Want to get an overview of the epic story of the trans-Appalachian frontier in the form of a thundering good read — and on the cheap? Dale Van Every’s four-volume history of the early frontier is available on Kindle for next to nothing. Forth to the Wilderness (1754-1774); A Company of Heroes (1775-1783); The Ark of Empire (1784-1803); and The Final Challenge (1804-1845) form a sweeping portrait of the folk migration and imperial thrust that turned the original 13 American colonies and states into a continental empire.
Van Every was born in the 19th Century (1896) and served on the Western Front as an ambulance driver. In the 1920s and ’30s he became a highly successful and well-paid Hollywood screenwriter. The cinematic style translated into his narrative histories, which were published in the early 1960s. This was still the era of triumphalist history, and Van Every’s work fits that description. He sees American frontier history as a heroic epic — which, of course, it was. In part. Yet, we see in Van Every the beginnings of a recognition that would grow through the decade of the ’60s and into the 1970s that what appeared to be a heroic march of progress looking westward looked like something else entirely when viewed from the west looking east.
As Ray Allen Billington of Northwestern University observes in his introduction to Forth to the Wilderness:
“Of heroes there are many in these pages, but villains there are few. For this, Dale Van Every’s remarkable ability to understand the Indian is responsible. The Pontiac, Cornstalk and Attakullaculla he portrays were not savages ruthlessly slaying for the pleasure of the kill; they were disciples of a way of life that must be defended, even to the death. The reader can stand with the red man on the yonder side of the the Appalachians and see the white invader as he saw him; an unclean, cowardly, greedy, untrustworthy intruder on hunting grounds that the giver of Life had created for the Indian alone. He can share with the Indian his love of the land, and his belief that this divine gift should be used by all creatures, not just by one avaricious farmer. He can sense the love of freedom that was the red man’s richest possession, and appreciate why this must be preserved at all cost…”
There are aspects of the writing that clang loudly in the modern ear — “howling savages” and the like. But it should be pointed out that almost all such references are used when Van Every is in the point-of-view of a character who would characterize Indians in just such a way. Which brings us to Van Every’s style: As befits a man of his background, his writing is vivid and novelistic, though well-grounded in a deep immersion in the original sources. You’re getting good history in the form of a thundering tale, and if it’s your only trek down the trail of the trans-Appalachian frontier, you could do a whole lot worse.
The “borderlands history” movement that has held sway for the past couple of decades offers a much more nuanced and sophisticated view of the era, one that modifies the older understanding of “the frontier” as a line of demarcation that marched westward. Borderlands history reveals this country as an arena of cultural exchange, cooperation and conflict, with shifting cultural as well as political alliances and affinities. That’s not the story Van Every was telling — but I have a hunch that he would have appreciated it.
Van Every mined his beloved frontier territory for several historical novels of the “lusty, roaring, brawling epic!” style, some of which I read back in my teens. They featured those wonderful vintage paperback covers that are close to the Men’s Adventure aesthetic. Rugged men and curvaceous women. All with flintlock rifles. How was a teenaged frontier partisan to resist?