"Meeting of Frontiers" Conference
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How Have American Historians Viewed the Frontier?
John Whitehead, University of Georgia, Athens
How have American historians viewed and written about the "frontier?" In
American historiography the frontier has been defined as
the line or area of open and free land where settlement is
sparse--sometimes defined as land settled by less than 2
people per square mile.
The way this "frontier" or area of open land has been viewed
over some two centuries has been shaped by certain facts
or concepts based on the acquisition of several different
frontiers. The way these frontiers have been acquired has
differed. As a result there are several seemingly contradictory
interpretations of the frontier.
Just how were these different frontiers acquired?
1) The Old West or the Trans-Appalachian West lying between
the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River
This frontier was acquired after the American Revolution
based on victory over England. It was an area of fertile
land suitable for farming. It contained Indian inhabitants
engaged in fur trading with Caucasians.
At first people wondered if it would it be treated as a
colonial region-a place to send "undesirable" or "troublesome" settlers
from the East Coast or a place where "undesirables" would
naturally congregate and become a threat to the East coast.
As the result of a national debate in the 1780s a national
policy emerged that this first frontier would be equal to
the older regions. New states would be formed, and land would
be surveyed and sold by the federal government. Settlement
would be encouraged for the "better sort" of farmer. The
North West Ordinance of 1787, which created a blueprint for
settlement, decreed there would be no slavery on the frontier.
The Indians on this frontier-with visions of Jeffersonian
happiness-would be assimilated into the American family.
THE FRONTIER would be a place where a land of hope and betterment
could emerge. It would be a positive American experience.
2) Louisiana Purchase-The land lying between the Mississippi
River and the Rocky Mountains.
This second frontier-which doubled the size of the nation-was
acquired by purchase from Napoleon in 1803. The vast extent
of land was not initially seen as farming land. It was largely
unknown and unmapped at the time of acquisition. It was seen
by President Thomas Jefferson and others as an exotic land
that was home to warlike Indians-particularly the Sioux.
Jefferson hoped that a river passage could be found that
would connect the eastern United States with the Pacific
Ocean. Jefferson also hoped that trade relations could be
established with the Indians, many of whom still continued
to trade directly with the British in Canada. The Lewis and
Clark Expedition was organized soon after the Purchase to
map and explore the wonders of this new frontier-and hopefully
to find a river passage to the Pacific and hence to Asia.
Lewis and Clark reported that the Louisiana Purchase was
a tough, rugged land. The Indians, though helpful to Lewis
and Clark, might not become trade partners. The most important
discovery of the explorers was the knowledge that there was
no river passage to the Pacific Coast.
For purposes of national policy this second frontier would
remain untouched and exotic until plans for a national railroad
emerged in the 1850s. It was the land of the Noble Savage.
Americans, and some Europeans, would come to see its exotic
Indians. It did, however, have one national purpose. The
Indians in the first frontier weren't assimilating as Jefferson
had planned. So Indians in the first frontier could be removed
to the Louisiana Purchase-called by Jefferson the Permanent
Indian Frontier. There they could wait for a longer process
of assimilation. This Permanent Indian Frontier was thus
a frontier of banishment--not a place to banish undesirable
whites, but undesirable or unassimilable natives.
So the first frontier of hope was joined by a second frontier
of mystery and banishment.
3) Pacific Coast and Interior Frontier of Manifest Destiny and Conquest-Oregon,
California, Texas, and New Mexico.
This third frontier was acquired between 1845 and 1848
in several different ways. Oregon was peacefully acquired
by treaty with England in 1846, though there was some diplomatic "saber-rattling" in
the negotiations. The Republic of Texas was annexed in 1845,
though some say it was stolen from Mexico as Mexico had never
recognized the independence of the Texas Republic. California
and New Mexico were ceded to the United States after Mexican
War. Some historians say they were effectively acquired by
conquest. Others say that the lands were saved from Mexico
and brought into the "temple of freedom" by Manifest Destiny.
So this third frontier became in many ways the most contradictory
Given these different frontiers, how have American historians interpreted THE
FRONTIER. Historians at different times have picked liberally from the different
frontiers and molded them to their fancy. There have been...
TWO MAJOR SCHOOLS OF FRONTIER HISTORY
FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER --1893 TO MID 1980s
As part of an address to the American Historical Association
in 1893 Turner, then a young professor, announced that according
to the 1890 census the frontier was now closed; there was
no longer a clear line beyond which settlement had not begun.
Turner then proceeded to explain the effect of this now closed
area of open land on the nation for the preceding century.
According to Turner the frontier had been the most important
factor in shaping a distinctly American character and in
differentiating America from Europe. The frontier took the
settler with his European dress and manner and "stripped
off the garments of civilization" The frontier was initially
too strong for the man; eventually the man was able to transform
the wilderness. "The outcome," according to Turner, "is not
the old Europe." It is a "new product that is American." Compared
to the old European, the new American was more democratic,
less authoritarian, and less class conscious. This American
character that came from the frontier then became the trademark
for the nation. For the most part Turner emphasized that
first frontier of Hope-the Old North West. This was in fact
the area where Turner was raised.
