Creating a new civilization is a bloody, destructive and morally withering business; for proof, one need look no further than frontier American life.
In this comprehensive chronicle, Pulitzer Prize winner Weidensaul (Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, 2007, etc.) sheds light on the shadowy world of pre-Revolutionary America, when the unconscionable chicanery of white explorers and settlers was met with horrific vengeance by the established Indian tribes. As straight history, it can be dry stuff, as the author’s arsenal of facts tends to slow him down. Nonetheless, Weidensaul weaves together an impressive number of true stories, bolstered by first and secondhand records and journals. Captain John Smith has a grimly funny account of a starving man who killed, seasoned and devoured his own wife: “Now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d, I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.” There’s also the story of Richard Waldron, who had a special talent for cheating Indians but got a dread comeuppance when his victims slowly dismembered him, starting by slashing knives across his chest and saying, “I cross out my account.” Another figure of lasting interest is Hannah Duston, who became a frontier hero (and a source of lasting controversy) when she killed 10 Indians (including children) in their sleep, as retribution for the murder of her infant daughter.
Students of early American history will be the most attentive audience for the book, but any reader who picks it up will get a very real picture of what it was like to live and die in the New World.