Tag Archives: frontier

David McCullough turns back the clock on frontier history

When the PR campaign for David McCullough’s The Pioneers kicked off, yours truly said this:

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether….Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

Now the book’s out, and it looks like the marketing didn’t lie.  Here’s Rebecca Onion’s take from Slate:

Unfortunately, the book is exactly as advertised. When it comes to representing “pioneers” as isolated and hardworking idealists fighting off “threats” from residents of the land they are taking, this book—about the settlement of Marietta, Ohio, and the Northwest Territory more generally, in the years after the Revolutionary War—is a true throwback. Its success (it is No.
10 on Amazon’s best-seller list for books, as of Friday) shows how big the gap between critical history and the “popular history” that makes it to best-seller lists, Costco, and Target remains.

A “throwback” indeed.  Some of these excerpts could’ve come right out of the work of Lyman Draper and his fellow nineteenth-century antiquarians, fixated as they were on their subjects’ public virtue, sterling private character, and domestic contentment:

McCullough writes of Manasseh Cutler: “He had as well great love for his large family, his wife and children, and was ever attentive to their needs for as long as he lived.” (That’s a stand-alone paragraph!) Later, about Cutler’s son Ephraim: “It would be said of Ephraim Cutler that along with so many of his strengths, virtues, and worthy accomplishments, his place as the most notable of Ohio’s surviving pioneers, he was also blessed in his family.”

Andrew Isenberg agrees that The Pioneers is a historiographical leap backward:

The fortitude of the settlers McCullough describes was quite real. So too was land fraud, racial hierarchy and the ousting of Native Americans from their homes. McCullough so blithely ignores these less-attractive aspects of the settler narrative that he could have written this book in 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous “frontier thesis,” which argued that the conquering of the wilderness forged the American character. For that matter, McCullough could have written it decades before Turner, when the dominant interpretation of U.S. history was that American moral character flowed from New England descendants of the Puritans such as Cutler and Putnam.

Like those 19th-century historians, “The Pioneers” presents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations. Rather than wrestle with the moral complexities of western settlement, McCullough simplifies that civics lesson into a tale of inexorable triumph.

For more, check out William Hogeland, who’s been sharing his reactions to the book on Twitter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historiography

John Mack Faragher’s Boone research now online

Check this out, frontier historians:

Aficionados of Daniel Boone may recall a 1992 biography of the frontiersman written by John Mack Faragher, professor emeritus of history at Yale University. For that milestone study, Faragher, my former adviser, conducted research throughout Kentucky and the broader region, spending months digging in archives held at the Filson and Kentucky historical societies, among others. In so doing, the author consulted hundreds of sources, taking nearly 5,000 notes comprised of 350,000 words.

These annotations are now available online via the “Digitizing Daniel Boone” project here. As the compiler of this resource, I believe this will be a “boon” to Kentuckians and to historians alike, for two reasons.

First, Faragher’s meticulous notes (the word-count equivalent of nearly four books) shine a bright light on the state and region’s archival holdings. Have an ancestor among the early settlers or indigenous peoples of the region? You can conduct a full-text search within the historian’s files. Users can also run reports based on keywords and people. This allows one to peer into the author’s mind between primary-source research and the crafting of paragraphs, to witness the first layer of historical interpretation.

Until now, the public typically could access only the source materials, on the one hand, and the published text, on the other. This has obscured the vast majority of historical work, like the nitty gritty of taking notes and organizing them into themes and eventually chapters. Now, we can better understand exactly how a historian went from consulting the files of missionaries, officials, and 19th-century historians like Lyman Draper to synthesizing them into a narrative. Equally important, we can better identify silences and the ways that the scholar’s perspective leaves some actors on the margins of history.

It’s pretty darn handy.  Faragher transcribed a lot of material from the Draper Collection of Manuscripts and other sources, and it’s a lot easier to access this stuff online than it is to locate it in a repository and then grapple with microfilm.

