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The American frontier , also known as the Old West or the Wild West , includes the geography, history, folklore, and cultural expression of life in the forward wave of American expansion that began with European colonial settlements in the early 17th century and ended with the admission of the last few territories as states in This era of massive migration and settlement was particularly encouraged by President Thomas Jefferson following the Louisiana Purchase , giving rise to the expansionist attitude known as " Manifest Destiny " and the historians' " Frontier Thesis ".
A frontier is a zone of contact at the edge of a line of settlement. Leading theorist Frederick Jackson Turner went deeper, arguing that the frontier was the scene of a defining process of American civilization: "The frontier," he asserted, "promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people.
Enormous popular attention was focused on the Western United States especially the Southwest in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, from the s to the s. Such media typically exaggerated the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the period for greater dramatic effect.
This inspired the Western genre of film, along with television shows , novels , comic books , video games , children's toys and costumes. As defined by Hine and Faragher, "frontier history tells the story of the creation and defense of communities, the use of the land, the development of markets, and the formation of states. In his "Frontier Thesis" , Turner theorized that the frontier was a process that transformed Europeans into a new people, the Americans, whose values focused on equality, democracy, and optimism, as well as individualism , self-reliance, and even violence.
As the American frontier passed into history, the myths of the West in fiction and film took a firm hold in the imaginations of Americans and foreigners alike. In David Murdoch's view, America is exceptional in choosing its iconic self-image: "No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America's creation of the West.
The frontier is the margin of undeveloped territory that would comprise the United States beyond the established frontier line. Census Bureau designated frontier territory as generally unoccupied land with a population density of fewer than 2 people per square mile 0. The frontier line was the outer boundary of European-American settlement into this land. Pockets of settlements would also appear far past the established frontier line, particularly on the West Coast and the deep interior with settlements such as Los Angeles and Salt Lake City respectively.
The " West " was the recently settled area near that boundary. In the colonial era , before , the west was of high priority for settlers and politicians. The American frontier began when Jamestown , Virginia, was settled by the English in In the earliest days of European settlement on the Atlantic coast, until about , the frontier was essentially any part of the interior of the continent beyond the fringe of existing settlements along the Atlantic coast.
Only a few thousand French migrated to Canada; these habitants settled in villages along the St. Lawrence River , building communities that remained stable for long stretches. Although French fur traders ranged widely through the Great Lakes and midwest region they seldom settled down. French settlement was limited to a few very small villages such as Kaskaskia, Illinois  as well as a larger settlement around New Orleans.
Likewise, the Dutch set up fur trading posts in the Hudson River valley, followed by large grants of land to rich landowning patroons who brought in tenant farmers who created compact, permanent villages.
They created a dense rural settlement in upstate New York, but they did not push westward. Areas in the north that were in the frontier stage by generally had poor transportation facilities, so the opportunity for commercial agriculture was low.
These areas remained primarily in subsistence agriculture, and as a result, by the s these societies were highly egalitarian, as explained by historian Jackson Turner Main:. The typical frontier society, therefore, was one in which class distinctions were minimized. The wealthy speculator, if one was involved, usually remained at home, so that ordinarily no one of wealth was a resident. The class of landless poor was small. The great majority were landowners, most of whom were also poor because they were starting with little property and had not yet cleared much land nor had they acquired the farm tools and animals which would one day make them prosperous.
Few artisans settled on the frontier except for those who practiced a trade to supplement their primary occupation of farming. There might be a storekeeper, a minister, and perhaps a doctor; and there were several landless laborers. All the rest were farmers. In the South, frontier areas that lacked transportation, such as the Appalachian Mountains region, remained based on subsistence farming and resembled the egalitarianism of their northern counterparts, although they had a larger upper-class of slaveowners.
North Carolina was representative. However, frontier areas of that had good river connections were increasingly transformed into plantation agriculture. Rich men came in, bought up the good land, and worked it with slaves.
The area was no longer "frontier". It had a stratified society comprising a powerful upper-class white landowning gentry, a small middle-class, a fairly large group of landless or tenant white farmers, and a growing slave population at the bottom of the social pyramid. Unlike the North, where small towns and even cities were common, the South was overwhelmingly rural. The seaboard colonial settlements gave priority to land ownership for individual farmers, and as the population grew they pushed westward for fresh farmland.
