In his engrossing new book, award-winning historian Alan Taylor masterfully explores the transition of the borderland of Iroquoia, an alliance of Native American groups called the Six Nations, into two bordered lands which became the state of New York in the American republic and the province of Upper Canada in the British Empire. The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution offers a panoramic view of events from multiple perspectives over a period of 50 years. Throughout the painful, and, for many, tragic process including war, diplomacy, broken treaties and promises, land speculation, greed and opportunism the Indians become divided among themselves and devalued as human beings by others. Taylor, recipient of both the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes for Mr. Cooper's Town, explains in extensive detail what lay behind Westward expansion and the settlement of the frontier.
At the heart of this narrative are Joseph Brant, a Mohawk Indian, and Samuel Kirkland, a clergyman's son, whose 50-year link began in 1761 at a colonial boarding school. It was intended that the boys would become teachers and missionaries to the Indians. However, these one-time friends became bitingly hostile opponents: Brant siding with the British, Kirkland with the revolutionary colonists. Brant sought to help the Indians as he, at least for a while, moved nimbly and with great influence and power between the two cultures. Kirkland also tried to help the Indians, then left to join the rebelling colonists, returning to the Indians late in life. Both men profited handsomely from being able to bridge the cultures.
Taylor also gives us carefully drawn portraits of many other prominent personalities, including the Seneca chief Red Jacket, who was an extraordinary negotiator, and George Clinton, who dominated New York's politics from 1777 to 1795 and was primarily responsible for the massive transfer of Iroquois lands into state possession for sale and settlement.
Taylor shows that the Indian leaders, with foresight, chose to manage settlement by leasing land rather than selling it. However, a so-called preemption right, by which state and colonial leaders declared imminent and inevitable their acquisition of Indian land, diminishing aboriginal title to a temporary possession, accomplished the objectives of dispossessing the Indians and creating the private property that led to the development of New York in the United States and British interests in Canada. Taylor is concerned about scholars who treat preemption as anything more than a partisan fiction asserted to dispossess native people. Of particular interest to him is the Washington administration's serious concern about the strength of Indian forces which led to a decision to revise the nation's frontier policy. The foundation of the new federal policy, passed by Congress and signed by President Washington in July 1790, invalidated any purchase of Indian land, whether by a state or an individual, unless conducted at a treaty council held under federal auspices. The power of The Divided Ground comes from both the accumulation of so much detail from all sides regarding specific events and by the roles played by individual leaders. This is a crucial part of American history that all of us should understand, and Taylor is an excellent teacher.
Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.