The Turnerian School of a hopeful, triumphant frontier
reigned in history circles for almost a century. Its pop
culture manifestation was probably the long running TV series, "Little
House on the Prairie." There was some dissent to Turner.
Some historians countered that Turner's portrayal of the
West and the frontier was too rosy. Others said that European
influences were much stronger in shaping the American character
than the frontier.
Despite the critics' dissent, Turner's Frontier Thesis
was the prevailing view of the frontier taught in American
schools and colleges until the mid-1980s. There were (and
are) entire books and readers for classroom use devoted extensively
to the Turner Thesis.
NEW WESTERN HISTORIANS-1980S TO THE PRESENT
In the late 1980s Turner's frontier interpretation came
under its most severe attack with the emergence of the so-called
New Western History pioneered by another young professor,
Patricia Nelson Limerick. In her 1987 book Legacy of Conquest,
she tried to reverse Turner and dealt more with the concepts
of banishment and conquest, than of hope and triumph. In
contrast to Turner's concern with the white settler on the
frontier , Limerick emphasized other peoples who had been
marginalized and pushed aside by white settlers. She paid
particular attention to:
1) Indian tribes who had been marginalized in response
to white settlement and had in many cases been left with
2) Mexicans who had had been marginalized as a result of
3) Asian Americans who migrated to the West Coast and were
subsequently marginalized and discriminated against.
To Limerick and other new western historians what the rapacious
white settlers had not marginalized, the rapacious federal
government did. To some extent the federal government even
marginalized the white settlers. The West as seen by Limerick
and others was now a colonial region, not one equal to the
East. It was chronically capital poor and oppressed by far
too much federal regulation.
The new western historians downplayed the frontier of hope
and emphasized a frontier of conflict and conquest-though
it was debatable as to exactly who had been conquered and
who had done the conquering.
Today the shrillness of the battle continues between the
frontier of hope and the frontier of conquest -though with
a final new twist. Turner claimed you could only understand
America by understanding the frontier. The new western historians,
at least Professor Limerick, now claim that the conflict
and turmoil on the American frontier was not limited to the
United States, but worldly in its scope. To understand frontiers
around the world there is no better place to learn than the
American frontier of conquest. If Turner's frontier helped
one understand America, Limerick now claims that her West
helps you understand the world.
THE ALASKAN FRONTIER
Though Turner and the new western historians differed in
their interpretation of "the" American Frontier, they shared
a common omission. Neither talked about Alaska. Turner noted
in 1893 that Alaska was now a part of the United States and
that he would talk about it later. I can find little future
reference that he ever made to Alaska. Limerick noted in Legacy
of Conquest that Alaska might well be like the frontier
in the lower 48 states, but that she did not have sufficient
space in her book to cover it. Was the frontier of Alaska
like either Turner's frontier or the New Western frontier?
First we should note how it was acquired. Alaska was purchased
from Russia in 1867. By all accounts the purchase was based
on good will. There does not seem to be any suggestion of
conflict or conquest in its acquisition. Though Alaska had
a certain exotic image at the time of purchase, there was
a concerted effort by some after the purchase to create a "worthless" image
of Alaska-sometimes called "Seward's Folly"-because the purchase
was encouraged by the U.S. Secretary of State William Seward.
To some extent this "worthless" image was cultivated by
people who did not want Alaska settled by whites for fear
that some of the worst excesses of the western frontier would
be repeated in Alaska.
Sheldon Jackson, an American missionary to Alaska, feared
that the Indians would be marginalized by white settlers
who would steal their land. Wildlife conservationists feared
that both land and sea animals would be destroyed if settlement
followed. Jackson influenced legislation in the 1880s that
made it difficult for whites to acquire land. In the 1910s
Mt. McKinley National Park was created to prevent the destruction
of wild life that had occurred in the American West.
And what about the Russians who were here at the time of
purchase? For the most part all but a handful decided to
return to Russia with the departure of the Russian-American
Whether because of the "worthless" image or simply because
Alaska was cold and distant, large numbers of people did
not migrate to Alaska until World War II. Since that time
Alaska's population has increased, but it is still a significantly
So in the year 2001, is Alaska different from the frontiers
of the lower 48 states? Some historians say that Alaska has
simply duplicated or "replicated" the same pattern of development
as the older western frontiers. Others claim that Alaska
is still significantly different. Those elements of conflict
and conquest, they would say, have not occurred to the same
extent. It is truly the LAST FRONTIER. Historians of the
future have a major task ahead of them in trying to see how
Alaska fits in with other American frontiers or differs from