The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820, presents books, periodicals, maps, letters, journals and other materials that document the travels of the first Europeans to travel past the Appalachians into what was then the American west. Also included is material documenting the lives of women and Africans-American slaves traveling into this unknown territory. This collection is made up of collections from the University of Chicago and the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The New Nation, 1780-1815
- Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
Related Collections and Exhibits
- African-American Experience in Ohio
- Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862-1912
- Map Collections: Discovery and Exploration
- Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820 documents the travels of the first Europeans to enter the trans-Appalachian west, the maps tracing their explorations, and relations with Native American people. Books and letters in the collection record land acquisitions, agricultural development, navigation, trade, and political affairs in the early Federal period including western conspiracies. The collection of documents draws upon the interconnected holdings of the University of Chicago Library and the Filson Historical Society, named after John Filson who, in 1784, published “The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” a promotional tract recognized as the first history of the state. The collection provides a diverse picture of the early exploration and settlement of the trans-Appalachian west.
The First American West supplements the study of early American history and provides insights into the settlement of the first westward frontier. Documents in the collection explore the numerous hostile encounters between Europeans and Native Americans from the Seven Years’ War through the War of 1812. A number of travel accounts shed light on the economic opportunities in the western Appalachian territory acquired by the Treaty of Paris of 1783, including a two-volume history of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The collection also explores the political intrigues spawned in the Ohio Valley during the early Federal Period through personal correspondence, state papers, and court records. The abundant records in the collection further enrich the study of the economic, social, and political values and institutions from the late colonial period through the War of 1812.
The Special Presentation “Encountering the First American West” provides a useful introduction to the collection, organized around five themes: contested lands, peoples and migrations, empires and politics, western life and culture, and constructing a western past. These themes could provide one avenue for exploring the collection in the classroom; the topics in the subheadings below could provide another.
Several monographs in the collection focus on the indigenous people of North America. A selection from Josiah Priest’s monograph “American Antiquities, and Discoveries in the West” examines an ancient “city” and mounds at the junction of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers in eastern Ohio, the forts of Circleville, and the remains of structures near Chillicothe in central Ohio. Priest extols these “stupendous works” and compares them to Mesopotamian and Indus River civilizations. An earlier ethnological study, “Ancient History, or, Annals of Kentucky,” includes a survey of the ancient monuments of North America.
Many of the works on Native Americans survey the conflicts between settlers and Indians in the frontier. “A Historical Account of the Expedition Against the Ohio Indians, in the Year 1764” explores Henry Bouquet’s service with the British in the Seven Years’ War and includes references to Pontiac’s Rebellion. Selected chapters of “History of the Backwoods, or, The Region of the Ohio,” published in 1843, surveys the early settlement of Kentucky and the conflict with British and Native American forces during the Revolutionary War. Several chapters of “History of the Shawnee Indians, from the Year 1681 to 1854, Inclusive” dealing with Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, and Tippecanoe are also part of the digital collection.
Use the Subject Index to find descriptions of white settlers’ interactions with the Native Americans. Read several documents from different time periods.
- How are Native Americans described in general histories of the Ohio Valley? In documents in the collection, find several phrases that you think typify the European settlers’ attitudes toward the Native Americans.
- Do you note any changes in perceptions of Native Americans over time? If so, describe those changes.
- Compare the descriptions of the Native Americans with whom white settlers interacted with the conclusions drawn about the ancient inhabitants from studies of remains of settlements and artifacts. How are they similar? How are they different? What might account for the differences?
Settlers in the Ohio Valley were in frequent conflict with Native Americans in the region. Because they felt the state of Virginia was not doing enough to protect them from the native people, many settlers in Kentucky began arguing for statehood.
In 1792 the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia required that the laws of the state be republished. The publication includes the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the first state constitution, adopted in 1776 before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The terms and conditions by which Virginia agreed to the separation of Kentucky from the Commonwealth are among the laws included in the publication.
With respect to formation of new states, Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other state; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
Read the requirements of the Virginia law and consider the following questions:
- What requirements did Virginia impose as conditions for separation?
- Why do you think Virginia imposed these requirements? In what ways did the requirements benefit Virginia?
- Do you think these requirements were fair? Why or why not?
- Do you think these requirements were constitutional under Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution?
The first constitution of the state was adopted in 1792, and Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains. At the first constitutional convention, held in Danville, a Presbyterian minister named David Rice expressed his opposition to slavery (the speech was published in 1804):
When we plead for slavery, we plead for the disgrace and ruin of our own nature. If we are capable of it we may ever after claim kindred with the brutes, and renounce our own superior dignity.
