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The First Frontier by Scott Weidensaul

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

I was really interested in reading this history of interactions between Native Americans and Europeans in colonial America, though the relatively small number of ratings gave me pause; American history is a popular topic among nonfiction readers. As it turns out I should have heeded those reservations. While I did learn some things from this book, it turned out to be a long, unorganized slog. It took me a long time to read because I returned to it only reluctantly, and because of poor organization did not teach me as much as I was hoping.

This book purports to cover over 250 years of American history, from pre-contact America up through the 1760s or so. The geographic scope, too, is broad: basically everywhere in what’s now the United States where white colonists and explorers came into contact with natives, from Maine to Florida to Ohio. The interaction between the two populations is the author’s focus.

The book mixes individual narratives with larger-scale history, but unfortunately the two facets often don’t connect well, and the history is not relayed in such a way as to be easy to remember. Though roughly chronological, the book doesn’t organize information in any particular way. Chapters have soft-focus, vague titles like “Between Two Fires,” rather than demarcating particular historical periods or events. It’s unclear how the people whose individual stories are told were chosen: are they meant to be important historical actors in their own right (many of them have a role, and from the book it’s difficult to judge how important that role was), or are theirs just interesting stories that happened to survive in written form? In some cases the book discusses people as if they are important, but it’s unclear why.

Perhaps several centuries are just too much to cover in one book, especially with a large geographic area and large number of groups (both European and Native American) involved. There are a lot of details and the author doesn’t really highlight key points or people or remind us who they are when they reappear. A lot of history happens in the background; events specific to the colonists, like disputes between colonies and the Salem witch trials, are mentioned only in passing. The colonies’ internal issues are not what this book is about, of course, but the book is also told mostly from the perspective of the colonists because they’re the ones who left written records. So I was left with a sense of reading a very incomplete history, and without being given a framework with which to organize all these names and details. We get the winter-trekking adventures of some interpreter or captive in the foreground, and then a dense collection of details in the background that aren’t really supported by the personal story.

The author’s citations are also lacking. His endnotes are extensive, but are almost entirely limited to instances where he quotes someone directly. Then he’ll state his own conclusions as fact and give no background at all for how he arrived at them, or share startling information that, because it’s not provided in the form of a direct quotation, has no reference. So it’s hard to evaluate his information.

Underlying all of this, the author doesn’t seem to have a thesis, any particular view or interpretation he’s arguing for. Some would say that’s good, that a historian should simply tell us what happened without putting his own spin on it. But Weidensaul – who as far as I can tell from his bio is an amateur historian – certainly does have a viewpoint; the lack of an organizing principle, a concerted argument, simply makes it harder to pin down, and leaves me wondering why exactly the author wrote this book.

Overall, yes, I learned some things from this book. But it was too tedious and frustrating for me to be likely to recommend.