The frontier myth or myth of the West is one of the influential myths in American culture. The frontier is the concept of a place that exists at the edge of a civilization, particularly during a period of expansion. The American frontier occurred throughout the seventeenth to twentieth centuries as Euro-Americans colonized and expanded across North America. This period of time became romanticized and idealized in literature and art to form a myth. Richard Slotkin, the foremost scholar on the subject, defines the myth of the frontier as "America as a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top."
Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis
In the United States, the concept of the frontier first became significant in 1893 when Frederick Jackson Turner used the term as a model for understanding American culture in his essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, read before the American Historical Association in Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exhibition (Chicago World's Fair). In his Frontier Thesis, Turner defined the concept of the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” and argued that this point was the foundation for American identity and politics. Turner's interpretation of American expansion was that Americans had moved west in waves, and the frontier was the tip of those movements, always the furthest point from civilization. Turner claimed that at the frontier American pioneers were transformed by their interaction with Native Americans and the wilderness to become rugged individuals who prized their freedom and individualism. As the frontier continued to move west it continued to transform the pioneering Americans who went there, and in turn transform the nation. Turner argued that nationalism, democracy (because of increased individualism), and a rejection of European ideals were a result of the frontier. Thus Turner concluded that America was only unique because of its interaction with the frontier and the West as it developed during expansion, “to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.”
The heroes of Turner’s thesis are the farmers, those who come right after the hunter/trapper pathfinders. In his eyes they are the first step toward civilization, and when they arrive the boundary of the frontier moves westward. In a broad sense, the notion of the frontier was the edge of the settled country where unlimited free land was available and thus unlimited opportunity.
While Turner did not create the myth of the frontier, he gave voice to it, and his frontier thesis was a major contribution to the general acceptance of the myth by scholars in the twentieth century. The focus on the West, and particularly the idealized concept of the frontier, placed those areas as foundational for American identity. Rather than looking to the Eastern city, such as Boston or Philadelphia, as the epitome of American ideals and values, the focus of American history and identity was on the farmers who were slowly but steadily moving farther west, searching for land and a modest income. Turner’s influence can be seen in nearly every single work of Western history to follow, either dealt with directly or indirectly, particularly each time a scholar uses the word frontier.
The Work of Richard Slotkin
As noted above, Richard Slotkin has devoted a career to studying the myth of the frontier, writing three impressive books on the subject, Regeneration Through Violence, Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation. Slotkin's goal throughout this trilogy is to trace the myth of the frontier from the original colonies to the popular culture works of the twentieth century, tracing the evolution and influence of the myth (as further explained below). Throughout these works Slotkin defines myth as "a set of narratives that acquire through specifiable historical action a significant ideological charge." This definition is useful in understanding how scholars study myth, and why the myth of the frontier is a significant. Slotkin's definition of the myth of the frontier presented in the work evolves throughout the trilogy, beginning with the general understanding of the myth of the frontier as viewing America as a land of opportunity for the strong to conquer, then incorporating capitalist exploitation of the land as America evolved into an industrialist nation, finally being used a vehicle for cultural ideology in the twentieth century era in popular culture.
There are two ‘Wests’ – the historical West in which farmers, ranchers, miners, prostitutes and criminals pursued their happiness, and the mythic West that took deep root in the American imagination. Western novels (dime novels, pulp fiction), mainstream literature (Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales), newspapers, and plays portrayed the West as both a barren landscape full of savages and a romanticized idealistic way of living for rugged men.
Being a frontiersman in the so-called Wild West, a cowboy, rancher or gold miner were idealized within American mystery. Mark Twain colorfully related that accounts of gold strikes in the popular press had supported the feverish expansion of the mining frontier and provoked mining “stampedes” during the 1860s and 1870s: “Every few days news would come of the discovery of a brand-new mining region: immediately the papers would teem with accounts of its richness, and away the surplus population would scamper to take possession…”
Similarly the life of the hardy cowboy driving dusty herds of longhorns northward from Texas to the cattle markets Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas, was romanticized by the eastern press. This transformed the cattle industry until the late 1870s. The former image of cowboys as ne’er-do-well and drifter changed significantly. They were now glorified as men of rough-hewn integrity and self-reliant strength.
The Origin and Development of the Myth
Beginning in the original colonies, Richard Slotkin argues that the settlers brought a synthesis of romantic European myths and ideas across the Atlantic, particularly the idea that the New World was a place where they could reinvent themselves. However, since the land was occupied by Native Americans the incoming colonists took the land with violence, hence the title regeneration through violence. Slotkin continues on to argue that the violent interactions with Native Americans became central to the myth of the frontier, and the American hero has been one who mediated between these two worlds. The first national hero to do this was Daniel Boone, the first archetype of the western hero, “An American hero is the lover of the spirit of the wilderness, and his acts of love and sacred affirmation are acts of violence against the spirit and her avatars.” This is the foundation for the myth of the frontier that began in the colonies. It was further developed in the nineteenth century to meet the growing needs of industrialization, incorporating the exploitation of land. The myth of the frontier held promise of wealth in the undiscovered lands and thus encouraged settlement, but Slotkin argues that the myth of the frontier distorted the historical reality that the methods for attaining the wealth were developed in the city (and in Europe). Slotkin illustrates that the myth of the frontier was created in the colonies through violent interactions, and was developed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to fit the needs of a developing civilization.
