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The Frontier

The Frontier


Image. The expeditions of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (18041806) and Zebulon Pike (1805-1807) through the vast region west of the Mississippi River illustrated the strong appeal of the frontier upon the American conscience. Some of the national legends and heroes created at this time, such as š []Appleseed, Johnnyjohnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone, came out of the frontier. They took part in bringing civilization to the region and represented the common mans longings, desires, and ideals. But the frontier also brought out conflicting ideas about society. On the one hand, there was an envy of the frontier and the freedom it represented; this image encouraged settlement. On the other hand, there was a feeling that the frontier needed to be civilized. As a result missionary societies went into the new territories to minister to the heathens.

Culture. Both white American and Indian hunters needed meat to feed their families and hides to clothe them. They also needed hides and furs to trade. The weapon preferred for use by both Indians and whites was the American long rifle. It was a well-balanced, small caliber weapon that was accurate at distances of up to two hundred yards. Developed by German gunsmiths in southeastern Pennsylvania during the early eighteenth century, it became the preferred firearm of backwoodsmen. By the end of the eighteenth century Indians hunted with bows and arrows only when they could not get American or European weapons and ammunition. But even though American or European weapons were used, the hunting techniques were still Indian. Most European emigrants had little or no experience in stalking wild game since in Europe hunting was reserved for the nobility. They had to rely on Native American skills in knowledge in this regard.

Frontier Dress. Hunters on the frontier dressed in a combination of Indian and European styles. One contemporary observed:


In the 1930s a teacher on the Wind River Reservation, Wyoming, assigned her students to record a story from an elderly person when she discovered that her students knew little about the oral traditions of their people. One of the stories recorded was the following about Sacagawea:

Sacajawea was a Shoshone girl who lived with her people in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Out planting one day, she and her playmates heard a war-whoop. They started to run to their teepees. Sacajawea tripped and fell, and the enemy reached her.

Sacajawea was a beautiful girl. A warrior picked her up and threw her on his horse. He rode off and carried her to his own tribe, the Minnetarees.

She lived there for many moons. Traders came there to get beaver skins in exchange for gaudy knick-knacks. Charbonneau was one of the traders. One time he saw Sacajawea.

Who is she? he asked the chief.

A Shoshone captive, answered the chief. And she eats too much.

The Frenchman wanted to buy her, but the chief said, We will gamble for her.

Charbonneau won. He made Sacajawea his slave, but her life was no harder than it had been with the Minnetarees. Later she became his wife.

When Lewis and Clark arrived at the Mandan villages, Charbonneau and Sacajawea were there. They needed a new interpreter. So they hired Charbonneau. He took with him Sacajawea and their very young son, Baptiste.

Lewis and Clark thought that Sacajawea could help them when they reached the Shoshones. When food was scarce, she found roots and berries that were good to eat. One time she saved the records and the medicines when the boat almost overturned.

When they reached the Shoshone country, she recognized her own people. She sucked her fingers, which was a sign of joy. She and one of the Shoshone girls threw their arms around each other. This was one of her playmates when they were captured.

When Chief Cameahwait came out of his teepee, Sacajawea rushed up to him and threw her arms about him. He was her brother. He and his father had pursued the Minnetarees but had been unable to overtake them. He told her that her sister had died a short time before. So Sacajawea adopted her sisters little boy.

The Shoshones sold horses to Lewis and Clark.

Many years later, Sacajawea returned to her people and settled in the Wind River Valley. She was cared for by Bazil. She lived to be very old.

Source: Ella E. Clark and Margot Edmonds, Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

Moccasins were of deerskin but made and patched with European awls. The hunting shirt was a loose frock that reached halfway down the thighs and overlapped by as much as a foot or more in the front, sometimes fitted with a fringed cape used to cover the head. It was generally made of linsey or linen, sometimes of dressed deerskin, but this material had the disadvantage of being cold and uncomfortable in wet weather. In the front folds of the shirt hunters kept small rations of provisions. From the leather belt that pulled the shirt tight, they hung

their powder horns, bullet pouch, knife, and tomahawk. Many Americans wore breeches or drawers, but as they moved further west they took to the Indian breechclout, a length of cloth about a yard long and nine inches wide that passed between the legs, under a cloth belt, with folds hanging front and back. Long leggings stretching to above the knee were supported by garter straps. Like Indian men, American hunters let their hair grow long and dressed it with bear grease, plaiting it into braids or knots. In time of war or for ritual occasions, Indian warriors might shave or pluck their scalps, leaving only a lock of hair, which they greased to stand upright or to which they attached deerskin ornaments or feathers. They painted their bodies with vermillion. American backwoodsmen heading into battle frequently adopted a similar style of ornamentation.

Values . In addition to hunting and clothing styles residents on the frontier shared general social values and certain cultural traits. They were geographically mobile and stressed personal freedom and independence. At the same time they were loyal to their families, whom they valued over the nation or tribe. They also shared a common diet (including maize, squash, wild berries, and venison) and herbal remedies.


Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the West (New York: Touchstone, 1996);

John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Holt, 1992).

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