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  • Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley by Rob Harper
  • Matthew Ward (bio)
Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley. By Rob Harper. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 250. Cloth, $45.00.)

In Unsettling the West, Rob Harper offers a new and persuasive interpretation of the forces that drove state-building in the early American West. The work directly challenges many of the assumptions of existing historiography. It demonstrates that violence occurred most often not when government was too weak to impose order and justice on the region, but rather when government had the power to interpose itself in the West. Drawing upon a wide range of published and unpublished records, travel accounts, personal papers, newspapers, and government records, Harper demonstrates that left to themselves colonists—as Harper calls the new Anglo American residents of the West—and Native Americans were able to survive in a tense but not blood-soaked coexistence. It was the intervention of government that fueled interracial violence, either directly, through the organization of expeditions and military campaigns, or indirectly by the provision of ammunition and organizational structures. These interventions created the circumstances that allowed violence to take place. Harper directly links the ebb and flow of frontier violence to the fluctuating power and influence of the government: "by organizing, arming, and deploying hundreds of colonial militia, revolutionary governments enabled Indian haters to kill" (100–101).

It was not just violence that was driven by the power of government but, most importantly, the very settlement and development of the West. Harper concludes that it was the government's interest in acquiring western lands, not colonists' desire for independence, which drove westward [End Page 588] settlement. Ultimately, "Anglo-American colonialism took hold in the Ohio Valley largely because governments offered both incentives to move and resources to kill" (178). Harper also explains the disputes and divisions amongst colonists in this light. Colonists jockeyed for patronage and ultimately chose to back the faction that they felt offered the best long-term prospects. In particular, they sought security for their land titles, selecting whichever faction, state, or polity offered the best potential to secure their titles.

Similar forces also shaped Native American alliances, and Harper's interpretation of Native American actions and diplomacy is one of the work's greatest strengths. He provides a clear and detailed narrative of the negotiations between Native Americans and Euro Americans in the upper Ohio Valley and succinctly details how different bands of Ohio villagers, and numerous Native American leaders, competed for influence and survival, maneuvering between colonial and imperial powers; between colonists, military officers, and government administrators; and perhaps most importantly between each other. As the relative strengths of neighboring polities shifted, like their colonist opponents, native peoples assessed which faction might offer them the best opportunity for securing their aims. Harper argues that the modern hindsight that Native American peoples were ultimately dispossessed of their lands all too often makes their diplomacy and alliance-making seem self-defeating. Instead, he shows how native leaders such as White Eyes, Cornstalk, and Guyasuta successfully maneuvered within a complex and shifting network of alliances and affiliations. As the tide of war and power changed, as different officers and administrators made new pronouncements, so Native American allegiances shifted. However, Native leaders consistently pursued recognition of their political and territorial sovereignty and sought improved trade and diplomatic relationships. They also sought to maintain peace with their Native American neighbors, whether they both sought alliances with the same side or not.

Unsettling the West speaks very directly to a large body of scholarship on the early American West, including Eric Hinderaker's Elusive Empires and Stephen Aron's How the West Was Lost.1 More importantly, [End Page 589] the book challenges many of the assumptions in works such as Patrick Griffin's American Leviathan.2 Harper makes numerous allusions throughout the book to Griffin's work and the "Hobbesian dystopia" that Griffin portrays, but engages in no discussion of this historiography. This omission seems strange because Harper's work is such a corrective to so much existing scholarship.

Harper's argument is most...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 588-591
Launched on MUSE
2020-08-26
Open Access
No
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