Kettler on Frank and Crothers, 'Borderland Narratives: Negotiation and Accommodation in North America’s Contested Spaces, 1500-1850'

Andrew K. Frank, A. Glenn Crothers, eds.
Andrew J. Kettler

Andrew K. Frank, A. Glenn Crothers, eds. Borderland Narratives: Negotiation and Accommodation in North America’s Contested Spaces, 1500-1850. Contested Boundaries Series. Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 2017. 224 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5495-7.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles) Published on H-Borderlands (January, 2020) Commissioned by Maria de los Angeles Picone (Boston College)

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Borderland Narratives: Negotiation and Accommodation in North America’s Contested Spaces, 1500-1850 is a condensed essay collection from the Contested Boundaries series at the University Press of Florida. The assortment aims to reorient the study of borderlands in the wake of recent work that has questioned the expanding use of borderlands methodology for historical study. Entering into a much longer historiographical debate on the meanings of the frontier, which dates to Frederick Jackson Turner and Herbert Bolton, this study chooses essays that define borderlands methodology through wide-ranging terms and as applicable to greater spaces than originally meant in teachings on borders from the early decades of the twentieth century.

The editors, Andrew Frank and A. Glenn Crothers, assert the comprehensive stakes of these arguments in their introduction, which defines a relatively dated historiography to assert that borderlands methodology can be applied to many different times and spaces than originally defined within the Spanish Borderlands spaces of Bolton’s numerous studies of the American Southwest. Following recent investigations from Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, the editors define borderlands as both a historical process and geographical space. As well, succeeding debates on indigenous agencies within these processes and places throughout the New World, the editors render an important though purposefully inclusive debate between those who work to cordon off the use of borderlands methodology to the Spanish Borderlands of Bolton and John Bannon, and those expanding the term to define cultural bricolage in different periods and places.[1]

Siding with the latter group of scholars, like Hämäläinen and Truett, the editors highlight the importance of centralizing rather than bordering the concept of borderlands. The broad introduction can consequently be of great value to early graduate students through a portrayal of long-term changes for historiographical studies of space, conquest, and Native American agency within influential histories from Ramón Gutiérrez, Richard White, and David Weber. However, the breadth of the introduction also categorizes complex recent studies into sweeping classes that may prove too simplified for more localized and period specific analyses that already apply borderlands methodologies that the editors are endorsing as pioneering.[2]

The first chapter, from Rob Harper, centers borderlands methodology upon the Ohio Valley during the middle of the eighteenth century. As part of the first section of the edition, which focuses on borderlands within histories of nations and empires, this analysis looks at the first large expansion of British settlers into the North American interior beyond the early western reaches of Virginia and Pennsylvania. When entering these lands, settlers encountered numerous Native American nations who applied diverse forms of agency to create a relatively complex borderland where indigenous nations created mixed alliances through advanced coalition-building tactics with different European and Native American groups.

These mixed alliances led, in part, to a defeat of Shawnee forces by the antagonizing Lord Dunmore in 1774, who aimed to protect advancing Virginia surveyors who faced increasing resistance throughout the Ohio Valley. Dunmore’s victory, partially provided by a militia corralled from often reluctant clusters of settlers, was not simply a contest between Shawnee and Virginian, but involved many mixed coalitions whereby different Native American nations, like the Delaware and Iroquois, supported Virginian causes for diverse local reasons. This reading, focusing on key figures of the time like William Johnson, White Eyes, Guyasuta, and George Croghan, aims to deconstruct a focus on large groups and their interests to look at local alliances on borderlands. Though not existing within a middle ground of balanced power relations, individuals during the Revolutionary Era in the Ohio Valley consistently found both vertical and horizontal alliances to create agency through idiosyncratic, creative misunderstandings based on differing rules of patronage, national politics, and friendship. In the many valley towns of the region, Native Americans and Europeans interacted through these highly relative power relations.

Within the first section, on imperial and national histories, Frank next contributes an essay on a similarly concentrated borderland in Florida territory of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This contested borderland involved Native American nations, like the Seminole, involved within imperial contests over slavery and runaways. Frank concludes that Africans integrated into the Seminole nation through a borderland process of cultural convergence and coalescing that was often based on local contingencies. For Frank, scholars have generally underestimated the tightness of the integrations between African American populations and Native Americans within Seminole nations, which often, like the Creeks, included bands who had competing interests and frequently spoke different languages. As with Harper’s analysis of the Ohio Valley, the contexts of individual actions during the Seminole War involved personal and small group loyalties, rather than deterministic national or racial allegiances. Frank uses these discussions of slavery, runaways, and incorporation to discuss why many African Americans in Seminole territory chose to leave for freedom in 1838, demonstrating causality through the periods of time that African American groups spent coalescing into dissimilar Seminole bands.

The second section of the edition examines cultural negotiation using much more direct terminologies than the portion on nations, borders, and empires. The section begins with an essay from Tyler Boulware on Native American cultural accommodation and expertise with European horse cultures. Although never as deeply ingrained in spiritual cultures as with the indigenous nations of the American West, the use of the horse throughout Southeastern Native American communities of the eighteenth century altered cultural associations and the material productions of diverse indigenous communities. By 1730, as Boulware defines, Southeastern Native American communities had nearly all become deeply engaged with horse cultures, altering village economies in often drastic ways, as with an expansion of agricultural work that led to greater savannahs near the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. Through hunting, trade, and warfare, Southeastern Native communities involved horses, increasingly distinct from European stocks due to breeding techniques and the altered diet of the nonhuman animals. Horses became essential in the construction of borderlands locations, environments, and cultures in the Southeast, facilitating an acceleration of intercultural trade, especially of deerskins, and expanding communication between indigenous nations and Europeans. Throughout the later eighteenth century in the Southeast, even as the United States came to control the area, the illegal and legal trades in horses supplanted many earlier trades supported through using horses as pack animals.

