Comps Notes: The “Frontier” in the West

I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here.

The “Frontier” in the West

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921).

Sandra L. Myres, Westering: Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915 (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1982).

Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).

Geoff Cunfer, On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005).


The archetypal model of Western American history is Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which was first presented as a paper at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 in front of members of the American Historical Association. The motivation for Turner’s Frontier Thesis, the name used most commonly for the insights of the paper, was his examination of the Census of 1890, which acknowledged the fact that the United States no longer had significant regions of unsettled wilderness. In short, Turner is writing at what he believes to be a turning point in American history. The frontier no longer exists, and thus the most crucial instrument in the creation of a distinctive, American identity has also disappeared. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development,” he declares.

Turner was heavily influenced by the evolutionary discourse of his era. The governing theme in the Frontier Thesis is that of social evolution. Turner subscribes to a set understanding of civilization development that follows a systematic evolutionary sequence. Civilization starts in the savage state and then progresses to pastoralism and, finally, cities and industry. Europeans had been ensnared in the smothering constraints of the final stage for far too long, which had led to venality and decay both in Europe and in the eastern United States, where European institutions were still in practice. The availability of free, undeveloped land in the West had facilitated Americans to go through a rebirthing process. Rugged individualism, personified in the character of the mountain man, reigned supreme on the frontier. Men were able to start anew, almost at the savage stage, but what separated these men from the Native Americans was that they brought with them the prime characteristics of European social and political governance. Those European characteristics and institutions that were despoiled were swiftly thrown out for they had no place on the even playing field of the West, which enabled wholesome, untainted democracy to flourish.

Wilderness plays a role in Turner’s thesis only as a means to the furthering of man’s advancement. Wilderness only has value as a commodity to be conquered and ultimately civilized. It is the challenges that wilderness throws the frontiersman’s way that allow the frontiersman to shed the over-embellished skin of European civilization, and to step forward a new, improved, self-reliant individual ready to turn the western wilderness into the hub of democratic principles. Regardless of wilderness’ main position in this rebirthing process, man’s duty, according to Turner, is still to tame and develop wilderness into oblivion. Until 1890, there was always more wilderness available beyond the next ridge into which future generations could move in order to restart the rebirthing process and to guarantee that the United States would not begin to ferment in the poison of decayed, archaic civilization. The supposed “end” of the frontier threatened the core of American exceptionalism, and led to leaders, such as Theodore Roosevelt, to turn outward for a sense of frontier, fueling an American campaign of imperialism.

The Frontier Thesis became the rendition of western history. Almost all interpretations of the frontier and the West in the ensuing decades were based on Turner’s premise of individualism and democratic equality. However, as Patricia Nelson Limerick observes, this version of western history began to topple in the 1960s when historians caught up in the spirit of the civil rights and feminist movements unearthed the glaring inadequacies of Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Turner was ethnocentric and nationalistic, and his story only included white men. This invalidation of the Turnerian model, however, is not completely Turner’s fault, Limerick argues, for Turner was writing for his time and is a product thereof. The blame rests on the historians that placed too much authority on Turner’s narrative, stretching it to fit a new social atmosphere into which it no longer belonged. In The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Limerick compares the legacy of conquest to that of the legacy of slavery, the history of which she believes both shape the present. The difference between the two legacies is that slavery has been branded with a serious, educational label based in reality, while the legacy of conquest has taken on a lighthearted, entertainment value based on stereotypes and myth. Slavery offers somber reflection. The West offers adventurous escapism.

The core problem with Turner’s thesis and the greatest disservice that he rendered on future historians, according to Limerick, is that his entire argument was based on the idea that the frontier had ended. This kind of clean break in time does not take into account the continuities of human experience. Limerick’s argument is based on a strong belief that the problems that the west endured are still prevalent and have had a major effect on the west of today.  She suggests that the entire concept of the “frontier” should be pushed aside or at least to the very back of the western historian’s consciousness. “Frontier,” is a process, not a place, she argues. When one deemphasizes the concept of the frontier, the supposed end of the West no longer makes sense. “Reorganized,” she writes, “the history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences.” (26) Liberated from the confines of the frontier and its demise, the historian is able to capture the true essence of the West as a place.

