In the new historical novel Shiloh by Lori Benton, Ian Cameron works to build a new life for his family on New York’s rugged frontier. In the article below from Lori, discover what sparked her imagination about the New York frontier and learn more about what life was like during this time and place in history.
When the eighteenth century caught my attention as an era that might be fun to write about, I wasn’t drawn to a major historical event or to the men and women who influenced such events and moved in the upper echelons of society and government. What ignited my imagination were the ordinary men and women who simply wanted to live in peace but were forced to contend with extraordinary upheavals, such as continental wars and their devastating aftermaths.
I’d encountered history lessons about the Revolutionary War—the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington crossing the Delaware, the surrender of British General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Such lessons rarely reveal what it was like for the nameless thousands who survived that conflict. Especially intriguing was the plight of those who called home what historians label the frontier. That line of settlement and displacement, pushed back eastward by the conflict between the American Colonies and the British Empire, had begun to be resettled as the 1780s faded into the nineties.
That frontier was vast, stretching along the Appalachian Mountain range. It was my affinity for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans that led me to narrow my focus to New York. Eighteenth-century wars devastated that landscape for settlers and indigenous peoples alike, particularly the Revolutionary War, as neighbor fought against neighbor. Even the Iroquois nations that called that region home had been divided, experiencing greater loss than the Europeans who had bought, settled, or illegally squatted on their homeland.
When it came time to write the second half of Ian Cameron and Seona’s story, begun in Mountain Laurel, I knew I’d be moving many of the characters away from that book’s North Carolina setting. Shiloh, New York, the fictional village I’d created in my debut novel, Burning Sky, seemed the perfect place for Ian Cameron to settle. No surprise, since frontier New York has continued to be a setting I’ve returned to in my writing. What came as a surprise was discovering author James Fenimore Cooper, who’d ignited my interest in the New York frontier in the first place, had a father instrumental in settling vast tracts of that land during the 1790s, the time of Shiloh’s setting.
William Cooper rose from a humble wheelwright to become a successful merchant, land speculator, and eventually a politician. He founded Cooperstown, New York, in the 1780s and spent the next decades working to entice men to take up farms across the surrounding countryside and elsewhere in New York. Meanwhile, the territory allotted to the once-powerful Iroquois nations, including the Oneidas—staunch allies to the Continental Army during the war—were being chipped away into smaller and smaller reserves.
While I hope never to glorify the many tragedies played out across that landscape for native, loyalist, and patriot alike, I am profoundly moved by the triumph of the human spirit when, knocked down by difficulties few of us now face, men and women from all walks of life found the fortitude to rise and try again to build a home and raise a family. I continue to be fascinated by what their daily lives were like. What did they eat? How did they cook it? What did their homes look like? Their villages and towns? What crops did they plant? How were relationships between different peoples—European, native, African—forged? How did they endure? I’ve attempted yet again, with Shiloh, to weave a story that provides an accurate, balanced, and illuminating answer to such questions.
Part of creating that verisimilitude wasn’t simply including William Cooper as a character in this story but making him the catalyst that spurs Ian Cameron to consider relocating to the New York frontier. Cooper could be outrageously generous and held an affinity for men willing to work to build a decent life for themselves and their dependents. A man like Ian Cameron. So that’s the part I cast Cooper to play, putting in his mouth some of his own written words, documented in the Pulitzer Prize–winning book by Alan Taylor William Cooper’s Town.
But I hope you won’t blame me for being unable to resist giving young James Cooper (a child at the time) a cameo appearance in the pages of Shiloh. If you’re a fellow fan of The Last of the Mohicans, be sure to look for him.