The Frontier American Dream

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The Frontier American Dream

Introduction: The Frontier Opens

In The Epic of America, published in 1931, James Truslow Adams notes the early days of the American dream, as created by the wild frontier:

Two of the strongest influences in our life, religion and the frontier, made in our formative periods for a limited and intolerant spiritual life…. Because the frontiersmen had developed the right combination of qualities to conquer the wilderness, they began to believe quite naturally that they knew best, so to say, how to conquer the world, to solve its problems, and that their own qualities were the only ones worth a man's having…. The American doctrine had developed, through the long training of the common man in local politics, that anyone could do anything.

The frontier became symbolic of the can-do spirit, as well as of the limitless amount of space where a person could put that spirit to good use. The "American Way" also grew from the freedom to act, and the notion that America was a place where everyone could be and do what they wanted, where they wanted, and how they wanted, was born. Unfortunately, this unbridled access to boundless resources and a self-serving attitude led to fierce competition, greed, and territorial consumption. The frontier went from wide open space for plenty to first-come-first-served. As a result, many novels depicting the period are often considered morality tales because the villainous characters have lost their true American values.

Trailblazing the Legend of the American Dream

The story of Daniel Boone represents the legend of a true American hero. A pioneer who made a home in the wilderness, Boone wrote his own story in the early 1800s, detailing his life from 1769 to 1784. The second section of the book, written by Francis Lister Hawks, is an account of Boone's life from his childhood to his death in 1818. Boone's experiences with Native Americans and his tales of survival in the frontier establish Boone as the epitome of a free, confident, and independent American man.

A contemporary of Boone, Robert Montgomery Bird wrote Nick of the Woods, Or Adventures of Prairie Life in 1837; however, though the story deals with the settlement of Kentucky in the 1780s, an effort with which Boone was actively involved, Bird's novel is not based on biographical or autographical experiences. Instead, Nick of the Woods is considered romantic historical fiction, in the style of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, but Bird and Cooper had different views of the frontiersmen and his Native American counterparts. While Cooper saw Native Americans as "noble savages," Bird believed the opposite, as suggested by the preface to his novel:

The purposes of the author, in his book, confined him to real Indians. He drew them as, in his judgment, they existed—and as, according to all observation, they still exist wherever not softened by cultivation,—ignorant, violent, debased, brutal; he drew them, too, as they appeared, and still appear, in war—or the scalp-hunt—when all the worst deformities of the savage temperament receive their strongest and fiercest development.

In terms of the white frontiersmen, Bird wanted to show the men also as they were, writing a story that illustrated how the frontier could change a man:

The whole object was here to portray the peculiar characteristics of a class of men, very limited, of course, in number, but found, in the old Indian days, scattered, at intervals, along the extreme frontier of every State, from New York to Georgia; men in whom the terrible barbarities of the savages, suffered through their families, or their friends and neighbours, had wrought a change of temper as strange as fearful…. No one conversant with the history of border affairs can fail to recollect some one or more instances of solitary men, bereaved fathers or orphaned sons, the sole survivors, sometimes, of exterminated households, who remained only to devote themselves to lives of vengeance; and "Indian-hating."

Despite the efforts of Bird and other authors to expose the harsh realities of frontier life, the romantic poetic image of the frontiersman continued to flourish. In 1906, Joseph Altsheler wrote Kentucky Frontiersman: The Adventures of Henry Ware, a novel that emphasized the excitement of pioneering across the mountains and into unknown territory. Like Boone, young Henry Ware embodies the true American spirit. He learns the skills to become a man of the forest, gains the respect of Chief Black Cloud when he is captured by an Indian hunting party, and ultimately heads the charge to save the new pioneer settlement from hostile Shawnee. Ware defines American manhood as he proves himself in the wilderness and grows the myth of American adventure.

Forty years after the Henry Ware story, A. B. Guthrie Jr. wrote the first of six books in an epic series, The Big Sky. Boone Caudill, Jim Deakins, and Dick Summers travel the Missouri River from St. Louis to the Rockies, living the frontier dream as trappers, traders, guides, and explorers. Like Ware, main character Caudill is a Kentuckian looking for a new life and exciting adventure and becomes an untamed mountain man. But Guthrie did not romanticize the West as did Altsheler; in fact, more like Bird, Guthrie dug deeper, to the heart of the frontier desire. Sherry Jones, in an article describing Guthrie as one of "The 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century," praises the novel as an

unflinching account not only of the hardships and dangers of the 1830–1845 mountain man era, but also a glimpse into the meaning of our own existence here—the reasons why we come, the reasons why we stay. True to Guthrie's bid for honesty, the answers aren't always pretty.

