Transacted Destiny: The Making of the American Frontier Myth

by William E. Grant

Volume XII Number 1, 2
Fall, 1992, Winter, 1993

The announcement in the official census bulletin of 1890 that "the unsettled area [of the continental United States] has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line" shaped our understanding of American culture as no other event in our intellectual history. In the words of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, "four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier was gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history".1 More than simply a matter of conquest and settlement of the continental United States, Americans viewed the westward movement as the realization of a grand design - a Manifest Destiny reflecting the will of Providence for the future of the new nation. As William Gilpin, Western adventurer, writer, and politician put it the untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent - to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean - to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward . . .2

In Whitmanesque language, Gilpin goes on to promise that America will "establish a new order in human affairs . . .teach old nations a new civilization . . .carry the career of mankind to its culminating point . . .shed blessings round the world," and a variety of other equally grandiose achievements. Historians can demonstrate that Americans never accomplished, either domestically or internationally, the high goals Gilpin set for Manifest Destiny. Yet, his messianic and nationalistic fervor struck a chord in the American imagination that continued to resonate throughout the remainder of Gilpin's own century and into the present in literature, fine arts, and popular culture. For American writers and artists, Manifest Destiny provided a sense of American purpose, while the westward movement of the frontier supplied the dramatic materials to evolve a national myth by which the nation defined itself. In myth, frontier America - the era that historically ended with the announcement that the frontier was closed - lives on. But it does not survive as either living memory or historical fact. Rather, it appears as an eternally new act of the imagination as artists, philosophers, scholars, politicians, tourists, and children - each in their own terms - create anew the American past and continue to transact their manifest destiny. In the words of the poet, Archibald MacLeish, the American "West is a country of the mind, and so eternal."3

On the occasion of John F. Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address - appropriately entitled "The New Frontier" - Robert Frost addressed a poem to the American people that struck a number of the themes connecting American culture to the frontier experience. Called "The Gift Outright," Frost's poem begins:

The land was ours before we were the land's
She was our land more than a hundred
Years before we were her people . . .

Caught between our colonial past and our American future, we could not discover our true selves, Frost asserts, because,

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender. 4

Only as we "gave ourselves outright . . .to the land vaguely realizing westward", Frost continues, could there develop a reciprocal relationship between people and land, each possessing the other in a complex interrelationship. Though Frost describes the giving of ourselves to the land as "many deeds of war," he also speaks of the unpossessed land as "still unstoried, artless, unenhanced." The stories and pictures by which we inscribe our cultural signature upon the American landscape were no less important to Frost than the deeds of war in possessing the continent. The American frontier myth that evolved from the conquest and settlement of the continent is a collective fantasy projecting upon the environment cultural and moral meanings so comprehensive and compelling to our national psyche as to seem an unquestionable reality reflecting the authority of a providential purpose - a manifest destiny.5

Unlike the European sense of a frontier as a geographic or political boundary, the American frontier - at least in popular conception - was a Westward-moving, North-South line dividing the settled and civilized areas of the nation from the unclaimed and unsettled wilderness. The vanguard of the westward advance, "the frontier is the outer edge of the wave - the meeting point between savagery and civilization."6 "Westward Ho!" (1873), by John Gast dramatizes this imaginary frontier line through an allegorical image of American history and geography. To the east is the city left behind, the harbor filled with shiploads of newly arrived immigrants. To the west, a relentless march of the wagons of pioneer miners and farmers, the westward-bound stagecoach, and the pony express drive Native Americans along with the buffalo and grizzly bear toward an ever-receding wilderness bounded by the Rocky Mountains that terminates on the Pacific shore. The center of this symbolic landscape represents the frontier, over which majestically towers Columbia, the spirit of progress, schoolbook in hand, shedding her grace over the infant empire. The telegraph lines she strings behind her and the trains following are symbols of the rising technological American society of the present century. Defying geography and history in order to see the entire westward movement as one moment in imaginary time and space, Gast creates a mythic paradigm of the three hundred years of American development from the first settlement to the closing of the frontier. We shall explore this process through the ideas and images that follow.

As Robert Frost pointed out, not until Americans had surrendered themselves to the land of their living could they possess and be possessed by it. Thus, the American frontier saga does not really begin, as one might expect, with the first settlements on the eastern seaboard. The New England Puritans, to whom we commonly trace our national ancestry, lived in an entirely hostile relationship with the land. They saw the forest around them as:

A waste and howling wilderness
Where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, and brutish men
That devils worshiped.7

If such wilderness had any value to them, it was only to test their own collective resolve to establish God's kingdom on earth, or individually to test their souls through the ordeal of captivity. Their narratives of captivity form the first body of literature dealing significantly with the experience of the wilderness. But they are only tentative American accounts because from their captivities the Puritans return not as initiates into a new American identity, but as better Puritans for having been tested under adversity. Their faces turned not west, but always east toward England and beyond toward the Holy Land of the Bible from where they derived their metaphors of the wilderness.

