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Collection Meeting of Frontiers


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

Map of the Mining District of California, William A. Jackson, 1851. LC Map Collections. Eager to get rich quick, thousands departed for California after gold was discovered near Coloma.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the economies of Siberia and the American West experienced many parallel developments. Fur trading declined in importance as fashions changed and fur-bearing animals were overhunted, sometimes to the point of extinction. At the same time, mineral extraction intensified. Gold was discovered in the Yenisey River basin in Siberia in 1838-39, only ten years before John Sutter's men found it at the bottom of a stream in California. Both events led to gold rushes and concentrated populations of miners, although the Siberian rush fed almost exclusively off transient Siberians and did not stimulate a great migration to the frontier as did the California gold rush.

Despite the diverse range of economic activities and social types such as miners, lumberjacks, and exiles, most people on the Siberian and western frontiers were farmers and the most common economic pursuit was agriculture. Both regions posed severe challenges to farmers - the West for its aridity and Siberia for its aridity in spots, but also wet lands and long winters. Because of a more southerly climate, western farmers had a much easier time creating bountiful ranches and farms. But Siberia is not all frozen tundra, and peasants farmed successfully in the forest steppe belt in the south of the region.

"Karta iamskikh i pochtovykh putei," from the atlas Karty pochtovykh soobshchenii uchrezhdennykh v Rossiiskoi Imperii pri Tsarie Aleksieie Mikhailovichie i ego preemnikakh do Ekateriny II. LC Map Collections. The Siberian postal service was created in 1689 and traveled three times a summer from Moscow to Tobol'sk, and from there on to Nerchinsk and Iakutsk. By the eighteenth century, it stretched across nearly all of Siberia.

The economic growth of Siberia and the West also fed off the mushrooming transportation networks. Before the mid-nineteenth century, travelers and migrants reached the frontiers on foot, by horse, under sail, or by canoe. With the development of the steam engine, mechanized transportation became possible, and steamships began to ply the rivers and the coasts and transport settlers and traders to these distant lands. The last half of the nineteenth century was also the great age of railroad construction; nowhere was this more important than in Siberia and the American West. The transcontinental rail route opened in the United States in 1869; in Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railroad was basically completed by 1904. Both railways helped to integrate the frontier with the center, and stimulated industrial development, massive settlement, and national pride.