In the bio for his active and amusing Twitter account, William Hogeland describes his beat as “dissenting history in the pop mode.” The author of four well-received books about early American history—including The Whiskey Rebellion (2006), a chronicle of the western Pennsylvania uprising (the “resistance” of its day, if you will) that then–Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton crushed with gratuitous and extraconstitutional force, and Founding Finance (2012), a collection of essays about the intermingling of capitalism, militarism, and statism in the creation of the American republic—Hogeland exhibits in his work a rare combination of smarts and accessibility. And while he’s scrupulous in his scholarship, Hogeland isn’t averse to acknowledging that he’s in the business of telling stories that have a point.
His new book, which comes out this week, is Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). In elegant, authoritative prose packed with lively characters and hard-won detail, Hogeland tells the strangely unknown story of the conquest of the American Midwest in a nameless, barely successful war in the early 1790s against a confederation of indigenous peoples who had lived there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Autumn of the Black Snake is a narrative history, often a gripping and even thrilling one. Hogeland recently told me that he hoped the book would offer readers “an emotional, imaginative experience of the past.” But it also raises what he called “problematic and thorny and painful” questions about the origins and the nature of the United States. Hogeland’s adept management of both that narrative and those questions makes this his finest and most disturbing book to date.
On Tuesday, May 16, the new branch of Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood will host the official book launch for Autumn of the Black Snake. The following transcript of my conversation with Hogeland has been lightly edited and condensed.
What drew you to the story of a war that took place more than two centuries ago—a war so obscure it doesn’t even have a name?
It’s the first war this nation ever waged, so just on that basis alone, it seemed to me that its obscurity had to be unwarranted. As I began to look at it, I was startled by its importance. It’s not only the first war the nation ever fought, but also the one in which the military establishment of the United States—now the most powerful force on Earth—was born. It’s the embryonic war.
It was a war to conquer what is now known as the Midwest, which almost immediately after its conquest started to become the industrial center of the United States. And it was an Indian war, of course, because other nations held the area that the US wanted to assert sovereignty over and develop. Even its being overshadowed as an Indian war by later Indian wars against the Plains Indians seemed unwarranted, since it was the first war of conquest of indigenous land that the US engaged in. There would be a long line of others, of course, but this was the first.
This war is known to scholarship—I didn’t discover it. But it’s never made it into the public sense of our history. The question for me became not so much “Why is this war important?” but more like, “Given its importance, how come we don’t know more about it?”
So why don’t we?
The answer is kind of simple: It’s because of its importance that we don’t know about it. Because it’s so foundational, it’s a war that’s difficult for us to look at or debate or even acknowledge. It challenges some widely cherished conceptions about our founding period.
We like to think of the founders as absolved of Indian removal; we associate that more with the likes of Andrew Jackson. Without pardoning Jackson for his unfortunate ideas about many things, it’s too handy and convenient to lay all the blame for Indian removal on him or even on his time period. It’s obvious from the story my book tells that that’s false. The founders are implicated through their foundational, elemental desire to develop that land, without which there would have been no nation. In fact, the desire to develop that land played directly into American independence in the 1770s. Recognizing that fact undermines happier pictures of the founders as liberal and thoughtful in their relations with indigenous people.
One of the through-lines in the book is the idea that this war was not limited to a series of battles that took place between the United States Army and the confederation of Ohio Indians in the early 1790s; that it was actually a continuation of a war that many of its protagonists had been fighting, one way or another, for almost half a century. And of no one is this more true than George Washington. What did this war mean to George Washington, and what about his character—and his impact on this country—do you think we can only understand if we appreciate what it meant to him?
Washington came into his own in the process of trying to gain and develop land west of the Appalachian Mountains and around the Ohio River. That process, which really began when he was a teenager, helped form him as a man. And so this particular war I’m writing about, which began in 1791 and ended in 1794–1795, had its origins in an intermittent, ongoing war, carried out by Americans with development interests, to get that land one way or another. That longer war went back to the 1740s and 1750s and dovetailed with the rise of George Washington as a powerful person. We can’t understand Washington without understanding his relation to that part of the country.