George Caleb Bingham's painting of "Daniel Boone Escorting the settlers through the Cumberland Gap" (1850) commemorates the true beginning of the mythic frontier with the penetration of the virgin lands that lay beyond the Appalachian Mountains. As William Carlos Williams wrote of Boone: there was, thank God, a great voluptuary born to the American settlements against the niggardliness of the damning puritanical tradition; one who by the single logic of his passion, which he rested on the savage life about him, destroyed as its spring that spiritually withering plague.8

Boone was first to epitomize in the American cultural tradition both the spiritual relationship with the wilderness landscape and the pioneering spirit that came to be the essence of American identity during the westward movement. Boone had, in Frost's terms, given himself "outright . . .to the land realizing vaguely westward." Conceived as a Moses figure by Bingham, Boone leads a band of pioneers through the dark and blighted wilderness of the mountain barrier between the settled (and Europeanized) East and the bright new promised land of Kentucky - the source of light in the painting. His wife, Rebecca, robed and seated in the traditional manner of a Madonna figure takes center stage as the symbol of the civilization that became perpetuated through the woman. Daniel's brother, Squire Boone, resolutely follows with his protective rifle. Prominent among the accoutrements of the pioneers are not only the weapons carried by Boone and his brother, but also the axe shown behind Boone's head, which would be just as essential as the rifle to the taming of the wilderness.

Boone was well-established as a semi-mythic Western American hero long before Bingham cast him in the central role in this mid-nineteenth century vision of the opening of the West. Schooled in the wilderness as a long hunter who had lived among the Shawnee Indians as an adopted son, Boone could meet the wilderness on its own terms. Moreover, he could love it for its own sake as well as for its potential as an American inland empire. In his "Autobiography" (actually written by John Filson), Boone revealed that his true home is in the wilderness: "I was surrounded with plenty in the midst of want", he says. "I was happy in the midst of dangers and inconveniences. In such a diversity it was impossible I should be disposed to melancholy. No populous city . . .could afford so much pleasure to my mind, as the beauties of nature I found there".9 But more than simply a man who has discovered harmony with nature, Boone also saw himself as harbinger of civilization . . .in his own words in the "Autobiography" as "an instrument ordained to settle the wilderness" - that is, as a chosen agent of God in a plan of Manifest Destiny."10 In this dual role as natural man and pathfinder, Boone became the archetype of a new American character type: the idealized frontiersman.

The emergence of Boone as an American heroic type coincided with the European Romanticism that was already beginning to influence philosophy, religion, literature, and the arts in America. Before James Fenimore Cooper could introduce the Boone-type into American literature, the Kentucky frontiersman had already become familiar to Europeans through Byron's Don Juan (Canto 8) and in several French works that followed the translation of Filson's Boone narrative in 1785. As these interpretations of Boone filtered back into American consciousness, legitimized perhaps by their acceptance in Europe, home-grown American Romanticism was preparing to offer its interpretation of the frontier and wilderness through the visual works of the Hudson River School of painting, the novels of Cooper, William Cullen Bryant's poetry, the travel narratives of Washington Irving, and the histories of Francis Parkman. Certainly these few are not the only contributors to a movement that includes the generation of poets and writers culminating in the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau, but they first endowed the wilderness, the West, and the frontier with rich mystical significance. In so doing, they began the process of mythologizing the quintessential American experience.

When Thomas Cole and his followers in the Hudson River School of painting discovered the American landscape in the 1820's, the wilderness had receded beyond the Appalachian mountains. Farms and villages already surrounded the wild Catskill scenery admired by these painters. Although Cole painted apparent wilderness scenes, his world was one in which the hand of man was seen more often than not. Indeed, in many of his best paintings, like "The Oxbow on the Connecticut River" (1846), the relationship between untamed nature with its latent and threatening power and the gentle landscape of the inhabited valley balances the tension between nature and man in a harmony that Romanticism admired. The Hudson River School painters sought in nature a revelation of the religious sublime that they believed to be inherent in the unspoiled landscape. But while they admired the wilderness, there was comfort in the fact that civilization was only a step away. Unlike Boone who found solace alone in the wilds, Cole wrote "man may seek such scenes and find pleasure in the discovery, but there is a mysterious fear [that] comes over him and hurries him away. The sublime features of nature are too severe for a lone man to look upon and be happy".11 There was no home in Cole's mind for civilized man in the wilderness. His wilderness landscapes are made less formidable by their frequent allusions to a human presence - represented by the artist's easel in the Oxbow scene - dwarfed by natural grandeur.

