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Collection Meeting of Frontiers


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

The colonial expansion of Europe was well underway by the middle of the sixteenth century. Representatives of European states even visited the little-known lands of Siberia and the American West as the Spanish empire began pushing north into the American Southwest, and Muscovite Russia stretched east into northern Asia. For the next three centuries the American frontier edged west and the Russian frontier east as traders searched for wealth and explorers searched for new lands.

But who and what would they find? The earliest maps of Siberia and the West depict vast lands, empty spaces, and mystery.

Russia and America sent numerous scientific expeditions to their distant frontiers and gradually developed an accurate picture of the extent and geography of their lands. The lands were difficult to master, sometimes exotic, but also inspirational and inviting to a variety of peoples.

While scientific knowledge of the new lands slowly accumulated, traders streamed into Siberia and the American West in search of fur. The first Russians in Siberia exacted from and traded with the native peoples for fox, sable, beaver, marten, and squirrel pelts, all much in demand throughout Europe for hats and clothing. The first traders in the American West hoped to find jewels and precious metals. They were followed by men who were more successful in their search for buffalo, beaver, and sea otter.

These frontiersmen also found diverse native cultures with which they traded, interacted, and fought.