The Frontier and American Character

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The Frontier and American Character

The frontier has long held a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. Since shortly after the first colonies were founded on the Atlantic coast, the frontier has beckoned to settlers. The frontier was the wilderness just outside the civilized towns; it offered people an opportunity to strike out and succeed on their own. In Europe, a serf (a laborer who works the land and is owned by the lord who owns the land) could never think of leaving his allotted plot of land to rise from poverty, nor could a shopkeeper's son ever hope to run his own store before his father's death. But in America, a hardy immigrant could determine his or her own destiny on the unknown frontier.

To venture into the wilderness took daring and courage. Pioneers carried their belongings until they found a spot worth claiming. Whole families or groups of people gathered to venture out into the unknown with a wagon train of supplies. Forging their own way or following others' dusty tracks, pioneers braved Indian attacks and unknown environments to find a satisfactory plot of land. After trekking hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, the pioneers built their homes and other necessary buildings, gathered and hunted the bounties of the new land or cleared fields for crops, and set about establishing the rules for their new life on the frontier. Each of these tasks made up the process of "frontiering." Despite the difficulties of frontiering—forging into unknown territory, battling hostile enemies, braving harsh weather, suffering countless dangers and possibly death in order to build a new life—pioneers displayed an untiring optimism that things would go their way.

Defining the frontier

By definition, the American frontier meant the vast unclaimed land west of white civilization. As whites spread westward from the Atlantic coast, the boundary of the frontier also moved farther west. As each group of pioneers carved out their spot on the frontier, communities soon developed around them. The land became "civilized" as pioneers forced Indians to move farther west, and the small settlements grew into thriving towns. The newly civilized land now bordered on the frontier.

From the first settlements at Jamestown in 1607, the process of frontiering was repeated for three hundred years until the entire continent was settled. For the first settlers, the West began at the edge of Massachusetts Bay or Chesapeake Bay. By the colonial period, civilization had reached the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. After the War of 1812 (1812–14) settlements civilized the land up to the banks of the Mississippi River. But it was not until the mid-1800s that large numbers of settlers ventured farther than the Mississippi River. These settlers arrived on the Pacific coast and, in 1850, established the state of California. From that point, on the frontier—the wild, unclaimed land—consisted of the Great Plains, the desert Southwest, and the Rocky Mountains.

Four centuries after the discovery of America, the frontier had disappeared. The hardiest fur traders and mountain men had explored and settled parts of the West long before the mass western emigrations demanded complete American control of the territory between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. While the fur traders and mountain men arrived first, and in some cases established American claims to territories, mass emigrations do more to illustrate the extraordinary pull of the frontier. Between 1800 and 1870, nearly half a million Americans set out across the frontier. Trappers, traders, farmers, and families set out on a journey of discovery. The pioneers traveled across plains and deserts and over high mountain passes, taking a chance that there was a better life somewhere to the west. They endured weeks and even months of arduous travel in order to reach their destination and build the communities that defined the American West.

The call of the West

On the American frontier, as in few other places on earth, a person amounted to the sum of his or her skills and endurance. Without the established lines of ancestry and wealth that made up the social structure in Europe, success on the American frontier, with its wealth of natural resources and fertile lands, was open to anyone strong enough or courageous enough to master it. Never before had a society offered all its citizens the opportunity for success. In the American West, "all men were future 'gentlemen' and deserved this designation, all women were prospective 'ladies' and should be treated as such. 'With us,' one frontiersman stoutly maintained, 'a man's a man, whether he have a silk gown on him or not,'" writes Ray Allen Billington in Westward to the Pacific.

The Difficulties of Moving West

While traveling from Indiana over the Oregon Trail, pioneer Elizabeth Smith Geer recorded the hardships of emigration that shaped the character of many Americans. In November 1847, she wrote:

It rains and snows. We start this morning around the falls with our wagons ... I carry my babe, and lead, or rather carry, another through snow, mud and water, almost to my knees. It is the worst road ... I went ahead with my children and I was afraid to look behind me for fear of seeing the wagons turn over into the mud ... My children gave out with cold and fatigue and could not travel and the boys had to unhitch the oxen and bring them and carry the children on to camp. I was so cold and numb. I could not tell by feeling that I had any feet at all ... I have not told you half we suffered. I am not adequate to the task.

Source: Schlissel, Lillian, ed. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

For many the unclaimed lands to the west represented the opportunity of a lifetime—a chance to take control of their lives, to strike it rich, to make their own rules, or to claim their own land. The gold rushes in California in 1849 and in Colorado in 1858 and the discovery of silver in Nevada in the mid-1800s lured people from the East and from all over the world. The overland trails guided settlers to the fertile lands of opportunity in the West.

