Throughout life, hope for a better future can encourage us to strive for our own betterment and to contribute to that of our family, friends, and community, but the circumstances of our birth can dictate what options we have available. If the options are grim, we have few choices, and little hope, we can become opportunists with little regard for those around us and turn to criminal activity to better our lot in life.
The rather obvious statements I’ve made about human experience are as true today as they were 200 years ago, yet imagine a time when the circumstances of our birth had much more influence over what was possible for us in life. My new novel, The Door That Faced West, released by Lazy Fascist Press, takes place in America in such a time, the years 1799 and 1800. In that period, a class system reigned within American society, much as it did in Europe. The quality of one’s clothing and other possessions, the appearance of health and physical development, accent, and vocabulary of speech were signals of one’s station in life. If an individual was seen to be poor, then in that low station that one would most likely remain throughout life. The class system was an age-old contrivance that allowed those in higher stations, those with wealth, to support each other while jealously guarding their advantage. The disparity between the haves and have-nots was large. The majority of Americans were poor, underfed, over-worked, and willing to consider underhanded measures to better themselves. They were often so desperate for a better life, they were easy for those well-to-do to manipulate.
Nearly fifty percent of immigrants to America from Europe came as indentured servants. An indentured servant was one who was contracted to work for his or her master to pay off a debt. Many of those who came to America were paying off the debt of passage to the continent by serving a term of four or more years of work for the master, generally the captain of the ship that bore them across the sea. Once in America, the ship captains sold the indentures to employers and the servants then had new masters.
A master had nearly complete control over how the indentured were treated; the quality of food, shelter, and clothing provided, and control over the servant’s hours of rest and labor. Largely, that treatment was not subject to review or questioning by others. Indentured servants mistreated by their masters frequently ran away and became wanted. Newspapers advertised rewards for their capture and return. If a person with an appearance of being poor arrived in a community, any concerned male citizen could stop and question the individual. If the person was found to be an indentured servant, they were returned to their master. Indentured servitude could be virtual slavery except for the fact that the contracts defined a time limit for service.
Indentured servitude was only one of several methods of binding the poor to highly controlled positions of labor. Conditions for those in apprenticeships were frequently not much better. If greedy, those with power over other’s lives could push their charges to the breaking point in an attempt to gain as much service as possible.
Some born into poor families sought to raise their social status by gaining glory in the military. A bold man who acquitted himself heroically on the field of battle could earn respect and thereby rise to a somewhat better station. The fear existed that life could be cut short in battle, however, and the life of a soldier was often extremely harsh. Frequently men were pushed too hard and desertion was common.
The labor of many wives and children was considered of primary importance in helping a family to survive. A hard man, husband, father, or both, much like a greedy master, might work his family to the bone to make ends meet. One generation of cruelty often begat a similar one.
For the poor, the potential for suffering inhumanity in most walks of life was high, much of the callousness institutionalized as an appropriate and important aspect of maintaining order and discipline. Under harsh conditions, desperation drove many individuals to criminal acts in order to survive. To hide from those pursuing them for their crimes or their masters, many fled into territories where the law was less likely to find them.
The vastness of the wilderness of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky in the years in which The Door That Faced West takes place, 1799 and 1800, was intimidating to most Americans, yet could be a haven for criminals. To some outlaws, it was a playground. The dense, seemingly endless forest that stretched from the east coast to the Mississippi and beyond was a dangerous area in which human lives were frequently lost due to exposure to the elements, accidents, or deadly encounters with forest animals or Indians. The best land for hunting, much of middle Tennessee and Kentucky, was sacred to the Indians, and they were willing to kill to defend it. Many of the non-indigenous persons who entered that forest to hunt, to carve out a home, to help develop a new settlement, or merely to explore, were never heard from again, lost without a trace. A few more lives lost to the activities of brigands in the forest were hardly noticed.
Inevitably, settlements sprang up along rivers and well-worn animal and Indian traces, but the going was rough. The forest was largely uninterrupted in the eastern half of the continent and had never been logged. The trees were massive, blocking out much of the light and making farming difficult if not impossible. Under the forest canopy, sometimes hidden beneath the undergrowth as well, were swamps that might be the size of a small pond or cover hundreds of square miles in area. These bogs were rimmed with canebrakes that were nearly impossible to penetrate. Consequently, what traffic there was through the wilderness—those traveling for personal reasons or involved in commerce—was often funneled along the well-worn paths. Criminals had only to wait, hidden in the forest along the traces until victims happened along. Leaving no witnesses became a standard for seasoned footpads since the immensity of the forest allowed bodies to be easily hidden. Frequently the victims were never found and countless murders during the period went unpunished.
Within settlements, law and order was loosely held by those who appeared tough enough to do the job. Often those were men with criminal backgrounds, willing to do whatever they thought they could get away with to better their positions. Facing possible death in order to fight crime was not at the top of their agenda.
Communication between settlements was poor. Going through the rumor mill as it traveled, information communicated between settlements was often unreliable. With a few outrageous acts, an outlaw’s persona could become larger than life and twice as intimidating within a short time.
The environment described in this post, both geographical and societal, is the landscape in which The Door That Faced West takes place; one in which a couple of ruthless, opportunistic brothers with bloodlust might rampage with impunity for an extended length of time, and, indeed, they did.
—Alan M. Clark