Because the database basically consists of Faragher’s own research notes, it’s a bit like looking over his shoulder as he works on his Boone book.  I would’ve loved to have had access to something like this before starting my dissertation, so that I could’ve had a glimpse at how an accomplished historian went about organizing material for a major project.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, History on the Web, Research and Writing

Forthcoming books of note

As if our TBR stacks aren’t high enough.

Next month we’re getting a biography of Daniel Morgan by Albert Louis Zambone.  It’s about time for a fresh look at the Old Wagoner.  (Don Higginbotham’s life of Morgan first appeared way back in 1961.)

Stanley D.M. Carpenter of the Naval War College has a new book on Cornwallis and the Southern Campaign coming out in February.  Looks like the focus is on the failures and miscalculations that led to British defeat:

Distinguished scholar of military strategy Stanley D. M. Carpenter outlines the British strategic and operational objectives, devoting particular attention to the strategy of employing Southern Loyalists to help defeat Patriot forces, reestablish royal authority, and tamp down resurgent Patriot activity. Focusing on Cornwallis’s operations in the Carolinas and Virginia leading to the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Carpenter reveals the flaws in this approach, most notably a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of the war in the South and of the Loyalists’ support. Compounding this was the strategic incoherence of seeking a conventional war against a brilliant, unconventional opponent, and doing so amidst a breakdown in the unity of command.

This emphasis on British failures, miscalculations, and infighting is interesting, because it marks something of a historiographic reversal.  Redcoat commanders and strategists have been getting more favorable treatment in some recent studies, most notably Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s Men Who Lost America.

The first volume of Rick Atkinson’s Rev War trilogy hits stores in May.  I haven’t read his World War II series, but I’ve heard good things about it.  I’ll be particularly interested to see whether he deals with some of the more obscure campaigns.

And finally, David McCullough is heading into the Old Northwest.  And it looks like he’s…well, going full-on David McCullough:

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

As part of the Treaty of Paris, in which Great Britain recognized the new United States of America, Britain ceded the land that comprised the immense Northwest Territory, a wilderness empire northwest of the Ohio River containing the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Massachusetts minister named Manasseh Cutler was instrumental in opening this vast territory to veterans of the Revolutionary War and their families for settlement. Included in the Northwest Ordinance were three remarkable conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and most importantly, the prohibition of slavery. In 1788 the first band of pioneers set out from New England for the Northwest Territory under the leadership of Revolutionary War veteran General Rufus Putnam. They settled in what is now Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River.

McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect, and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness, while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.

Drawn in great part from a rare and all-but-unknown collection of diaries and letters by the key figures, The Pioneers is a uniquely American story of people whose ambition and courage led them to remarkable accomplishments. This is a revelatory and quintessentially American story, written with David McCullough’s signature narrative energy.

On Twitter, a lot of historians have noted the Turner-esque vibe here.  But what this reminds me of isn’t Turner and the first generation of American professional historians; it’s the filiopiety of Lyman Draper and those other avocational antiquarians who chronicled the trans-Appalachian West.  It isn’t so much a rehashing of a worn-out historiography, but rather a blithe disregard of historiography altogether.  And I really hope he’s not including free universal education and the prohibition of slavery among the “ideals that would come to define our country.”  Those two ideals still had a long way to go in the late eighteenth century.

Of course, you don’t review any book based on its dust jacket copy, let alone a book that isn’t published yet.  At the very least, though, Simon and Schuster’s marketing department isn’t making McCullough’s job any easier.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Upcoming symposium on the Tennessee frontier and the American Revolution

The East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville is hosting a really cool event on Saturday, April 21.  It’s a half-day symposium focused on the American Revolution on the Tennessee frontier, co-sponsored by Marble Springs, Blount Mansion, and the Department of History at UT.

