Scott Weidensaul takes us back to the true frontier, The First Frontier, where lands east of the Hudson and Delaware were hotly contested for two centuries before the American Revolution. People who laid claim to the eastern seaboard came with ambiguous motives from unimaginably different cultures and lands. Although cohabiting the land, they communicated poorly and remained estranged. This peerlessly researched book opens our eyes to a violent time in the history of America of which most of us are uninformed. One would think that as time went by, civil co-habitation would occur, but the author tells us, “Far from being a cordial melting pot, the frontier was becoming an increasingly fractious mishmash.”
Part One entrenches us in the various cultures of these early inhabitants of eastern America. Part Two describes the 17th century expansion of the American colonies around Chesapeake Bay and New England, resulting in hatred, fear and bloodshed. Part Three is the story of the farther frontier, the Pennsylvania backcountry, where today a marker proclaiming the site of the first Amish settlement reminds us of the ghosts of that time.
Interesting details from the book include:
- 90% of America’s native people lost their lives from foreign disease not long after European colonists arrived.
- A white woman released from Native American captivity returned home to write the first American bestseller. Mary Rowlandson was the first female writer to publish in North America.
- Brickmaker, Thomas Duston, had to choose between saving his bedridden wife or his children from the Indians.
- Commercial slave trading boomed on both sides in the 1700s.
- The scrupulous honesty of William Penn earned subsequent respect from the Lenape tribe.
- Fur traders regularly married into Indian society to gain access to their wives’ connections.
- A daughter held captive for a decade recognized her real mother only after hearing her sing an old German hymn.
Although at times plodding, this is first-rate storytelling. The fascinating tales of individuals involved in the clash are interwoven with disturbing accounts of violence and war. The time the reader invests in this time period long left fallow by historians’ pens pays first-rate educational dividends.
The detail in The First Frontier can be daunting to the casual reader. Not for the faint of heart, the book accurately describes the many atrocities of the times. The book is intended to instruct and inform, not to entertain. The payoff for one truly interested in America’s beginnings is intellectually rewarding to one willing to spend time in its pages. Copious notes attest to the exhaustive research poured into the book. Highly recommended.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through Netgalley graciously provided the review copy.
Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
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