Jones also crowns Caudill as a "quintessential anti-hero, a mean moody misanthrope who heads West to escape his troubled past as well as to seek adventure and freedom…. [But] the one thing he can't run away from is himself."

The Good, The Bad, and the Moral

As territories and states were established in western America, the definition of the unexplored, untamed frontier gradually grew to incorporate the definition of the unexplored, untamed Wild West. Along the way, the tough, courageous woodsman transformed into an adventurer of another kind: the cowboy. Walter Van Tilburg Clark published The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), a gritty, realistic story of mob violence in the western frontier. Set in 1885, the novel deals with the lynching of three innocent men, but is not an ordinary melodramatic Western. Clark places a universal story about good and evil in the frame of the typical Western genre, as noted by Wallace Stegner in his introduction to the novel. Stegner considers civilization Clark's theme and claims "the West is only his raw material." Clark, Stegner writes, "wanted the West to become a true civilization, not a ruthless occupation disguised as a romantic myth." By thoroughly examining the moral question of the lynching, The Ox-Bow Incident demonstrates that good characters cannot be determined by the color of their hats, and those people you assume are evil may not be. In this way, the novel reveals, as Stegner remarks, "an essentially false, excessively masculine society" and "the way in which individuals, out of personal inadequacy, out of mistaken loyalties and priorities, out of a fear of seeming to be womanish, or out of plain cowardice, let themselves be pushed into murder."

Clark's moral questions about the law of the western frontier continue in Cormac MacCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985). Set in the 1850s, the violent story follows bounty hunters on their quest for Indian scalps near the Texas-Mexico border. The Kid, a young runaway, joins this murderous posse, and as the bounty hunters become savages who leave a trail of blood across the prairie, the Kid submits to the senseless violence because he has no higher purpose than to help play out this nightmare. Both Blood Meridian and The Ox-Bow Incident use the conventions of the frontier genre to interrogate and challenge the once clear-cut definition of right and wrong, as defined by the Western stereotype. In these games, the cowboys are not always the correct side to play for, and their motives are not always upstanding.

Pete Dexter's Deadwood (1986) also denies the romanticism of the West, despite the reputation of its main characters, Charley Utter and Wild Bill Hickok, two historic figures of the wild frontier. After the Civil War, Utter and Hickok head for Deadwood, a Black Hills gold mining town, where they gamble and reflect on their varied and rough life experiences. Hickok, an old, ailing gunfighter, goes to Deadwood for solitude, drink, and card games. But in this town where unsuccessful miners, bounty hunters, and immigrants settled as a last resort, Hickok leads anything but a peaceful life and is murdered; thus, the legend of the West, the American myth, has been shot cold and left for dead.

American Women of the West

Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) focuses on a woman's frontier dream. Set in Utah in the late nineteenth century, the plot revolves around Jane Withersteen, a young Mormon woman who, as her father's sole heir, now owns his ranch. The Mormon elders want to control her headstrong ways by marrying her off to a polygamist. Jane does not want to become one of the man's many wives, knowing she will be robbed of both her freedom and the community position that her father's land gives her. As Tull, her potential suitor and a church elder, chides, "Jane Withersteen, your father left you with wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven't yet come to see the place of Mormon women." Even though Lassiter, heroic gunslinger in black, rides into town and saves the day, the story, at its core, still shows an independent woman solving her own problems and dealing with her own struggles.

Unlike Riders of the Purple Sage, Miriam Davis Colt's Went to Kansas (1862) is a true account of a woman's experience in the frontier. Published by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Publishing Company, this autobiography does resemble Grey's novel in its portrayal of female strength and perseverance in the Wild West, as Colt describes the harrowing journey her family made from New York to Kansas in the 1850s. This story of overcoming daily hardships shows how women had to keep the family together and provide for basic survival needs, often sacrificing comfort for others, as shown by her May 16, 1856, entry:

Still rainy, damp and cold. My husband has brought in the two side-boards that fill the vacancy between the "wagon bed" and the white cover, has laid them side by side in the loft above, and says, "Miriam, you may make your bed on the smooth surface of these two boards." I say to him, "No; as you have to work hard, you shall have the boards, and with one pillow and your blanket, you will have an even bed, though it is hard. I will take the other pillow, the comfortable [sic] and blankets, and with the children will couch close by, endeavoring to suit myself to the warpings, rough edges and lappings of our 'shaky' floor."