- How might Kentuckians have reacted to Reverend Rice’s speech condemning slavery?
- Predict what you think the Kentucky constitution provided regarding slavery.
- What similarities do you note between the Kentucky constitution and the U.S. Constitution? The Virginia constitution?
- Compare the enumeration of rights in the Virginia, U.S., and Kentucky constitutions. Which do you prefer? Why?
- What does the Kentucky constitution say about slavery? Were the predictions you made above correct?
Who could vote under the 1792 Kentucky constitution? How do the limits on voting reflect the culture of the time?
Alien and Sedition Acts
The passage of a series of acts in 1798, commonly referred to as the Alien and Sedition Acts, caused an uproar in Kentucky. These acts were designed to promote national security and control opposition in the United States to government policy, especially with respect to a possible war with France. The acts gave the government power to imprison or deport aliens in time of war and deport aliens believed to be dangerous, even in time of peace; extended the time required to become a naturalized citizen; and made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious” writing about the President and Congress.
To get a sense of the controversy that arose in Kentucky, read the December 14, 1798, letter from John Adair to General James Wilkinson in which he reports that Kentuckians consider “the Alien and Sedition Bills a[s] unconstitutional” and remarks that he believed the bills were “agitated by the advocates of Governmental power.” Gabriel Nourse, in a political address to the people of Kentucky, defended the passage of the acts and called upon Kentuckians to stand with the government of the United States:
…Unanimity ought to take possession of every mind, be strongly depicted on every countenance, and mark the character of every lover of his country. Charity almost debars me from esteeming any man, as a member of the community, who, at the present period, can be so lost to his country’s weal, as to prompt the innocent and well disposed to murmur disaffection and contumacy.
The 1799 correspondence between George Nicholas of Kentucky and Robert Harper, member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, delves into Nicholas’ basic disagreement with the Alien and Sedition Acts and common law. Nicholas’ letters serve as a political tract exploring the propriety of congressional legislation in reaction to foreign policy issues and the possibility of war with France.
- How did Gabriel Nourse use patriotism as an argument for support of the acts? How is this argument similar to and different from arguments made about strategies used in the War on Terror?
- According to Nicholas, was the Sedition Act justified? What was Representative Harper’s response to these arguments?
- What are the observations expressed by Judge Addison in the Appendix on Freedom of the Press?
- Overall, do you find the arguments for or against the Alien and Sedition Acts more compelling? Give reasons supporting your answer.
In 1798 the Kentucky and Virginia assemblies passed resolutions condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts. Representative John Breckinridge introduced Kentucky’s version of the declaration, a document he had received from his friend Thomas Jefferson and which he had slightly modified. James Madison authored Virginia’s decree. Jefferson and Madison drafted the resolutions as part of a strategy to unseat the Federalists who were in power at the time. Neither Madison’s nor Jefferson's role in creating the documents was revealed until many years later. Read the Kentucky Resolution of 1798.
- What arguments are used to renounce the Alien and Sedition Acts?
- According to Jefferson, what rights do states have to nullify laws passed by the federal legislature?
Several Northern states repudiated the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (note that the judiciary’s right to judicial review—to strike down unconstitutional laws—was not established until 1803 in the case of Marbury v. Madison). In response to the Northern states, the Kentucky legislature passed a second act (Resolution of February 1799), which proposed the right of states to determine infractions of the Constitution and claimed the right of states to nullify acts of Congress.
- Identify the advantages and the disadvantages to giving states the right to nullify acts of Congress.
- How would this policy apply to events that would occur in the United States in the nineteenth century?
Do you think Madison and Jefferson supported the policy with respect to later attempts by states to nullify acts of Congress? Why or why not?
Rights to the Navigation of the Mississippi
Settlers in the Ohio Valley were also discontented about the navigation of the Mississippi River. Rivers east of the Appalachians flowed toward the Atlantic while rivers west of the mountains flowed eventually into the Mississippi, which flowed south to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Settlers west of the Appalachians needed a way to get goods to the East Coast. Thus, navigation of the Mississippi was critical to the economy in the west. However, Spain controlled the port of New Orleans and charged huge fees for goods passing through New Orleans. Spain also claimed the river itself. Read the 1794 broadside accusing the federal government of neglecting the interests of the citizens of Kentucky. It reads, in part:
1. That the inhabitants West of the Apalachian, mountains are entitled by nature and by stipulation to the free and undisturbed Navigation of the River Mississippi.
