Thursday, April 10, 2008

Migration into the "Backcountry" in Colonial Times - I

Frontier Folk Were Seldom Settlers and Vice Versa

English colonists began migrating inland, away from their colonial plantations and settlements almost the instant they landed, first at Roanoke (1585-1587) and then on Chesapeake Bay(starting in 1607). These migrating emigrants were usually the invisible to historians and barely visible to archaeologist; indentured servants and other less affluent folk. Their motives for migrating away from their countrymen ranged from curiosity to animosity. Some went to see what they could see and never came back. Some went to escape an odious labor contract and others to escape debt or other inconveniences common in the English colonial settlements, like wholesale hunger. But, more or less, all escaped into the backcountry, the unmapped, unknown frontier lands away from the coastal enclaves.

In the earliest years of settlement this meant escape into Indian country. And it flies in the face of most conventional beliefs to say that English men, women, and children fled to the Indians. But some did. Others went unwilling and stayed with pleasure. It seems "escape" from Indian country was the exception, not the rule.

In part this reflects Indian societies open to non-Indian participants. It seems the eastern Indians, though they had well defined ethnic identities (ie. knew who they were and who wasn't them) but absolutely no concept of race. These Native American societies apparently had few if any absolute barriers to admission. This is a common feature in subsistence economies where what you can contribute to mutual survival is more important than one's blood lineage. In part, it also resulted from bone-headed Virginia labor policies.

Virginia's elites, always desperate for labor, early in the colonial process enslaved local natives and put them to work in their fields alongside English indentured servants. Labor solidarity, it seems, prevailed and when the Indian's took Dutch leave from drudgery, they often took their English work-mates along. Enslaving people who know the country better than you do was a desperate and ultimately foolish labor policy and it cost Virginia dearly but, on the other hand, added immensely to the rich diversity of what came to be called "the backcountry."

It is likely that very few people migrated freely into the backcountry as moving into a frontier is essential hazardous with little promise of return on the risk. Frontier migrants were thus, almost by definition, desperadoes for one reason or another. And they should be recognized as a special class of migrant and dealt with separate from the more classic migrants of the 18th and 19th century. Frontier folk were folk willing and able to live in a subsistence economy without the advantages of civilization so as to avoid the costs of civilization.

Later migrants increasingly tended to be market farmers seeking cheap land on which to grow market crops, ambitious folks with goals off in the future. They moved not to frontiers but to new settlements. The important point to bear in mind when considering these classic migrants with their wagons full of capitol goods is that they seldom, if ever, moved into frontier regions, regions characterized by lawlessness and subsistence economies.

Though there are examples of market farmers moving very near to frontier zones, these exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule. For example, the Moravian team who first moved into the Wacovia District in North Carolina actually had to cut the roads and fords for their wagons in the last leg of their trip. Similarly, Daniel Boone led Judge Henderson's settlers over the mountains into "dark and bloody ground" on foot, without their wagons, carrying their goods on pack animals as the Wilderness Road was still but a trail. As with the Moravians, this is rare enough to be of note. Most settlers carried their capitol in wagons and moved onto lands defined by law and into an economy defined by markets.

Both the Moravians and Boone's people met squatters on the land they would call their own. William Byrd met some of these true frontier folk along Virginia's southern border in 1728. He said they had remained outside polite society "...for generations without benefit of law or clergy....." His witty dig reveals at least as much about the nature of frontier squatters as it does about Virginia prigs. They were rugged and even rough, unpretentious, frequently enmeshed in multi-racial, multi-cultural societies a polite gentleman like Mr. Byrd would not have recognized even if he deigned to see them.

So, rule number one about classic migration in Colonial America is that migrants were settlers, not frontiers people, and they moved to settle on lands already under the aegis of some authority capable of transferring more or less clear title to the lands on which they hoped to grow their estates.


Anonymous said...

This paper really says a lot about the back country. Great for study!

Anonymous said...

This shows a lot about the backcountry. Great for studying!

Anonymous said...

It is a great website but it dosent tell me about the climate or resources of the backcountry.

The Old Ford Finder said...

Transportation is the blog them. Climate and resources are collaterally important to transportation as they define what gets carried and, to some degree, when carriage occurs but one must draw the line somewhere. As a single volume that might serve I recommend: Tim Silver, _A New Face on the Co0untryside:....._