Southern History Series: Review: At the Edge of Empire

Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall’s At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America

It is 2023.

When I sat down to write my New Year’s Resolution in December, one of the things that I wanted to do most with this website was to return to my interest in Southern and American history. I still have dozens of books in the stack from previous projects that I never read and reviewed here.

Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall’s At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America is part of a John Hopkins series of books called Regional Perspectives on Early America that explores the founding of the various regional cultures in Colonial America. I’ve already reviewed Hubs of Empire, which explores the founding of the Deep South as an extension of Barbados and the British Caribbean, and Planting an Empire which explores the founding of the Virginia Tidewater cultural zone. Hinderaker and Mancall’s At the Edge of Empire essentially explores the founding of Greater Appalachia.

What was the “Backcountry”?

“This book provides a history of the backcountry of English North America from the end of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. By “backcountry” we mean the territory that lay beyond the core settlements of mainland English colonies, and generally also beyond the control of an often weak imperial state. The backcountry was not a fixed place; its location and meaning shifted over time.”

In Colonial America, the backcountry was the area of settlement that existed in between the expanding core colonial settlements and Indian country. It stretched from northern New England through the spine of Appalachia and ultimately down to the Natchez District in West Florida on the Mississippi River.

The first English backcountry, however, was in Ireland:

“When sixteenth century English gentlemen began to dream about establishing colonies in the Americas, they were already busy directing the conquest of Ireland, the first real “backcountry” in what became the British Empire. The English were already experienced colonizers by the mid-sixteenth century. Much earlier, their Anglo-Norman ancestors had conquered Wales and much of Scotland. As early as the twelfth century, Anglo-Normans had crossed the Irish Sea and attempted to dominate the local people and their land. But try as they might, English conquerors failed in Ireland. No matter what they did, the native Irish resisted their entreaties and aggressions. When Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1558, the dream of Irish conquest appeared all but lost. …”

Anglo-Protestant settler-colonialism didn’t start out as anything resembling White Nationalism. Liberalism was still in the distant future. The same was true of evangelical Christianity which later softened the ruthless pursuit of English self-interest at the expense of Irish Catholics. Racial nationalism was a characteristic that Anglo-Protestant settler-colonialism acquired in North America.

“Yet a circle of gentlemen-adventurers close to the throne was willing to risk everything to keep the dream alive. Thus the queen’s trusted officer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a prominent gentleman from England’s west country, decided that the most decisive way to seize control of Ireland would be to terrorize the natives who inhabited that recalicitrant island. The commander, according to an effusive description by the poet and pamphleteer Thomas Churchyard, “killed manne, woman, and child, and spoiled, wasted, and burned, by the grounde all that he might: leaving nothing of the enemies in saffetie, which he could possiblie waste, or consume.” Gilbert believed that every Irish man, woman and child he encountered should be treated as an inveterate enemy of the English cause; even if they were not soldiers, they might provide support to England’s enemies. Killing women could be justified because without them the Irish soldiers would starve. Nor did his campaign of terror end with indiscriminate killing. Gilbert ordered his men to decapitate the victims of the daily violence and line the path leading to his tent with heads, thereby forcing survivors who came to meet with him to walk through “a lane of heddes, which he used ad terrorem.” As he reported this tactic, Churchyard noted that the dead felt no pain from such an insult, but the living would be impressed by the sight of “their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and freends, lye[ing] on the ground before their faces.” During the Elizabethan conquest, decapitation became a common phenomenon in Ireland, celebrated in poetry and even in pictures.

The killing fields of Ireland lay far form the shores of North America, but what happened in that first English backcountry influenced English actions in North America. In Ireland, the English honed their ideas about colonies and began to justify the act of colonization itself.”

The first English plantations were in Ireland and the brutal colonization of Ireland by Protestant settlers from England and Scotland was the first stop on the journey to North America.

