The frontier has always existed in America and still does.
When a federal bureau declared in the 1890's that
the frontier had ended in 1890, giving
as reason the unavailability of free land,
everyone seized upon the idea as momentous,
holding up this fact as a fetish,
marking the end of an innocent age,
the beginning of real problems for the nation.
The myth of the frontier was succeeded by
the myth of the end of the frontier.
The educated crowd now knew what the frontier crowd knew on
many occasions all the way back to the German pastor explaining to
his seventeenth century fellow immigrants: land has gone up in price
and so, too, the cost of living: go back to Germany if you can.
Thenceforth, after 1890, the concept became the tool of publicity:
"Vote for the New Frontier." "Electronics are the new frontier!" Etc.
And "the end of the frontier" became the "Shucks!" and
dismay of the nostalgic schoolboy.
If the notion were conveyed to the prehistoric Indian, he would
indicate that the frontier was where his tribal territory ended and
another tribe's began, or where his tribe and another were quarreling
over territory. British-Americans early on came to consider the frontier
as where they encountered strange Indians, or, less often, where
Spanish or French territory began. Often people considered the
frontier to be unoccupied land and squattable, a concept foreign to the
Indian, who believed that land could be people's stamping grounds
without their having to be camped upon it. The boundaries of other
English colonies would not be regarded as "frontiers," although there
were laws forbidding ingress and egress among colonies, more often
ignored than not.
To us, the frontier is depicted by certain criteria. Its area was being
newly occupied by strangers, and was on the edge of territory even more
foreign to them. The newcomers were in a high ratio of
male to females, five to one or more. Many men were alone.
Others were in pairs or small groups, never very large
unless we speak of a frontier fort, in which
event there may have been fifty or more of military and civilians.
Living conditions were primitive. Incomes were low.
A state of disorder existed, with a high incidence
of personal and social violence, and of drunkenness.
Property rights were ill-defined and often contested.
Religion was in abeyance. The people viewed the economy of the area in a
highly exploitative way, dreaming of wresting
riches from its resources.
A strong belief in personal and social equality pervaded the frontier.
This was natural under the chaotic conditions of
every sphere of life in frontier regions, and
did not occur because the denizens had read Rousseau
and Locke on natural rights. A traveler in the back country of
Massachusetts as late as May 1771 spoke of the "spirit of equality,"
everywhere prevailing, with "no notions of rank or distinction in
society," alluding unhappily, also, to the absence of
law and order and civilization.
Equality, we venture to say, ought to be
the practice of continual delicate mutual perception and
adjustment of qualities of the self and others which
deserve respect and support. There is no reason to take the
trumpeting of "equality" in frontier areas as signifying more than a
special loosening of physical bonds.
The frontier population was a volatile mixture of social types:
adventurers, land speculators, surveyors, fugitives, malcontents,
soldiers past and present, trappers, traders, peddlers,
Indians, African-Americans, "loose women,"
ethnics of various nations -
English, Scots-Irish, French, German, Welsh, Spanish,
mixtures of various races and creeds - thinking that they might
stay here and send for someone to join them.
They were often at odds, knives close by.
A few of the newcomers planted crops. Except for an
occasional scholar or learned preacher, intellectual life was
nil and so-called higher culture was held in fear and contempt,
occasionally in awe.
Almost always, these were the elements of the first stage of the frontier.
But usually a frontier passed within a political and
social generation into a second stage.
The second stage saw the persistence of all of the first stage traits,
but in a dwindling form, except that
soldiers, surveyors, speculators, and would-be farmers increased.
The ratio of females increased and families became more frequent,
concentrated in a tiny settlement or scattered far and wide because the
man of the family believed he has gotten a great bargain in
land and is optimistic that the Indians and Caucasian thugs will
let him be. He was often wrong.
Ministers of the Gospels - raggedy-Ann preachers -appeared,
but could hardly find sustenance and wended their way
begging and praying among a population
generally uninterested in religion. He administered the
sacraments of marriage, baptism and last rites wherever
welcomed to do so. Sometimes he built his own congregation
by finding a promising spot, and going back and forth
recruiting and leading people to his "diocese."
News of his presence would be passed along by word of mouth.
Families seeking to settle would come and find him.
Speculators did the same thing, sometimes in cahoots
with the pastor, advertising the virtues of a place
and offering land for sale. Surprisingly soon, people would descend upon the
frontier's primary settlement by the road that was more and more safe
and traveled ( like the Wilderness Trail that Daniel Boone
blazed from North Carolina to Kentucky through
the Cumberland Gap, following the Indian way,) and
then spread out laterally, until a full-scale
second-stage frontier culture was operating.
