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Originally published Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'The First Frontier': the bloody centuries before America's revolution

Scott Weidensaul's "First Frontier" is an epic history of conflict and confrontation along America's Eastern Seaboard, starting with the last period of glaciation and moving into the multiple bloody conflicts of America's colonial era.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, & Endurance in Early America'

by Scott Weidensaul

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 480 pp., $30

The "first frontier," as defined by Scott Weidensaul in his new book, was the Eastern Seaboard of North America from Florida to Nova Scotia — the region first explored and colonized by Europeans.

But Weidensaul's exhaustively researched and entertainingly written history goes back well before the era of exploration and settlement, all the way to the last period of North American glaciation. He describes the geology, topography and climate of the area along with its fauna and flora, and offers intriguing speculation about the possible origins of the region's first human inhabitants. Kennewick Man, Washington state's most famous ancient citizen, even comes in for a mention.

Weidensaul, a naturalist and author of several previous books, also explores what is known about the first frontier's Native American societies before contact with Europeans, including their languages, culture and areas of habitation.

All this sets the stage for a succession of chapters documenting the first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans and the vast differences in culture that led to misunderstandings on both sides, finally erupting into violence.

Other historians have explored elements of this subject, most recently Elliot A. Cohen ("Conquered into Liberty"), but Weidensaul takes a somewhat different path. He tells the story of the era of colonization and conquest through the words of those who lived it, quoting frequently from colorful written records left by a fascinating array of characters — David Ingram, John Gyles, Hannah Duston, John Lawson, Robert Stobo, Conrad Weiser, various Native American leaders and others. These people, now remembered mostly only by historians, offer riveting accounts of adventure, intrigue, suspense and unimaginable violence.

The book also offers important insights into this period of North American history before the American Revolution: "For almost two centuries along the eastern frontier, the sharpest division from a colonial perspective was not racial — Caucasian versus Amerindian — but religious," Weidensaul writes. "Whether British, French, or Spanish, colonists almost invariably referred to themselves as Christians and to the Indians they encountered as heathens, pagans or savages." There were also important religious differences among the colonists themselves, mainly between Catholics and Protestants, which contributed to continual feuds between colonial societies.

All that began to change by the early 18th century, when racial differences, stimulated partly by the importation of African slaves, became more important than religious affiliations, Weidensaul writes.

This epic tale of confrontation and conflict includes the story of young George Washington, who was leading a column of colonial troops bound for the French Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) when he stumbled onto a French encampment and wiped it out. "Washington had just ignited the Seven Years War," Weidensaul asserts. That war — also known as the French and Indian War, which expanded into a worldwide conflict — is one among many now mostly forgotten wars chronicled in this book, ending with Pontiac's War, which began in 1763.

Credit Weidensaul with proving once again that history does not have to be dull in order to be comprehensive. It would be difficult to find a work of either fact or fiction more filled with excitement and suspense than "The First Frontier."

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