Around the midpoint of the eighteenth century, colonial Americans began to speak, write, and dream about the “Western Country,” the boundless territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains. With independence, the Western Country gained significance not only as a place hosting ever more settlers but as a vision of the nation’s future; it would be the laboratory for testing the American experiment. There were, inevitably, divergences between this envisioned Western Country and its experienced reality. Among the settlers, a handful of writers, editors, and printers imbibed with Revolution-fueled ambitions and ideals about the power of publication volunteered themselves as mediators between vision and reality through the region’s nascent print culture. This dissertation focuses on these commentators’ attempts to imprint their visions onto the western experience, and the enduring regional and national effects of their efforts. It contends that their successes and shortcomings alike wrote the Western Country into the ongoing struggle to define the Revolutionary inheritance across an antebellum republic of aggressive expansion and ambiguous unity.
Influenced by works that emphasize the cultural dimensions of politics and print, elucidate the construction of languages of place, and reconceptualize contact and conquest, this dissertation reintroduces the Western Country to modern scholarship as a confluence of visions, experiences, and articulations that contributed a model and a vocabulary to the young republic. It approaches this task primarily by examining the motivations and publications of several of the region’s print-commentators, including Hugh Henry Brackenridge, John Bradford, and Zadok Cramer. Its chapters highlight the conceptual baggage carried westward and the attempts to claim an American future out of the natural and Native worlds; connect the commentators’ print-visions to regional themes with national implications, including purity, legitimacy, and utility; and follow the Western Country through its wartime apex, apparent demise, and enduring influence into the Civil War era via western sons Daniel Drake and Henry Marie Brackenridge. The Western Country was fated to be a short-lived and forgotten place, yet its existence echoed in the visions and words of subsequent generations when they articulated a manifest national destiny, lamented social ills, or struggled to define “American-ness.”