When we hear the word “frontier,” our thoughts often turn to the wild, untamed West, full of wagon trains, cattle drives and little houses on the prairie, where rugged men and women eked out a meager existence in their search for open space, gold or simply a new life. Yet, as historian Scott Weidensaul so eloquently points out in this absorbing chronicle, the earliest frontier in America stretched from the Atlantic coast inland to the high, rugged ranges of the Appalachians, and from the Maritimes to Florida. In the West, he observes, the frontier still seems close to the surface, but in the East, the old backcountry is often buried beneath strip malls and subdivisions. Weidensaul scratches the surface and uncovers the terrain of this lost world where Europeans and Native Americans were creating a new society and a new landscape.

Through brilliantly meticulous storytelling, Weidensaul traces the long history of this first frontier, from the Paleolithic Age through the age of European exploration and colonization, to the clash of imperial powers and pent-up Indian fury that led to the Seven Years’ War. For example, when European explorers arrived on the east coast of North America in the early 16th century, the land teemed with millions of indigenous people, so many that the explorers wondered whether there would be room for them to settle. Indians initially welcomed these settlers, who brought new technologies and goods, a cross-pollination of ideas and cooperation. But these warm feelings soon turned sour, for the Europeans were also rapacious and ruthless, and they started a disease epidemic that decimated the native population.

History comes alive in The First Frontier as Weidensaul retells the stories of many of the individuals whose lives both shaped and were shaped by this rugged, violent and often terrifying frontier. He regales us with tales of settlers such as Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Duston, each captured by the Indians, and their wildly different responses to their captivities. Rowlandson prayed for her captors and clung to her belief in God, interpreting her experiences through the lens of her faith, while Duston exacted violent revenge on her captors.

Weidensaul’s captivating chronicle offers a glimpse of this first frontier that was by turns peaceful and violent, linked by trade, intermarriage, religion, suspicion, disease, mutual dependence and acts of both unimaginable barbarism and extraordinary tolerance and charity.

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