American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic Coast, it is the Great West. In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave -- the meeting point between savagery and civilization. Much has been written about the frontier from the point of view of border warfare and the chase, but as a field for the serious study of the economist and the historian it has been neglected.
What is the frontier? It is not the European frontier -- a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about it is that it lies at the hither edge of free land. The term is an elastic one. In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the continent, and how America modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe. Our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment. Too exclusive attention has been paid by institutional students to the Germanic origins, too little to the American factors.
Now, the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.
Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, anymore than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.
In the course of the seventeenth century the frontier was advanced up the Atlantic river courses, just beyond the "fall line," and the tidewater region became the settled area. In the first half of the eighteenth century, another advance occurred. Traders followed the Delaware and Shawnese Indians to the Ohio as early as the end of the first quarter of the century. Governor Spotswood, of Virginia, made an expedition in 1714 across the Blue Ridge. The end of the first quarter of the century saw the advance of the Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans up the Shenandoah Valley into the western part of Virginia, and along the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. The Germans in New York pushed the frontier of settlement up the Mohawk to German Flats.
The early settlers sent their pack trains after seeding time each year to the coast. This proved to be an important educational influence, since it was almost the only way in which the pioneer learned what was going on in the East. But when discovery was made of the salt springs of the Kanawha, and the Holston, and Kentucky, and central New York, the West began to be freed from dependence on the coast. It was in part the effect of finding these salt springs that enabled settlement to cross the mountains.
From the time the mountains rose between the pioneer and the seaboard, a new order of Americanism arose. The West and the East began to get out of touch of each other. The settlements from the sea to the mountains kept connection with the rear and had a certain solidarity. But the over-mountain men grew more and more independent. The East took a narrow view of American advance, and nearly lost these men. Kentucky and Tennessee history bears abundant witness to the truth of this statement. The East began to try to hedge and limit westward expansion. Though Webster could declare that there were no Alleghenies in his politics, yet in politics in general they were a very solid factor.
Good soils have been the most continuous attraction to the farmer's frontier. The land hunger of the Virginians drew them down the rivers into Carolina, in early colonial days; the search for soils took the Massachusetts men to Pennsylvania and to New York. The exploitation of the beasts took hunter and trader to the West, the exploitation of the grasses took the rancher west, and the exploitation of the virgin soil of the river valleys and prairies attracted the farmer. As the eastern lands were taken up, migration flowed across them to the west. Daniel Boone, the great backwoodsman, who combined the occupations of hunter, trader, cattle-raiser, farmer, and surveyor -- learning, probably from the traders, of the fertility of the lands of the upper Yadkin, where the traders were wont to rest as they took their way to the Indians, left his Pennsylvania home with his father, and passed down the Great Valley road to that stream.
Learning from a trader whose posts were on the Red River in Kentucky of its game and rich pastures, he pioneered the way for the farmers to that region. Thence he passed to the frontier of Missouri, where his settlement was long a landmark on the frontier. Here again he helped to open the way for civilization, finding salt licks, and trails, and land. His son was among the earliest trappers in the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and his party are said to have been the first to camp on the present site of Denver. His grandson, Col. A. J. Boone, of Colorado, was a power among the Indians of the Rocky Mountains, and was appointed an agent by the government. "Kit" Carson's mother was a Boone. Thus this family epitomizes the backwoodsman's advance across the continent.
Omitting the pioneer farmer who moves from the love of adventure, the advance of the more steady farmer is easy to understand. Obviously the immigrant was attracted by the cheap lands of the frontier, and even the native farmer felt their influence strongly. Year by year the farmers who lived on soil, whose returns were diminished by unrotated crops were offered the virgin soil of the frontier at nominal prices. Their growing families demanded more lands, and these were dear. The competition of the unexhausted, cheap, and easily tilled prairie lands compelled the farmer either to go west and continue the exhaustion of the soil on a new frontier, or to adopt intensive culture. These States have been sending farmers to advance the frontier on the Plains, and have themselves begun to turn to intensive farming and to manufacture. A decade before this, Ohio had shown the same transition stage. Thus the demand for land and the love of wilderness freedom drew the frontier ever onward.
From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that, to the frontier, the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That 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 with freedom -- these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.
Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.
For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is not tabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.
What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. From the discovery of America, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
The American West has always been at least as much an idea as a place. While the United States was settled from East to West, Mark Twain started in the middle and moved, at different times, in both directions. But when his move East was new in 1867, he merely perched in New York City, writing about the East to a western newspaper, scanning the country for opportunities. It seemed doubtful, as he expressed his western prejudices about the East, that he expected to call such an alien place home; the tone of his writing suggests instead a powerful need to interpret the West to the East. After all, the United States had just come through the Civil War with a powerfully centralized government, newly robust industries, and a redoubled sense of manifest destiny to connect the entire continent into a single nation. To do so, the East, Twain felt, needed to come to know the rest.
Many on the Eastern seaboard looked for culture, looked for their identities, to Europe. As a westerner - and make no mistake about it, in 1867, anyone from beyond the Appalachians was a westerner - Twain set his agenda to offer an extended explanation of the West to the East. Twain told the East much about the physical and human geography of the West, but his main interest was cultural. Inasmuch as the woman's manners include knowledge of Europe, its traditions, and its etiquette, much of Twain's agenda is to suggest something of the manners of the American West, showing his greatest interest in the hierarchies and mores of the Mississippi.
The landscape and characters of frontier life play only a small part in his writings, one can always detect a tang of the region where he found his literary voice and identity in his distinctively colloquial style. Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835, and grew up in nearby Hannibal, on the Mississippi River.
In Carson City, Clemens tried his luck with timber, then mining, then finally found a measure of success in 1862 as a feature writer for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. It was as this paper's reporter at the Nevada constitutional convention that Clemens began to sign his work Mark Twain. After two years, he went to San Francisco, where he wrote for a variety of newspapers and periodicals, among them The Californian, edited by Bret Harte. With The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, published in 1865 by The Saturday Press of New York, and reprinted by newspapers across the country, the style (natural & conversational) made its first appearance, a style readers would soon come to recognize as the voice of Mark Twain.
He settled briefly in Buffalo, New York, then permanently in Harford, Connecticut, where Clemens finally turned from journalism to produce the books and novels that are the basis of his fame. One of the first in this string was Roughing It (1872), an autobiographical account of his years in the West told in the humorous style of his travel writing, which pits a self-confident observer against a setting which he both comically misinterprets and ironically understands only too well. This element of self-conscious irony, rooted here in memory, would become the hallmark of Clemens' best work, especially evident in the novels set in his boyhood world beside the Mississippi River, Tom Sawyer (1876) (The first novel ever written on a typewriter.) and his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
The American West (or The West), is an informal but well-recognized name for the region comprising the 23 of the most western states in the continental United States. They are, in order of their admittance into the Union, Lousiana (1812), Missouri (1821), Arkansas (1836), Texas (1845), Iowa (1846), California (1850), Minnesota (1858), Oregon (1859), Kansas (1861), Nebraska (1867), Nevada (1864), Colorado (1876), Montana (1889), North Dakota (1889), South Dakota (1889), Washington (1889), Idaho (1890), Wyoming (1896), Utah (1896), Oklahoma (1907), New Mexico (1912), Arizona (1912) and Alaska (1959).
Separating "East" from "West" is the Mississippi River. The region west of the river encompasses nearly all of the Louisiana Purchase, most of the land ceded by Britain in 1818, all of the land acquired when the Texas Republic joined the Union, all of the land ceded by Britain in 1846, all of the land ceded by Mexico in 1848, all of the Gadsden Purchase and the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
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