My Dissertation Project

My dissertation, “‘Back Water Men’: Gender and the Fate of a Revolutionary Coalition on a Southern Frontier,” employs eighteenth-century ideas about manhood and manliness to make sense of Appalachian settlers’ involvement in the American Revolution.  My geographic focus is present-day eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, which has not been the subject of as much solid scholarship as other early American frontier regions.

Many frontier settlers were invested in the cause for liberty and pledged allegiance to the Patriot cause at an early date.  At the same time, however, they lived on the Revolution’s geographical margins, had concerns that were distinctive to their precarious position on the edge of Indian country, and sometimes struck their contemporaries as licentious and lawless.  There were thus centrifugal forces pushing easterners and westerners apart and centripetal forces pulling them together into a common struggle for independence.  To understand the Revolutionary experience on the frontier, we need a framework that makes sense of these forces operating in tension.

John Sevier, frontier Revolutionary. Portrait by Charles Wilson Peale via Wikimedia Commons

Gender provides just such a framework.  I argue that eighteenth-century ideas about manliness shaped the frontier role in the Revolution in ways that were both profound and paradoxical.  Gender norms facilitated a Revolutionary alliance between frontiersmen and their eastern counterparts at the outset of the war, but those same norms also strained that alliance as the war dragged on, and finally caused it to collapse altogether.

Settlers in the Southern mountains shared many notions about what it meant to be a man with their contemporaries in other parts of British America.  Above all, manhood meant landed independence, marriage, and family.  Frontiersmen also shared contemporary convictions that real men should be assertive in defending their prerogatives and their communities’ rights.  At the outbreak of the Revolution, frontiersmen invoked these shared ideals to join in a cross-regional alliance with Patriots elsewhere.  This alliance was critical to the settlers’ effort to fend off attacks by their Cherokee neighbors, who went to war in 1776 on behalf of a very different vision of manhood.

But if proper Revolutionary manliness meant assertiveness, it also meant restraint and moderation.  When frontiersmen mobilized to fight the British and their Loyalist and Native American allies, their behavior sometimes struck observers as too licentious and disorderly.  All too often, authority on the frontier was too precarious for settler leaders to control their ostensible followers.

Furthermore, the same commitment to independent, landed manhood that drew many settlers into the Revolution also undermined their willingness to fulfill the expectations of Revolutionary manliness by marching off to war.  Although frontiersmen touted their proficiency in warfare when the conflict started, their reluctance to leave their vulnerable farms and families exposed to attacks by Indians and Tories exasperated both their own officers and eastern Patriot authorities.

While frontiersmen and other Revolutionaries found much common ground in terms of the struggle for independence and manly ideals, by the end of the war the perception of backwoods licentiousness dominated many contemporaries’ attitudes about the frontier and its inhabitants.  Frontiersmen themselves, meanwhile, continued to use the language of assertive, republican masculinity to defend their own conduct.  This opposition between seaboard visions of licentious frontier masculinity and settlers’ manly self-justifications laid a gendered foundation for the East-West tensions of the Confederation and Federalist eras.

By considering frontiersmen as men, we can make sense of both why they threw in their lot with the Patriot cause and why their conduct troubled so many of their contemporaries.  We can best understand the frontier Revolution when we see it as the participants themselves did—bound up with ideas about what it meant to be a man in eighteenth-century America.