The end of the frontier is not the only part of Turner’s thesis that Limerick has a problem with, however. Firstly, Limerick tears apart Turner’s assertion that the western settlers were rugged, individualistic, and independent. Limerick asserts that those that moved west viewed their motives as innocent and commonplace. Thus, they could not comprehend why their efforts were continuously hindered, they did not view this as a miscalculation of the limits of reality on their part, but rather as an inexplicable and undeserved fate that was forced on them. One example of this kind of attitude that Limerick describes is when the farmers moved into the Great Plains, a naturally arid region, and then were surprised when adequate rainfall did not follow them. This kind of hardship caused westerners to view themselves as the “innocent victim,” a far cry from the hardened, independent individuals of Turner’s frontier. From the very beginning, the West was dependent upon the East for basics such as canned food. As their hardships worsened, the westerners placed blame on the wilderness, the Indians, and finally, the ultimate scapegoat, the federal government. And yet, the west readily accepted, and still accepts, government subsidies. The west has always failed to admit its dependence on outside forces. Thus, taking pioneer rhetoric at face value may lead, one may come to the same conclusions as Turner, however, if one looks under the surface, one finds layer upon layer of denial. Additionally, as Eric Foner describes the Reconstruction era as exemplifying the increase in federal government power, Limerick assigns the westward movement with much the same role. The Homestead Acts and other property laws are the quintessential example of the increased role of the federal government in the lives of the American people.

The passion for property, Limerick claims, not the thirst for adventure and equal opportunity, was the main drive in westward expansion. Much of western history is the story of individuals trying to affix the concept of property on things that are not easily categorized, such as minerals and wild animals. Turner’s story of the frontier may make sense if one only looks at the agrarian side of things, even then farming was linked to commerce in the West, but the western economy was far more diversified. One industry that Turner ignores, which Limerick thinks is the most important, is mining. Furthermore, Turner’s assertion that the taming of the wilderness was the goal and ultimate success of the settlers does not take into account the fact that nature does not cooperate and often times fights back. The most prevalent example of this battle between humans and nature is the uneven distribution of water and the challenges this imposes upon farmers and townspeople alike. Another example involves the national parks, and the fact that their borders are not natural, but politically and economically based, and thus, plants and animals often do not respect the border much to the annoyance of the people and often the detriment of the creatures.

Limerick also challenges the Turner’s claim that the west was a center of democracy and equality. The West was a meeting ground of diversity, she argues, a diversity that is completely ignored by Turner. Once women, Indians, Mexicans, and other minorities enter the picture, Turner’s egalitarian landscape is immediately shot to pieces. Examination of the role of the prostitute in western history easily dissolves the myth of equality, as it is an example of white people discriminating against other white people in an effort to lift up those women that were deemed respectable. Native Americans were also done a disservice by traditional western history as it “flattened” their history out, made them inconsequential, and homogenized disparate groups of people into one, all-encompassing category. Limerick states that while white Americans have their own history of the West, the Native Americans have a much different version. Limerick asserts that this is perfectly okay and that the modern historian must embrace relativism and its dismissal of the concept of a universal, authoritative history. However, no group was ignored more by the original frontier thesis and is more relevant to today’s situation in the area than the immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Willing to do labor for much lower wages than American workers, the Hispanic immigrant’s role in American society has always been and continues to be controversial and much contested.

However, the race to acknowledge the ignored minorities in western history, particularly in regards to women’s history, led to one myth being replaced by several new myths, according to Sandra L. Myres. Three myths surrounding women and their role in the West prevail in both period and contemporary accounts: the depressed, overworked, frightened woman resigned to a pitiable fate, the “Madonna of the Prairie,” a strong and sturdy woman bent on civilizing the frontier, and the bad woman, who is typically more masculine than feminine. These myths were the result, not of reality, but of expectations placed on women, largely related to the Cult of Womanhood, and of the fact that most prior accounts have been written by men who had never read the women’s personal descriptions. In Westering Women: Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915, Myres pours through countless firsthand accounts written by these women in order to present a less sensationalized and more realistic portrayal. Myres is particularly interested in these women’s preconceptions and how these ideas evolved once they were in the thick of the frontier lifestyle, and also to compare these observations to those made by men.

