The American Frontier is often recognized as the single most popular period in the history of America, especially when it comes to the portrayal in the popular media and, as a result, the recognition in the public consciousness. There are many reasons for that, and different scholars tend to prioritize them differently, but the ones most unanimously recognized are the dramatic scope of events as well as their multitude, and, most importantly, their nature that is highly susceptible to the romanticized portrayal.
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The latter was widely exploited in fiction and historical studies, with the most prominent example of the latter being the “Turner’s thesis,” the paper by Frederic Turner responsible for the formation of the public perception and attitude towards the period and its social and ethical background. The wide acceptance of the thesis and its exploitation by the popular media has led to the creation of the mythology of the Wild West, a set of misconceptions and misrepresentations of the historical facts, which are currently challenged by the movement known as the “New Western Historians.”
The historical basis
The American Frontier is a period of settlers’ expansion to the West of the continent starting from the seventieth and ending in the early twentieth century. However, its most popular part and the one most commonly brought to mind when the word “Frontier” is mentioned in the period of the nineteenth century when the process was at its height. There are several reasons for this. First, the settlers were highly dependent on the supply lines from Europe, and thus, dependent on the coastline. By the early 1800s, the economic conditions became gradually unfavorable, and with the beginning of the Second War of Independence, the expansion has become a necessity. The other important factor that contributed to the process is technological progress.
By the nineteenth century, the railroads were the superior means of transportation that both made possible the rapid and far-reaching expansion at the initial stage and a driving force later in the course of events. However, both factors are described and interpreted differently depending on the chosen approach. Most prominently, Frederic Jackson Turner in his work The Significance of the Frontier in American History describes the economic and industrial factors as utilized in the process of establishing the new mentality and, by extension, the new nation, different from Europeans. This goes in line with what is known as Turner’s Thesis: the perception of the Frontier as a process that shaped the settlers into Americans (Turner, 1893).
According to Turner, the effort required to survive and conquer the unwelcoming and sometimes hostile environment was the basis for the formation of principles of liberty, egalitarianism, and democracy that the contemporary American society is known for. The Frontier has allegedly helped the colonists to discard the unnecessary and archaic values of the traditional society and instead forge the new ones, based on practical implications rather than the disconnected theory.
However, the thesis, while being widely and unanimously accepted for almost a century and still regarded as infallible by some historians and sociologists, has been later criticized for the inconsistencies and misinterpretations. The movement formed in the second half of the twentieth century, led by the historians Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White, has pointed to the downplayed role of the native population present on the conquered lands, the environmental effects of the process, and the relatively high role of the external forces.
While the Turner’s version glorifies the Frontier as the manifestation of independence and individualism, the critics point to the noticeable role the federal government has played in the expansion, such as providing support to establishing transportation system, both by land and by rivers, securing communication by facilitating postal services and securing lands for the settlers. In such light, the image of a frontiersman looks much less impressive and heroic. Even worse for the concept of the equality-forming process was the unsettling fact of the presence of Hispanic and Native American populations on the lands taken by the colonists (Brinkley, 2007). The latter suffered the most unfair judgment.
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While the expansion was often accompanied by the forced eviction and sometimes extermination of the native population, the description of the controversial events was often romanticized and glorified as justified by the higher goal. This tendency remained especially visible in the cinematography, with the whole genre dedicated to the period. The movies commonly presented Native Americans as violent and uncivilized savages, often unintelligent otherwise dehumanized (Rollins, 2011).
Only with the introduction of the new western historical approach, the tendency shifted towards a more accurate portrayal. Even then, however, the image of Indians was stereotyped and inaccurate, by the emerging interest in the indigenous cultures. Finally, the banditry and lack of governance on the Frontier was included to bolster the element of danger and excitement.
All the factors mentioned above have contributed to the creation of the American Frontier mythology. While most of its characteristic features, like the personal motivation, the danger, the clashes with the local population, and even the formation of the current liberties are all historical facts, they are almost always severely exaggerated and presented in the light that suggests their positive qualities. At the same time, many of them are controversial at best and should be approached with caution when used for anything beyond amusement.
Brinkley, A. (2007). Debating the past: the “Frontier” and the West. Web.
Rollins, P. (2011). Hollywood’s indian: the portrayal of the native American in film. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Turner, F. J. (1893). The Frontier In American history. Web.