While the strong frontier male was often solitary and self-motivating, the strong frontier woman was inspired by community. Her sense of adventure was tempered by duty and by the need to make a home in an unfamiliar land.

Conrad Richter's The Town, published in 1950 as the final chapter in his "Awakening Land" trilogy, places pioneer woman Sayward Wheeler in the middle of Ohio's flourishing growth from wilderness to city. Like Miriam Colt, Wheeler represents the heart and backbone of her family and community. In the first two books of the series, Wheeler struggles, like Colt, to make a home in territory unknown, while The Town shows her slowly adjusting to progress. Wheeler is not keen on the changes and, like Jane Withersteen, does not hesitate to express her opinions. Richter won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for The Town.

In 1972, Wallace Stegner wrote Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Combining Colt's autobiographical flavor and Richter's storytelling style, Stegner, through the character of a retired history professor investigating his grandparents' life, used the personal correspondence of unknown nineteenth-century writer Mary Hallock Foote to make the story of Susan Ward and her husband come to life. Elegant, educated, and independent, Susan provides an interesting contrast to her husband, Oliver, a charming adventurer lacking manners. With Oliver, Susan endures her first journey across America, and as an easterner, she is mortified by what she finds. Eventually, despite the dismal culture, dirt, and heat, Susan grows to appreciate her new home, though her East Coast background forces her to question Oliver's worth as well as her decision to sacrifice everything for the promise of adventure. In this way, Angle of Repose shows America struggling to grow, yet trapped between east and west, risk and comfort, refinement and roughness, dreams and reality.

Conclusion: The Frontier Closes

Edna Ferber's Giant (1952) offers a contrast to the early days of the frontier by framing the story in the years of the Texas oil boom. Gone are the days of exploring mountains and building homes and towns with bare hands. This frontier is a rich one, one in which money is made from exploiting both natural and human resources. This view of Texas is a microcosm for America, as shown when Leslie Lynnton, a Virginian who eventually marries Texan Jordan "Bick" Benedict, accidentally disrespects Texas and must clarify her opinion: "It's another world, it sounds so big and new and different," she says. "I love it. The cactus and the cowboys and the Alamo and the sky and the horses and the Mexicans and the freedom. It's really America, isn't it." Leslie lumps Mexicans in with flora, fauna, and freedom, viewing them as intertwined, inseparable, and there for the taking. In Giant, the frontier has become a grab-bag for cattle barons and oil men, where hardtack and hard beds have given way to luxury, and staking a claim on American soil has complex ties to Mexican immigration, rather than wagon trains west. By the end of the epic, transportation and communication are closing the frontier, and the last generation of frontiers-people find themselves vestiges of a passing era.


Bird, Robert Montgomery, and Curtis Dahl, "Preface," in Nick of the Woods, Or Adventures of Prairie Life, Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837; reprint, Project Gutenberg eBook, November 2004, (December 15, 2006).

Boone, Daniel, Daniel Boone: His Own Story, Applewood Books, 1844; reprint, 1996, p. 117.

Colt, Miriam D., Went to Kansas, Laura Ingalls Wilder Publishing Company, 1862, (December 30, 2006).

Ferber, Edna, Giant, Doubleday, 1952; reprint, Harper Perennial Classics, 2000, p. 75.

Grey, Zane, Riders of the Purple Sage, Harper & Brothers, 1912; reprint, Modern Library Classics, 2002, p. 7.

"History of the U.S. Dream (Review of The Epic of America)," Time Magazine, October 5, 1931,,9171,753061-1,00.html (December 30, 2006).

Jones, Sherry, "A. B. Guthrie: The 100 Most Influential Montanans of the Century," in the Missoulian Online, (December 15, 2006).

Stegner, Wallace, "Introduction: Walter Clark's Frontier," in The Ox-Bow Incident, Modern Library Classics, 2001, pp. ix-xix.