Patrick Spero is the Librarian and Director of the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book, Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Frontier Country?
PS: Frontier Country began with my fascination with the Paxton Boys’ Rebellion. The conflict began in December 1763, when a group of frontiersmen massacred the Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A larger group of colonists from the frontier counties of Lancaster, York, and Cumberland then marched to Philadelphia in what was likely the largest political mobilization in colonial Pennsylvania’s history. I wanted to know what led these men to commit this heinous act and to figure out what the larger significance of the event was for the coming of the American Revolution. As I dug deeper into archives, I soon discovered a number of important related events, like a border war between Maryland and Pennsylvania, that preceded this event, and began to see how the legacies of this earlier history shaped the Paxton Boys’ movement and how these events also helped inform the coming of the American Revolution.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Frontier Country?
PS: Frontier Country argues that the imperial crisis on Pennsylvania’s frontier, which was marked by rebellions, open violence, and apparent anarchy, only makes sense if you understand the profound political disagreement that was happening between self-described “frontier people” and those who governed them over the location of frontiers and the government’s responsibility to such zones. To fully understand the coming of the American Revolution in western Pennsylvania, I suggest we must understand what frontier meant to colonists and governing officials living in early America.
JF: Why do we need to read Frontier Country?
PS: Frontier Country tells some remarkable and largely unknown stories that, together, I hope tells a history of colonial and revolutionary Pennsylvania that will seem new to historians and Pennsylvania history enthusiasts. For instance, the book includes a chapter on a war Pennsylvania fought with Maryland in the 1730s and a chapter on the wars the colony later fought with Virginia and Connecticut. These episodes have often been studied on their own, but I hope by putting them together in a single history, colonial Pennsylvania itself will look very different. I like to say it is a history of Pennsylvania as told from the perspective of the west. By doing so, we can have a greater understanding of the politics in Pennsylvania, especially the way in which the interplay between western settlers, eastern elites, and Native Americans created a dynamic and explosive situation in the 1760s and 1770s in the Middle Colonies.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PS: I discovered what I wanted to do as an undergraduate at James Madison University. I always liked history. I remember reading the Diary of James Cook as, I think, a fifth grader for a book report. But it was in a research seminar at JMU that being a historian, rather than a student of history, really clicked. In that course, I was given the freedom to find a topic to write a paper on, to use primary sources to come to my own conclusions, and then use these sources to make an argument all my own. It was an extraordinarily liberating experience – to research and write on my own and to try to say something new about the past that other people could read and respond to. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to figure out a way to keep doing it. Reading primary sources and giving them meaning, which is what I consider is the work of a historian, remains one of the most exciting things to do.
JF: What is your next project?
PS: I have just completed a manuscript tentatively titled 1765: The Struggle for Independence on the American Frontier which builds on my first book by focusing on the Black Boys Rebellion, which was a frontier rebellion in 1765 that is relatively understudied, and the figures that collided during this event. The Black Boys, so called because of the charcoal frontiersmen used to hide their identity, destroyed a pack train of goods intended for a peace treaty with Native groups who had been at war with Great Britain. They then laid siege to a British fort and created an inspection regime that searched all travelers in the area. Meanwhile, imperial officials were desperately trying to squash the rebellion and establish peace with Native groups. It is a very dramatic event that, as I hope to show, reveals a great deal about the origins of the American Revolution on the frontier. I could only use a small amount of the material I came across on the Black Boys in my first book. I hope this second project will be a “popular” book, which is to say shorter than my first book and potentially of use to undergraduates in their courses and of interest to educated but casual readers of history.
JF: Thanks, Patrick!