Sunday, April 27, 2008

Frontier Indiana

Andrew R. L. Cayton, author of Frontier Indiana, is my kind of historian. He's not afraid of the big ideas. (His more recent magnum opus, The Dominion of War, coauthored with Fred Anderson, examines how the United States was "conceived in empire as well as in liberty.") And he tells about them through individual people, communities, and families.

In Frontier Indiana he tells the surprisingly riveting story of the century before Indiana became a state in 1816. It's largely a story of the wars that sprang up repeatedly because nobody could establish firm control of the Wabash River valley. Cayton's individual stories feature trader George Croghan; the village of Vincennes; Kentucky adventurer George Rogers Clark; military men including Josiah Harmar, John Francis Hamtramck, Little Turtle, and Tenskatawa; Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison, wife of territorial governor and future president William Henry Harrison; and territorial politician Jonathan Jennings.

It's not a straight-line story, and one curious key episode in the 1780s pits the fledgling US government against the vicious cycle of revenge involving the desperate Indians who saw their way of life evaporating and the rampageous Kentucky settlers who didn't much care which Indians they killed.

By 1790, President Washington and Generals Knox, St. Clair, and Harmar had concluded that it would take stronger measures to establish the authority of the United States in the Northwest Territory. They had to act. They had to intimidate both Indians and settlers, awe them with the power and majesty of the American government, [and] demonstrate that the United States could accomplish what no other power -- not France, not Great Britain, not Virginia -- had done. The resulting military strategy would take half a decade and would involve immense problems and some of the worst defeats in American history. But in the end ... the agents of the United States did establish it as the supreme power north of the Ohio River. The same John Francis Hamtramck who despaired of his position in Vincennes in the late summer of 1788 would command the left wing of the victorious American army at Fallen Timbers in 1794, oversee the construction of Fort Wayne at the confluence of the St. Joseph and St. Marys rivers later that year [on the ashes of the Indian town of Kekionga], and assume command of Detroit when the British finally evacuated it in 1796. {126}

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