Creators and Promulgators - The Frontier Club
Christine Bold in The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1800-1924, builds on the works of Richard Slotkin and G. Edward White to deconstruct the creation of the mythic West formula for literature (and later film/television) at the end of the nineteenth century. Bold argues that the mythic West formula was created by a group of writers, politicians, painters, and others, whom she calls the “Frontier Club.” The Frontier Club is primarily made of the Boone and Crockett Club (a club of elite, ivy-league white men who enjoyed hunting out west) but does consist of others outside that group. Bold notes about eight men that were key in the group, with Theodore Roosevelt as the founder and central figure, with Owen Wister and Frederic Remington being influential. Bold argues that it was this collection of men that brought together the cultural themes present in the myth of the frontier to create literature (The Virginian) and art that distorted the reality of the West and turned it into a romanticized place. Bold argues the goal of the group was to sway public opinion so that they could lobby for legislation to protect hunting grounds in the West.
Bold continues on to show how the Frontier Club used their money and influence to silence the voices of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and non-elite white men. They did this both in their creation of the formula for the myth of the frontier, and in public policy. In the regards to myth their efforts were successful, and the common myth of the frontier to follow this period features the white cowboy riding in to save the white townsfolk (particularly women), usually from Native Americans or Hispanics.
Legends like Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, Jesse James' gang, Buffalo Bill, are products of this myth, and still present in popular culture, as well as in the books of Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington and Owen Wister, or in comics like Lucky Luke and western films. The western myth is far removed from the historical reality of the West. Often movies, comics and American literature neglect to show realities of the journey west, and the life on the frontier. Failing to show the brutalities of Indian warfare, racism towards Mexican-Americans and Blacks, and the boom-and-bust mentality rooted in the selfish exploitation of natural resources.
In the myth of the frontier and the traditionally literary Western genre that promotes it, there are several key archetypes of characters. In a study on the legends and folklore tales of the nineteenth century, Kent Steckmesser identified four characters that are representative of four archetype heroes, each personifying an era in the frontier: the trapper Kit Carson, outlaw Billy the Kid, gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok, and soldier George Armstrong Custer. Steckmesser takes the interesting approach of examining the legends of these figures from different perspectives, so that there is a chapter on Billy the Kid as ‘Satanic Billy,’ and as the ‘American Robin Hood.’ This approach illustrates the versatility of legends and the process of a legend developing an established narrative as it transforms into a mythic archetype. Steckmesser concludes that each of these legends contain a few set characteristics: genteel qualities, clever traits, prowess, and epic significance.
New Western History
From the 1970s the term frontier, and the frontier myth, fell into disrepute due to its failure to include minorities based on race, class, gender and environment. The New Western History has focused on an examination of the problems of expansion; destruction of the environment, indigenous massacres, and the historical reality of the lives of settlers.A movement was made to recover unheard stories of ordinary people, often by denouncing Turner's Frontier Thesis. Scholars like Patricia Nelson Limerick, Michael Allen, Richard Slotkin and Richard White have disputed the value of Turner's thesis. They argue that Turner ignored gender, race and class in his work, focusing wholly on facets of American exceptionalism.
In Legacy of Conquest Limerick writes, "[Frederick Jackson] Turner was, to put it mildly, ethnocentric and nationalistic." Further, she notes that Turner’s frontier concept excludes much of geographical, technological, and economic aspects of Western life by limiting the frontier to agrarian settlements. Limerick’s goal is to reinterpret Western history under the term conquest, without the concept of the frontier (including its closing in 1890). In these changes Limerick reorients the way historians think of Western history, as she writes, “Reorganized, the history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences. In these terms, it has distinctive features as well as features it shares with histories of other parts of the nation and the planet.” She concludes that the important effects of her organization of Western history is viewing the West as a meeting ground between a multitude of ethnicities and understanding how conquest (one that was partly cultural) affected those ethnicities.
- Slotkin, Richard (1973). Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press. p. 5.
- Turner, Frederick Jackson (1920). "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 3.
- Turner, Frederick Jackson (1920). "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 37.
- Slotkin, Richard (1985). The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. New York: Antheneum. p. 19.
- Slotkin, Richard (1992). The Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Antheneum. p. 23.
- The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Fifth Edition. Ed. Boyer;Clark, Jr.; Kett; Salisbury; Sitkoff; Woloch. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004., p. 536.
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- The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Fifth Edition. Ed. Boyer;Clark, Jr.; Kett; Salisbury; Sitkoff; Woloch. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, p. 533.
- Slotkin, Richard (1973). Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press. pp. 14–21.
- Slotkin, Richard (1973). Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press. p. 34.
- Slotkin, Richard (1985). The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. New York: Atheneum. p. 33.
- Bold, Christine (2013). The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Bold, Christine (2013). The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 53.
- Bold, Christine (2013). The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 205.
- The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Fifth Edition. Ed. Boyer;Clark, Jr.; Kett; Salisbury; Sitkoff; Woloch. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004., p. 537.
- Steckmesser, Kent (1965). The Western Hero in History and Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
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- Limerick, Patricia (1987). The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 21.
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