2. That from the year 1783 until this time, the enjoyment of this right has been uniformly prevented, by the Spaniards.
3. That the General Government whose duty it was to have put us in possession of this right, have, either through design or mistaken policy, adopted no effectual measures for its attainment….
- What was the basis for the grievance by the citizens of Kentucky? Why do you think the federal government had done little to protect the navigation rights of settlers in the West?
- What measures were proposed to solve the problem of navigation of the Mississippi? How effective do you think these measures would be in solving the problem?
Conduct research to find out how the problem of navigation of the Mississippi River was resolved. Can you find evidence that the feelings of people West of the Appalachians influenced the U.S. government with respect to this issue?
General James Wilkinson, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, became deeply involved in the previously described efforts to separate Kentucky from Virginia. Wilkinson traveled to New Orleans in 1787 to attempt to secure trade relations with the Spanish. He was rumored to be involved in a plot to separate the west from the United States—the so-called “Spanish Conspiracy.”
Aaron Burr, after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, traveled west and was known to have conferred with General Wilkinson, who had been appointed commander of U.S. military forces in the Mississippi Valley. When Burr’s intrigues to establish an empire in the west became known, Wilkinson was reported to have been involved in the scheme. Wilkinson, however, had informed President Jefferson of Burr’s plans. In January 1807, Jefferson sent a message to Congress transmitting information he had received on the conspiracy. Burr was arrested and accused of treason.
Examine the set of questions U.S. Attorney General Caesar A. Rodney sent to an official in Louisville, Kentucky, to ask people who might have information about the Burr conspiracy. Conduct a Keyword Search using the term Burr conspiracy for letters dealing with the affair.
- What evidence suggested that General Wilkinson was involved in the conspiracy?
- What were Burr’s motives for trying to detach the western states and Louisiana Territory from the United States?
- How might previous grievances regarding navigation of the Mississippi have influenced westerners to support Burr’s conspiracy?
Why do you think Burr was acquitted of treason?
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was fought for two primary reasons: first, the British were violating U.S. sovereignty by refusing to give up forts they promised to turn over to the United States in the treaty of 1783 and by stopping American ships and forcing American seamen into the British navy (called impressment); and second, Americans hoped to take over British colonies in what is now Canada. In addition, the United States did not want an intertribal confederacy of Native Americans, headed by Tecumseh of the Shawnees, to gain too much power. After years of diplomatic disputes and battles with the Indians (who sided with the British), the U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain in July 1812. Battles were fought in the Atlantic Ocean, around the Great Lakes and the Canadian frontier, along the coast of the United States, and in the Southern states.
Read the short biographical sketch of William Henry Harrison, which covers the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 and the victory over British and Indian forces at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. “Views of the Campaigns of the North-western Army” includes an account of Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory on Lake Erie. For personal accounts from soldiers during the War of 1812, refer to the 1854 publication “A Journal, Containing an Accurate and Interesting Account of the Hardships, Sufferings, Battles, Defeat, and Captivity of those Heroic Kentucky Volunteers and Regulars.”
- Is the biography of William Henry Harrison an unbiased report of his life? Cite evidence from the biography to support your answer.
- Note that the biographical sketch of William Henry Harrison was published in 1836. Why do you think the book was published then? What did the authors hope to achieve?
- Based on the sources in this collection, who would you say won the War of 1812? Conduct additional research to find out whether historians agree with your assessment
The collection contains numerous references to slavery, including a 1772 Act of the Virginia House of Burgesses regarding the punishment of slaves in the colony. There is also a survey, published in 1827, of the laws relating to slavery in the United States. Conduct a Keyword Search using Henry Vanderburgh as your search term to locate a series of court documents involving the case of Peter and Queen McNelly, slaves who fled Kentucky in 1793 to the Northwest Territory, where the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade involuntary servitude.
Read Secretary of State Henry Clay’s speech before the American Colonization Society in 1827:
…Why should they not go? Here they are in the lowest state of social gradation—aliens—political—moral—social aliens, strangers though natives. There, they would be in the midst of their friends and their kindred, at home, though born in a foreign land, and elevated above the natives of the country, as much as they are degraded here below the other classes of the community.
- What arguments did Clay use in support of the Colonization Society?
- What are the assumptions Clay made in his speech? How do they reflect early nineteenth-century racial policy?
- How would opponents of the Colonization Society respond?
