Book review: ‘Independence Lost’ travels beyond the 13 Colonies

UNC historian and author Kathleen DuVal.
UNC historian and author Kathleen DuVal.

The popular mythology of the American Revolution is of wise founding fathers leading the 13 Colonies to freedom from British oppression. University of North Carolina historian Kathleen DuVal presents a different version of the events, showing how the revolution impacted a wide variety of people on the fringes of the conflict.

DuVal points out the sometimes competing and sometimes conflicting ambitions of the French, the Spanish and various Indian tribes. Much of the action in the book takes place in what she calls West Florida, which is essentially the Gulf Coast. “The American Revolution on the Gulf Coast is a story without minutemen, without founding fathers, without rebels. It reveals a different war with unexpected participants, forgotten outcome, and surprising winners and losers.”

DuVal tells the story primarily through eight people:

▪ Payamataha, a Chickasaw warrior turned peace keeper.

▪ Alexander McGillivray, a man of Scottish and Creek ancestry who rallied the Creeks to fight against the Americans in order to preserve their way of life.

▪ Oliver Pollack and Margaret O’Brien, successful traders who bet (and lost) their fortune by financially backing the American Revolution.

▪ James Bruce and Isabella Chrystie, who supported the British in hopes of establishing a plantation in West Florida.

▪ Petit Jean, a slave who became a spy for the Spanish.

▪ Amand Broussard, an Acadian who had been exiled by the British and who joined with the French and Spanish to fight against the hated British.

DuVal points out the New World consisted of more than just the 13 Colonies that signed the Declaration of Independence. “From Nova Scotia to Jamaica, the actual count was at least twice that.”

And even among the 13 there was not unanimous support for the war. “The southern colonies of South Carolina and Georgia were only barely willing to risk revolt. If the fight came south and sparked rebellion or flight among the region’s slaves, those colonies might flee back to the British.”

While the British were trying repress a rebellion, the French and Spanish were attempting to expand their influence on the Gulf Coast and in the Caribbean. The question for those governments, and the people of the Gulf Coast, was how best to turn Britain’s troubles to their advantage.

The Indian tribes, meanwhile, had their own concerns. The biggest goal for many of the tribes, especially the Creek, was to prevent further encroachment into their lands. “The British sought to squash a rebellion by defeating armed rebels while persuading others to resume their loyalty to the crown. But to Creeks, land-hungry settlers were the problem.”

Not only were the Indians unsuccessful in the efforts, they were completely ignored at the end of the war. “Although Indians had fought in most regions where the American Revolution was waged, none were invited to the negotiating table.”

A subtext of DuVal’s book is the plight of 18th century women, which she tells through Margaret O’Brien and Isabella Chrystie, whose lives were affected by the decisions and treatment of their husbands. “Women’s relationship of dependence – with husbands and other important men – were supposed to protect and provide for them. When these same men could not or would not fulfill their part of the system of patriarchy, everything fell apart.”

DuVal has provided us with a comprehensive and well researched look at a long ignored part of our history. “The late 18th century saw the narrowing of the meaning of independence into simply the 13 colonies’ separation from Britain, and vast numbers of people and places were written out of the story of the American Revolution.”

Kenneth S. Allen is a writer and editor in Lake Wylie, S.C.


Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

Kathleen DuVal

Random House Hardcover, 464 pages