Andro Linklater, Who Re-Examined American Frontierism, Dies at 68
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: December 3, 2013
While on a book tour of the United States in the 1990s, Andro Linklater, a Scottish journalist and popular historian, peered from his plane at the vast checkerboard orderliness of America’s former wilderness frontier and asked himself a historian’s sort of question: Which came first, the pioneers or the surveyors?
The answer — surveyors, usually — led him to write a book, “Measuring America,” published in 2002, that revised the traditional profile of the American pioneer and, by extension, sought to reimagine the ancestral American national character.
Contrary to the popular image of pioneers as libertarian individualists who broke the confines of the governed world to find freedom on the ungoverned frontier, Mr. Linklater argued that the pioneers depended greatly on the security they derived from government support and that they would never have left home without it.
Mr. Linklater, who died on Nov. 3 in Edinburgh at 68, continued to present his case in a follow-up volume, “The Fabric of America” (2007). Together, in chronicling the history of the United States Public Land Survey System, the books maintain that the conquest of the American West owed more to the surveyor’s line (or “Gunter’s chain,” as it is known) than to the Conestoga wagon or the repeating rifle. President George Washington made the Public Land Survey one of the first projects he asked Congress to fund, intending to pay off Revolutionary War debts with the proceeds of land sales. But the survey soon became, in effect, the cutting edge of the nation’s westward expansion to the Pacific, Mr. Linklater wrote.
By surveying and subdividing the wilderness into lots for sale, the government established a legal framework for property ownership and guaranteed protection of settlers’ property rights — whether in contest with other settlers or with the American Indian tribes from whom the property was most often seized.
“However far west the creaking Conestoga wagons traveled,” Mr. Linklater wrote, “their intrepid passengers knew that their desire to own the land was backed by the Constitution and the entire panoply of law.” He added, “Every new wave of settlers had a vested interest in introducing government, and law and order, to the wilderness as quickly as possible so that their claims could be recognized.”
Mr. Linklater’s books were aimed at least partly at debunking the so-called Frontier Thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, the turn-of-the-20th-century historian who wrote that the pioneers had embodied the essential American character, taming the wilderness with strength, will, creativity and love of freedom.
On the contrary, Mr. Linklater wrote in “The Fabric of America,” “What made the American frontier experience unique was not the freedom of the wilderness, but the lines drawn in previously uncharted ground — around claims, properties, states and the republic itself.”
A love of freedom was, to be sure, a part of the American character, as reflected in the pioneers, Mr. Linklater wrote, but so was a love of private property, with boundary lines and government enforcement of property rights. Those qualities and expectations shaped an American character more committed to the democratic process, he wrote, than Mr. Turner’s authority-wary, lone-wolf type would have been.
American scholars, though not universally warm to a nonprofessional’s work, credited Mr. Linklater with synthesizing a lot of history in an original way.
“Books about settlement and land speculation have been written before, and so have books about surveying,” the Yale researcher Carolyn C. Cooper wrote in the journal Technology and Culture in 2004. “ What ‘Measuring America’ does is bring those stories together and make them relevant to one another.”
Andro Ian Robert Linklater was born in Edinburgh on Dec. 10, 1944, the youngest of four children of the novelist Eric Linklater and Marjorie McIntyre, a former actress. He studied history at Oxford but told interviewers that he had never been drawn to the academic life. After teaching in Britain and France and working in an art gallery in San Francisco, he began his writing career by completing the history of the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Regiment of Scotland, that his father had been writing when he died in 1974.
He followed that with a children’s book, “Amazing Maisie and the Cold Porridge Brigade” (1978); biographies of the British suffragist Charlotte Despard (1980) and the Scottish writer Compton Mackenzie (1987); and other works, including “Wild People” (1991), about the Iban tribe of Borneo; and “The Code of Love” (2001), a nonfiction book about a couple separated by World War II.
In late October, while researching a book about mass starvation in the Hebrides during the 19th century, when English landowners forcibly removed Scots from large areas of the archipelago off the coast of Scotland to make room for sheep farming, Mr. Linklater had a heart attack on the island of Eigg.
His wife, Marie-Louise Avery, a photographer, said he died a week later in an Edinburgh hospital.
In addition to Ms. Avery, he is survived by a brother, Magnus; and two sisters, Alison Linklater Betley and Kristin Linklater.
Mr. Linklater pursued his interest in the American character further in “An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson” (2009), a book about one of the country’s early and lesser-known traitors. Like his other books about America, he said, “An Artist in Treason” explored the fragility of the country’s early life as a democracy.
“It’s too easy to imagine the United States was destined for greatness,” Mr. Linklater said in an interview. “There were many, many paths that might have been taken that would have led to an entirely different evolution.”