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Thursday, April 4, 2013

The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America by Scott Weidensaul

Published in 2012 by Houghton Miffllin Harcourt Publishing Company

I have had Scott Weidensaul's The First Frontier for longer than a year, buried in my legendary pile of books (actually, I am more organized than that, they are all in 4 milk crates) but when I heard an interview with Wiedensaul on the John Batchelor radio show I was reminded to dig it out.

Weidensaul is to be commended for a very thorough job of researching the history of the relationship between the natives and the European colonists. The records are scant, the spelling is haphazard and so much of it is buried in myth and politics.

He starts with the disposition of the American Indian population prior to the arrival of Europeans. The limited history of pre-Colombian contact is discussed (with the Vikings and various fishing fleets) and the discussion of the similarities of differences of the various American Indians arrayed along the Atlantic coastline is quite interesting.

But, as Weidensaul's narrative continues and the colonies become established the book becomes quite repetitive and I found that I had to force myself to plow through what seemed to be an endless list of atrocities from both sides up and down the coast from Maine to Connecticut. There would be a misunderstanding, one side would strike back with violence, the other would escalate and then the European colonists would obliterate a native village, burn their corn and then there would be quotes with atrocious spelling and then it would start again in a new village.

Hannah Duston/Dustin statue in Haverhill, Massachusetts 
Now, please understand what I am saying. First, what am I not saying? I am not saying that these struggles were unimportant or that these deaths were not tragic. I am not saying that this history is unimportant or that these people do not count. I am saying that the way this was presented made the whole thing a blur of violence and misunderstanding with precious little analysis. Rather than tell every sad story (with its related  quotes and back stories) up and down the New England coast for nearly one hundred dreary pages these could have been summarized with the highlights being told (the exception in those stories was the extraordinary and gruesome tale of Hannah Dunston/Dunstin and her retribution against the group that kidnapped her and killed her baby - she killed and scalped them all so that she could turn in the scalps for the reward. Weidensaul's discussion of Duston/Dustin and what she has meant and what she means now is quite good.).

The section on the Carolinas was better as it was told as more of a cohesive narrative but the section that ended the book with the beginnings of the occupation of western Pennsylvania was too long for a re-hash of the trends that had been happening since the early 1600s. I think the focus of the book was too much on catching all of the individual events and less on catching the trends and making the story something that was more friendly to the reader. This reader, who loves history, teaches history and talks about history all of the time found this book to be a well-researched but not very well-written. It was something that I had to slog through, which is too bad.

I received this book from the publisher at no charge through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America.

However, I do recommend this book instead: Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America

Reviewed on April 4, 2013.

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