Both men and women, before setting out for the frontier, had a preconceived notion of the frontier that involved the twin forces of wilderness and savagery. What drove them westward and fueled much of the atmosphere in the country at that time, as Limerick points out, was the desire for material progress. Both men and women dreamt of the potential of the wilderness to which they were moving. Although women tended to be more optimistic and romantic in their viewpoints than men, both sexes experienced mixed feelings of hope and anxiety. Both men and women were susceptible to the pits of racial prejudice. Popular accounts portray all women as hating both wilderness and Native Americans, however, when one reads their journals, one finds that they were initially fearful of the Indians, but soon were able to accept their presence. Women tended to be more peaceful in their relations with the Natives and based opinion, not on generalizations, but rather on an individual basis. Although women certainly had a great deal of work to do while on the trails and at their new homes, Myres says that there is no basis to assume that these women were “trail drudges.” Upon arriving in their new home, some women were pleased and some were disappointed. Some women were happy in their married life, some worried that their husbands were not happy, and some were so unhappy in their married life that they divorced. However, women were not only interested in married life and homemaking; upon arrival in their new communities most women became involved in the twin forces of civilization, education and religion. Because they were so involved in their communities, western women were the first contingent to make large strides in women’s suffrage, Myres asserts.

The stereotypes of the bad woman and the Madonna of the Prairies were stereotypes, but not myths, according to Myres. Women that fit into these roles did exist, but were not the majority. The reason that they are given so much attention is because their experiences stuck out of the crowd. However, after reading Myres’ account, one more fully appreciates why these stereotypes were focused on. Quite simply, they are interesting. Though based on a noble and potentially appealing concept, Myres’ account falls flat. In an effort to focus on the diverse experiences of the women of the prairies, Myres causes the women of her story to get lost in a sea of monotony and mediocrity. The endless use of phrases such as “just as” and “not only,” cause the narrative to become predictable. In almost every circumstance there are women that experience both ends of the emotional spectrum, and, inevitably, the men had much the same experience. In her introduction, she says that she wants to emphasize that these women were not isolated occurrences deserving a blurb at the end of a chapter, but rather they were integral parts of the frontier experience. However, in her narrative, Native American and African women are tacked on as simply another “just as” at the end of a section devoted to white women, severely underplaying the uniqueness of their experience. If Myres did not intend to give these women their due, then they should have been left out of the story.

While Limerick tries her hardest to dissolve the potency of the Frontier Thesis, Myres does much to reinforce its authority. This desire to continue Turner’s legacy probably has a great deal to do with Myres’ connection to Ray Allen Billington, who was a western historian who spent much of his career reshaping the Frontier Thesis to the changing perceptions of the present. Myres, not the accounts she is assessing, refers to these women as “hardy and self-sufficient” (270), descriptors that have obvious foundation in the Frontier Thesis. One gets the feeling that the problem that Myres has with the “new” histories of the West is that they completely tear apart Turner’s claims of western equality and egalitarianism. These histories concluded that women were not a part of the opportunities that arose in the West. Not only was there equality of opportunity, but women were a part of this opportunity, according to Myres. Despite the shortcomings of Myres’ narrative, she does show that women in the West were able to challenge the traditional gender roles that dominated Eastern social circles, and were able to take some of the earliest steps in the nation towards gender equality.

People and their social, political, and economic institutions comprise the main basis for investigation in Myres and Limerick’s studies. In Geoff Cunfer’s On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment land gets the starring role. Cunfer’s study is an agricultural and environmental history of the Great Plains from the mid to late-nineteenth century through the twentieth century. Cunfer places himself in the middle of several environmental history arguments. Firstly, he believes that too much attention is paid to wilderness and cityscapes. Cunfer’s treatment of agriculture is similar to Roderick Nash’s treatment of the topic in Wilderness and the American Mind. Nash thinks of the environment as a line between to polar opposites, wilderness and the city; this scale allows for grey areas in between, the middle of which is marked by agriculture, the ultimate juxtaposition of wilderness and civilization. Secondly, Cunger places himself in between what he calls the progressive and declensionist narratives of Great Plains environmental history. The first being the overly laudatory account, and the latter being one mired in extreme pessimism. Cunfer asserts that each of these narratives over-simplify the situation in order to further a particular ideology or moral lesson. In reality, the history of land-use in the Great Plains is one that includes an equal distribution of failures and successes. Thirdly, Cunfer does not prescribe to the common dichotomy placed between humans and nature. He does not believe in an all-powerful human ingenuity, nor does he prescribe to total environmental determinism. Humans are part of the environment, according to Cunfer, and therefore their institutions are inextricably linked and limited by environmental realities. Farming, Cunfer argues, is the best example of this complicated interaction between mankind and nature. The main purpose of farming is too manipulate natural processes to achieve human goals, however this manipulation is limited by and often thwarted by the power of nature. The story of agriculture in the Great Plains is one of constant adaptation to the changing rhythms of the environment.

