Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8




The State of Ohio's Early History:

A Review Essay


The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. By R. Douglas

Hurt. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. xv + 418p.; illustrations,

bibliographic essay, index. $35.00.)




It is axiomatic that each generation creates its own version of the past. As

much as historians value objectivity, most of them see it is a noble but

unattainable goal. Historians always have and always will interpret the past

through the prism of the present. They strive for fairness knowing that in the

end they distort the past in order to make sense of it, realizing that truth will

remain forever elusive. We never will know, for example, what it was like to

live on the Ohio frontier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

We can take our faded newspapers, fragile letters and diaries, physical remains

of houses and canals, whatever scraps of information we can find, and attempt

to reconstruct that time and place as judiciously as possible. But this is a

world that it lost to us forever, inhabited by people who are no more than


Writing history, therefore, means trying to organize fragments of often du-

bious and contradictory information into a persuasive argument about some-

thing that we will never fully understand. Because interpretation is at the

heart of the historians' enterprise, the presentation of evidence is as critical as

the discovery of it. Indeed, form usually dictates content. Unfortunately, his-

torians today rarely think of themselves as writers; many remain oblivious to

the ways in which the forms and sources they choose dictate what they have

to say. The choices they make about where to begin and end, what to leave

out, what to emphasize, are choices made within boundaries established by

the questions that dominate their lives and by the evidence and forms of ex-

pression available to them.

Constructing a work of historical synthesis is a classic example of this

process. Typically, its building blocks are the writings of other historians,

that is, scholarly articles or book-length monographs, detailed interpretations



Andrew R.L. Cayton is Professor of History at Miami University. In the cause of full disclo-

sure, he freely admits that he is not only the author of Frontier Indiana (1996), a volume in the

same series as The Ohio Frontier, but that he recommended R. Douglas Hurt as a potential au-

thor of this book to the series' editors.