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Volume LVII, Number 3 William and Mary Quarterly Review of Books2000 by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and CultureA Man of Distinction among Them: Alexander McKee and British-Indian Affairs along the Ohio CountryFrontier, 1754-1799. By Larry L. Nelson. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999. Pp.xvi, 262. $35.00.)Alexander McKee, writes biographer Larry Nelson, deserves to be recognized as a "pivotalfigure" (p. x) in the history of the Great Lakes frontier. As the son of a western Pennsylvania trader and aShawnee mother (perhaps an adopted white captive) and later the husband of a Shawnee woman (alsoperhaps an adopted white captive), McKee developed a perfect bicultural fluency. What Nelson discernsas a "mirrorlike quality" led "those with whom he dealt, whether they were Indian, British, American,trader, soldier, land speculator, or diplomat, to see themselves reflected in his personality" (p. xiii). Thismade him an ideal intermediary in a frontier country where diverse peoples mingled. But McKee, inNelson's estimation, was far more than a mere translator or messenger. Through the last four decades ofthe eighteenth century, McKee used his familial and economic ties to influence elites in both Indian andEuroamerican communities. In the process, he shaped the destiny of a region, a republic, an empire, andscores of Indian villages. Along the way, he gained for himself considerable authority, fortune, and status.That appreciation for McKee's role and rise contrasts with the usual view on what became theUnited States side of the Great Lakes frontier. During the Revolution and after, American contemporariesreviled McKee for deserting to the British cause. Worse still, they held him personally accountable forstirring up western Indians and for encouraging "savagery." Lumped with fellow loyalist traitor-turned-"white Indian" Simon Girty, McKee was among the most hated men in post-Revolutionary America. Thatenmity eventually faded, but if McKee is no longer despised, he is no longer much remembered either.In putting McKee back on center stage, Nelson positions him firmly on what Richard White hasso famously termed the "middle ground." In step with White, Nelson sees the Great Lakes frontier as "azone of mutual reinvention." McKee was very much a creature of this "open, assimilative world ofshifting relationships" in which "political values and cultural loyalties were fluid, pragmatic, anduncertain." As one of the most skilled of cultural brokers, he was also very much a creator of the "newworld" (pp. 4-5) that Indians and Europeans contrived together.As with other accomplished mediators, McKee's success as occupant and assembler of a middleground depended on his familiarity with European and Indian ways and his acceptance in both worlds. Onboth the book's first and its next to last pages, Nelson emphasizes that McKee was "equally at home" (p.1) in both Indian and European communities. Yet the pages between do not much affirm that biculturalequality. Instead, they reveal McKee as a man of restless ambition, who increasingly used Indians toenrich himself.As Nelson recognizes, McKee's home moved over the course of his life. In his younger days, heseems to have resided most comfortably in Ohio Indian villages. During the American Revolution andeven more decisively during the last decade of his life, McKee's interests aligned ever more closely withthe British crown, and his preferred place was among the landed gentry of Upper Canada. Indeed,according to Nelson, it was McKee's grasp of a broader imperial vision that distinguished him from otherbicultural figures, who understood the frontier only in its local dimensions. As he evolved into a land-engrossing official in the British Indian department and an upstanding member of the Church of England,McKee may have retained some affinity for and affiliation with his Indian kin. His actions, however,betrayed a cynical manipulation of those ties for the good of the British empire and for his own well-being. Collecting valuable information from and about Ohio Valley Indians, McKee dutifully passed hisintelligence on to imperial patrons. But while McKee reaped rewards for this service, he did not sharethese benefits or all he knew of British policies with native partners. To the contrary, McKee pushedIndians to hew the British line, even as he recognized that the crown's promises "could not be kept andcommitments . . . would not be honored" (p. 171). At Fallen Timbers, concedes Nelson, when the betrayalbecame apparent, McKee "had more reason to fear his [Indian] allies . . . than his [American] enemies"(p. 177).
Volume LVII, Number 3 William and Mary Quarterly Review of Books2000 by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and CultureThat the book accents McKee's growing British connections reflects the tilt not only of its subjectbut also of its sources. The biographer, after all, has access to McKee's official communications withBritish superiors, but the substance of his conversations and company with Indians remains more elusive.Nelson allows that McKee's "contacts with the western tribes became more formal and less intimate" (p.158) in his latter years. Unfortunately, the book cannot balance this bias with equal entry to earlierdealings that presumably were less formal and more intimate. Although Nelson affirms the significance offamilial attachments to McKee's successes, we learn very little about his family. The uncertainbackground of his mother and wife and the barest mention of his children reflect the poverty of recordsabout McKee's personal life. Yet, without access to informal and intimate relations, we cannot trulyappreciate McKee's bicultural flexibility. Nor can we fully apprehend what he and we lost when McKeestepped off the middle ground that he had helped to create.What details the book leaves out do not abolish its contribution to a richer and more complexhistory of the early American frontier. In recovering the trajectory of Alexander McKee's career, LarryNelson has reminded us just how important McKee was, how vital was the work of cultural brokers, andultimately how difficult it was to maintain a middle ground.University of California, Los Angeles Stephen Aron