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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Frontiers and National Identity

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

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the frontier experience was enshrined in Russian and American culture and became an important source of national identity. First, during the Romantic period, frontiers were discovered by writers and artists as a source of inspiration. Frontier landscapes came to stand for national grandeur and possibility. Native peoples were increasingly interpreted as noble, not barbaric.

Then as both countries faced the social turmoil associated with industrialization and urbanization, Russians and Americans turned even more to the frontier as a unifying force--representing opportunity, majesty, and national unity. Politicians, journalists, and historians embraced the frontier as a source of economic productivity, imperial power, and national destiny. Frontier warriors such as General George Custer and the Cossack Ermak became mass heroes whose stories were told in print, on canvas, at fairgrounds, and on the silver screen. Although both figures are controversial as national symbols--and Custer, especially, is rejected by many for his role in conquest--they still stand today as powerful representatives of the American and Russian expansion into the frontier.

Russians and Americans also traveled to the frontier as tourists, absorbing the regional landscapes and local history as national destiny.

Mass Culture

Following the popular frontier stories (1820s-40s) of James Fenimore Cooper, the western developed into a distinctive genre in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902) is generally recognized as the first modern western, decades earlier Bret Harte had immortalized California's gold camps. In a series of popular stories, Harte helped to create stock western characters such as the gambler and the prostitute with the heart of gold.

The most popular westerns during this period appeared in inexpensive dime-novel or pulp-magazine formats. Designed for a mass audience, such pulp fiction emphasized strongly etched characters, exotic settings, and, above all, action. Hunters, mountain men, outlaws, "half-breeds," savage Indians, gun-slinging amazons, helpless maidens, and cowboy heroes all appear in full force in dime novels, romanticizing the frontier as a realm of full-blooded national adventure and ethnic and gender stereotype.

Westerns were also performed in plays, Indian displays, Wild West shows, rodeos, and cinemas. Many of the common features of western films, including Indian attacks on stagecoaches, cavalry charges, and sharpshooting displays, were adopted wholesale from pre-cinema performances, especially the Wild West shows.

Wild West Shows, Rodeos, and Indian Displays

I Am Coming, 1900. LC Prints and Photographs.

Wild West shows evolved out of earlier forms of Indian displays, such as George Catlin's Indian Gallery, and Wild West melodrama. Shows such as Buffalo Bill's helped to clean up and popularize the image of the American cowboy and created forms of entertainment that survive today only in the rodeo, if at all.


The West also became a part of American national identity through tourism. Yosemite and Yellowstone became the first nonurban public parks in 1864 and 1872, respectively, and quickly developed into symbols of American majesty. In the nineteenth century railroads encouraged western tourism to such parks as a way of promoting transcontinental travel. In the twentieth century automobiles became common and Americans increasingly preferred to discover the West by car. Westerners strongly supported publicly financed road building, which helped tourism become an important part of the regional economy.

Similarly, Siberia came to stand for vastness and natural bounty and beauty; as such it became the region that perhaps best symbolized Russia. Nature tourism rapidly developed after World War II and the Siberian preserves were a favorite destination. There, tourists marveled at the beauty of Lake Baikal--the deepest freshwater lake in the world--the boundless taiga, the mighty Siberian rivers, and the dramatic rock cliffs and stone pillars. Tourists also learned how Siberia helped to create Russia--and the Soviet Union--by visiting regional history museums, monuments to conquerors and explorers, medieval fortresses and churches, and modern tributes to industrial power such as hydroelectric plants.

Yellowstone National Park

Until the Folsom-Cook Expedition of 1869 and the Hayden Expedition of 1871, Americans knew little about the area that now comprises Yellowstone Park. Paintings by Thomas Moran and photographs by William Henry Jackson, both of whom accompanied the Hayden Expedition, helped to publicize the area and secure its protection. Established by Congress in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is the nation's oldest national park. Its creation set a precedent for reserving sections of the public domain for the recreation of all and for the preservation of natural beauty. The park would become a prime destination for turn-of-the-century Americans eager to experience the scenic splendor and frontier ruggedness of the American West.

Russian Postcards

The modern postcard became popular in Western Europe and North America beginning in the mid 1800s. The upsurge in recreational pleasure travel (itself fueled by rapid development of passenger railroad service) dovetailed with the development of new technologies, especially lithography and photography, and greatly facilitated the inexpensive mass production of images. A boom in production and sending of postcards ensued after an 1874 Universal Postal Union conference standardized the size and layout of the postcard and set the postage rates as half that of sealed letters.

In the Russian Empire, postcard production was begun in earnest in the 1890s by several major Moscow and St. Petersburg book and magazine publishers. Images focused upon exotic, distant travel themes of both natural and human landscapes: the broad rivers, plains, and mountains of Siberia; the deserts of Turkestan; native peoples of Siberia, the Far East, and Central Asia; new Russian cities being built in far-flung places; and technological wonders such as the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The postcard allowed rare visitors to such regions a chance to share their unusual experiences with friends and family back home.