A large fraction of Cunfer’s analysis is based on statistical research and empirical analysis, which he believes helps him to avoid the ideological pitfalls that ensnare the cultural and social environmental historian. Using data, particularly acreage sums, from Agricultural Censuses, Cunfer plots the data on maps using a Geographic Information System or GIS. The GIS creates a map that is easily readable and makes patterns in the land and environment easily discernable. In an effort to soften the harshness of his empirical research, personal stories and case studies are interspersed amongst the numbers and maps. The story of Elam Bartholomew is used as an exemplification of the typical experience of a farmer during the plowing revolution in the Great Plains. By plotting percentages on a map of the Great Plains, Cunfer is able to dispel the conviction that much of the Great Plains has been altered by the plow. In fact, Cunfer is able to show that only seventy percent of the Great Plains as has ever felt the harsh clawing of the plow. However, Cunfer is quick to state that this is not due to any kind of preservationist agenda on the part of the farmers. If left to the will of capitalism and other economic and political incentives, it is likely that all of the land would have gone under. Human ideology and determination is often no match for environmental limitations, however. Similarly, by mapping the percentage of acreage used for cattle, Cunfer is able to note that water distribution determined where cattle grazing could occur and limited the number of cattle that could be sustained. Thus, cattle ranchers were forced largely to obey the rules of the ecological systems that were already in place. Charting the diversity in croplands, Cunfer is able to show that monoculture has never been the norm in the Great Plains, although it is threatening to become so in the present-day. He also tracks the growth of tractor usage in the Great Plains to illustrate the pattern of the shifting of labor intensity.

The most groundbreaking portion of Cunfer’s study is his work on the origins of the Dust Bowl. Directly challenging the claims of Donald Worster and other environmental historians, Cunfer does not believe that over-plowing, due to the pressures of evil capitalism, was the main impetus for the environmental catastrophe. Instead, using GIS technology, Cunfer is able to show that drought and high temperatures, which are natural disruptions, were the real cause of the Dust Bowl. Cunfer believes that environmental historians must start taking these natural disruptions and other natural forces into better consideration when analyzing the history of human interactions with the land. Environmental history has swayed too far to the cultural camp, causing it to lose sight of the very nature that it set out to study, and must swing back towards the inclusion of proportional amounts of environmental determinism. Cunfer’s analysis is based on a particular understanding of sustainability. Cunfer does not equate sustainability with economic patterns, but rather with the stableness of land-use. The people of the Great Plains are constantly involved in the dance of unstable equilibrium, constantly making adjustments to their system in order to keep stability. The fact that, despite economic upturns and downturns, the land use of the Great Plains has remained the same for nearly one hundred years denotes, according to Cunfer, that their agricultural practices are sustainable. This does not mean that environmental degradation has not occurred, as any system placed on the land changes it, but rather that the Great Plains agriculture has been able keep a level of diversity that is necessary for sustainability. Increased pressures from agro-corporations, such as Monsato, threaten to disrupt this balance. The moment the people of the Great Plains step out of their environmental limits their agricultural system will no longer be sustainable and either they will have to take a step backward or abandon their way of life for a new one.

In each account of the West, the area acts as a stage for the author’s chosen story. For Turner, the West was a place where American exceptionalism could take root and prosper, the perfect landscape for self-betterment and the spread of morality and equality. In Limerick’s tale the West serves largely as a meeting place of diversity and a fertile bed for the proliferation of the American obsession with property and material gain. For Myres it served as a place where women were able to break free from the confines of traditional gender roles and start the journey towards equality. And for Cunfer, the West serves as a stage for the uneasy tango between man and nature as each entity struggles to maintain control. These portrayals of the West demonstrate how diversely a place’s past can be interpreted, and the immensely complicated enterprise historians undertake when they set about to reconstruct the past.

Feature Photo: Title: A Digger Indian family
Creator(s): Thunen, William, photographer

  • Date Created/Published: c1906.

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