Though some settled and began to "civilize" the frontier, others were intrigued by the vastness of the continent and the possible riches available ever farther west. Those who were not content to settle in one spot Billington labeled "men with the West in their eyes." These people would pick up at a moment's notice to move farther into the frontier in search of a better life. John Steinbeck (1902–1968) drew a compelling picture of these restless Americans in his novel The Red Pony. In describing his journeys, the Grandfather in the story says:

It wasn't Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering. I was the leader, but if I hadn't been there, someone else would have been the head. The thing had to have a head....

The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.

Then we came down to the sea, and it was done.... There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.

These "men with the West in their eyes" personified the call of the frontier. For these Americans, "ahead of them, always ahead, danced the will-o'-the-wisp of illusive fortune: the untrapped beaver stream, the vein of gold ore, the fortunate land speculation. 'If hell lay to the west,' wrote one observer, 'they would cross heaven to reach it,'" according to Billington. Americans as a whole were constantly searching for a utopia they were certain existed on the frontier.

Manifest destiny

By 1845, the fervor for westward expansion had become a national obsession. In an article written in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1845, newspaperman John O'Sullivan coined the phrase "manifest destiny," which captured Americans' thoughts about the frontier and their rights to it (see Chapter 4). O'Sullivan wrote:

The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us. It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.... It is in our future far more than in our past or in the past history of Spanish exploration or French colonial rights, that our True Title is to be found.

O'Sullivan's description crystallized what many Americans had already said or thought about the frontier. A year before O'Sullivan's article, Senator David R. Atchinson of Missouri declared that the American "march of empire is westward; nothing will, nothing can check it." By 1848, America had already won the continent from the British, the French, and the Mexicans. The remaining Native American cultures bore the brunt of the drive to civilize the West. Belief in manifest destiny allowed the American government to declare Native American cultures "uncivilized" because they did not use the land in ways Americans perceived to be "productive" or "efficient." Believing themselves entitled to the land, Americans assumed the authority to dismiss other cultures' claims to the continent Americans desired. The government would enforce these beliefs during the Indian wars that dragged on until the 1890s (see Chapter 3).

The American character

America is a young nation compared to European countries and certainly an infant when measured against the ancient cultures of China and Japan. The immigrants (mostly European) who raced to America's shores during its first century brought with them their own traditions and histories. Though the cultures these immigrants brought with them were centuries old, the American continent transformed the immigrants' way of life so dramatically that a new American culture came to dominate their lives.

The frontier was the force that changed the lives of many Americans. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) first described how the American frontier transformed these immigrants to make the American character and culture unique. On July 12, 1893, Turner asserted that the call of the West played a bigger part than the cultural legacies of Europe in forming American culture. The trials and tribulations suffered by people who dared to enter an unknown wilderness made them stronger, more self-reliant, and more inventive. Turner maintained that the experience of picking up their belongings to forge a new life in a new place made Americans uniquely American. Turner credited the frontier with giving Americans a "coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism working for good and for evil; and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom." Each of these adventurous and self-reliant traits continues to be associated with the American character.

Turner's thesis revolutionized the way Americans thought of themselves. Between 1830 and 1870, a little more than 2 percent of history textbooks cited the importance of the West in shaping the American character, while the majority explained it in terms of European ancestry. After Turner's thesis became widely accepted, the Western experience became a rich source that historians could mine for clues about the American character. Between 1900 and 1925, 93 percent of published student textbooks named the frontier as the most influential force in the nation's development, according to Paul O'Neil in The End and the Myth.

Democracy and the frontier

Further study into the West and how frontiering reshaped men and women revealed more commonalities among Americans. In his book America's Frontier Heritage, Ray Allen Billington elaborated on Turner's description of Americans' unique qualities:

Their faith in democratic institutions, their belief in equality, their insistence that class lines shall never hinder social mobility, their wasteful economy, their unwillingness to admit that automation has lessened the need for hard work, their lack of attachment to place, their eagerness to experiment and to favor the new over the old, all mark the people of the United States as unique. To say that these characteristics and attitudes were solely the result of a pioneering past is to ignore many other forces that have helped shape the American character. But to deny that three centuries of frontiering endowed the people with some of their most distinctive traits is to neglect a basic molding force that has been the source of the nation's greatest strength—and some of its most regrettable weaknesses.

Billington's description concurred with much that Turner had described, but he added insight into America's brand of governance. The idea that class lines would not condemn men to certain positions in life, Americans' desire for equality, and a trust in democracy shaped by the governments on the frontier have come to define some of the most vital American institutions. The rugged individualists who forged the new frontier did not want the government to tell them what to do. Instead, they favored governance by many. As new governments formed in the West, these pioneers established more relaxed voting requirements than those found in the East, granting more men the right to vote—and extending the vote to women well before eastern states. Indeed, once settlers stopped and founded their own communities, they demanded certain protections from the federal government. Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858) noted that westward expansion "was not an act of government leading the people and protecting them, but ... it was the act of the people going forward without government aid or countenance [approval], establishing their possession and compelling the Government to follow with its shield and spread it over them," according to Richard White in "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West.

