Allan W. Eckert. The Frontiersmen: A Narrative. 1967; Ashland KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2001. Print. The Winning of America.
The Frontiersmen is an excellent example of what today we call creative nonfiction. It also lets us see some of the people who made America what it is, warts and all. Like those films from the 1950s such as Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments, one is tempted to call The Frontiersmen an epic saga.
The book is about the opening up of Kentucky and the Northwest Territory in the late 18th and early 19th century. It includes appearances by Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, George Rogers Clark, William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh, and other names we recognize from our history. However, the story focuses on a man who seems to have been everywhere during this time period and who typified the early white settlers in this region and who really represents some of the best of American exceptionalism. This heroic character was Simon Kenton.
The Frontiersmen begins in the area around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was the edge of the frontier in 1770. English-speaking settlers, mostly from New England and Virginia, were moving to wilderness to stake a claim. The region we know as Kentucky was especially wide open.
Kentucky of 1770 sounds almost like an earthly paradise for the rugged individual. Beyond its mountains were fertile plains with tall grass full of deer and bison. As can best be judged, no Indians permanently lived there, although they would come from other places, especially north of the Ohio River, to hunt there. When young Virginian Kenton thinks of settling there, an Indian tells him it is a place of blood. That is never explained, but we think that Indians may have fought over it and then decided to quit the battle and simply go there for seasonal hunting.
We read about how most, but not all, of the settlers in the west supported the Revolution. George Rogers Clark in particular created havoc for the British outposts in the west. Clark and Daniel Boone both became friends with Simon Kenton who was a scout and survival specialist. We learn that Clark was unable to settle down after the war and drifted into alcoholism. Boone remained a leader in Kentucky, but as it became too civilized for him, he moved farther west, eventually settling in Missouri which reminded him of Kentucky when he first moved there.
Parallel to the story of the white settlers, we are told the story of the Indians in the area. Each tribe and tribal group is named. It is interesting to note that there were some adoptions between the Indians and the whites in both directions. One Marmaduke van Swearingen would join the Shawnee tribe and eventually become Chief Blue Jacket. We learn his life story and how it shows the challenges the Indians faced and the challenges they made as they came in contact with the coastal settlers. (Eckert would also write a biography of Blue Jacket).
Another Indian who appears from time to time is Thayendaga, otherwise known by the name his adoptive parents gave him, Joseph Brant. But the Indian who becomes lead character in this saga is Tecumseh. Tecumseh was an educated and charismatic leader. At one point he asked for the hand of a daughter of a white settler in marriage. They were in love, but she realized that she could not give up her lifestyle for that of the wife of an Indian.
Tecumseh and his brother, known as the Prophet, seemed to understand better than most what was happening west of the Alleghenies. He almost succeeded in uniting most of the Indian tribes from Florida to Montana, but ultimately the tribal loyalties were too strong. Tecumseh allied himself with the British in the War of 1812, but the British were not the most respectful allies for native peoples.
One interesting detail The Frontiersmen shares about the Shawnee is their history narrative. They said that they crossed an ice bridge to North America with different Shawnee groups crossing at different times. After they were well settled in North America a new tribal group arrived, one of the last to cross before the ice bridge disappeared. They also spoke the Shawnee language and joined their brothers. This makes one think that some of the Native American population may not have been here as long as many people think.
When the southern parts of North America were first being settled and explored by the Spanish, the Shawnees were living in what is today Florida. By the middle of the 1700s, they had settled in Ohio where they were a major people group at the time European settlement of the region began.
As had already happened with many of the Indians closer to the coast, some stay on, convert to Christianity, and attempt to join the new order. Others dig in and resist, attacking vulnerable farms and villages. Others move farther west.
Simon Kenton himself was captured by Indians multiple times and survived their version of the gauntlet at least eight times. Most people are killed, but those who survive are nursed back to health and treated with respect.
Kenton entered into a blood covenant with fellow settler Simon Girty who decided to stay with the British during the Revolution. They would continue to meet from time to time, but they respected that personal covenant even through the War of 1812.
Although Kenton was wise in woodcraft, hunting, and scouting, he was illiterate. He initially claimed thousands of acres of land when Kentucky first opened up, but he had a difficult time holding on to any of it because someone else always seemed to have a written title or deed of some kind. Eventually he bought land in New Madrid, Missouri, where he hoped to settle. By then he made sure of his title. That land would totally disappear in the famous New Madrid earthquake, the largest earthquake in North America in historical times.
There were numerous battles, both with other people and with nature. We learn how Kenton and others would survive being out in a snowstorm. We see the Ohio River both as a thoroughfare for trade and people moving west, but also a place prone to attacks from Indians and occasionally the British. It was hard, rugged, beautiful, and full of promise. America owes a lot to these people.
The Frontiersmen is not the first to tell this story, but did Andrew Jackson really lead a group of pioneers into Kentucky when he was only a man-sized twelve, getting into at least one drunken brawl? Eckert notes the record of Jackson’s early life appears to have been covered over to some degree. Some sources indicate he was born before his parents arrived in America, as many as ten years earlier than officially noted, and that he may truly have been a president who was not a natural born citizen. I guess there were not many Jackson “birthers” in his day.
Few books give us an insight to the lives of the people who opened the Midwest. We understand a good deal about the heroes and villains, Americans, British, and Indians. This saga is worth sharing. Yes, Eckert does take some license with dialogue, though he claims all dialogue is based on existing historical documents, but he tells history as a story. In French the word histoire means both “story” and “history.” Isn’t that the way it should be?