Ward, Matthew C. Breaking The Backcountry: Seven Years War In Virginia And Pennsylvania 1754-1765. Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.
Breaking the Backcountry is an useful addition to the study of Amerindians as well as the American colonies. Ward’s research centers around the back-country regions of the American colonies. While far from the centers of American civilizations the back-country is not a peaceful countryside. Ward’s backcountry is morass of intrigue, politics, and violence. According to Ward the cultural exchanges, conflicts, and politics of the colonial back-country were more than border skirmishes they were vital pieces of a larger global conflict. This is a narrative of three conflicted viewpoints: English colonists gazing west into a wilderness filed with threats, French soldiers and traders looking westward at English, and tribes of Amerindians looking to exploit the European rivalry. Throughout Breaking the Backcountry Ward details how the back-county developed and the issues inherent in securing this vital center of trade and military defense. Ward begins his narrative with the founding of the back-country colonies and how land speculation drove the push westward. According to Ward the greed that drove the English to settle in back-country colonies also drove them defend them, at the lowest cost possible. Ward then explores a series of successes and failures that lead the back-country in and about of conflicts from the Seven Years War to Pontiac’s Rebellion.
Breaking the Backcountry is a history from the perspective of place. This work focuses on the the early United States: mainly the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Virginia. While Ward’s work focuses on the perspective of place he dose not ignore the perspective and agency of those he studies. Ward is a New Indian historian. When he does focus on the Amerindians he presents them as actives in politics, diplomacy, and military activities. One example of this political shrewdness is how the Amerindians played the French and English off of each other for trade goods and diplomatic favors. Ward’s Amerindians viewed the French as a “great Father” and the English as an “ old woman”. These titles reflected how the Amerindians viewed the European factions. According to Ward the failure of the English to adapt to the back-country terrain and the informal combat necessitated in the region, were the reason the Amerindians saw them as weak and feeble. This failure is exemplified by Braddock’s failed expedition.
Ward also presents the various conflicts from the eyes of Europeans. While the bilk of the European perspective is composed of English and proto-American sources, Ward does offer a brief but detailed view from French eyes. Breaking the Backcountry offers several arguments. The reader is often distracted from the flow of text by a bold argument. This work is dense on argument and support. IN fewr the three hundred pages Ward offers scholars a host of arguments. While the overall argument is that local events of the colonial back-country had serious impacts on global events Ward also offers makes claims for the origins of the American middle class, the beginnings of an American identity, and the early signs for the American Revolution. Despite the volume of secondary arguments there is not a lack of quality. Ward does more than simply dump his arguments on the reader. Instead he subtly presents many of these arguments through out the book. Ward tackles many complex arguments in Breaking the Backcountry, yet one remains unanswered: “How did the United States become a country out of this mess?”
Wards does an excellent job of fleshing out the back-country in terms of ethnic, cultural, and economic conflict. Many American history textbooks paint colonists as a homogeneous group working to build a nations. According to Ward this is far from true. The difficulties in raising funds for expeditions, defense, and expansion are examples. Throughout Breaking the Backcountry Ward discusses the challenges to the upper classes by the “middling sort” and shows the impact of racial propaganda. Indian hating, inter-colonial rivalries, tribal differences, and religion all impacted life in the back-country. Ward also presents the Quakers as an influential player in back-country diplomacy. While often thought neutral Ward presents the Quakers as active pacifists, who placed themselves in the center of diplomacy.
While not entirely a military history Breaking the Backcounry does explore the changes in tactics and weapons that occurred as a result of acculturation. Ward argues that as back-country conflicts progressed both Amerindians and Europeans altered their tactics. The English eventually adapted their “gentlemanly” style of warfare to better handle the raids and skirmishes that were constants of back-country battles. Ward also makes a point of mentioning how Amerindians utilized the metal weapon and hunting rifles of the Europeans to better combat the invaders. Ward does make a note of exploring how effective the hunting rifle was as a military weapon in the hands of Amerindians, a fact that Europeans and American militaries would not accept for the better part of a century.
Ward’s source material is varied yet typical for the type of research he is undertaking. Considering the use of perspective of place Ward utilizes many sources that focus on the back-country., in including geographical studies from James T. Lemon, Terry Jordan, and Matti Kaups. The primary sources feature a great deal of periodicals from the era, allowing the colonists to speak for themselves. Interpersonal communications are also commonly cited. The bulk of Ward’s secondary material seems to focus on no one topic. Biographies, economic works, political works ,military histories, as well as fellow New Indian historians such as Colin Calloway are utilized. This wide array of sources allows Ward to create a rich image of the back-country presenting its importance not only as a military objective, but as a home and center of economic opportunity. Ward overcomes a trend that many European scholars suffer from when researching American topics. Unlike Christopher Gair in American Counterculture Ward stays away from sensationalism and focuses of making solid arguments. Ward’s history comes from the bottom up as well as from the top down. While his image of the back-country is not pretty, it is believable and sincere.
Breaking the Backcountry is a excellent look at the colonial back-country. While Ward’s research is in depth and well presented it serves best as an introductory text. Given the wealth of material covered some material feels glossed over. The French appearance is brief and while not absent from the narrative there is does feel as something is missing. This could simply be a side effect of the era studied. Breaking the Backcountry presents the colonial periphery in grim reality. Ward shatters the illusions found in many secondary textbooks and shows proto-Americans not as heroic bearers of civilization, but simply as individuals who sought wealth, land, and were willing to kill to defend their goals.