Settlers demanded protection, and the U.S. government responded to their needs. The national legislature passed two laws that were crucial to the history of westward expansion: the Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance. The Ordinance of 1785 established a pattern for the surveying and division of all territories west of the point where the Ohio River leaves the state of Pennsylvania. "That first square inch of the first surveyor's stake," writes Elliot West in The Oxford History of the American West, "was a kind of polestar of national development, the anchored point of reckoning for more than a billion acres. Nowhere else in the world would an area of such size be laid out in a uniform land system." While the Ordinance of 1785 provided for the orderly arrangement of the land, the Northwest Ordinance, also known as the Ordinance of 1787, provided for the orderly establishment of future states. The Northwest Ordinance guaranteed that new states would enjoy all the rights and privileges of existing states. It established a system of laws in the territories, forbade slavery, and guaranteed certain civil rights. These two ordinances attempted to impose order on the growth of the United States, and in so doing they established the power of the federal government over the country. The frontier thus shaped the balance of power between the states and the federal government. In fact, Turner felt that the "most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe."

Spreading the myth

Some of the best evidence of the frontier's influence on the American character comes from popular culture. In paintings and sculpture, literature, dime novels, pulp magazines, live performances, film, and television, western life was exaggerated and glamorized. These retellings formed a western myth. The heroes and villains who conquered the West lived such extraordinary lives that their legends still thrive more than a century after their deaths.

In 1823, novelist James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) introduced his fictional frontier hero, Natty Bumppo, in The Pioneers. In the first of Cooper's four Leatherstocking tales, the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking, is pitted against the forces of a developing, westward-moving American society. The stories explore the conflicts between civilization and freedom and between law and nature. Cooper's protagonist was modeled after the famed backwoodsman and settler of the state of Kentucky, Daniel Boone (1734–1820). Both wore buckskins, lived alone in the wilderness, befriended some Indians and killed others, fought wild animals, and remained modest throughout their exploits. Although Cooper never visited the West, his character Leather-stocking became one of the most influential and enduring characters in American literature.

In the 1860s, novels sold for a dime apiece and reached a mass market. In these "dime novels" the western developed as a distinct form of writing, one that relied on moral heroes, a great deal of action, and sentimental descriptions of the western landscape. The heroes and outlaws of the real West inspired many of the writers, who wrote about both real and imaginary westerners. The novels did much to establish the western legend in the public's mind with stories about circling wagons, U.S. Cavalry battles, rustlers, cowboys, and strong (and beautiful) pioneer women. The Street and Smith publishing house dedicated its dime novels to stories about Buffalo Bill Cody (1846–1917). Other publishers turned out novels about the real and exaggerated exploits of scouts Kit Carson (1809–1868), Wild Bill Hickok (1837–1876), and General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876), among others. By 1919, Western Story Magazine offered these epic themes to a mass audience. Similar western pulp magazines soon circulated.

One of the most famous writers of westerns during the early twentieth century was Max Brand (1892–1944), who wrote hundreds of western stories as well as some of the first western films. Perhaps the most influential western story was Owen Wister's The Virginian. Published in 1902, the book went through sixteen printings in its first year and remained in print at the end of the twentieth century. The book's hero is "a horseman of the plains" who ably handles horses, whose character is tested in battles with cattle rustlers, and who wins the heart of a cultured schoolteacher. The Virginian "draws all the elements of the mythic West together into an artistic whole, which in turn became definitive for the westerns of the new century," according to The Oxford History of the American West.

James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) became a novelist by chance. Born in Burlington, New Jersey, he grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a settlement founded on Otsego Lake by his father, William, a prominent land speculator, judge, and Federalist politician. Entering Yale at age thirteen, Cooper was expelled in his third year for playing a prank. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy for many years, leaving in 1811 to marry Susan DeLancey, heiress to what Cooper called "a handsome fortune." Cooper then prepared to spend his life as a gentleman farmer.

But while Cooper was reading aloud to his wife in 1820, he suddenly threw down the novel and declared, "I can write you a better novel than that, myself!" His wife challenged him to do so, and he quickly wrote and published Precaution that same year. He wrote another novel the following year and in 1823, published The Pioneers, the book that established him as a successful American author. His tales of Leatherstocking explored the moral implications of westward expansion and made Cooper one of the first to depict the West in fiction.

