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In the Upper Ohio Valley


Chaos, Citizenship, and Contradiction

Settlers on the 18th century Upper Ohio Valley experienced the Revolutionary War as a time of frightening violence, and in many ways very different from those who saw it from the perspective of Boston, Philadelphia, Charles Town, or York Town. The back country revolution was characterized by chaos, fueled by moral ambiguity and radically changing power. Moving to the frontier itself showed that settlers had already made a break with England and, indeed, its way of life involving a society of feudal dependencies, a politics of patronage, and a division between the nobility and the “herd”. For frontiersmen to decide to join the revolutionary people at war was not as radical as it proved to be for loyal British subjects on the east coast. With the collapse of British authority in Pittsburgh almost a year before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, resistance had given way to rebellion, and a full-scale revolution was not very far away. 

But unlike the war in the east between the American patriots and the British troops and loyalists, the competition here took place in a chaotic world of settlers, Indians, speculators, imperial agents, and British regulars, all striving to establish dominion over the Valley.

Philosophically speaking, as stadial theory that viewed all persons with the same potential gave way to Hobbesian disorder and violence in the west, and radical discrimination among persons, the rationale for the acceptability of federal state power was laid. In this world existed individuals and communities who vied with one another and sought to protect themselves in the midst of uncertainty and contradictory idealism and selfishness. Newly constituted American federal and state officials attempted to establish order in the very region where the British government had earlier failed to do so.

Looking down from above, the American nation superseded the British empire on the frontier, common men and women were transformed from deferential subjects into self-sovereign citizens. But this process of redefining citizenship included the creation of a contradictory paradox involving new ideas of culture, race, and color, as self-valorizing white westerners became the midwives of the latest demonizing view of red and black people, so that the latter were presumed by nature inferior to themselves. This is one of the darker aspects of the early American experience that in some circles still rears its ugly head in modern times. Thomas Hobbs in his Behemoth, dialogue l, referred to ...”the common people, who easily believe themselves oppressed, but never oppressive. Democratic gentlemen have received them into their counsels for the design of changing the government from monarchical to popular, which they called liberty.” But as in the east, these common people on the frontier were often a unruly sort who created a churning caldron of political and social discontents who in their democratic and egalitarian spirit of revolution shaped the Republic that resulted as much from their efforts as those of the elitist founding fathers.

This perspective on the early American revolutionary frontier in the most formative period of creating the new Nation is one that requires a significant alteration in the common understanding of the origins of the United States.

The living history interpreters at Providence Plantation depict the experiences of revolutionary men and women who struggled and achieved American liberty on the Upper Ohio Valley frontier before colonials in the east were forced by events to fight for the same freedom from the tyranny of Great Britain. Portrayed as well are the experiences of red and black people who would not at that time equally share in the blessings of liberty in the making of the new nation, but nonetheless endured their frustrations and held on to their dreams, hopeful of the day when that would become their experience as well.