Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Just Finished Reading - Kentucke's Frontiers

I have been wanting to brush up on my knowledge of early Kentucky history for quite some time now. It was always my father's favorite era, but I seemed to gravitate more toward the mid-nineteenth century.  However, when I went searching for recent scholarship I was somewhat disappointed to find that there has not been much published in the past ten years.

A recent book that did catch my eye was Kentucke's Frontiers (winner of the 2011 Kentucky Governor's Award), by North Carolina State University professor Craig Thompson Friend.

In Kentucke's Frontiers, Friend provides a thorough account of Kentucky's early history from its first explorers up to the early nineteenth century. In doing so he looks closely at the terror that was experienced by those early explorers and settlers and how their fears of Indian raids and the frontier's wild beasts translated into culture of hero worship that ultimately limited egalitarian possibilities for white women and African Americans. As Friend explains, "Like poorer white men, blacks and white women watched as opportunities that had existed for them in Kentucke withered as Kentucky took shape. . . . During the 1770s and 1780s some members of both groups tasted social, economic, and religious independence. In the 1790s, however, both blacks and white women faced greater legal restrictions on their social and economic activities."

Friend contends that in the 1770s and 1780s "Slaves gained mobility and a sense of autonomy through the illegal but unregulated practice of hiring out. . . . White women too, both as widows and as wives acting in their husbands' absences, enjoyed some economic independence, exerting authority over salt manufactories, artisan shops, slaves and farms."

As you might have noticed in the last couple of paragraphs, Friend divides the commonwealth's early history (roughly 1750 to 1820) by labeling the earliest years as Kentucke, as it was often spelled by those white hunters and explorers, and the later period - after statehood was granted in 1792 - as the modern spelling Kentucky.

The hero worship that resulted from terroristic Indians raids (contrary to period accounts only men supposedly could defend hearth and home) developed into community reinforced organizations (county courts, state legislature, and churches) and a common culture that resulted in a white patriarchy and transformed the Bluegrass State into an Old South state in the antebellum years. However, as Friend contends and I certainly would agree, the terror did not stop with the disappearance of Indians. Black African American slaves took the red Indians' place. Friend states, "Unlike Native Americans, few blacks had the resources or freedom to actually pose threats. But African Americans were ubiquitous in Kentucky, and their omnipresence unsettled whites. As whites employed terror against slaves and free blacks to keep a real threat from manifesting, they too became dangerous Others in the eyes of their black neighbors."  My personal research on Kentuckians' reactions to John Brown's raid vividly supports this particular argument.

I enjoyed reading Kentucke's Frontiers and thinking about the unique arguments that Friend poses. Hopefully more scholars will continue to reexamine Kentucky's early years, how the state's history has been told, and what we can learn from those narratives. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Kentucke's Frontiers a 4.75.

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