Conduct a Keyword Search using emancipation for copies of manumissions of slaves in Kentucky and court cases emanating from controversy over state requirements that funds be made available for the education of minors who had previously been held in slavery.
Second Great Awakening
A new religious revival swept through the nation in the early nineteenth century. The Methodist Episcopal Church became an important religious community in the post-Revolutionary era and had a special appeal in the west, as outlined in a tract by the church’s western conference.
In 1813 the Synod of Kentucky, concerned by the decay of religion, questioned the influence of Presbyterian ministers, whom they considered divisive. A series of articles in The Evangelical Record and Western Review explored the causes of the decay of religion in Kentucky and examined the rise of new sects, the Kentucky New Lights and the Rankinites.
Examine the religious broadside published by Lorenzo Dow warning that wars, pestilence, earthquakes, and famine would be the consequences of vice. Also read selections from The Life of the Pilgrim, Joseph Thomas for one account of the travels of an itinerant minister during the Second Great Awakening.
- What was the message of itinerant ministers?
- Why were more formal religious communities concerned about the spread of new evangelical sects?
Jeremiah Evarts, a missionary and reformer, wrote a monograph in defense of the Cherokee during the conflict between Georgia and the Cherokee Nation and the early discussion of Indian removal. Originally published in 1829 under the pseudonym William Penn, “Essays on the Present Crisis in the Condition of the American Indians” includes an exhaustive study of early treaties with the Cherokee Nation and a critical appraisal of President Andrew Jackson’s policy as stated in his first inaugural address. Evarts posed several questions:
…I would observe, that the people of the United States owe it to themselves, and to mankind, to form a correct judgment in this matter. The questions have forced themselves upon us, as a nation:--What is to become of the Indians? Have they any rights? If they have, What are these rights? And how are they to be secured?
- Summarize the outcome of the various treaties reviewed by Evarts. What point is Evarts making by reviewing these treaties?
- How does Evarts recommend the nation answer the questions he posed?
- What solutions does Evarts offer to meet the crisis?
- Why do you think Evarts used the pen name William Penn in writing the essays?
The First American West collection contains many books, articles, and personal letters on a wide variety of subjects related to cultural institutions in the trans-Appalachian west. For example, The Masonic Miscellany and Ladies’ Literary Magazine published a series of articles in 1822-1823 entitled, “Female Education,” “Female Accomplishments,” and “Causes Why the Female Sex Are Not Sufficiently Respected.”
- Who was the audience for these articles? What can you discern about who wrote the articles?
- What attitudes towards women’s roles in society are reflected in these articles? How were these attitudes aligned with women’s position in the United States at the time the articles were published?
- In the years between 1820 and the Civil War, an ideal of womanhood was promoted in women’s magazines and other publications. Called the Cult of Domesticity, this ideal called on women to be pious, pure, submissive, and domestic. Do these articles support the Cult of Domesticity? Use quotations from the articles to support your answers.
John James Audubon’s three-volume classic study, “Ornithological Biography, or an Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America,” is part of the digital collection. Audubon wrote of his early attachment to birds:
None but aerial companions suited my fancy. No roof seemed so secure to me as that formed of the dense foliage under which the feathered tribes were seen to resort, or the cave and fissures of the massy rocks to which the dark-winged Cormorant and the Curlew retired to rest, or to protect themselves from the fury of the tempest.
Examine eight of Audubon’s famous drawings presented in “The Birds of America; from Original Drawings” and read the descriptions of those birds in Volume I of the “Ornithological Biography.”
- List as many details about one of the bird species as you can learn from examining only the drawings.
- What techniques did Audubon use to make the birds look life-like? (He actually used dead birds propped on wires as “models” for his drawings.)
- Read the text description of one of the bird species. How do you think Audubon gathered the information for these descriptions?
- Audubon has been called one of the first great U.S. naturalists. Based on your analysis of Audubon’s work, how would you define the term naturalist? What characteristics of his work would qualify Audubon to be called great?
Chronological Thinking: Continuity and Change in Sports
Physically active forms of recreation, sports, have existed throughout history, but the forms of sports change as society changes. The Rev. Dr. Joseph Doddridge wrote “Notes, on the settlement and Indian wars, of the western parts of Virginia & Pennsylvania,” in which he reported on many everyday activities of settlers in the west. In a chapter on “Sports,” he described them as follows:
Amusements are, in many instances, either imitations of the business of life, or at least, of some of its particular objects of pursuit; on the part of young men belonging to nations in a state of warfare, many amusements are regarded as preparations for the military character which they are expected to sustain in future life. Thus, the war dance of savages, is a pantomime of their stratagems and horrid deeds of cruelty in war, and the exhibition prepares the minds of their young men for a participation in the bloody tragedies which they represent. Dancing, among civilized people, is regarded, not only as an amusement suited to the youth period of human life; but as a means of inducing urbanity of manners and a good personal deportment in publick.
