Ill-Fated Frontier


October 4, 2021
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Ill-Fated Frontier: Peril and Possibilities in the Early American West by Samuel A. Forman (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2021)

Samuel A. Forman, author of Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, was asked if he was related to Samuel S. Forman, who chronicled a trek to the western frontier in Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio and Mississippi in 1789-90. No connection exists for the two Formans other than the name, but the twenty-first century Forman was intrigued enough about his namesake that he started to research the man’s exploits in the years after the Revolution. That research culminated in a book that is an exciting and interesting story of the early western frontier: Ill-Fated Frontier: Peril and Possibilities in the Early American West.

The narrative written by Samuel S. Forman was about his family’s 2,400 mile-long migration across what was then the western frontier, starting off at Monmouth, New Jersey, and ending in Natchez and New Orleans. They traveled through western Pennsylvania to the Ohio River, and then down along the Mississippi River. The Formans who feature prominently in Ill-Fated Frontier include Samuel S. Forman (referred to in the book as simply “Samuel S.), Ezekiel Forman, and General “Black David” Forman. The chiefs of the Northwest Indian Federation are central to the events in the book, such as McGillivray, Little Turtle, Buckongahelas, and Blue Jacket. Enslaved African Americans and Spanish colonial officials are also showcased as important characters in the story.

As Samuel A. Forman describes the hardships that the Forman expedition encountered on their long and difficult journey, he also gives attention to the political and military events of the new nation. George Washington had taken on the role of the first chief executive. Both Washington and his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, were anxious to pacify the Indians of the western lands so that the nation could grow. The foreign policy of the United States did not look to the east and Europe, but rather to the west and the complicated relationships with the Indian nations. These same nations were able to exploit the situation to their advantage when possible. General Arthur St. Clair was sent by Washington to enforce American policies, but his armies were soundly defeated in 1791. General “Mad Anthony” Wayne would later defeat the Northwest Indian Federation at the Battle of the Fallen Timbers in 1794, as described in Chapter 16. All of these events, including the Whiskey Rebellion of western Pennsylvania, affected the Forman settlers as they continued on their quest.

One of the more interesting chapters in the book is Chapter 12, “High-Stakes Ball Game, 1790.” The author describes a game played by some of the Southeast Indian tribes, such as the Creek, Choctaw, and Muskegee. The game, an early predecessor of lacrosse, was played with sticks (kapucha) and a ball (toli), which had to be thrown past the opposing team’s goal posts. The game that is given attention in the book took place in 1790 on the Noxubee River. The emotions that the game aroused led to fierce fighting and the deaths of hundreds. The game was only one example of the intertribal warfare that took place within Spanish West Florida (present-day Mississippi, Alabama, and western Georgia).

Ezekiel Forman was able to reach the settlement of Natchez on the Mississippi River, just north of New Orleans. The Spanish had difficulties maintaining Natchez, feeling pressure from both Native American nations and the American government. Spanish governor Manuel Gayoso becomes a major character in the book, trying to control the colony. Members of the Forman family, including their slaves, thrived in Natchez, establishing successful plantations. The American flag would fly over Natchez by the time Ezekiel died, but his death led to court proceedings and feuding within the family. Samuel A. Forman concludes his book with a closer look at how Samuel S. Forman lived out his days until his death at the age of ninety-seven in 1862.

There is a website intended to go along with the book: It includes two appendices that are not in the book. Appendix I contains excerpts from the travel and autobiographical writings of Samuel S. Forman. Appendix II includes the names, sex and ages of the African American slaves taken to Natchez by the Forman Pioneer Party. These appendices appear in the End Notes tab of the site.

The fact that the end notes appear only on the website and not in the actual book is the book’s only deficiency. If this is the way of the future, then it is an unfortunate turn of events. Having the end notes readily available only makes them better for the reader. Otherwise, it is an inconvenience to need a device (computer, iPad, Kindle, etc.) on hand to look up any of the quotations and other notes. Thankfully, the author does include a lengthy and complete bibliography in the book itself.

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