The residents of the Gulf Coast in the 1770s and 1780s saw the American Revolution differently from the rebelling colonists in the north. Initially they regarded it as another imperial war, fought for land and treasure. Eventually, though, the Gulf Coast became the only site of Revolutionary War battles that was outside the rebelling colonies but later became part of the U.S. The area had a diverse population that included the British, French and Spanish, people of African descent, and Native Americans. Most of these groups had no interest in Britain’s attempt to tax and regulate its colonists, nor to rebel. When war began to affect them, however, it brought both opportunities and dangers, and many used it to advance their own ambitions for themselves, their families and their nations.
In her richly detailed and riveting Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, historian Kathleen DuVal explores what the war and its aftermath meant in the lives of eight individuals who lived in an area with many competing interests. The most important long-term need for the region was more land for the steadily expanding population. In the short term, decisions about whether to fight, which side to support and how to secure rights and property became major concerns.
Independence was not a universal goal in the 18th century. For most people on the continent, advantageous interdependence was a more realistic goal. On the Gulf Coast, only Native-American leaders fought for sovereign independence. But, they, too, operated through a complicated arrangement of interdependencies. By winning the American Revolution, the rebels advanced their own varieties of independence at the expense of others, primarily Native Americans whose ancestors had lived on the land for centuries and millions of enslaved Africans whose labor helped to fuel a new industrial economy. Despite their land being fought over by others, the Indians were not invited either to the meetings that led to the Treaty of Paris officially ending the war or to join the union of other sovereign states.
The war sometimes gave chances for individual liberties and even freedom from slavery but no side proposed the abolition of slavery. The status of white women did not change for the better and often got worse. Life-changing decisions continued to be made by men. Although nearly half of the North American population was female, few women are mentioned in accounts of war and building a nation.
DuVal skillfully weaves the lives of her main characters into the larger themes. The vast majority of the land in the region belonged to the Indians. Success or defeat for the British, French, Spanish or Indian nations depended on the decisions of Native Americans to fight or refuse to do so. Two prominent Indian leaders are profiled in the book. One is Payamataha, a leader of the Chickasaws, who played a key role in such decisions. A combination of diplomat and spiritual leader, he sought independence for his people through a pragmatic course of peaceful coexistence. During the 1760s and 1770s he led his nation to make peace with a sizable group of other Indian nations, all of them long-time enemies of his people. Forces beyond his control created problems later on. The other Indian leader discussed in detail is Alexander McGillivray, of Creek-Scots ancestry, who supported the British in the war. In its aftermath, he promoted Creek independence and worked toward a confederation of Indian nations committed to protecting their land.
There is also Oliver Pollock, a British subject and wealthy merchant in Havana and New Orleans, who was able to do business easily with the Spanish and French. The Continental Congress appointed him its commercial agent in Louisiana, and he invested virtually all of his fortune with the rebels in the American Revolution. His wife, Margaret O’Brien, saw her life change for the worse because of her husband’s decision.
James Bryce and Isabella Chrystie were firmly on the side of the British. Living in West Florida, they realized that their independence depended on the connections, infrastructure and order provided by the British Empire. They understood that they received much more in services from the crown than they paid to it.
Petit Jean was enslaved but played a more autonomous role than most slaves in post-1763 Mobile. He was a cattle driver who had a deep knowledge of the landscape around him and was entrusted with great responsibility. He could have run away but had he been caught, the consequences would have been severe. The slaves’ loyalty was not to their masters or a government but working for their own families’ interest in the whites’ war of rebellion.
Amand Broussard was a rancher in Louisiana whose family had been expelled from Acadia (now the northern coast of Canada) by the British. Although the Acadians had prospered in part from selling their grain to the British in West Florida, they had not forgotten the harsh treatment they had received by the British.
In this important book, the author writes “Striving for American independence really meant striving for the right balance of independence and dependence. Native Americans and European empires struck different balances and both lost in North America.” How this happened is a complex story and DuVal tells it magnificently.