Read the chapter on sports. Take notes in a T-chart, in which you note continuity in sports and other amusements in the left column (things that are similar between 1824 and today) and change in the right column (things that are different).
- What are the most notable continuities in sports from 1824 to the present? What are the most significant changes?
- Do you think that amusements today are “imitations of the business of life, or at least, of some of its particular objects of pursuit”? Give examples to support your answer. If you do not think that sports and other amusements serve as preparation for such activities as military service, what purposes do they serve? Is this an important change?
- When Rev. Doddridge provided his explanation of the “war dance of savages,” he was making inferences from an outsider’s perspective. That is, he was observing a culture of which he was not a member and filtering his observations through the perspective of his own culture. How accurate are such interpretations? Think about how someone from a different culture might view the way in which you and your friends dance. Write an explanation of contemporary teenage dancing from an outsider’s perspective. What value would such a description/interpretation have as a historical document?
Historical Comprehension: Constructing the Meaning of a Historic Poem
Read the stanzas of an 1807 poem “Gen. Washington With Some Remarks on Jeffersonian Policy” and the poem printed on the reverse, “A Poem on Profane Cursing and Swearing.”
…Great Washington, our friend, is dead,
And Jefferson reigns in his stead,
Much reason then to mourn and sigh,
But Jefferson must also die,
A man he is, a frail one too.
As sad experience now doth shew,
Then will forsake our present head,
And chose a better in his stead.
Behold the dismal change of late,
See Jefferson in the chair of state.
- What references does the poem “Gen. Washington With Some Remarks on Jeffersonian Policy” make to political decisions during the Jefferson administration?
- How does the poem ridicule Jefferson?
- How did opponents regard Jefferson’s moral character?
- What inferences can be drawn from the publication of the second poem on the reverse side of the poem criticizing Jefferson’s policies?
Historical Comprehension: Drawing Upon Data in Historical Maps
Examine the 1794 “Map of the State of Kentucky: with the Adjoining Territories” showing the physical features of the land and a large tract of land in Southwestern territory (currently northwestern Tennessee) that was reserved for North Carolina Revolutionary War veterans.
- What can you discern from the map about the grant of western lands to Revolutionary War veterans?
- Why do you think North Carolina set aside these lands for veterans? What would the state have to gain from the opening of the western frontier?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Explaining the Causes of the Seven Years’ War
A British study of Colonial North America in 1755, just before the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, includes a section on the “Pernicious Tendency of the French Encroachments, and the Fittest Methods of Frustrating Them.” Read this section of the report and examine the 1755 map of North America showing the British and French land claims.
- What were the long-term and immediate causes of the Seven Years’ War in North America?
- What can be inferred from the map regarding the impending conflict?
- Based on what you know about the British perspective, what questions might you pose about French views on the causes of the conflict?
Historical Research: Marshaling Needed Information to Construct a Narrative and Explanation
Research the conflict between the United States and the Indians of northwestern Ohio in 1791. Read the account of the battle General Arthur St. Clair sent to Secretary of War Henry Knox as recorded in “A Collection of Some of the Most Interesting Narratives of Indian Warfare in the West.” Investigate the appointment of General Anthony Wayne as commander of U.S. forces after St. Clair’s removal and the defeat of the Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Examine Wayne’s proclamation calling for peace a few weeks after the battle. Use other sources as necessary to gain information about the conflict.
Use the information you have gathered to design a museum display that will teach others about this conflict. What questions will your display answer? What information will it provide? How will you explain the causes and effects of the conflict? Sketch your display on a large sheet of poster paper and provide a one- to two-page explanation of the information to be provided.
Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making: Making Policy for the West
Read the letter James Madison wrote to George Nicholas during the debates in Virginia over the ratification of the Constitution. In the letter, Madison argues that the country’s navigation rights on the Mississippi River would be better protected if the Constitution was ratified. Nicholas, who later became a leader in Kentucky, failed to persuade the Kentucky delegation in the Virginia convention to support ratification. Many Kentuckians were alarmed by the fact that, in the Jay-Gardoqui negotiations of 1785-86, the United States had agreed to give Spain exclusive navigation rights to the Mississippi River for 30 years (the treaty was not ratified).
