Reviewed by guest historian Robert “Bert” Dunkerly.
Lord Dunmore’s War remains one of the murkier events of the Colonial era. Historian Glenn F. Williams has produced a book that will set the standard for the study of this conflict.
Dunmore’s War, The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era by Williams, explains the complexity of the conflict and goes into detail analyzing the intertwined diplomatic and military events. The late 1760s and early 1770s were a fascinating and complex time on the frontier. Violence from the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War had subsided, tribes were shifting alliances, settlers were moving into the region, and the colonies were still adjusting to the new realities following the Treaty of Paris. The British regulations that would trigger colonial resistance were already coming, and tensions were slowly building. Yet the issues which dominated the attention of most colonists were inter colonial rivalries, such as that between Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The origins of the conflict and its path of destruction are more complex than generally understood. Williams explains the nuances of Indian diplomacy and Colonial expectations. The Shawnee, for example, had no say in treaties and negations made by the Iroquois regarding their territory. These internal rivalries among the Indians are not as well understood and important to grasp.
Overlapping land claims by Pennsylvania and Virginia played as much a role in the escalating tensions on the frontier as did that with the Indians. Both claimed the territory that is now western Pennsylvania. Virginia’s Augusta County and Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County overlapped, with settlers claiming loyalty to one government or the other. Rival militias, overlapping land transactions, and legal disputes in courts complicated the problem. This fascinating and crucial aspect is a little understood part of the conflict.
Shawnee raids on the frontier, and their frustration with lack of say in treaties and land transactions, were a major cause of the war. In 1774 Virginia mobilized its forces to defend its claim to this western territory. That same year the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia.
Williams also devotes a large amount of time to discussing the training and organization of the Virginia militia. This outstanding explanation of the militia system and its evolution and status by 1774 allows readers to grasp the capabilities and shortcomings of the military force. Nor does the author neglect the tactics of the Shawnee, discussing how they viewed warfare and conducted it.
Dunmore’s War was brought on by the conflict of interests of numerous groups: the Shawnee, other Indian groups, Colonial legislatures of Virginia and Pennsylvania, frontier settles, and traders. In analyzing the interests and intentions of these diverse players, the author provides the proper context in which to understand their actions. Williams also provides information on the cultural traditions, including diplomatic, political, and military, that were relevant to the war’s coming and its conduct. The book concludes with a good summary of the conflict’s origins, participants, and conduct.
Williams explains that “The Virginia colony fought a limited war for limited defensive objectives, at the end of which it offered the Indians generous peace terms.” This certainly conflicts with the usual understanding of a land grab by greedy colonists. The origin of that interpretation, the author explains, comes from biased Pennsylvania sources who were inclined to put Virginia in a bad light.
Perhaps the author sums it up best when he writes, “From their respective positions, each side in Dunmore’s War perceived its actions as right. The conditions that contribute to these divergent perceptions must be equally considered in order to more fully understand the conflict.”
The maps and illustrations are helpful in envisioning the people and places that figured prominently in the war. Regrettably the book has no index, which would have greatly benefited those reading the book and consulting it for research. Dunmore’s War is well researched and a must-read to understand this important period on the verge of the Revolutionary War.
Westholme Publishing, Yardley, PA, 2017
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