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Collection Meeting of Frontiers


This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

The lands of Siberia and the American West were conquered by the millions of settlers who moved there to start new lives. The mass expansion into these lands was related to the demographic explosion of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Millions of Europeans sailed west to America, millions of Americans moved west across the continent, and millions of Russians moved east, all at the same time. They settled along the rivers and the coasts and in the fertile river valleys and established farms on unfamiliar landscapes. Although the vast majority of Russians and Americans still lived in the metropolises, the frontier hinterlands were now claimed by unprecedented numbers of people who helped weave the frontier into the consciousness of their nations.

Kartogramma "grippa". LC Map Collections. As this map depicting the influenza epidemic of 1889-1890 makes clear, at the turn of the century many Siberian natives still remained vulnerable to Russian-introduced epidemic diseases.

Diverse ethnic groups moved to these frontiers and came into contact with a range of native peoples. In both countries, some native peoples actively resisted colonization and others tried to cooperate with the newcomers. In both countries also, the task of colonization was made easier by the large-scale deaths of native peoples who had no resistance to the diseases imported by the colonizers.

These frontiers were also vast fields for religious development. Churches sent missionaries to distant reaches and soon houses of worship crisscrossed the frontier. Other religious groups, like the Old Believers in Russia and the Mormons in America, fled to the frontier to escape persecution and hoped to find a promised land.

Many other settlers were brought to the frontier by force. Many countries tried to populate distant frontiers by exiling criminals and "undesirables" there. Great Britain used Australia and America as penal colonies. The American government forced eastern Indian tribes to move to the lands beyond the Mississippi. The Russian crown--and the Soviet state--sent common criminals and political dissidents to Siberia. It was often an inhumane form of punishment, but very effective for populating inhospitable frontiers.

Out of these different frontier movements and interactions, Siberians and Westerners created rich and diverse societies that were very different from the homelands of the settlers. They adopted native material cultures and lived in new ways, built new towns, and created new identities for themselves.

Population Density

Rand, McNally & Co.'s map of the United States showing, in six degrees the density of population, 1890. LC Map Collections

Although the 1890 census reported that the American frontier had closed, much of the nation west of the Mississippi River remained sparsely settled with fewer than two inhabitants per square mile. In the American West most of the population lived in towns separated from each other by vast tracts of agricultural land or wilderness. Because of the predominantly agricultural settlement of Siberia, the urban population there had reached only 8 percent by the turn of the century, although it was concentrated along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. While western settlement was characterized by "urban oases" scattershot across the region, the Siberian pattern was much more linear.