- What was the basis of Madison’s belief that the Constitution would be the best protection of Western interests?
- Why were Kentuckians fearful that ratification of the Constitution would hurt their interests?
- What were the conflicting interests of the agrarian west and the commercial east in the early years of the nation?
- If you had lived in Kentucky in 1788, would you have supported ratification of the Constitution? Why or why not?
Literature: The Travel Narrative
Narratives of travel to far-away places have existed for almost as long as people have known how to write. One reason for the early popularity of this genre was that rulers wanted information about the lands over which they reigned. In addition, merchants were hungry for knowledge about how to reach the markets of Asia and Africa. During the age of exploration, the European public became avid readers of travel accounts as Europeans traveled to distant places, including the Americas. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, accounts of travels to the African and American interiors were popular in Europe.
John Filson’s “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke” was published in 1784, eight years before Kentucky separated from Virginia and was admitted as the fifteenth state in the union. The book, based on Filson’s travels through the wilderness, refers to Kentucky as a haven for immigrants searching for freedom. In the conclusion, Filson writes:
The recital of your happiness will call to your country all the unfortunate of the earth, who, having experienced oppression, political or religious, will there find a deliverance from their chains. To you innumerable multitudes will emigrate from the hateful regions of despotism and tyranny; and you will surely welcome them as friends, as brothers; you will welcome them to partake with you of your happiness.—Let the memory of Lycurgus, the Spartan legislator, who banished covetousness, and the love of gold from his country; the excellent Locke, who first taught the doctrine of toleration; the venerable Penn, the first who founded a city of brethren; and Washington, the defender and protector of persecuted liberty, be ever the illustrious examples of your political conduct. Avail yourselves of the benefits of nature, and of the fruitful country you inhabit.
Examine the “Table of Contents” of “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke.” What sections of this narrative might be most likely to “call to your country all the unfortunate of the earth”? Which sections do you think would have been especially interesting to Europeans and white settlers in the eastern United States? Explain your answer. Read one of the sections about Indians. What attitudes towards Native Americans does Filson reveal? How do these attitudes affect the way in which you read his travel narrative?
Read the short pamphlet “Some Information Respecting America” by Thomas Cooper of Manchester, which gives a general description of Kentucky for prospective settlers based on his travels through the territory, ca. 1794.
- What are Cooper’s general observations about the land?
- What might immigrants expect?
- Based on this account, would you have advised a prospective European emigrant to settle in Kentucky? Why or why not?
In 1802 Andre Francois Michaux, member of the French Society of Natural History, toured the trans-Appalachian American west on behalf of the French Minister of the Interior. His book, Travels to the Westward of the Allegany Mountains, published in 1805, examined the agricultural production of the region and the commerce among the western states of Kentucky and Tennessee and those of the Atlantic seaboard. What might account for the French interest in the western United States prior to 1802?
Find and read a contemporary travel article about Kentucky. In what way is this article similar to the historical travel narratives? How is it different? In what ways have the criteria for a good travel narrative changed over time? What has remained the same?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines satire as “a literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.” Whether gentle or biting, satire is an attack on established ideas, people, or institutions.
Analyze the broadside “Hero of the Wabash” and the poem of the fictitious “Captain Paul.” The poem is believed to be a commentary on General St. Clair’s defeat during a conflict with Native Americans on the banks of the Wabash River in 1791.
- How is Captain Paul portrayed in the broadside?
- How was satire used to ridicule Captain Paul’s “heroism”?
- Read St. Clair’s account of the battle as recorded in “A Collection of Some of the Most Interesting Narratives of Indian Warfare in the West” (pages 2-6). Contrast the General’s report to the Secretary of War with the story as related in the poem. What elements of St. Clair’s story opened him to being satirized? Do you think it is fair to satirize someone in General St. Clair’s position? Why or why not?
Literature Inspired by Life
Real-life events often inspire writers to create works of fiction about similar events. One such event is recounted in “The Confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp Who Was Hanged at Frankfort, Ky., on the 7th Day of July, 1826, for the Murder of Col. Solomon P. Sharp.” Beauchamp stabbed the prominent Colonel Sharp to avenge Sharp’s mistreatment of Beauchamp’s wife some years before. After being convicted of the crime, Beauchamp convinced his jailors to allow his wife Ann to stay in his cell with him. The two wrote poetry and plotted to commit suicide. The book ends with a note describing Beauchamp’s final visit with his wife before going to the gallows.
