Oliver Wiswell.

My Dad was the finest man I’ve ever known, but he didn’t have a lot of formal education or refined taste in literature.   He read the novels of John D. MacDonald, C.S. Forester and Kenneth Roberts.  Cheap paperbacks you could buy in the Rexall drugstore on 45th in Seattle.  So I read them as well.  It was a productive use of my time.  Kenneth Roberts (1885–1957) started as a journalist, tried his hand at soldiering in the First World War (Siberia expedition), went back to journalism (Saturday Evening Post), and ended up as a historical novelist.

Roberts was a cross-grained guy.  Arundel (1931) and A Rabble in Arms (1933) celebrate Benedict Arnold—before the treason.  Northwest Passage (1937) centers on Robert Rogers, the subsequently disgraced American hero of the French and Indian Wars.[1]  Oliver Wiswell (1940) is a view of the American Revolution from the perspective of a Tory.  After Arundel[2] it is his best book.

In Oliver Wiswell the hero instinctively helps a man who is being tarred and feathered and ridden on a fence rail for dissenting from common opinion; helps treat the British wounded after Bunker Hill (one guy is gut-shot by a musket ball with a nail pounded through it); interviews New York Loyalists who have been driven into hiding in a swamp to escape their tormentors; hears of other Loyalists who have been imprisoned in the depths of Connecticut’s Simsbury mines; investigates the mass murder of American prisoners of war by their British guards in New York; wanders in disguise through the back-country in search of the troops that General John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga[3]; travels for a while with the many people migrating West of the Appalachians to escape the war and the “Land of Liberty”; arrives in South Carolina in time to hear of the bloody civil war underway in the South and to participate in the Loyalist defense of Ninety-Six; learns of the American assault upon the civilized Cherokee; returns to New York to share in the whale-boat fights on Long Island Sound as Loyalists sought to escape the United States; and ends by helping found new colonies in Canada for the Loyalists.  So, reading this book could give you the idea that the American Revolution involved a lot of informal violence on both sides, but especially against the opponents of the “Empire of Liberty.”

While not an “academic” historian, Roberts did a lot of research for his books.  He consulted both published primary sources and the “literary” histories of an earlier time.  Like any journalist, he sought out dramatic human stories that illustrated larger patterns.

In recent years, academic historians have systematically exploited many more sources that were used by Roberts.  However, their books largely confirm what Roberts intuited.[4]  There was nothing gentlemanly or moderate about the Patriots’ war with the allies of the British Army.  Roger Parkinson, The Common Cause, examines how Patriots nurtured white fear and hatred of blacks and Indians as a way to bind people to the Revolution.  Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost, shows how on the Southwestern frontier many hopes for the future—especially among the Indians–failed when the United States succeeded.  Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles, tracks the fate of losers red, white and black.  Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence, speaks directly to Robert’s theme of ruthless liberty.

All this emphasizes the achievement of the Founders in calming America after 1783.

[1] The first third of the book, on Rogers’ raid on the St. Francis Indians, is marvelous.  The rest is a dog.

[2] In one of the novels, an English noble-woman says “You live in a rundle?  Oh, you mean Arun-dell.”

[3] They were promised parole, but the Americans declined to fulfill this promise—or adequately care for their captives.

[4] See the discussion of books in Jane Kamensky, “Red, White, Black and Blue,” NYT Book Review, 21 May 2017.

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Lord Dunmore’s War.

From 1756 to 1763, Britain fought France for command of eastern North America.  Britain won, but then had troubles with its Indian and Anglo-American allies in that war.  The British government found itself ruling a multi-lingual, multi-racial empire in America.  French-speaking Catholic Canadians and Native Americans were suddenly joined with the English-speaking Atlantic Americans.  Were the Atlantic Americans to be the favored constituency or should the imperial government try to hold the ring between three equally valuable groups?  The latter made the most sense from a Justice perspective, and economic rationality supported Justice.  The fur trade with the interior regions generated wealth, while new wars would load the British government with more debt.  However, the Atlantic Americans bucked against imperial limits on their Westward drive, as they did against resistance from the Native Americans.

Trying to bring the territories of the Ohio Valley (western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky) under effective control, in 1768 the British signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix with the formidable Iroquois Confederacy.[1]  The Treaty didn’t hand over to the British any lands actually occupied by the Iroquois.  It handed over lands used by the Shawnee and others as a common hunting ground.  The Iroquois had beaten all of these Native American peoples into submission in the many days ago.  The Shawnee didn’t like this deal (who would?) and weren’t anywhere as near afraid of white settlers or British soldiers as they were of the Iroquois.  So, trouble brewed, needing only an incident to set off a real war.[2]

Incidents began to accumulate from late 1773.  More and more Atlantic Americans crossed the Appalachians in search of trade, then of land.  A few of them bore names that ring out in American history: Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark.  Most, though, are known only to specialist historians: Michael Cresap (1742-1775), Ebenezer Zane (1747-1811), John Gibson (1740-1822), and the awful Daniel Greathouse (1752-1775).  The migration led to conflicts in which the Native Americans got rather the better of it.

