Book review: West of the Revolution, by Claudio Saunt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:57am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:57am

West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776
by Claudio Saunt
4.5 stars

Carolyn Kellogg

As America's founders gathered in Philadelphia in 1776, Franciscan priests Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante began a journey west from Santa Fe, New Mexico, hoping to find a way to the Pacific coast.

Negotiating with Native Americans and faltering over harsh terrain, they had no idea 13 colonies were at the same time declaring independence from Britain, asserting the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, creating a country that would one day encompass much of the continent.

In West of the Revolution, historian Claudio Saunt evokes this shadow saga of America's founding year in landscapes distinct from the 13 colonies. This is a history more terrible than wondrous, a necessary counternarrative to the revolution against British rule.

Saunt focuses on nine locations across North America and also brings in outside events, such as the 1763 Treaty of Paris, to develop interesting connections.

By 1776, Russians had moved into the Aleutian Islands for the lucrative fur trade. They were dependent on the Aleutians to help them survive, but there was violence and distrust on both sides. The Russian mode of business was brutal: stay for months or years to reap the largest fur harvest possible, take hostages and slaughter whole communities.

Rumours of Russia's incursions into the Aleutian Islands reached Spain, spurring the country to extend its missions north of Baja into Alta California. This "combustible mix of geographic misconceptions and imperial anxiety made colonisation of the California coast appear essential to Spain's survival in the Pacific basin", Saunt writes.

Fully established in Mexico, Spanish forces moved north by sea, setting up missions along the coast. In San Diego, the effort to convert the local Kumeyaay tribe had got off to a slow start, but by 1775, more than 100 had been baptised. Then one November night, hundreds more attacked, burning the mission to the ground - although the soldiers' fort remained intact.

To be interrogated by a Spanish soldier was as bad as being taken captive by a Russian fur trader.

Saunt's stories of the American frontier largely involve encounters between Native Americans and Old World immigrants or their descendants. We know now that things ended badly for the Native Americans, who lost territory, autonomy, culture, language and whole populations. Yet in the 18th century, much of North America's interior was entirely their domain.

So when Dominguez and Escalante set forth from the then-remote settlement of Santa Fe, they appealed to Native Americans to help them find their way west. With a goal of uniting the interior with the coast, they were able to make progress only when a guide from one tribe took them to the next community; without guides they made poor decisions, got lost and grew so hungry they turned back.

Saunt stretches the scope of his history to provide context and background. He even moves forward in time to the recorded histories of the Lakota, who cite 1776 as the time of the discovery of the Black Hills. He pulls in archaeology and more general history, although this keeps the story of the Lakota at a distance; it never takes shape as firmly as accounts of other tribes.

For the most part, Saunt looks to trade to explain shifts in allegiances and power. He has created a sweeping narrative of non-colonial America in 1776. But he is at his most colourful with individual stories, such as that of the Frenchman floating down the Arkansas River with "one severed head and the corpses of two of his companions".

The strangeness of proto-American history may be found in the details.