The Wild West show

In 1883, Buffalo Bill Cody became the first real westerner to try to cash in on the western myth. In his three-hour Wild West show, Buffalo Bill, dressed in buckskin, offered audiences displays of marksmanship and horsemanship. He hired real Native Americans to wear warbonnets and reenact battles with sharpshooting scouts or cowboys. At one time Cody hired the Sioux chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) and later the Apache chief Geronimo (1829–1909) to tour with his show. Audiences flocked to the shows to get a glimpse of what they thought were accurate slices of frontier life. Although Cody did hire "real" cowboys and Indians, the show did not realistically depict western life. The cowboys wore furry chaps, ten-gallon hats, and shining spurs; they were not the sweat-stained cow-boys of the range. Indians appeared in flamboyant war paint and feathered warbonnets rather than their drab everyday dress. The public lapped up the Wild West show, and imitators scrambled to put on similar extravaganzas. These shows live on in the public rodeos that started in the mid-1800s as relaxing festivals for real cowboys. Today, rodeo continues as a sport that is far removed from the task of bringing beef to market. Nevertheless, the public still thrills to see displays of western skill.

Film and art

More than any history or novel or live performance about the western experience, however, movies have shaped the public's image of the West. The first western film was The Great Train Robbery in 1903. For the first time, audiences could see a holdup, a pursuit on horseback, a saloon scene, and a showdown between criminals and lawmen. By 1910, the Old West was regularly depicted in film. The cowboy hero remained tough, resolute, and always masculine. Tom Mix (1880–1940) became the most popular western film hero of the silent era with his white hat and his sidekick horse. He appeared in more than three hundred films in which he wore fancy western costumes and performed fantastic stunts that engendered decades of imitation. With his performance in Stagecoach in 1939, John Wayne (1907–1979) took Mix's place as the embodiment of the western hero in film. Wayne, Mix, and hundreds of other Hollywood cowboys shaped the public's perceptions of the West. "The myths they wove and those woven about them were in themselves a force that shaped the history of the West and of the country as a whole," according to O'Neil in The End of the Myth. These myths were reinforced later in television shows like Bonanza and The Lone Ranger.

Paintings and sculptures also shaped Americans' image of the frontier. George Catlin (1796–1872) was the first painter to devote his career to the West. Intrigued by a delegation of Indians he saw passing through Philadelphia, Catlin resolved to document them as a historian. Starting in 1832 he began an eight-year study to document what he called a "doomed" race. By the end of his study he had painted members of 146 different Indian nations. With his portraits, including his 1832 Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief of the Blood Tribe of Blackfeet, he became the first American to portray Indians with individual identities. Catlin, Samuel Seymour (who was the first to provide pictorial accounts of the Rocky Mountains), and John Mix Stanley were the first to document the landscape and the people of the West.

Though earlier artists created hundreds of pictures of the West, later painters, especially Frederic Remington (1861–1909) and Charles M. Russell (1864–1926), would define western art. Remington and Russell began to glamorize the West in their art even as the frontier was closing. Between 1889 and 1909 Remington created more than twenty-seven hundred paintings and drawings and twenty-four editions of bronze sculptures that captured the winning of the West. He made a career of painting the white–Indian conflict, especially the white man's triumph in those conflicts. Russell, called the "cowboy artist," spent his career depicting the loss of the frontier in his paintings. The sixteen-year-old Russell wrangled horses in Montana starting in 1880, but within a decade the roving Indians, the cowboys, and the roundups of open-range cattle he cherished were disappearing. Russell vowed to become the Old West's main chronicler. His paintings commemorated the Old West of his memories and imagination. His subjects were heroes of the open range, men who roamed the prairies before barbed wire fenced in their cattle. From memory he drew prairie schooners (covered wagons), buffalo stampedes, longhorn herds, cow camps, and saloons.


The frontier and its effect on the American character remain central to understanding what makes Americans unique. Though the frontier has been gone for more than a century, Americans continue to identify with the trials and tribulations of those who conquered the West. Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) tapped into Americans' love of the frontier to call Americans to new action. At the Democratic Party's national convention in 1960, Kennedy implored Americans to look to the new frontiers of "science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." At the end of the twentieth century, Americans continued to look to these new frontiers.

For More Information

Barr, Roger. The American Frontier. World History Series. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1996.

Billington, Ray Allen. America's Frontier Heritage. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966.

Billington, Ray Allen. Westward to the Pacific: An Overview of Westward Expansion. St. Louis, MO: Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, 1979.

Folsom, James K. The American Western Novel. New Haven, CT: College & University Press, 1966.

Mancall, Peter C., ed. American Eras: Westward Expansion 1800–1886. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999.

Milner, Clyde A., II, Carol A. O'Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

O'Neil, Paul. The End of the Myth. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1979.

Schlissel, Lillian, ed. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.

Smith, Carter, ed. The Conquest of the West: A Sourcebook on the American West. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Steckmesser, Kent Ladd. The Western Hero in History and Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Steinbeck, John. The Red Pony. New York: Viking, 1945.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1950.

White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.