In 1774, the royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, Lord Dunmore, responded by launching two columns of militia totaling about 2,500 men into the Ohio country.  The basic, usually effective, strategy consisted of marching cautiously toward the home villages of the Indians; hoping that they would retreat to save their families; and then burning down the villages, burning any food stores, and burning the crops in the field.  The Indians then could starve at their leisure.  This kinda-sorta worked in what came to be called “Lord Dunmore’s War.”[3]  The Shawnee took advantage of the separation of the two militia columns to try to destroy the enemy in detail by concentrating against first one, then the other.

On 10 October 1774, at Point Pleasant in what is today West Virginia, the Shawnee attacked.  The Shawnee did a lot of damage to the militia column, but could not defeat it.  The day ended in a victory for the American militia.  On 19 October 1774, faced with the prospect of a militia advance on his villages, the Shawnee chief signed over most of his lands.

“Lord Dunmore’s War,” as it came to be called, opened the country south of the Ohio River to settlement.  At the same time, it did nothing to settle the question of the country north of the Ohio.  It also offered another warning to the Native Americans that their future could not be reconciled with that of the Atlantic Americans.  Future wars loomed.

[1] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/07/15/iroquois-confederacy/

[2] Glenn F. Williams, Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era (2017)

[3] It certainly worked a lot better than did two later expeditions by the U.S. Army in 1790 and 1791.  Both of those ended in disastrous defeats.  See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/07/14/my-weekly-reader-14-july-2017/

Iroquois Confederacy.

The Iroquois Confederacy united the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes.  Sometime, perhaps around 1570, the five tribes had agreed to organize a confederation.  They had an elaborate government structure.  At its peak each tribe got one vote in the grand council and decisions had to be unanimous.  Why did they form this confederation?  Probably because they were under attack from all sides by more powerful tribes.  They concentrated in remote areas of central New York, building fortified villages on high ground.

Then they began to make a cult out of personal glory in warfare.  (Cultural values matter.)  The women of the tribes took over the farming duties.  This freed up the men for other activities.  Today it would be sitting in the recliner drinking a beer and watching sports.  For the Iroquois it was ranging through the forests to fight people.  Either you get good at this or you get dead.  The Iroquois got good at it.  Really, really good.  A total population of about 12,000 could produce 2,200 warriors at any one time.

At this time Europeans wanted beaver pelts in immense quantities.  (They made really sharp-looking and water-proof hats.)  Traders were taking 10,000 beaver a year out of upstate New York.  They were willing to pay Indian trappers a lot to get the pelts to satisfy the demand in Europe.  The first Iroquois treaty was with the French in 1624.  The two groups then fell out over the high price of French goods and the French favoritism for the Algonkins and Hurons, who seemed willing to accept Jesuit missionaries.  Also, the French did not want to sell the Iroquois guns.  The Iroquois got in touch with the Dutch fur traders on the Hudson River.  The Dutch tried to trade alcohol for furs.  The Iroquois wanted guns.  So the Dutch sold guns.

By the 1630s the over-hunting of beaver on Iroquois land threatened to undermine the economic basis of confederation power.  What to do?  Perhaps we should work to create a “sustainable” economy in harmony with Nature, instead of engaging in thoughtless resource depletion.  Perhaps we should reject consumerism, which puts a premium on “having things” at the expense of emphasizing nurturing relationships with the friends and family who give life real meaning.  Nope.  There’s lots of beaver on the lands of other tribes.  We’re going to conquer those tribes and take their beaver.

Between 1648 and 1675 they were on the offensive.  In a quarter of a century they smashed up all the major tribes to their west as far as Ohio and as far south as Georgia.  This gave them control of all the fur trade of the northern forests.  Tribes moving furs from up-country either paid a share to the Iroquois or they made a long detour to avoid coming into contact with the Iroquois.  Either way the “tax” on the fur trade pushed up the price of furs delivered in Montreal.  This greatly annoyed the French.  Anyway, between this and the butchering of Jesuit missionaries, the French got all bent out of shape with the Iroquois.  They launched several major invasions of Iroquois country.  This, in turn, greatly annoyed the Iroquois, who launched a whole series of raids against the French settlers in Canada.

Once the British got New York away from the Dutch, they started dealing with the Iroquois.  When France and Britain fought for control of North America, the Iroquois provided a valuable ally to the British.  (Certainly a lot more valuable than the useless American colonists who were afraid of the woods.)  The British would give you the guns for free, then they would pay for scalps on top of that.  Iroquois heaven.