“Why Do I Study the Kentucky Frontier?” by Nancy O’Malley, Author of BOONESBOROUGH UNEARTHED

As a military brat, I spent my childhood moving from place to place. I began my journey in Fort Worth, Texas, where I was born, and later moved to Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, Japan, Texas and back to Alabama, where I then finished high school. I learned two key things during my nomadic childhood: the ability to assimilate into a new culture quickly and the knack of observing while participating. For me, there was always another social frontier to cope with, whether it was a Deep South country school, a foreign culture, a large urban high school or the throes of desegregation. Everywhere I went, I was the stranger, the outsider, until I could find my niche.

A persistent theme in my research is the idea of the frontier as the unfamiliar and uncharted, a concept that I trace directly to my upbringing. For me, a frontier can be a physical place or a social arena, and generally both. Kentucky’s position as one of the earliest areas of western American expansion certainly qualified it as a “frontier” to incoming settlers in the classic Jacksonian sense. My interest in the Kentucky frontier of the late eighteenth century was sparked by a site type called a “station” – a defensible residential site that usually housed more than one family—that was a key element of the early historic settlement of Kentucky during the Revolutionary War. Extensive research on pioneer stations in a twelve-county area in Central Kentucky resulted in my publication “Stockading Up.” I eventually received an invitation to conduct research on Fort Boonesborough, one of a handful of large public forts that were built to provide protection and sanctuary for the hundreds of settlers that flocked to Kentucky during the Revolutionary War.

I was intrigued by their experiences in a land that was similar in many respects—weather, forest composition, physiography—to their homes back east, but still very unfamiliar, lacking the landmarks, both physical and metaphysical, of the “civilized” Euroamerican society in which they had grown up. Moreover, there were Native Americans (Shawnee, Cherokee and other allied tribes) who violently opposed the incursions of commercial hunters and settlers, like Daniel Boone. These hunters killed hundreds of wild game animals, and settlers cut down the forests and claimed land as if the native people who had lived in Kentucky for millennia had no rights. And then there was the war that started just as settlement began in earnest. And not just any war, but a bloody family conflict that was fought to separate the American colonies from their mother country of England.

My research into the practical survival strategies that the settlers used to weather deadly attacks and raids while still moving toward their goal of permanent settlement focused necessarily on the defensive sites they built—the stations and forts that formed a network of protective places connected by trails and paths. But always present in my mind was what was going through the settlers’ minds as they woke up each day, not knowing what harrowing event might come yet still having to find enough food for themselves and their animals, get along with their neighbors and put up with often squalid living conditions.

Anthropologists are taught that people bring their attitudes, mores, practices and prejudices—their cultural baggage—with them wherever they go. Kentucky settlers were no different. And there were many differences among them—“distinctions and partitions” as Robert Johnson wrote to Governor Patrick Henry in 1786—that belied a monolithic stereotype of a frontier emigrant. People came from every American colony as well as some European countries; most were white but black emigrants, enslaved and free, comprised a significant minority of the growing population. Settlers who spoke English as their first language encountered German and French settlers who spoke accented English as their second language and exhibited unfamiliar ethnic practices. Social class and wealth distinctions were immediately identifiable. [1]

 

Kentucky settlers sensibly emigrated in groups composed of friends and family and often settled in the same station until conditions allowed them to settle their own farms. Personal relationships and familiarity and combined resources made shared risks, deprivations and losses easier to bear and increased the chances for survival. An enemy’s bullet knew no distinction of social class or wealth. Your life might be saved or lost but for the intervention of a stranger or a friend. Cultural differences were particularly acute and had to be negotiated in the close spaces of larger, public forts like Fort Boonesborough even while the safety of greater numbers mitigated the dangers of frontier life. Settlers had to keep their hopes trained on a future, better life that lay beyond the immediate uncertainties of life on a wartime frontier. Prosperity was not a given; many failed to attain the land and financial success they sought. [2]

What was remarkable to me was how brief this period of frontier life really was. For the core area of central Kentucky where much of my research has focused, the period of instability and insecurity was, for all practical purposes, over once the Revolutionary War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Other areas such as northern Kentucky along the Ohio River experienced Native American attacks and raids until the Battle of Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Greenville in 1794, but that area also did not experience widespread Euroamerican settlement until some years later than the central Kentucky area. For all its brevity, however, the eight years of the war must have seemed endless at times. The experience informed the society that Kentucky eventually became—largely conservative, patriotic, passionately attached to place and somewhat insular. But as Stephen Aron carefully and precisely explains, the development of Kentucky society from a frontier to an ordered society “did not unfold in an orderly parade” and its transformation “featured many casualties.” [3] Like many other aspects of human endeavor, the frontier experience was complicated and complex and cannot be readily reduced to tidy stereotypes.

A frontier as uncharted and unfamiliar is perceived as such only by the newcomer. As a child and young adult, I adapted as I learned more about the places and people I encountered with each move. The unfamiliar became familiar and I usually found a spot where I could fit in. But since I moved often, assimilation became a habit and a survival strategy that never really left me, even though I have now lived in Kentucky for over forty years.

It’s perhaps inevitable that my personal experiences have informed my opinions about the hot topic of immigration these days. Modern immigration discussions are characterized by disturbing polarization of attitudes and opinion, but there is nothing new or unusual about the issues that immigration from without or emigration from within currently raise. We have experienced it all before, numerous times, from the first European arrivals on American shores to the trans-Appalachian movement to the entry of Irish fleeing famine, Germans fleeing oppressive governments, Asians responding to work opportunities, southern blacks moving north to escape the Jim Crow South, Latin immigrants seeking sanctuary and prosperity and so on.

Fundamentally, the forces that drive people to relocate today are no different from those of the past. Sadly, the reactions of those who feel threatened by newcomers are no different either. A look backwards seems to suggest that we keep repeating old patterns over and over again. But I believe that we are at our roots an immigrant nation and that anti-immigrant sentiments have always been limited to a minority whose voices have been temporarily magnified but ultimately, eventually quieted by the embrace of cultural diversity and equality.

Another thing I learned growing up was to adopt a “glass half full” attitude even when conditions around me, whether they be personal challenges or national sentiments, seemed particularly divided and polarized. Amid the rancorous political debates, the demonizing of opposition regardless of which side of the debate you are on and the partisanship that divides, optimism often is a challenge to maintain and the complexity of the issue makes resolution of our differences hard to attain. I recall the pioneers that looked forward to a better day and relief from their temporary privations and take a lesson from their hopefulness. Will partisan politics and “partitions and distinctions” continue to rise to the top in the future? Undoubtedly. Are we as a nation up to the challenge of fighting against the inequities they inspire? Absolutely.


[1] Elizabeth Perkins, Border Life: Experience and Memory in the Revolutionary Ohio Valley, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. p. 85.

[2] Aron, Stephen, How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

[3] Aron, p. 2


Order BOONESBOROUGH UNEARTHED at http://bit.ly/2YjUWsz

This entry was posted in Daily Notes, History & Political Science, Kentucky Books, Uncategorized on by .

About University Press of Kentucky

The University Press of Kentucky has a dual mission—the publication of books of high scholarly merit in a variety of fields for a largely academic audience and the publication of books about the history and culture of Kentucky, the Ohio Valley region, the Upper South, and Appalachia. The Press is the statewide mandated nonprofit scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, operated as an agency of the University of Kentucky and serving all state institutions of higher learning, plus five private colleges and Kentucky's two major historical societies.

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