Frontier Defense

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FRONTIER DEFENSE required a standing army. The Continental Army had disbanded after the Revolution, but at the end of the War of 1812, Congress decided to maintain its army and establish strategic military outposts to protect the frontiers.

The theory and practice of frontier defense evolved slowly and involved attention at various times to different needs: protecting fur traders, trappers, and hunters; fortifying the irregular line of army posts; holding the outer limit of land officially acquired from the Indians; and protecting settlers on public lands that had been surveyed and opened for sale and settlement. In addition to meeting these needs, frontier defense involved a number of activities. The army surveyed rivers, lakes, and harbors; cut roads; and built bridges. It protected mail routes, ferries, government stores, immigrant trains, and trading caravans. It ejected squatters and established legal claimants. It protected surveyors and commissioners, and regulated hunters and trappers. It assisted officers of the law, protected whites and Indians from one another, and fought occasional battles, such as the campaigns of generals Josiah Harmar, Arthur St. Clair, and Anthony Wayne in western Ohio; the Seminole Wars; the Black Hawk War; the Louisiana–Texas border struggles; the Sioux outbreak in Minnesota; and George Armstrong Custer's famous battle on the Little Bighorn.

Although important, the extent and significance of Indian warfare can easily be overstated. The Indians rarely offered more than isolated and sporadic obstacles to westward expansion. Defense against the Indians was important because it led to the discovery of America in detail, to the formulation of military policy, and to the rapid conquest and settlement of the vast domain.


Van Alstyne, Richard. The Rising American Empire. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell; New York: Oxford University Press, 1960; New York: Norton, 1974.

Weeks, William E. Building the Continental Empire: American Expansion from the Revolution to the Civil War. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.

Edgar B.Wesley/c. w.

See alsoArmy on the Frontier ; Black Hawk War ; Frontier ; Little Bighorn, Battle of ; Seminole Wars ; Trading Posts, Frontier .