Land ownership brought a degree of independence as well as a vote for local and provincial offices. The typical New England settlements were quite compact and small, under a square mile. Conflict with the Native Americans arose out of political issues, namely who would rule.
Most of the frontiers experienced numerous conflicts. The series of large wars spilling over from European wars ended in a complete victory for the British in the worldwide Seven Years' War. In the peace treaty of , France ceded practically everything, as the lands west of the Mississippi River, in addition to Florida and New Orleans, went to Spain. Otherwise, lands east of the Mississippi River and what is now Canada went to Britain. Regardless of wars Americans were moving across the Appalachians into western Pennsylvania, what is now West Virginia, and areas of the Ohio Country , Kentucky, and Tennessee.
In the southern settlements via the Cumberland Gap , their most famous leader was Daniel Boone. Settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains were curtailed briefly by the Royal Proclamation of , forbidding settlement in this area.
Treaty of Fort Stanwix re-opened most of the western lands for frontiersmen to settle. The nation was at peace after The states gave Congress control of the western lands and an effective system for population expansion was developed. The Northwest Ordinance of abolished slavery in the area north of the Ohio River and promised statehood when a territory reached a threshold population, as Ohio did in The first major movement west of the Appalachian mountains originated in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina as soon as the Revolutionary War ended in Pioneers housed themselves in a rough lean-to or at most a one-room log cabin.
The main food supply at first came from hunting deer, turkeys, and other abundant game. Clad in typical frontier garb, leather breeches, moccasins, fur cap, and hunting shirt, and girded by a belt from which hung a hunting knife and a shot pouch—all homemade—the pioneer presented a unique appearance. In a short time he opened in the woods a patch, or clearing, on which he grew corn, wheat, flax, tobacco, and other products, even fruit.
In a few years, the pioneer added hogs, sheep, and cattle, and perhaps acquired a horse. Homespun clothing replaced the animal skins.
The land policy of the new nation was conservative, paying special attention to the needs of the settled East. By the s, however, the West was filling up with squatters who had no legal deed, although they may have paid money to previous settlers. The Jacksonian Democrats favored the squatters by promising rapid access to cheap land.
By contrast, Henry Clay was alarmed at the "lawless rabble" heading West who were undermining the utopian concept of a law-abiding, stable middle-class republican community. Rich southerners, meanwhile, looked for opportunities to buy high-quality land to set up slave plantations. After winning the Revolutionary War , American settlers in large numbers poured into the west. In , American pioneers to the Northwest Territory established Marietta, Ohio , as the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory.
It was later lengthened to reach the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville. The Wilderness Road was steep and rough, and it could only be traversed on foot or horseback, but it was the best route for thousands of settlers moving into Kentucky.
In alone, Indians killed over travelers on the Wilderness Road. Kentucky at this time had been depopulated—it was "empty of Indian villages. One of those intercepted was Abraham Lincoln 's grandfather, who was scalped in near Louisville. The War of marked the final confrontation involving major British and Indian forces fighting to stop American expansion. The British war goal included the creation of an Indian barrier state under British auspices in the Midwest which would halt American expansion westward.
The death in battle of the Indian leader Tecumseh dissolved the coalition of hostile Indian tribes. In general, the frontiersmen battled the Indians with little help from the U. Army or the federal government. To end the war, American diplomats negotiated the Treaty of Ghent , signed towards the end of , with Britain. They rejected the British plan to set up an Indian state in U. They explained the American policy toward the acquisition of Indian lands:.
The United States, while intending never to acquire lands from the Indians otherwise than peaceably, and with their free consent, are fully determined, in that manner, progressively, and in proportion as their growing population may require, to reclaim from the state of nature, and to bring into cultivation every portion of the territory contained within their acknowledged boundaries. In thus providing for the support of millions of civilized beings, they will not violate any dictate of justice or humanity; for they will not only give to the few thousand savages scattered over that territory an ample equivalent for any right they may surrender, but will always leave them the possession of lands more than they can cultivate, and more than adequate to their subsistence, comfort, and enjoyment, by cultivation.
If this is a spirit of aggrandizement, the undersigned are prepared to admit, in that sense, its existence; but they must deny that it affords the slightest proof of an intention not to respect the boundaries between them and European nations, or of a desire to encroach upon the territories of Great Britain. As settlers poured in, the frontier districts first became territories, with an elected legislature and a governor appointed by the president.
