Frontier Rebels by Patrick Spero

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Frontier Rebels
The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776
by Patrick Spero
W. W. Norton & Co., 268 pp., cloth $27.95

Frontier Rebels is a brief, engaging and elegantly written account of violence on the Pennsylvania frontier in the decade leading up to the American Revolution. Several recent historians have demonstrated that the Revolution had a strong western as well as eastern dimension. Colonists in both regions wanted to be liberated from oppressive government, but whereas those in the east objected primarily to taxation, those in the west were concerned about land and Indians. In the clearest account so far of the western origins of the Revolution, Patrick Spero tells the story of the “Black Boys” who attacked a wagon train carrying goods from Philadelphia to Fort Pitt in 1765. The rebels were led by James Smith, a former Indian captive who had mastered the arts of Indian warfare. Smith led a company of Rangers during Pontiac’s War with their faces painted red and black like Indian warriors. These men blacked up again in 1765 to attack the wagon train, and they continued to defy the authorities in ever more daring escapades for several years. Like the Paxton Boys who massacred the Conestoga Indians in 1763, none of the Black Boys was brought to justice.

Frontier Rebels consists of 11 chapters preceded by a dramatis personae. The book contains no illustrations, and none are needed; headshots and images of places would add nothing to Spero’s narrative flair. At the end of the book, Spero provides an Author’s Note explaining his decision to render certain passages from primary sources as dialogue for dramatic effect. This literary technique may raise the hackles of some professional historians (a company in which Spero belongs) but it will appeal to historians grappling with the challenges of writing narrative history (of whom Spero is now also one). The technique is deftly deployed, and it makes for a gripping story filled with historical insights.

Kevin Kenny
New York University