As he was being led to the gallows, he asked how his wife was. He was told by the physicians she was doing very well. He asked permission to see her, which was granted. As soon as he saw her, he said:
“Physicians, you have deceived me; she is dying!”
Then turning to his wife, he said to her:
“Farewell, child of sorrow! Farewell, child of persecution and misfortune! For you have I lived, and for you I die!”
He then said to guard: “Now, I am ready.”
Beauchamp’s Confession became the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s Scenes from “Politian” written for the stage in 1835 and William Gilmore Simms’ 1842 novel Beauchampe; or, The Kentucky Tragedy. Read the “Postscript” to the “Confession,” which provides a description of the couple’s suicide plot, as well as poems written to each other and their burial plans
- Would you classify the Beauchamp story as a real-life melodrama? Why or why not?
- Why do you think the tragic tale of murder and attempted dual suicide became the inspiration for fictional literary works? What was the story’s appeal?
- Find a current news story that includes some of the same elements as the Beauchamp story. Write a fictional short story based on this news event. What are the advantages to basing your story on a real event? Disadvantages?
A celebratory poem is one that praises or honors an event or people. In the early nineteenth century, poems were sometimes posted on broadsides to reach a wide audience. For example, the broadside shown here contained a poem praising the valor of Kentuckians.
- For what were the “hunters of Kentucky” being praised in this poem?
- Describe the form of this poem. Why do you think the poet repeated “Oh! Kentucky” at the end of each stanza? Is this an effective technique? Explain your answer.
- Why does the author call Kentuckians “alligator horses”? Is this an effective metaphor?
- Do you think this poem was a good way to communicate praise and honor for the men of Kentucky who fought in the Battle of New Orleans? Why or why not? Remember to think about the poem from the perspective of a reader in 1812 rather than a twenty-first century reader. How might a reader today evaluate the poem differently?
Writing style is the way in which a writer selects and arranges words to convey ideas and achieve a particular purpose. While a writer’s style may be unique, often it is influenced by literary trends and events in society. For example, writers in the early to mid-nineteenth century were influenced by romanticism. Romanticism stressed nature and experiencing the sublime—the majestic or supremely spiritual—through nature. Authors in the romantic tradition often wrote of heroic individuals who changed society. At the same time, American writers felt some pressure to prove that they could write as elegantly as English writers.
Think about style and romanticism as you read this excerpt from the preface of “The Mountain Muse: Comprising the Adventures of Daniel Boone; and the Power of Virtuous and Refined Beauty,” by Daniel Bryan:
The world of Man is a mixture of contrarieties. The source of his sweetest enjoyments is often the fountain of his bitterest anguish. Like the drops of the weeping cloud, illumed with the momentary burst of radiance which gleam from the sun, as he breaks thro’ his floating veil; the tears of woe and melancholy often sparkle in the smiles of the same countenance. Those avocations and amusements which grasp the energies, absorb the reflections, animate the Fancy, and electrify with vivid raptures and inextinguishable fascination, the spirits of one man, awaken no extacy, no pleasure in the bosom, but excite the contempt, or kindle the hatred of another.
Now answer the following questions:
- How would you describe the sentences in this excerpt—are they simple or complex? How would you describe the language used—is it everyday language or formal, even flowery language? Does the style enhance or hinder understanding?
- What does elegant writing mean to you? Do you think this excerpt is elegantly written? Why or why not? Why might Americans in the early nineteenth century have seen this kind of writing as proof that their writing was equal to that of English authors?
- What evidence of romanticism do you see in this excerpt? Think about the subject of the book as well.
- Find another excerpt from the collection that reflects romanticism. Try to rewrite the excerpt as it might be written today. What is the biggest difference between the excerpt and your rewriting of it? How does this difference reflect changes in writing styles?
Persuasive writing is designed to convince the reader to believe what the writer believes or to take an action urged by the writer. Among the techniques used by persuasive writers are employing strong language, supporting their positions with data, linking their positions with other things that the reader values (such as freedom or safety), appealing to the reader’s self-interest, referring to respected sources, and refuting the views of their opponents.
- What issue was Nicholas writing about? What did he want his friend to believe or do?
- What arguments did Nicholas make about the Alien and Sedition Acts? Consider their constitutionality and the perspective of citizens of Kentucky.