He came from disadvantage. We have a hard time thinking of Washington that way, rather than as the image of Virginia aristocracy. But he was basically disinherited in favor of his elder half-brothers. He had to hustle and work to become anything in the society in which he was born. He found he had a talent for selecting really fertile western land for others and taking some for himself. This opened a world that had previously been denied to him. When he went into the West, he realized that this was how he would make his pile.
His command in the Revolutionary War and his presidency are what we focus on, but both of those derived from his rise as a real-estate developer in western land. It was a vision of empire—that’s the word he and Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson all used. It wasn’t a dirty word. It was a vision of a commercial and agricultural empire in which the wealth of the continent would be unlocked and flow eastward to commercial centers dominated by people like Washington, his family and friends in Virginia, and people like them in the other states. This was a very expansive and thrilling vision. The potential for developing great wealth seemed almost unlimited.
The problem for us is that this imperial vision contradicts a competing vision of the founding that a lot of Americans have, which is of a ragtag, motley, tough, lean collection of states forming itself independently of all preexisting notions of what could be done with government and by people. Actually, Washington’s and Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s vision—each in different ways—were like Americanized updates of ideas about national expansion that can be traced back not only to the British Empire but in fact to all empires, certainly to the Romans. The original idea of American nationhood seems to me to be inextricable from the idea of empire, and Washington had that vision from an early age.
Much of the appeal of this story is that this war between the young United States and the Ohio Indians represented basically the last chance the Natives had to stop the juggernaut of American settlement from totally steamrolling across the West. You’re careful not to indulge in any kind of “alternative history” theorizing in the book; but while working on it, did you ever stop to think what might have happened if, for instance, the United States had not won the Battle at Fallen Timbers, where Anthony Wayne finally triumphed over the Ohio confederation?
I am, as you note, leery of what-ifs, but I do think it’s important that American expansion did not seem inevitable at the time. The founders all knew it would have to be fought for and accomplished politically. A world of alternative scenarios might have crossed their minds. What if they failed? If they had not been able to pacify that area, as they described what they were trying to do, and establish US sovereignty there, the weaknesses of the country would have been evident to the other European nations that had interests in North America.
I don’t think someone like Washington could have envisioned the indigenous people holding the land forever. His fear would have been the British or the Spanish coming in and dominating that land, and thereby directly threatening the United States. John Simcoe, who became lieutenant governor of what was then called Upper Canada—basically present-day southern Ontario—had designs on retrieving that area for Great Britain. He fantasized sometimes about going all the way to Philadelphia and confronting President Washington in person, or even retaking New York. It was not unrealistic for Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson to fear that those designs threatened the very existential being of the United States.
So would you say, then, that though we may regret what this nascent American military did to the Ohio Indians in conquering their territory, Washington and the other American leaders were correct in concluding that without doing so, there could be no American nation?
I do agree with that, but I would add that our response to that fact has to be something more problematic or painful than simply “regret.” If it’s true, as the new nation’s leaders thought, that there could be no United States without American conquest of the West—if they were right, then it shifts the focus of our problem to a deeper existential question about the basis of the nation itself. The story I tell in this book sets American founding history in opposition to a liberal idea that everything at the time of the founding was great except for the problems of racial slavery and the expropriation of Indian lands—as if there ever could have been this increasingly egalitarian nation without dependence on things we frequently describe as crimes against humanity. The inextricable connection between those things—slavery and liberty, expropriation and democratization—shouldn’t only lead us to regret or bemoan what happened but, more importantly, to some harder-nosed thinking about what we want to do now with our national power. That brings us back to the reason we don’t know this story: because it raises these difficult questions in a particularly challenging way.