The focus upon cultural accommodations in the second section of essays continues with a reading of violence and the role of missing persons from Carla Gerona. This piece focuses on Los Desaparecidos within the Southwest borderlands of the sixteenth century and how memories of people who went missing, often involving women and children within vulnerable spaces, became an importance aspect of cultural accommodation within Native American spaces. Rather than understand losing persons as an anomaly for both indigenous nations and European colonists, Gerona find ideas surrounding the missing as central to identities on the Southwest borderlands. For Gerona, borderlands are generally transitional spaces marked by an intensification of disappearances due to cultural interactions of warfare and biological exchanges of disease. Borrowing terminology related to Latin American dictatorships and state-endorsed killings of the twentieth century, this essay looks at how early narratives of European entrance into the Southwest, like those of Cabeza de Vaca, involved disappearance as central for both sides of the encounter. Often vanishings involved instances of great violence, slaving, and warfare, and for Europeans frequently remained the consequence of an absent knowledge of the environment.

Rebekah Mergenthal ends the second section with a reading of the nineteenth-century Missouri Valley as a contentious borderland space where many different groups of peoples crossed between Native American and United States territory. Slave hiring was common in these places, where the rule of law was often contested upon indigenous agency, especially amongst the Shawnee, and the changing reach of American legalism upon a geographically defined though often transgressed border. Frequently involving questions of labor and Native American slaveholding, Mergenthal provides a narrative of how borderland questions of slavery in the nineteenth century produced questions upon expansionism and the coming of the Civil War. Frequently centering on Fort Leavenworth and blacksmithing, this analysis looks upon the bordering of American territories based on questions of slavery, contested missionary activity between Northern and Southern Methodists, and freedom for African Americans searching these spaces to flee the peculiar institutions of the South.

The third section focuses upon the crossing of racial and religious borderlands. Michael Pasquier concentrates on French territories and Catholic interactions through a reading of the early nineteenth-century Ohio Valley. His reading of borderlands through the interplay of Catholic missionaries, Protestant settlers, and Native American inhabitants of the region near Bardstown, Kentucky, sheds light on the importance of change over time for borderlands spaces in the early western reaches of the United States. From the establishment of the Catholic diocese at Bardstown in 1808 until it was moved to Louisville in 1840, the formation of greater Catholic spaces in borderlands was a contested endeavor against both indigenous populations and Christian elements with contrasting beliefs. Often showing how connected Western reaches were to the dioceses of the East Coast, as within Baltimore, Pasquier describes how Catholic missionaries in the interior during the antebellum era had difficultly engaging with Protestant populations due, in part, to the lack of hierarchical infrastructure within a religious environment of mixed allegiances and horizontal relationships. Often looking at the language of priests that described the backwoods as a place of darkness and suffering, Pasquier may have been able to place such language not as an anomaly within these spaces, but as a central aspect of performative textuality for nearly all Catholic missions in the New World.

Philip Mulder continues with a short reading of Protestants in the Ohio Valley who later attempted to alter their evangelical messages to accommodate flocks within the interior. As Christianity moved inland on these tracks, practices became increasingly marked by negotiation, adaptation, and sectarianism. Converting Native Americans during the early republic involved missionaries entering spaces of compromise rather than dominance. Each of these missionary groups noticed that their doctrines were increasingly altered through the necessities of living within frontier environments. Such competition between sects remade these borderlands into spaces of Christian competition. Focusing on the missionary work of Joseph Badger and the Connecticut Missionary Society, Mulder shows how the spaces entered to evangelize Native American populations in the Ohio Valley during the antebellum era became more like vestiges of contested borderlands than still existing and disputed territories replete with indigenous agency. As the Presbyterian Badger worked throughout the region, he often competed against other religious missionaries to garner converts, like John Taylor and the Baptists or Peter Cartwright and the Methodists, even as indigenous agency faded in the hotly contested region full of souls to be saved.

Julie Winch ends the edition with a reading of race in nineteenth-century St. Louis. This analysis focuses on the Clamorgan clan, who transgressed racial boundaries for decades during the increasingly racialized antebellum era after arriving from New Orleans to the frontier outpost of St. Louis during the 1780s. This genealogy focuses on concepts of racial fluidity in borderland spaces through a reading of the black aristocracy. The essay reads the history of the family Clamorgan from roots in France through rum-running in the West Indies to the ports of New Orleans, and into different mixed-race, manumitted, and generally free family branches of the American interior and Mississippi Valley. Focusing much on land rights, gender, freedom, and race in early St. Louis, the essay specifically introduces the complex character of Ester Clamorgan, who worked to define a legal space for herself and her lands in St. Louis despite great social, racial, and judicial impediments mounted by Jacques Clamorgan and many of his heirs.

There are highlights of the edition, especially from Boulware, Mergenthal, and Winch. This collection specifically does well to provide many North American spaces that have been researched within different historical studies. Generally, if the reader is looking for interesting and well-researched essays on borderland issues, there are many within this collection. The debate that centers the edition within a historiography on the frontier seems dated for those working within borderland studies. Even so, this edition is an important contribution for scholars looking to expand concepts of accommodation, indigenous agency, and creative misunderstandings on the borderlands to greater spaces of the Americas and Atlantic world.


[1]. Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, "On Borderlands," The Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (2011): 338-61.

[2]. Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, "From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History," The American Historical Review 10, no. 4 (1999): 814-41.

Citation: Andrew J. Kettler. Review of Frank, Andrew K.; Crothers, A. Glenn, eds., Borderland Narratives: Negotiation and Accommodation in North America’s Contested Spaces, 1500-1850. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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