In both the first and second phases, conditions were not good. Every
value was in short supply. Money incomes of most people were
insignificant. The people lacked political power. They were out of touch
with the power elite. Health conditions were bad, never mind the
pure well-water and river-water; diseases still spread,
there was almost never a medical doctor when you needed him.
Food was not as abundant as the hunting-and-fishing enthusiasts would
let one believe; one had to be skillful at these occupations and spend
plenty of time at them to eat well and feed others, but, if so, then what
did one do to further his fortunes? Fresh vegetables were scarce and
disdained. He was a rare frontiersman who ever picked and ate a
dandelion. Pork, Indian corn, and game were available with some fish.
Wild berries were picked and acorns ground into flour. Dried cereals and
jerked beef came from a trader.
Respect was not organized. The dispossessed of the world have little
chance to cultivate respect, or affection, for that matter. People had
much bad to say about everyone else it would seem - on religious,
ethnic, racial, social grounds and personal habits.
Enlightenment was supposed to emerge from communing with
nature and reading the Bible. Very little else for the time being.
Frontier folk lived half or more like Indians, but hated Indians all the
more for this; in the circumstances of their own lives, the Indian's life was
enviable, and envy projected into contempt and hostility. The Indian had
all the land in the world, while he, the self-anointed superior being,
cannot be sure he could hold on to any land that he squatted on or paid for in
dubious sale. Affection was wanting for the same reasons as respect, and
the lack of women hardly helped the situation. Most likely no parson was
around to preach love for Christ and one's brethren.
Numerous frontiers arose and transmogrified in American history, and
it would be well to allude to them to show the importance of the
phenomena, prior to picking them up in their own time and place. The
frontiers that have been of most concern to us thus far, or that will be
under further discussion here number six: the Hispanic Spanish-Indian
borderlands from 1492 to the events that will bring them to conclude
their typical behavior - well into the 1800's; the French-Canadian
borderlands from 1604 to 1763; the Yankee Colonial Frontier; the
Pluralist Colonies Frontier; the Southern Frontier; and the
Revolutionary War Frontier from 1607 to 1790.
To be dealt with later are the Trans-Allegheny Frontier, the Old
Southwest Frontier (Greater Louisiana), the Old Northwest Frontier
(also Greater Louisiana), the Great Plains Frontier, the Pacific
Northwest Frontier, the Far Southwest Frontier, and then some special
frontiers: the mining towns and camps, the Indian enclaves frontier,
the cattle-age frontier, the farmers' frontier, the Hawaiian frontier,
and the Alaskan frontier. We might even speak of city and suburban
frontiers, but these lose the meanings defined above.
Perhaps the extensive world of piracy on the high seas
should be considered a frontier. Pirates formed
a social order of the destitute and abandoned; they
recruited members from the abused of the navies, privateers,
and merchant marine; they developed a code of behavior,
rules, and customs, through a network of communications,
for men went from one gang to another and pirate boats met at sea or
in safe harbors; in the 1720's the naval and shore
authorities intensified efforts to get rid of them, and executed hundreds.
A desultory and near-futile fly-swatting.
By their nature, frontier boundaries are not clear, and they are always
in motion. For example, Pennsylvania was a proprietary colony, with
vaguely stipulated boundaries that hardened with time, and treaties
that gave it ultimately its present seemingly logical rectagonal shape.
But its people often seeped into other areas and other colonists
impinged upon it.
The Virginia Tidelands, Chesapeake Bay, Southeastern Pennsylvania,
the Appalachian, Delaware Bay, North (New England) and South
(Swedes, Anglican, and Quaker) New Jersey elements
constituted sub-cultures of the Pennsylvanian Region,
which was the centerpiece of the Pluralist Culture Region.
To its West, its people moved down into Northwestern Virginia (later
West Virginia); its most vigorous frontier was there and directly West
where it was infiltrated by the New York and New England cultural
elements essaying to move around the
Southern edges of the Great Lakes.
Here and not so much with the Eastern sub-cultures, the Indian
nations, depleted and reduced at the end of the French and Indian War
in 1763, were still a formidable obstacle to the variegated horde and
gangs of invaders. They were unreliably joined to combat Europeans,
and often abetted the very processes that were killing their own kind.
Abandoning their former principle of "production for use," they traded
skins and furs in numbers so large that the animal populations reduced
beyond the support level and this in itself caused many individual clans
to shift away from the frontier. At the end of the century of the 1700's,
Indian tribes of the vast area East of the Mississippi accounted for
125,000 persons, while the Europeans reached three millions.
When the Indians discovered in 1763 that their French allies had been
defeated and had turned over the Indian interest to the British, they
were dismayed and angered. Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa Nation came
to the fore and organized a group of tribes, primarily Algonquin, but
also Iroquois and others from as far as the Mississippi River, to expel
the Europeans from the vast area outside of the colonies.
