Dear readers, we have a new guest post from Matthew M. Montelione, received his M.A. in History from Stony Brook University in December 2014. His ongoing research centers on Suffolk County in the American Revolution, specifically the local experiences of Loyalists on eastern Long Island. -Mike
In a sweeping and engaging narrative, Robert E. Cray has contributed the next great slice of northeastern North American borderlands scholarship. In Lovewell’s Fight: War, death, and memory in Borderland New England (2014), Cray strikes a poignant and often understudied chord in early American history. Lovewell’s Fight focuses on inconspicuous white-Indian boundaries in New England (mainly Massachusetts—or what is now New Hampshire) in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Cray deserves high praise for combing through scarce archival evidence, and for producing a concise history that highlights war and its legacy in the minds of borderlands peoples who experienced it, or were affected by it thereafter. He is especially concerned with backcountry militia Captain John Lovewell’s fatal expedition into Abenaki territory in 1725, and the “fragmentation after battle” that has rarely been examined using a borderlands lens. Cray’s work “belongs to that rare category of military encounters in which defeat transcends an opponent’s victory to don the mantle of legend.”[i]
Like Richard White in The Middle Ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815 (1991), and Alan Taylor in The Divided Ground: Indians, settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (2007), Cray uses diverse human actors as justification for a borderlands region. Like a detective, Cray rediscovers long forgotten memories of particularly brutal early eighteenth century Anglo-Indian warfare and notes that roles of power, for both groups, were highly malleable in the New England borderlands. While Cray risks being scrutinized for emphasizing white motives and memories as opposed to their native counterparts—in general, in opposition to Taylor—this is likely due to the lack of surviving documents, if any were written at all, left by this particular Abenaki group in the 1720s.[ii]
Cray’s Massachusetts frontiersmen saw “Community ties and military rank dissolved when men were few and exposed… to possible attackers.” Among the farmhouses in Dunstable stood “ever-present garrison houses—silent structures reminding its inhabitants of the unsettled state of borderland life.” This was an ever changing landscape, whose civilian population lived day-by-day in fear of Abenaki attacks. There was hardly any intercultural accommodation in this region, and it would be hard to label the New England war zone as a middle ground in White’s fashion. Rather, Cray nods to James H. Merrell’s disenchantment with interracial friendliness in Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (1999). While not as ominous in tone as Merrell, Lovewell’s Fight also shares with Into the American Woods a penchant for the forest. The woodlands were an unfamiliar battleground for backcountry Massachusetts settlers, and many warriors on both sides of the conflict met their fates among the trees.[iii]
Cray says something new about borderlands methodology by infusing memory into his story, to a much greater extent than historian Joseph S. Wood did in ““Build, Therefore, Your Own World”: The New England Village as Settlement Ideal” (1991), but perhaps more importantly, he speaks to blood drenched countrysides and woodlands, the contingent nature of war, and reinforces the notion of borderlands by conflict.[iv] Indeed, while this more violent facet of borderlands history has evolved since The Middle Ground, it reaches an all time high with Lovewell’s Fight. Cray reinvigorates historical inquiry into the “martial spirit” of early American players, and their motives, desires, successes, and failures shed light on what life was like in colonial America, at the fringes and beyond.[v]
Lovewell’s Fight greatly contributes to northeastern North American colonial borderlands historiography. Cray says something new about military and diplomatic history, and opens doors to future inquiries in the field. His study calls historians to reevaluate the social, political, military, and religious relationships between whites and Indians in early American history. Lovewell’s Fight speaks to the importance of military analysis, to the loss of daily life patterns due to incessant conflicts, and to an even darker facet of northeastern borderlands history.
[i] Robert E. Cray, Lovewell’s Fight: War, death, and memory in Borderland New England, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 2-26.
[ii] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 2-26.
[iii] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 16-57. See also James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).
[iv] See Joseph S. Wood, ““Build, Therefore, Your Own World”: The New England Village as Settlement Ideal,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 81, No. 1, (March, 1991), 32-50. Wood tracks the imagined ideal of the New England village in American memory. While not a borderlands study per se, and certainly not in relation to Cray’s work—there are no Indians present in Wood’s article—Wood nonetheless contributes an important piece to colonial borderlands historiography, as he suggests that the general relationship between people and nature in New England constitutes a different kind of borderland. Whether consciously or not, James H. Merrell greatly elaborates on Wood’s idea of nature as a primary actor in borderlands regions in Into the American Woods.
[v] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 32.