Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776, by Patrick Spero (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018)
In most standard histories of the Revolution, affairs in the west are often seen, somewhat understandably, as little more than a sideshow to the rebellion that unfolded on the eastern seaboard. Recent years, however, have fortunately seen mounting interest in expanding the scope of scholarship into the early American frontier. In his latest book Frontier Rebels, author Patrick Spero offers a fascinating look at a neglected aspect of colonial disaffection with the British Empire.
In the wake of Britain’s stunning success during the French and Indian War, much of the empire enjoyed the fruits of victory. But in the west, frontier settlers would experience a renewed spasm of bloodshed due in no small part to mismanagement from the top. Jeffrey Amherst, overall commander in North America and no admirer of Native Americans, eventually implemented a cost-cutting program that can be described as little more than ham-fisted. Against the counsel of more experienced advisers, Amherst opted to jettison the centuries-old tradition of “gift giving,” a system of symbolic largesse that helped secure trade and alliances with western tribes. Amherst’s policies upset centuries-old protocols of frontier diplomacy with disastrous results. War erupted anew in 1763, again devastating the settlements of western Pennsylvania.
Amherst’s replacement, Thomas Gage, abruptly reversed official policy in an effort to end the war, authorizing a peace mission and an accompanying pack train of diplomatic gifts into the Ohio Valley. The operation was headed by George Croghan, deputy superintendent of Indian affairs, and Robert Callender, a Pennsylvania trader, who eventually put together one of the largest trade caravans in frontier history. To do so, the duo far exceeded Gage’s orders and, by hatching a murky scheme complete with straw men and shell companies, stood to amass personal fortunes.
Not surprisingly, Callender’s pack train was viewed with suspicion by western settlers, who were outraged that the Indian trade was being resumed prior to the return of captives who had been seized by the tribes. Ultimately, the locals took matters into their own hands. In March of 1765, frontier vigilantes who would come to be known as the “Black Boys” halted the pack train and destroyed its cargo; the loss was estimated to be as much as £30,000. The Black Boys then organized their own inspection system across the backcountry and eventually discovered shipments of gunpowder and lead. Frontier petitions announced opposition to “any goods going out at present but what is for his majesties [Indian] presents only.”
Local British commanders endeavored to restore order, making arrests and seizing arms. “The power to arrest civilians,” explains Spero, “without going through the usual civil legal channels, however, was a new assertion of imperial might, one taken in the moment without much thought.” Ultimately the confrontation would spiral out of control, and the King’s troops would face a brief shooting war, albeit largely bloodless, a full decade before the outbreak of the Revolution.
For his part, Gage was annoyed by Croghan’s machinations, confessing to a subordinate that “Many pretences will be made and Story’s told to conceal the truth, but it appears pretty plain, that tricks” had been planned for personal profit. But despite the acts of Crown officials who operated on the shady edges of legality, direct defiance of royal authority was deemed unacceptable. Gage increasingly found himself in an impossible position as he faced the rebellion, a dilemma that would only grow worse as opposition to Parliament gained steam in the east. By the time war erupted in 1775, colonial elites and backwoods frontiersmen, who were discontent with British policies for divergent reasons, would nonetheless find common cause against the Crown.
Frontier Rebels is a volume intended for a wide audience, and as such the author opted to use a unique literary vehicle by reconstructing dialogue from primary source accounts. Although Spero was circumspect in altering little more than the tense of such passages, this attempt at accessibility clearly gave enough concern that it’s addressed in a closing author’s note. Spero was entirely transparent concerning the method, in the hope that the author’s note, “along with notations in the footnotes, will provide sufficient caution for historians about the need to consult original sources for material before using anything themselves.”
Spero, the director of Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society Library, has penned the best single-volume history of the Black Boys’ rebellion currently in print. Frontier Rebels is an engaging look at a neglected but important aspect of the coming of the Revolution, as well as a tale full of rough frontiersmen, Native American statesmen, shady merchants, and indecisive public officials. Although eastern opposition to Parliamentary revenue acts constituted the immediate cause of the Revolution, Spero explains that westerners were no less outraged by the violation of “long-held and much-loved British liberties involving the protection of private property, illegal searches and seizures, and the proper role of the military in civilian communities.”