Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Triple Frontier

The town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers where they slip out of the Shenandoah Valley and head toward the Chesapeake Bay.  Here the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together.  The place was identified by George Washington in 1785 as the ideal location for a national armory despite all evidence to the contrary- lumber and hydro power were abundant but metal and skilled mechanical labor was extremely scarce and had to be shipped in.  Of course, as the President of the Potowmack Company, which was concerned with the improvement of the Potomac River for shipping (a topic we’ll return to later) and a landowner along the lower Potomac River, Washington was particularly interested in the establishment of an industrial center in this region and if he needed to use the leverage of the federal government to do it, so be it.  In the 1820’s it was the place where John C. Hall worked out the fabrication of metal weaponry using interchangeable parts, a production innovation which revolutionized the production of everything from M1819 breech loading rifles used in the Seminole Wars to iPads. 

[the rugged topography surrounding Harpers Ferry was extensively surveyed during the Civil War; this map, made in 1863, clearly shows the Potomac and Shenandoah passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the low point at the confluence occupied by the Harpers Ferry Arsenal and Armory, and the small incorporated town of Bolivar (named for the Liberator himself) located uphill on the way out of town to the west]

[The towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar today, surrounded by National historical parkland; the Amtrak railroad still stops in Harpers Ferry, though the highway passes the towns on the southern Virginia edge of the pass before switching over to the Maryland side just downstream]

Nowadays, the picturesque twin towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar, West Virginia are little more than depressed, tourist destinations held up by federal money as a center of the National Parks Service and holding a line on the National Register of Historic Places.  The mountainous terrain, Amtrak train, and ruined canals create a picturesque landscape where the town sits looking through the mountain pass.  But just one hundred and fifty years ago, the town was North America’s own Triple Frontier, the place where North, South, and West came violently together, catalyzed by federal infrastructure, smashed together with local people and mixed together with a steady stream of drifters and explorers.  The outcome was dastardly.

[the booming site of Harpers Ferry at the start of the Civil War; the railroad and power canals are built, along with large industrial factories including flour and saw mills, in addition to the Arsenal and Armory; worker's housing lines the roads out of town, which is surrounded by a wooden stockade; to the right up on the hill is the local church]

[Harpers Ferry in 1861 during the Civil War, looking east from a hill near Bolivar; the church can be seen downhill in the center; soldiers and cannon occupy the foreground; like many border states West Virginia was a conflicted battleground, raising regiments for both the Union and Confederate Armies; Harpers Ferry changed hands several times though West Virginia would ultimately settle as a Union state]

In 1796 the federal government purchased land at Harpers Ferry and construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal.  The stated intention was to provide the nation with redundancy in arms manufacturing along with the sister armory in Springfield, Mass (which enjoyed better access to important things like metal and workers) and was closer to the nation’s new capital at the mouth of the Potomac.  The undertaking was fraught from the beginning, with federal control and influence in manufacturing processes being constantly resisted by the local population and difficulty finding competent foremen, skilled craftsmen, day laborers, and people willing to implement industrial manufacturing processes that emphasized repetition and replicability, but with townsfolk more than happy to angle for the contracts and jobs that the new federal government was eagerly supporting in hopes of diminishing our independence on European firearms.

The result was something of a wild west boomtown.  Not only was John Hall off in a factory perfecting the machine process of interchangeable parts that would revolutionize manufacturing, but southern gunsmiths were cranking out firearms to meet federal quotas, bristling at Yankee foremen, and drinking and hunting when their counterparts up in Springfield were hammering away.  The construction and operation of the Armory was badly mismanaged by local landed gentry who’d received federal posts through good connections.  All while a constant stream of homesteaders made their way through the town, working for a season or a fortnight until they had enough money to keep heading west, looking to take advantage of westward expansion and the soon-to-be-signed Homestead Act.  There were also tons of guns just lying around the town.
[Harpers Ferry looking west across the Potomac from Maryland]

[Harpers Ferry in 1862, the B & O Railroad Bridge was destroyed after the Antietam Campaign in Maryland]

[a map showing the Union and Confederate states as well as the western territories beyond the Mississippi; Harpers Ferry was not only tossed back and forth between North and South and at the very center of the jurisdictional ripping-in-two of the state of Virginia; the third state, Maryland had its own major conflicts, being a slave-owning Union state; Harpers Ferry was also a gateway across the Appalachians and into the Ohio River Valley for the multitudes that were thronging west along with the railroads]

A flashpoint occurred just before the civil war, when abolitionist John Brown set up shop and hatched a plan to take over the US Federal Armory with twenty-two trained men, capture and distribute the weapons stored there and incite a slave rebellion throughout the Southern States.  The raid on the armory was successful but the rebellion decidedly less so.  He and his remaining men were captured by federal forces two days later.  Civil war wasn’t far.

But rather than a nuanced and/or redneck rehashing of Civil War themes and stories, what we are most interested here today is the landscape condition of Harpers Ferry at that historical moment.  In 1862, when the Homestead Act was signed, this landscape was the locus of a violent collision between North, South, and West, each with their own ideas, mythologies, and regimes of control.  Like the Triple Frontera in South America or the Darien Gap in Central America, this landscape has something to teach us about the American frontier landscape- patterns emerge.  A large federal infrastructure (the canals, Armory, and railroad), oppositions within local politics, a difficult terrain, cultural violence and collision, overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions heavy with potentiality created the conditions for an American frontier landscape.


  1. Apropos of nothing other than your mention of John Brown.

    I don't usually go for this sort fo thing, but when in Cali recently visiting the de Young Museum, I was really charmed (might not be the right word) by a painting ft John Brown entitled The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovenden.

    Also on a side note like how you have set up this comparison/opposition between the three American forms of a tripartite frontier. Seems like a highly useful exploration.

  2. That is a captivating painting. The racialization of that moment is interesting- the black women holding her child up to Brown while the child also reaches out to him and everyone else looks on in disdain. From what I read that is a perspective of the situation, namely a white, northern one. Of course, my research on the topic was focused on the landscape- geology, surveying, urbanization, with specific social dynamics in the second tier, so I am sure to be glossing over important aspects and perspectives.