Frontier myth

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The frontier myth is a term given to the popular romanticization of the Wild West frontier.


In the United States, the frontier was the term applied to the zone of unsettled land outside the region of existing settlements of Americans. 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.

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…”[1]

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.[2]

There were two ‘Wests’ – the real West in which farmers, ranchers, miners and prostitutes and criminals pursued their happiness and the legendary West that took deep root in the American imagination.[3] Western novels, or cowboy novels, portrayed the west as both a barren landscape and a romanticized idealistic way of living.

American historian Frederick Jackson Turner published The Significance of the Frontier in American History in 1893, read before the American Historical Association in Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exhibition (Chicago World's Fair).[4] This work perpetuated the Frontier Thesis and myth of the frontier, detailing the meeting of civilization and wilderness, and announcing the end of the frontier era. His belief that the success of America was tied to western expansion, produced characteristics of vigilantism, crudeness, and also democracy and civilization that were uniquely recognizable as American.[5]

Scholars of the New Western History, including Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White argue that Turner ignored gender, race and class in his work, focusing wholly on facets of American exceptionalism. The one-dimensional aspects of his work can be seen in the stereotypically male frontier myth that endures.

Enduring myths[edit]

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.[6]

The frontier myth was also substantiated through history and literature in Henry Nash Smith's 1950 book Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth, which proclaimed the 'notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward'.[7] The debates surrounding this popular text have questioned the value of the myth and the frontier to American identity.

New Western History[edit]

Main article: New Western History

From the 1870s the term frontier, and the frontier myth, fell into disrepute due to its failure to include minorities based on race, class, gender and environment. 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.[8][9][10] They also focused on an examination of the problems of expansion; destruction of the environment, indigenous massacres, and the realities of settler lives.


  1. ^ Twain, Mark. Roughing It. 1872
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1893.
  5. ^ Faragher, John Mack ed. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History". (1999)
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth. 1970 ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950. p3
  8. ^ Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1987.
  9. ^ Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment:. New York: Atheneum, 1985.
  10. ^ White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.