Then when the population reached , the territory applied for statehood. In the western frontier had reached the Mississippi River. Louis, Missouri , was the largest town on the frontier, the gateway for travel westward, and a principal trading center for Mississippi River traffic and inland commerce but remained under Spanish control until Thomas Jefferson thought of himself as a man of the frontier and was keenly interested in expanding and exploring the West.
France was paid for its sovereignty over the territory in terms of international law. Between and the s, the federal government purchased the actual land from the Indian tribes then in possession of it. Additional sums were paid to the Indians living east of the Mississippi for their lands, as well as payments to Indians living in parts of the west outside the Louisiana Purchase.
Even before the purchase, Jefferson was planning expeditions to explore and map the lands. He charged Lewis and Clark to "explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean; whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable communication across the continent for commerce".
Entrepreneurs, most notably John Jacob Astor quickly seized the opportunity and expanded fur trading operations into the Pacific Northwest. Astor's " Fort Astoria " later Fort George , at the mouth of the Columbia River, became the first permanent white settlement in that area, although it was not profitable for Astor. He set up the American Fur Company in an attempt to break the hold that the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly had over the region.
Stephanie Pincetl, Patricia Nelson Limerick. New York: W. Most users should sign in with their email address. If you originally registered with a username please use that to sign in. To purchase short term access, please sign in to your Oxford Academic account above.
Edward S. Curtis, Navajo Riders in Canyon de Chelly , c Library of Congress. Native Americans long dominated the vastness of the American West. Linked culturally and geographically by trade, travel, and warfare, various Indigenous groups controlled most of the continent west of the Mississippi River deep into the nineteenth century.
The American frontier , also known as the Old West or the Wild West , includes the geography, history, folklore, and cultural expression of life in the forward wave of American expansion that began with European colonial settlements in the early 17th century and ended with the admission of the last few territories as states in This era of massive migration and settlement was particularly encouraged by President Thomas Jefferson following the Louisiana Purchase , giving rise to the expansionist attitude known as " Manifest Destiny " and the historians' " Frontier Thesis ". A frontier is a zone of contact at the edge of a line of settlement. Leading theorist Frederick Jackson Turner went deeper, arguing that the frontier was the scene of a defining process of American civilization: "The frontier," he asserted, "promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people.
These stimulating explorations take us broadly and deeply through a wide range of times and places. They importantly challenge historians specifically, and the rest of us more generally, to push through the boundaries of traditional scholarship to reach more complex and nuanced understandings. Skip to main content Skip to table of contents.
Access options available:. Reviews in American History New York: Knopf, Maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, and index. Ferenc Morton Szasz.
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Throughout the twentieth century, historians have tried to assess the significance of the West, regarded, by some critics, as "the most distinctively American part of America" Bryce In the late nineteenth century, Frederick Jackson Turner, the founding father of Western history, attributed the unique American character to the experience of the frontier. According to Turner, the westward movement Americanized the pioneer, shaped American institutions, and promoted democracy. Criticism culminated in the emergence of "New Western History", in the late s. Rejecting the notion of frontier altogether, New Historians suggested a rewriting of the Western past that focused on the West as a region, with geographical limits and specific characteristics distinguishing it from the other American regions. Finally, as scholars have been quick in criticizing the regionalist perspective of New Western History, it will try and assess how historians have started giving Western history a new orientation over the last decade, one that aims at reconciling the concepts of region and frontier, thus giving back to the West its significance at the national level. The Turner thesis has had an extremely long-lasting impact, and may be considered as one of the main documents of American historiography.
These and other frontier images pervade our lives, from fiction to films to advertising, where they attach themselves to products from pancake syrup to cologne, blue jeans to banks. Richard White and Patricia Limerick join their inimitable talents to explore our national preoccupation with this uniquely American image. Richard White examines the two most enduring stories of the frontier, both told in Chicago in , the year of the Columbian Exposition. Cody's story put Indians—and bloody battles—at center stage, and culminated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand. Patricia Limerick shows how the stories took on a life of their own in the twentieth century and were then reshaped by additional voices—those of Indians, Mexicans, African-Americans, and others, whose versions revisit the question of what it means to be an American.
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resources. formation. Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, ).