examines the interests and interactions of the many parties maintaining the tenuous peace they built. The stories [End Page 381] themselves present some of the very best historical glimpses of life and local negotiations in early Ohio. Harper's portrait differs from many others that have blamed settlers intruding into the region for instigating wars with Native Americans. Harper identifies speculators and their patrons, government officials, who upset the peace when they periodically expanded their imperial interests and state building.

Virginia's royal governor Lord Dunmore was one such instigator. In 1774, after violence rocked the Ohio River Valley, Dunmore condemned the settlers. He claimed he could not check their wanderlust, the chaos they caused, or the Native American reprisals that followed. Dunmore was lying. Harper reveals the governor's support of land agents who smashed the locally negotiated compromises, and he tracks the purposeful infusion of arms and soldiers into the area to amplify grudges and spats when it served others' interests. The pattern repeated to create several wars.

The months and years between those major conflicts, however, held periods of relative calm, peace that endured despite the bitter fallout from the wars themselves. The people living along the Muskingum, Scioto, and other tributaries to the Ohio River worked for stability because they had much invested: homes, communities, livelihoods, and trade. Many had already been displaced elsewhere and were struggling to regroup and rebuild their lives. Their efforts to get supplies of food, animal skins, and manufactured goods created trade networks and personal obligations. In many locales, such connections produced family relationships, marriages, and children who grew up in a profoundly multi-cultural setting.

Peace depended on constant negotiation within this complex and diverse world, and the dimensions and interests multiplied. Most residents of Ohio recognized their interdependence, yet they struggled to contain those who dismissed mutual interests. Individual newcomers might act on preconceptions or misunderstand situations; others, more concerned with momentary advantage, cheated or harmed a resident. Among many British-American colonists, notions of their own superiority poisoned daily exchanges with their Indian [End Page 382] neighbors. Colonists tried to manipulate Indian disputes, including Iroquois imperial claims in Ohio and Shawnees denial of Iroquois influence there. Native Americans responded variously to the threat of newcomers' encroaching farmsteads, and factions among all parties argued over strategy: to what degree should they compromise? Some Native Americans built coalitions to drive out the colonists or at least to demarcate physical and cultural separation. Others had concluded that the newcomers and their goods would not go away, so they searched for the most advantageous interactive relationships. As long as they had some local stake, most bargained for mutual arrangements.

When more detached officials saw opportunity, however, violence spread. Governments, prompted by powerful concerns, supplied troops and materials that could escalate skirmishes into war. Land speculators, absentee profiteers, aspirants to higher status, and patrons within the imperial system disrupted local obligations with their designs and ambitions. Their connections to higher governmental officials funneled in the ambitions, the supplies, and the arms that replaced manageable local spats with bloody war. They unsettled the region building states that disrupted local constructions and compromises.

Philip N. Mulder

PHILIP N. MULDER is the author of A Controversial Spirit: Evangelical Awakenings in the South and is currently researching the interactions of religious groups in the Ohio River Valley.



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pp. 381-383
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