It’s right up my alley, so I’m delighted to announce that I’m one of the speakers.  My presentation will deal with the ways settlers in the Tennessee country sought alliances with and protection from fellow Revolutionaries outside the region.  Here’s some more info:

The American Revolution created the United States of America. Tennessee’s rich history is linked to the very founding of our nation. Access to frontier lands and control over Appalachian territories were key factors that caused the Revolution. The Battle of King’s Mountain involved prominent frontier settlers such as John Sevier. The peace treaty that ended the war also paved the way for Tennessee to become the 16th state in 1796.

The History Department at the University of Tennessee is partnering with local organizations to make possible the first ever American Revolution on the Tennessee Frontier symposium. The event will be held Saturday, April 21, 2018 from 9am to noon at the East Tennessee Historical Society. Speakers from the Blount Mansion, the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Marble Springs State Historic Site, and the UTK History Department will talk about the Battle of King’s Mountain, John Sevier, William Blount, the Cherokee, and much more. The event is free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be served.

9:00 AM–Opening Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department
J. Tomlin, UTK History Department, “No Popery, No Tyranny: The Episcopacy Crisis and the Origins of the American Revolution”

9:30 AM–Lisa Oakley and Cherel Henderson, East Tennessee Historical Society, “The Revolutionary War through Artifacts and Family History”

10:00 AM–Michael Lynch, UTK History Department, “Declaring Dependence in Revolutionary Tennessee”

10:30 AM–Samantha Burleson, Marble Springs State Historic Site, “Marble Springs, Last Home of Governor John Sevier”

11:00 AM–Dr. Julie Reed, UTK History Department, “Willstown: Cherokee Casualty or Creative Adaptation of the American Revolution”

11:30 AM–David Hearnes, Blount Mansion, “William Blount: The Revolution and Politics”

NOON–Closing Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department

This event is free, and they’ll be providing food and drinks.  I hope to see some of you there!

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

My guest post on manliness and the frontier Revolution at AoR

My contribution to Age of Revolution’s series on the Rev War in Indian country is now online.  If you’re curious about the kinds of questions I’ve been investigating for my dissertation, there you go.  I’m using gender to make sense of the Revolution on the Appalachian frontier, and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.

I’d like to thank the editors of AoR for inviting me to participate.  Some of my favorite historians wrote pieces for this series, so it was a tremendous honor.

And I apologize to all you folks for the scarcity of new posts here of late.  I’m trying to get a chapter knocked out, so I haven’t had much time to do anything online except tweet.  I’ll try to get back in the swing of things.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

A conversation about my research at the David Library

While I was wrapping up my residential fellowship at the David Library of the American Revolution last month, DLAR librarian Katherine Ludwig and I sat down for a chat about my research.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/226309860″>Meet the Fellows: Michael Lynch</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/davidlibrary”>David Library of the Amer Rev</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

And here’s Kathy’s interview with Craig Bruce Smith, another DLAR fellow who I had the pleasure of meeting while I was staying there.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/226312603″>Meet the Fellows: Craig Smith</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/davidlibrary”>David Library of the Amer Rev</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

My time at the DLAR was by far the most fruitful and enjoyable research experience I’ve ever had.  If you’re a scholar working on a Revolutionary era project, I strongly encourage you to pay them a visit.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Research and Writing

Crichton’s ‘Dragon Teeth’ and the fossil frontier

According to his widow, the seeds of Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth began to germinate in the 1970s.  That was long before the appearance of his most famous work about an island theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  But Dragon Teeth is not so much a forerunner of Jurassic Park as a spiritual cousin to his other works of historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery and Pirate Latitudes.  Just as his techno-thrillers have enough scientific ballast to create a sense of verisimilitude that no other modern suspense novelist has surpassed, Dragon Teeth is grounded in the history of science and the late nineteenth-century West.  This is a story based on actual events, populated by figures who were once very real.