The war was vicious. A British commander was told to treat the
Indians not as enemies but as sub-humans to be exterminated. Despite
numerous small victories, Pontiac's forces were unable to conquer Fort
Pitt (at Pittsburgh) and Detroit. His allies grew disheartened and
abandoned him. He made peace.
The uncertainty of land titles, the high value placed upon geographic
points of value - inlets, heights, hardwood groves, rich soils, those
distant from swamps, or near to other settlements, and the absence of
forces of law and order, brought on many a deadly quarrel. Puritans
fought Quakers in Central New Jersey. Where the Delaware Bay
people met the Chesapeake Bay people, fire-fights erupted. British
Northern Border immigrants fought with Yankees in Northeastern
Pennsylvania and the Connecticut Valley.
The most combative and intransigent of the newcomers were the
Scots-Irish, who had immigrated with a burning hate spurred from
depression of the linen trade and the rapacity of Anglican landlords
and clergy, and English-Scot Borderfolk who, after having been
rendered quite destitute by the four depressions between 1717 and
1770, arrived in several waves. Most were males; 4 out of 5 were
young males in the English and Scottish immigration of
1773-76, and they were supplemented by their
kindred folk from North Ireland.
Most headed directly for the border areas. A kind of leadership was
provided by kin of clan chieftains, or by someone from a better family:
ethnarchs, we can call these; they often kept their leadership in the
New World. The Scots-Irish frequently forced out earlier settlers, not
to mention Indians, by their obnoxiousness. Quakers and Anglicans
would move away from the hill country to escape them. A
Pennsylvania land office official declared, "the settlement of five
families from Ireland gives me more trouble than fifty of any other
people." (These were Scots-Irish of course; when the Irish Catholics
came they were shepherded by priests and
gave less trouble - to begin with.)
At first the Quakers thought to lay a head tax on immigrants, which
would rebuff the impoverished undesirables. Penn vetoed the idea for
being against humane principle. So the local authorities decided upon
ushering the newcomers rapidly West and out of the way; there they
could constitute a buffer against hostile Indians.
Unfortunately the buffer, a defensive concept, was used for aggressive
purposes. Indians were incited to violence. The settlers hollered that
they were being attacked and that they should be armed and
reinforced. The Paxton Boys, leading a gang of them, massacred a
number of Indians, including friendly Christians, and,
after scalping them, vowed to march on Philadelphia,
there to do the same to the Quakers.
Treaties were signed by British officials and the Indian Tribes.
Proclamations were issued. British troops were ordered to bring about
respect for the boundary lines. All to no avail. George Washington
railed at the parcels of "banditti," who were roving the frontier. The
powerlessness of authority has never been so manifest in American
history as in the violation of frontier agreements. At least 60,000
people moved into the frontier beyond the lines. Similar movements
were occurring far to the North in New England and New York, and
far to the South.
Promoters were ready to try any device to buy land, bring in people
under indenture, and gain a hoped-for enormous profit. With the queer
first phase of its communitarian history over with, and settled upon a
solid slave culture course, Georgia had an enormous frontier area
North and South. The latter bordered upon East and West Florida,
which were transferring from Spanish to British to Spanish to
American title as time went on, but remained for a century and more
the empire of the Seminole Indians, a haven for all the frontier
characters listed earlier above.
St. Augustine on the Atlantic and St. Marks on the Gulf of Mexico
were small settlements of barely noticeable growth. Escaped slaves
abounded in the colony. Many entered the Indian tribes and
assimilated. Georgia slave masters were usually frustrated in their
search for runaways, once the Florida border was crossed.
The same intermingling of Indians with African-Americans was
occurring at many points to the North even beyond the slave colonies.
Also, tribes could be counted that had become mixtures of Indian,
African and European. Nobody offered an acceptable logic for treating
this unique type of person. None other than the distinguished Patrick
Henry and John Marshall supported legislation in Virginia to give a
bonus to every White person who married an Indian; it might have
passed into law if Henry had not gone out of town on business.
Virginia, it should be recalled, almost allowed slaves a century earlier
to serve out their bondage after a limited period and would have
abolished the inheritable status of slave. It is votes of this type and of
the type that showed a large proportion of Virginians disfavoring
secession in 1861 that make us seek to avoid over-generalization.
People are both good and bad everywhere, and are
found to act both ways during their lives.
In one of the periods of English occupation of Florida, a promoter
thought how fine it would be to indenture not his fellow-countrymen,
who knew nothing of Southern agriculture, but Mediterraneans who
could work miracles with the soil. He inveigled some 1,500 Italians
and Greeks in families to come settle down some 35 miles South of St.