“Among those who articulate a rationale and theory of colonization was an English landholder and royal administrator named Sir William Herbert. In his Croftus Sive de Hibernia Liber, writing in the 1590s, Herbert evaluated Irish affairs in light of his understanding of political theory stretching from Antiquity to the Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Herbert argued that earlier attempts to colonize Ireland had failed because the men who sent on settlement missions too often adopted the values and behaviors of the natives. “Colonies degenerate assuredly when the colonists imitate and embrace the habits, customs, and practices of the natives,” he announced. ‘There is no better way to remedy this evil than to do away with and destroy completely the habits and practices of the natives.” If the colonizers could succeed in this task, the colonized would “put on and embrace the habits and customs of the colonists.” This was the crucial step that had been lacking in all previous English colonization ventures across the Irish Sea and one that would ensure England’s future success. “Once you have removed those things which can alienate hearts and minds,” Herbert concluded, “they will both become united,” first in habits, then in mind.”

In the 17th century, English settlers established colonial beachheads in the Chesapeake, New England, Pennsylvania and the South Carolina Lowcountry in that order. None of these colonies were established by English settlers to advance a utopian goal of racial nationalism. Virginia was established to challenge the Spanish claim to North America and as a commercial interest by men who wanted to get rich. The same was true of the British West Indies and the Deep South. New England and Pennsylvania were founded for religious reasons by Protestant minorities who objected to the established Anglican church.

Initially, vulnerable English settlers in the first precarious outposts in all the American colonies attempted to get along with the Indians and convert them to Protestantism. This is stressed by modern liberal historians who like to emphasize stories of racial harmony like the first Thanksgiving in New England or Pocahontas saving John Smith from Chief Powhatan in Jamestown. The Quakers who settled Pennsylvania insisted on building a multicultural utopia with local Indians from the outset. New England had its “praying towns” for local Indians who converted to Christianity and embraced English culture.

In every American colony, this was far less important in the long term than key subsequent developments: in the Chesapeake, the 1622 genocide in Jamestown, the Anglo-Powhatan Wars of the 1640s, and Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s; in New England, the Pequot War in the 1630s and King Philip’s War in the 1670s; in Carolina, the Tuscarora War and Yamasee War of the 1710s and the Cherokee War of the 1750s along with the Stono Rebellion; in the Pennsylvania and Ohio backcountry, Pontiac’s War in the 1760s. Finally, Anglo-Protestant colonists were menaced by the French and their Indian allies in a series of wars throughout the entire early 18th century, which culminated in the French and Indian War which ended in a decisive victory for Britain over France for control of North America. The British and their Indian allies fought American colonists all over the frontier during the American Revolution.

In the early 18th century, Anglo-Protestant settlers from the seaboard colonies and several waves European immigrants flooded into the backcountry on both sides of the Appalachian mountains. A third of the settlers migrated west from the Chesapeake in search of land. They were joined by Scot Presbyterians fleeing the Killing Times and the persecution of Presbyterians in Scotland following the Stuart Restoration, the Scot-Irish Presbyterians who were driven out of Ulster by religious persecution and economic hardship after 1715 and German Protestants who fled the Rhineland which was devastated by the Thirty Years’ War and the wars of the Sun King Louis XIV. These groups all mixed together in the Pennsylvania backcountry and were also influenced by Swedes, Finns and Dutch settlers from Delaware who introduced them to Scandinavian log cabins and German Conestoga wagons.

These Protestant settlers from northern Europe all converged in the American backcountry and fanned out across Appalachia in search of land and economic opportunity, religious freedom from European clerics (Anglican and Catholic) and their various established churches and orthodoxies and freedom from the British government officials and tax collectors who drove them out of Ireland and Scotland. They moved into a region which was largely beyond the control of the British Empire and which was only loosely controlled by the core coastal colonial settlements. No one came to establish a racial nationalist utopia. The grand vision that brought them to North America was to be left alone to prosper.

The American frontier was a cauldron of racial and religious conflict that had to be cleared for White settlement to succeed in the region: the French and their Indian allies, the Iroquois who dominated New York, the Shawnee and the Ohio Indians who dominated Kentucky and the Ohio Country and the Cherokee and the Creeks in southern Appalachia. Finally, the British became an obstacle to the expansion of the settlement in the backcountry after the Proclamation of 1763 restricted White settlers to east of the Appalachian Mountains in order to create an Indian preserve in the West. This alienated White settlers all over the region and made them receptive to the Patriot cause of “Independency.”

