Daily Archives: March 30, 2011

‘The Divided Ground’ by Alan Taylor

2006,  395 p. & 128 p notes

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but one way or another I managed to get through 12 years of schooling and three years of undergraduate university education without doing any American history.  We were supposed to do it in Form II but somehow Henry VIII seemed to stretch on forever, and we only got to those funny men in hats and Thanksgiving before the year ended. By Form V obviously the attraction of Henry had won out because I selected 19th Century British over American history.  At university in the mid-1970s we were all protesting US imperialists and the Vietnam War, so I wasn’t going to do any of that culturally imperialist history (why, no, I’d do British history instead…no cultural imperialism there!!)  I’ve  kept a record of my reading over the last ten years or so, and I’ve only read eight books about American history in that time, from popular history to rather more erudite works.  Among them there’s been more of a focus on colonial and early 19th century America with a smattering of “people’s histories”.  Hence, I continue to feel on pretty shaky ground as far as my knowledge of American history goes.

So to Divided Ground. I came to read this book through a suggestion from Andrew Smith’s blog, who cautioned that in order to understand Upper Canada, I needed to look to America as well.  Point taken.

The title mirrors Richard White’s The Middle Ground which dealt with the Algonquian people of Great Lakes and Ohio Valley in the century before the American revolution. But this book speaks instead of divided ground: divided between the land to the north still controlled by the British empire and the land south of the American states.  There was an east/west boundary as well, separating the settled states on the eastern seaboard from the Indian territory further inland.  These were the borders of land hungry settlers, patriots and politicians. Then there was a borderland as well, at least in Indian consciousness, where the Indian tribes would live as an autonomous people, between the British and Americans.  But this borderland would not survive the determination of speculators and politicians, and it was overlaid by a third type of boundary: the boundary of private property as landholdings were carved out and subdivided, turnpikes created, taverns built and forests cleared.

Taylor tethers this story in two men, Joseph Brant and Samuel Kirkland, who met at a boarding school run by Rev Eleazar Wheelock in Connecticut in 1761. Brant’s sister Molly was the Indian mistress of Sir William Johnson, the most famous and powerful colonist on the American frontier.  His patronage extended to her brother Joseph of the Mohawk tribe. Samuel Kirkland, on the other hand, was the son of an impoverished white Minister, taken on as a charity student who, as a missionary later on, became highly influential with the Oneida.  These two men appear throughout the narrative as they rise to prominence in  different Indian tribes that take different pathways.  Brant moves his tribe into Upper Canada and diffidently sides with the British while the tribe that associates with Kirkland sides with the Americans.  But neither man, nor their tribe, could ultimately withstand the appropriation and double-dealing that ran through the dealings of settlers and Indians and the broader agendas of politicians and policy makers.  There is a great deal of detail in this book- some reviews have suggested rather too much detail- but I found that having these two men as anchors helped keep a clear narrative thread throughout the book.  It’s a technique that I like, and I’m wondering if I could do something similar in my own writing.

It is often pointed out that in the settlement of Australia, treaties were not even offered to the Aborigines, beyond Batman’s rapidly over-turned attempt in Port Phillip.  I do not in any way deny the brute power and arrogance that the wholesale appropriation of Australian land displays, but having read this book I’m not sure that these treaties denote a very much higher moral ground.  Untrammelled power is at least transparent in its intentions.  The dripping hypocrisy of declarations to Indian “brothers” mouthed in honeyed language and proffering false generosity is ruthless, too.