Augustine on a sandy waste with a ten-year work-lease contract, the
land then to revert with improvements to the owner. They were
treated as badly as the indentured servants to the North. Supplied
mostly with corn and a bit of pork, and forbidden to fish,
dissatisfaction grew into insurrection in 1769. A regiment of troops
arrived to put them down. .
The poor rarely won in any of the riots, rebellions, insurrections,
demonstrations, violent attacks, or group escapes that lit up the pages
of colonial history. At best they might receive some small concessions
following upon exemplary punishment, or disperse and make their
fortunes individually in the highly mobile great society, with its many
niches, or into the wilderness.
Some of the most famous Americans were speculators in land, besides
whatever else made them famous. Daniel Boone is 300-year old myth:
I've mentioned before this misty personage in a coonskin cap, who led
the first settlers along the Wilderness Trail in 1775, who was a resolute
and crafty fighter of the Indians, who founded the State of Kentucky,
and disappeared into tradition that spun out in numerous volumes,
giving more and more exaggerated accounts of his prowess and
achievements, like Davy Crockett two political generations later.
He was real. He could read enough to let him carry Gulliver's Travels
(not the Bible) in his pack sometimes (showing that he was nostalgic,
too). He did probably tell his wife Rebecca when someone moved to
within two days' journey from their cabin, "Old woman, we have to
move, they're crowding us." But he founded a settlement, Boonesboro,
too, with a bow to fame. He was the agent for Richard Henderson,
perhaps the largest of land speculators
in the immediate pre-Revolutionary period. The settlers he led
into Kentucky earned him commissions from Henderson.
Despite how the Indians had killed his sons, he liked Indians
(granting that there were friendly and hostile Indians),
lived with the Shawnees and considered himself one of them,
with an Indian Godfather; he even
conspired with the Shawnees against the White settlers. "Worse," he
did some jobs for the British during the Revolution, and was tried for
treason afterwards. Whereupon he fled to the Missouri frontier, ran a
tavern, farmed a little, and reminisced to frequent awed visitors until
he died at the ripe age of 86.
I have already mentioned, too, that Benjamin Franklin was in London,
engaged (he always had several things going) with others in an
enormous speculative venture to obtain from the Board of Trade the
land of Vandalia, a fat slab stretching from Pittsburgh, then a frontier
collection of huts, down to the West of North Carolina. Just as it
appeared that the grant would be theirs, a gang of ruffians dumped a
load of British tea into Boston Harbor.
Washington always had time for business, too, and, being originally a
surveyor, knew the lay of the land. Like Franklin, he was one of the
richest of Americans, but who says that the rich may not want more?
He was as devious as the next man. One time he is writing his surveyor
associate, William Crawford, don't tell anybody what you are up to,
nor that I believe the King's proclamation about the new boundary of
the frontier will not be in force for long. And after his veterans have
been given some land, he writes his brother Charles to kid them along
in order to discover what value they set on their land.
Even speculators longed for some sort of stability - not too soon, of
course. They could be frustrated by squatters, endure violence at the
hands of border ruffians, find themselves before judges and officials
more crooked than themselves, and be constrained by hostile
ordinances and rules of a new division of government - state, county,
municipal, or a special district. The more responsible leaders began
early in history to voice a despair that civil society was disintegrating
before their very eyes. The frontier expressed their worst fears. They
pleaded for family, order, controllable compact settlements, and the
control of expansion. They asked for an end to irresponsible
individualism. They wanted communitas. In vain.
What changed the Frontier Phase I to the Frontier Phase II? An
excruciating process by which the uncontrollable elements spun off out
of control, by which those who owned before sold to those pressing in,
so that they had nothing to do but move elsewhere, by which
- as with the cocoon and the butterfly - the unrecognizable community
metamorphoses into something resembling - all too clearly- the older
places from which the disorganized pieces originally came.
In the long-stretching back country, an indigenous elite was forming.
They would usually be born leaders in the Old Country, in the
American coastal lowlands, or be descended from Old Country
parents. The third biological generation would be found heading
movements, militias, courts and legislatures. One study found that
most of the back-country elite of a North Carolina region were of
families that had been of substance in the North British borderlands.
They carried the names of Henry, Calhoun, Polk, Jackson, Houston,
Bell, Graham and Bankhead. The influence of such families would
grow with time, as their kin multiplied, and as the population and
power of the western states grew.
Once more, the evidence supports the view that even under the most
chaotic conditions of the frontier, customs, status, and influence - no
matter how measly - move across the seas and with the transportation
of laws. America, the greatest land of opportunity for the wretched of
the world, nevertheless gave a more cordial helping hand to the
immigrants who had been advantaged in their Old Country
environment. I doubt that we shall find an exception to this
rule down to the present time.
Nor will we find here or in any other frontier community
that certain something which is so often declared to be
the quintessence of the frontier: democracy.
Reckless individualism and chaotic change, yes.