The experience of constant Indian warfare in the American backcountry in the 17th and 18th centuries increased the salience of race on both sides. European settlers began to think of themselves as White settlers. Indians began to find common ground and build unprecedented alliances with other Indians. It became a common sentiment in the backcountry there was no such thing as a “good Indian” and the ideal was to get rid of all the Indians who were coddled by the British and the French and the colonial officials on the eastern seaboard who were insulated from the brutal realities of frontier warfare.

Eventually, even the Irish were accepted as fellow Whites as Anglo-Protestant settler-colonialism changed in the North American context where religious conflict gradually subsided after the eviction of the French from North America and racial conflict with Indians fostered White solidarity.

Note: Obviously, I am joking about the Irish, but I found that interesting how attitudes mellowed and changed once the English and the Irish both ended up in North America.

11 Comments

  1. What’s interesting to me is how complex the views about native Americans could be among frontier Americans. Daniel Boone lost sons to the Indian wars. Yet neither he or Dave’s Crockett seemed to really hate Indians. Boone was friends of many. Even the tough old Indian fighter Andrew Jackson adopted an Indian child after defeating Indians in a battle. The frontier was a complex place. The eastern mountains steep valleys, rugged hills tended to isolate people well into the twentieth century. Hence, all the famous feuds. Just a few miles north of the area ( the Ozarks) I live Nathan Boone, son of Daniel Boone, one of the first frontiersman in the area, built his cabin with his slaves, which still exists. I got to know a man whose great great grandmother was one of his slaves. The frontier wasn’t historically that long ago.

  2. Yes, cold racial reality on the bleeding edge of the frontier taught the Scots, Germans, etc. who were somewhat divided by language & culture that their common denominator was their European origin and the color of their skins. Race is the natural bond/dividing line in America & all New World countries.

  3. Englishmen were not going to put up with a Spanish/Roman Catholic political system where indians and blacks were given the same political rights as they had as Englishmen. That’s the long and the short of Bacon’s Rebellion.There is a certain amount of rainbow revisionism, but, any serious study destroys rainbow revisionism as modern nonsense.

  4. Seems a tragic history of conquest when reminded of these events

    If it’s ‘immoral’ for Jews to take over now, was it ‘immoral’ for whites to conquer back then?

    Maybe Ocasio-Cortez has a point, that as Latinos are in general part-descendants of natives, the Americas are a Latino homeland more than for European whites?

    How morally different is the Anglo-European conquest of North America, from the last century’s Jewish conquest and domination of Palestine? Both even fuelled by the same conquest stories of the same holy book …

    Tho anti-white vilification is a crime that needs to end, and whites have a right to their culture and enclaves, maybe it balances history that North American whites become a minority in an overall Latino landscape, like California is already?

    Ron Unz’s site shows the stats that, in absolute numbers, whites have barely at all declined in California … it’s just that huge waves of Latinos, and some others, have come in … yet the whites mostly stay, for whatever reason, as a ‘minority’, feeling things are ok enough

    So in the ‘ethics / morality’ discussion, is it:

    rights of indigenous peoples?
    or
    rights of conquest?

    if the latter then it’s just ‘might makes right’ … so if Jews take over, one’s complaint is not a ‘moral’ one, it’s just ‘my group got defeated’?

    and then for a 3rd category –
    rights of long settlement? even tho deadly conflict still burns?

    Whites have been in the USA a long time, centuries
    Protestants have been in Northern Ireland a long time, centuries
    Jews have been in Palestine a long time, decades
    Russians have been in the Baltics a long time, decades

    how long is ‘long enough’ that colonisers / settlers have a ‘right’ to stay?

  5. It seems like the irish have gotten their revenge, and then some. It seems like half the surnames I see in England and Scotland (and I assume wales as well) are of Irish catholic origin.

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