- How persuasive were the arguments Nicholas used in the response to criticism of the Kentucky Resolution?
- What persuasive techniques did Nicholas use most effectively to make his case?
Thomas Bodley, incensed by the candidacy of Humphrey Marshall for the state legislature, drafted an appeal to the People of Kentucky accusing Marshall of fraud and conspiracy.
You know Humphrey Marshall of old, he has always been called a rank Federalist or in other words a monarchist—he has frequently exerted himself to change the politicks of our country; it is now his object—therefore be on your guard against him and his supporters. If they succeed and should get the ascendancy in our national council, we may expect to experience all the evils and horrors which threatened our country, and were so much dreaded in the reign of terror.
George Nicholas, in a letter opposing the stand a member of the House of Representatives took on the Sedition Act, wrote:
I have attended particularly to your conduct from the time you first became a member of the house of representatives, and having uniformly, and on every occasion, voted with a certain party; for admitting them to be angels, as you certainly are not one, your fallible judgment could not always have been properly convinced, of the infallibility of their counsels. The man who always votes with or against certain characters, (I care not on which side he is) cannot, in my opinion, conscienciously [sic.] discharge his duty as a representative.
- What accusations did Bodley make against Humphrey Marshall? What persuasive techniques did he use in making his case?
- What tone did Nicholas use in the summation of his letter of June 10, 1799?
- How do these two examples of political writing compare to present-day accusations traded by politicians of opposing parties?
Caleb Bingham, author of a number of children’s readers, first published his popular “The American Preceptor: Being a New Selection of Lessons for Reading and Speaking” in 1794. Selections from the 1805 edition are included in the First American West collection. The Preface of “The American Preceptor” outlines Bingham’s choice of selections.
…Convinced of the impropriety of instilling false notions into the minds of children, he has not given place to romantic fiction. Although moral essays have not been neglected; yet pleasing and interesting stories, exemplifying moral virtues, were judged best calculated to engage the attention and improve the heart. Tales of love have not gained admission.
- Read the entire Preface. What can you learn about the purpose of schoolbooks from reading the Preface? Why do you think “American genius” was emphasized? Why was romantic fiction not included? According to the author, what criteria were used in selecting items?
- Read some of the “Select Sentences” in “The American Preceptor.” What moral values are embedded in these sentences?
- Remember that this book was written early in our nation’s history, when leaders believed that schools and families should teach young people that citizens have a responsibility to care for their government and to rein in their own selfish interests. In what ways are the excerpts from “The American Preceptor” in line with those goals?
- How is this book similar to and different from textbooks used in schools today?
The collection also includes several other school primers including “The American School-master's Assistant: Being a Compendious System of Vulgar and Decimal Arithmetic” and “The Defining Orthographer, and Youth's Plain Guide to Pronunciation and Reading.”
The oratorical skills of Native Americans—their ability to speak in public about matters of concern to the community—were admired by European Americans. Reported speeches by Native Americans were often repeated or committed to memory. In an appendix to “Jefferson’s Notes, on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson described how a 1774 speech by Chief Logan became widely known, in the colonies and in Europe:
These [the circumstances surrounding the speech] were so affecting, and the speech itself so fine a morsel of eloquence, that it became the theme of every conversation, in Williamsburg particularly, and generally, indeed wheresoever any of the officers resided or resorted. I learned it in Williamsburg . . . The speech was published in the Virginia Gazette of that year . . . and though in a style by no means elegant, yet it was so admired, that it flew through all the public papers of the continent, and through the magazines and other periodical publications of Great Britain; and those who were boys at that day will now attest, that the speech of Logan used to be given them as a school exercise for repetition.
Chief Logan’s speech was in essence a lament to Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore about the murder of his family. The speech can be found in the “Appendix” cited above, pages 23-24. The elderly, blind Oneida Chief John Scanando is reported to have made a similar lament.
…Where are the chiefs of the rising Sun? White chiefs now kindle their ancient fires! There no Indian sleeps but those that sleep in their graves. My house will soon be like theirs; soon will a white chief here kindle his fire. Your Scanando will soon be no more and his village no more a village of Indians.
Read the speeches by Chief Logan and Chief Scanando.
- How are the reported speeches by Logan and Scanando similar? How are they different?
- Why do you think Jefferson described Logan’s speech as “a morsel of eloquence” and “by no means elegant”? What does Jefferson’s response to the speech tell you about early American views of elegance?
- Why do you think these speeches were so appealing to early Americans? Do you find them appealing? Why or why not?