Image from michaelcrichton.com

Most prominent among these historical figures are rival naturalists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose bitter professional and political feud dominated American paleontology in the late nineteenth century.  The relationship between Marsh and Cope was initially cordial, with the two men collecting specimens together and naming species for one another.  In the 1870s, however, their collegiality gave way to competition, and finally open conflict.  They bribed one another’s collectors, employed spies, sabotaged each other’s professional and political appointments, and smeared one another in the public press.  The “Bone Wars,” as historians of science term the feud, ended only with Cope’s death in 1897.  In their haste to beat one another to the punch, Cope and Marsh rushed their assistants’ discoveries into print, generating taxonomic confusion that present-day paleontologists are still trying to sort out.  But their competition did bring to light dozens of new species, including some of the dinosaurs that are dearest to the popular imagination: BrontosaurusApatosaurusStegosaurusAllosaurus, and Triceratops.

Crichton’s protagonist is William Johnson, privileged son of a Philadelphia family and a Yale freshman who signs on to a Marsh expedition in 1876.  Stranded in Wyoming, he falls in with a collecting party led by Cope and heads to the badlands in search of dinosaurs.  Johnson is Crichton’s creation, but Cope did lead a fossil hunt into the badlands in America’s centennial year.  Many of the incidents related in the novel did indeed occur on that expedition, as chronicled by the enterprising bone hunter (and devoted Cope disciple) Charles H. Sternberg in his 1909 autobiography.  Sternberg appears as a secondary character in Dragon Teeth; so do other individuals who signed on to dig for Cope.

Other, more conventionally well-known historical figures, localities, and episodes from the history of the trans-Mississippi West also figure in Dragon Teeth.  In fact, it would be accurate to call this book a “fact-based Western novel” in addition to a work of historical fiction.  The battlegrounds of the Bone Wars were the great fossil beds of the trans-Mississippi frontier, and the discovery and exploitation of these fields coincided in time with the “Old West” of cowboys, Indians, and buffalo.  In his effort to get Cope’s specimens back East, Johnson crosses paths with gunslingers, hostile tribesmen, raucous boomtown miners, swindlers, and bandits—all the conventional perils that popular memory associates with the American West.

The book employs American frontier mythology in another sense, too.  Johnson goes West not out of scientific curiosity, but to satisfy a wager with a classmate.  For Crichton, as for so many other writers who have made the frontier their subject, the West is thus a place of seasoning, a dangerous environment in which a fellow might test his mettle and make something of himself.

If the novel’s account of Cope’s ’76 expedition hews to the historical record, the book does take some liberties.  Crichton himself lists some of them in an author’s note.  Most puzzling—to me, anyway—is his attribution of a notable dinosaur genus to Cope’s expedition that is familiar to paleophiles as a Marsh discovery.  Crichton states that Sternberg’s autobiography claimed this animal for Cope, but I take Sternberg’s remark as an attempt to claim priority for Cope’s dinosaur work in general, rather than crediting him with bringing he specific animal in question to light.  Crichton also seems to place this discovery in sediments from the Cretaceous Period, when the animal lived millions of years earlier, during the Jurassic.  In addition, the characters in Dragon Teeth use the correct absolute dates for the fossils they find, but the development of radiometric dating techniques came after the events in the novel.  (As late as the early twentieth century, some paleontologists ascribed a date of only three or four million years to the last dinosaurs.)  Finally, Crichton’s Sternberg has no qualms about using profanity.  Given the man’s intense and sincere religiosity, the strikes me as unlikely.

But these are quibbles, the stuff of paleo-geekery.  Dragon Teeth is an absolute delight.  It doesn’t feature as much of the rumination on the possibilities and limitations of science, technology, and knowledge that is a Crichton hallmark, but it’s an engaging yarn.  I think good historical fiction should be a bit like an artistic reconstruction of an extinct animal.  You take the hard bits of verifiable evidence, you flesh out the bones with some careful inference, and then you let your imagination go to work.  That’s what Crichton accomplished with this book.  The story bounces along like a stagecoach through a landscape full of thrills and wonders.  And as with all of Crichton’s posthumously published books, turning the last page will leave you with a bittersweet feeling—you’re elated by the ride you’ve just taken, but you remember that you were in the hands of a singular creator who left us far too soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts