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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 frontier.

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...



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.


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 dysfunctional cultures;

2) Mexicans who had had been marginalized as a result of conquest; and

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.


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 Company.

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 underpopulated state.

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 them.

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  June 23, 2016
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