The best books on the Great Lakes/Ohio Valley Frontier

William Heath Author Of William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest
By William Heath

Who am I?

William Heath has a Ph.D. in American Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He has taught American history and literature as well as creative writing at Kenyon, Transylvania, Vassar, the University of Seville, and Mount Saint Mary’s University, retiring as a professor emeritus. He has published two poetry books, The Walking Man and Steel Valley Elegy; two chapbooks, Night Moves in Ohio and Leaving Seville; three novels: The Children Bob Moses Led (winner of the Hackney Award), Devil Dancer, and Blacksnake’s Path; a work of history, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest (winner of two Spur Awards); and a collection of interviews, Conversations with Robert Stone


I wrote...

William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest

By William Heath,

Book cover of William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest

What is my book about?

At age thirteen William Wells was captured near Louisville in 1784 and adopted by the Eel River Miami in Indiana. As a young warrior he fought for his father-in-law Little Turtle at the Battle of the Wabash in 1791, the greatest victory the Indians ever won against the U.S. Army. The following year he switched sides and became the head scout for Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the following year served as a translator at the Treaty of Greenville, where the Indian nations ceded most of Ohio. Wells was on both sides of the struggle for the Old Northwest and thus his life provides an unusually rich and complex understanding of the clash of cultures on the frontier during the Washington, Adams, and Jefferson administrations.

The books I picked & why

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The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815

By Richard White,

Book cover of The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815

Why this book?

The Middle Ground is by far the best overview of the Great Lakes frontier over a period of almost two hundred years. White traces how French fur traders were able to establish a fluctuating “middle ground” with the Indian nations of the region that allowed for a degree of respect, understanding, and intermarriage. When the French were succeeded by the British, this middle ground began to shrink, as English traders wanted to let the cash nexus determine their business practices. When the Americans came to dominate the situation, the middle ground, with the exception of a few figures like William Wells, almost entirely disappeared. The result was devastating for the Indian nations, whose cultures nearly disappeared. White’s thesis has been challenged by Alan Taylor and other historians of the period, but the book remains an essential classic.  


Tecumseh: A Life

By John Sugden,

Book cover of Tecumseh: A Life

Why this book?

Many historians have written about the great Shawnee war chief, but Sugden’s books remain the most thoroughly researched and convincing. While I quarrel with some of his findings, especially in regard to William Wells and Little Turtle, the author’s ability to illuminate all facets of Tecumseh’s remarkable career is impressive. The final sequence on Tecumseh’s role leading up to and including the War of 1812 is especially important. Had he been given the British support he demanded the outcome of that war might have been different, and Michigan, in particular, might well have become a part of Canada.  


The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation

By Colin G. Calloway,

Book cover of The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation

Why this book?

Calloway has written a series of important books about the Great Lakes frontier, but this is a kind of capstone to his distinguished career. Building on Wiley Sword’s groundbreaking book, George Washington’s Indian Wars, Calloway discusses in detail the often overlooked importance of Indian affairs during the Washington administration. None of Washington’s biographers have adequately researched Washington’s frontier policy, which led to a horrific war for the Old Northwest (it’s almost the equivalent of discussing the LBJ presidency while leaving out the Vietnam War!). What Washington and Henry Knox, his secretary of war, thought they were doing and what was actually happening on the ground were appallingly at odds. Thanks to Calloway, this crucial dimension of the Washington administration can no longer be ignored.  


Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

By Anthony F. C. Wallace,

Book cover of Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans

Why this book?

What Calloway does for Washington, Wallace does for Jefferson. Even more than Washington, Jefferson talked one game and played another. He could be splendidly eloquent on how much he wanted the Indian nations to become Americans, yet that could only happen, in Jefferson’s mind, if they surrendered their identity as Indians. If anything, the situation was even worse than Wallace suggests, as I point out in detail in my book on William Wells. While there is much to admire about Jefferson, his Indian policy shows how idealism can serve as a front for blatant exploitation and near genocide.  


Frontier Indiana

By Reverend Andrew R. L. Cayton,

Book cover of Frontier Indiana

Why this book?

Historians of the Midwest were deprived of one of their finest by the early death of Andrew Cayton. Frontier Indiana is the best of a series of books published by Ohio State University Press on the states of the Old Northwest. Combining chapters on various men and women, Little Turtle’s Miami resistance, and William Henry Harrison’s land-hungry settlers, Cayton’s impressive research and thoughtful writing go a long way toward illuminating the frontier of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  


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