Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ambiguous Identities

        Loyalty. Indentity. Political affiliation. These are all terms that are easily applied in most peoples lives today. For many years historians easily labeled people living on the trans-Appalchian frontier as vanguards of the developing American ideal. For these historians the evidence is powerful: self-made men carving out their place in life, taming the wilderness, taking the spirit of the American Revolution and democracy with them as they pushed west in an inevitable fullfillment of their destinies. In turn, their experiences are what makes the American character today. This was initially suggested in a very influential argument by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 and was a cornerstone of frontier study for many years. Though much has been argued against over the past 100 years (especially the last 25 or so) our understanding of loyalty and identity on the frontier is still developing. It is important to understand that the end of the Revolution in 1783 did not bring about a wave of mutual understanding of what it meant to be an American.
        The idea of "American" was brand new and immensely complicated. For instance, those who had settled in the trans-Appalachian west had very different background and experience than those on the east coast. They were largely of Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scots) and Dutch-German descent. They grew up in communities where hunting, farming and trading were the primary means of livelihood. They live with, adjacent to and in opposition to Native American Indian communities. Politically, the people in the west largely rejected the new Consitution in favor of the old Articles of Confederation. Frontier middle-Tennesseeans outright rejected statehood in 1796 in fear they would be politically dominated by those further east.
        These factors, among many others, greatly contributed to the way frontier people understood life. One of the biggest challenges the new United States faced after the war was how to implement jurisdiction and authority in the Ohio River Valley and it's environs - a region where in 1749 Celeron de Bienville, a French officer, noted several Indian and trader communites flying both British and French flags. To put it bluntly, frontier indentity was ambiguous and vague.
         As you will see below, the Old Southwest had more than it's fair share of problematic occurences of this ambiguity.

RICHMOND, (Virginia) September 27
Extract of a letter from Washington county (then NC now TN), dated August 10, 1783.

“We hear from good authority that various deputations have lately arrived at Louisville, they all express a hearty and ardent desire to be at peace; acknowledging their mistake for not observing a neutrality, and submissively beg our protection; some of them tell us, our troops are in possession of Detroit, and that commissioners from Congress had arrived at Sandusky. This is the real cause perhaps of their now so clearly seeing their error, notwithstanding this flattering prospect of peace presents itself we are not a little alarmed at the rash and wicked conduct of a party of North-Carolina people, settled on the Cumberland or Shawanese river, joined by a body of the Chickisaws, attacking one of the Spanish settlements on the Mississippi; happily they were repulsed, and most of them tell a sacrifice to their villainous attempt. This unlucky affair we find was set on foot by some tories that had taken refuge in the Cumberland settlement, after the conquest of West-Florida; particularly one Turnbull and Phil. Alston (the famous money counterfeiter) but early intelligence of their infamous project was given by a Virginian who it does great honor to, to the Spanish governor; by which means, our friends were some what prepared to defend themselves: would to God the Spaniards had them: perhaps, they would gratify their thirst for gold by keeping them digging for it all their lives, as the governor demands that at those who have escaped be given up, or he will send a sufficient force to make reprisals.”1

        Spanish Louisiana authorities were concerned about the increasing American presence on the frontier. After detaining Thomas Ethridge, a settler from Carolina and affiliate of Philip Mulkey, a Cumberland settler and Natchez rebellion instigator, Carlos de Grand-Pre reported to Governor Miro the results of the interrogation.

        "...Ethridge replied that those who came down with him are Americans by birth but not sentiment. Their conduct in America was always that of people who place themselves on the strongest side, now one, now the other, according to the success of the belligerent powers."2

        When Col. John Montgomery and his fellow settlers of the Red River settlements in Tennessee took up arms against Spain in the name of France, other leaders in Mero district called them "men of broken fortunes" and "renegadoes".3 Dr. James White informed Manuel Gayoso de Lemos that only Montgomery had "the intrepidity necessary for desperate enterprizes".4 Even though they acted on behalf of what they believed was the welfare of their settlement, political leaders lambasted their efforts and threatened prosecution.                                                        

The Pennsylvania Gazette, October 8, 1783.
2  Grand Pre to Miro, 5/26/ 1782, Lawrence Kinnaird ed., “Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794”. Annual Report of the American Historical Association 1945, (Washington D.C. Printing Office, 1946), Vol. III, p.16
3 White to de Lemos, 2/1/1794, Lawrence Kinnaird, ed. “Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794”. Annual Report of the American Historical Association 1945, (Washington D.C. Printing Office, 1946) (hereafter Kinnaird ) Vol. IV p. 252; Robertson to Portell, 5/17/1794,  ibid., pg. 286
4 White to de Lemos, 2/1/1794, ibid, pg. 252

Suggested Reading:

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge University Press,1991)

Patrick Griffin, American Leviathan: Empire, Nation and Revolutionary Frontier (Hill and Wang, 2008)

Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

David Britton, "Desperate Enterprizes and Men of Broken Fortunes: Loyalty and Identity
on the Tennessee Frontier, 1793-1794," Tennessee Historical Quarterly (Winter: 2011)

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