BOOK REVIEW: No Man Knows This Country Better”: The Frontier Life of John Gibson by Gary S. Williams (University of Akron Press, 2022)
The Founders with whom most Americans are familiar were all on the eastern seaboard: Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton. Librarian Gary S. Williams has delivered a thorough and extensive biography of one of the “forgotten founders.” This relatively obscure veteran and statesman was influential in the establishment of American power in the area bordered by the Hudson River, the Great Lakes (up to Lake Michigan), and the Ohio River. The first chapter of “No Man Knows This Country Better”: The Frontier Life of John Gibson begins almost immediately with a description of the man’s many accomplishments:
John Gibson worked with seven of the first twelve U.S. presidents and two of their fathers. He also knew or corresponded with a least a dozen generals from the Continental Army. As a soldier, he served as an officer of increasing rank in every frontier conflict between the French and Indian War and the War of 1812. During the American Revolution, he commanded a regiment at Valley Forge, was in charge at Fort Laurens during a month-long Indian siege, and by the time of the Yorktown Campaign was in command of the Western Department at Fort Pitt. He capped his career by serving as governor of Indiana Territory during the War of 1812, where he provided calm leadership in troubled times.
So, who was this extraordinary founder? Gibson was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1740. His was a world of competing cultures: Indian and English. Williams describes the background of Gibson’s parents and how their families left Europe to come to the colonies. Not much is known of Gibson’s early life, but he showed a talent for languages. Over time, he mastered several Indian languages, including Delaware, Shawnee, Seneca, and Miami. His linguistic abilities led to his career choice as a trader to the Indians, opening a shop on the Ohio River in the late 1760s. There are many details in the book about Indian culture in John Gibson’s world, including how Indians ritually tortured captives. Gibson’s young Indian wife was killed in the Yellow Creek Massacre in 1774 when he was serving as an Indian agent under Virginia governor Lord Dunmore. It was around this time that he witnessed “Logan’s Lament,” given by the Mingo chief Logan, and this occasion would later be instrumental in his life.
During the Revolution, Gibson was given command of the 6th Virginia Regiment in 1777, and he was instrumental in gathering intelligence on Indians in the Western theater of war. He was well-respected by the Indian nations, and he was able to negotiate treaties of alliance with some of them. His first independent command was of Fort Laurens, in what is now Bolivar, Ohio, and later he was given temporary command of the Western Department.
After the war, Gibson continued to have an active role in helping to build the nation. He was a delegate to the convention that wrote the state constitution of Pennsylvania, and then he served as a justice of the peace in Pittsburgh. The defeat of Arthur St. Clair, the success of Anthony Wayne’s expeditionary force, and the Whiskey Rebellion were all events that were a part of Gibson’s world.
Possibly the most interesting segment of the book was Chapter 9: “Whisky Rebellion and Job Search 1790-1800” because it focuses on the correspondence between Gibson and Thomas Jefferson. Since Gibson had witnessed and translated “Logan’s Lament,” Jefferson relied on him as a resource of information for Jefferson’s only published book. As a result of this assistance, Gibson was in an advantageous position to ask Jefferson for a government appointment. Gibson’s financial troubles were cured when Jefferson helped him get appointed as the Secretary of the Indiana Territory. Gibson continued to be active in Indian treaty negotiations, working closely with the Indiana Territory governor, William Henry Harrison. Gibson’s skills as a translator helped Harrison escape from an angry Tecumseh in one meeting.
The illustrious government career of John Gibson ended with his temporary appointment as the governor of the Indiana Territory, serving briefly as Harrison’s replacement. Gibson helped the region prepare for war with both Britain and Tecumseh’s Confederation, although he was never compensated or recognized for his efforts. The threats that his administration dealt with were gone by the time the next governor took over the Territory. The last chapter, “Final Years,” summarized the lives of all of the figures who were important leaders and nemeses in Gibson’s life.
“No Man Knows This Country Better”: The Frontier Life of John Gibson is a detailed narrative that provides a great deal more than just the facts of John Gibson’s active life. Gary S. Williams reminds his readers that the events of the Western Theater were vital to the success of nation-building. Williams has a plain, no-nonsense style, making it easy to read. There were instances when the number of details was distracting, as it was difficult to keep track of people and events. Still, the book is valuable and well-worth the effort.