Cooper's novels introduced a similar sense of landscape and of the divine inherent in Nature when Natty Bumppo, a figure modeled closely on Daniel Boone, describes a Catskill Mountain panorama with a painterly eye:

there's a fall in the hills, where the water of two little ponds that lie near each other breaks out of their bounds, and runs over the rocks into the valley. ...the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks, first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and then starting and running like a creater that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft hoof of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the water looks like flakes of driven snow, afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat-rock, before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-away and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain.12

He continues:

It is a spot to make a man solemnize. You can see right down into the valley that lies to the east of the High-Peak, where in the fall of the year, thousands of acres of woods are afore your eyes, in the deep hollow, and along the side of the mountain, painted like ten thousand rainbows, by no hand of man, though not without the ordering of God's providence.

He also says of the little waterfall over this cliff, "it's the best piece of work that I've met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man's life."13 Known variously in the five novels of the Leatherstocking series as Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, and the Old Trapper, Natty Bumppo introduced to the reading public of the 1820's the most authentically American literary figure yet - or perhaps ever - invented. As one critic allows, "The character of Leatherstocking is by far the most important symbol of the national experience of adventure across the continent".14

But for all the similarities of vision between the Hudson River painters and Cooper, the novelist's world - where settlers and Indians actively contend for control of the land, and where the wilderness itself is under assault by the axes of the pioneers - is the more complex. Here there can be no ideal harmony such as that of Cole's painting of the oxbow. Cooper's frontier was a battleground for forces contending for control of the wilderness and the frontier - not only the pioneers wresting land away from the Indians and their European allies, but also between the wastrel exploiters of the environment and the wiser heads who used and preserved it. Better than any other work of its time or since, Cooper's The Pioneers dramatizes these forces in conflict.

While Cooper's fictional frontier was introducing Eastern audiences to Romantic visions of wilderness America, the real trans-Appalachian frontier was rapidly developing into a new America. Crude, energetic, and determined, the new frontiersmen little resembled the philosophic Boone/Bumppo-type of fiction and poem. As represented in George Caleb Bingham's "The Squatters" (1850), Midwestern American pioneers were a taciturn and suspicious lot, their horizons limited by the forests that surrounded them and their humanity eroded by the rigors of frontier life. Even Thomas Jefferson, the great spokesman for an American society founded upon the noble character of the freeholding yeoman farmer, conceded them to be somewhere between savage and civilized in their cultural development. He saw their value primarily as forerunners to the civil order that came in their wake. They tamed the dark and bloody ground Boone had won from the Indians; and, not surprisingly, they shared none of the eastern Romantic appreciation either of Indians or wilderness. Their respect for Boone was based upon his role as Indian fighter and trailblazer, not as Nature's nobleman. In their minds, the only good Indian was a dead one. One of Cooper's characters reflects when he says:

if there's a plenty of any thing in this country, it's the trees. If there's any sin in chopping them, I've a pretty heavy account to settle, for I've chopped over the best half of a thousand acres, with my own hands...; and I hope to live to finish the whull, before I lay up my axe. Chopping comes quite natural to me, and I wish no other employment.15

But if the society growing up on the western boundaries of the nation left much to be desired in terms of enlightened attitudes toward the wilderness and its inhabitants, it was nonetheless developing a spirit that did much to shape American culture in the years to come. Though far from a perfect world, the West was a seedbed of democratic institutions. These western communities inspired Frederick Jackson Turner to contend that the frontier was the shaping force of American character and American democratic institutions. "American development," Turner concluded:

has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.16

Of all the historic American frontiers, the Midwest, from which Turner himself came, most nearly met the conditions he described for the evolution of American democracy.

This central region was also the landscape of the great interior American rivers - the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Missouri. Along these banks sprang up not only a new society but also a new American language and literature. On the decks of Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri keelboats, flatboats, rafts, and steamboats, and in the towns and taverns along the rivers evolved the characters who called themselves half-alligator and half-horse. They were bigger-than-life folk heroes whose language was as extravagant as their claims in the boasts that came to characterize the exuberant Westerner. This rich vernacular tradition evolved such authentic American folk heroes as Davy Crockett, the Tennessee snapping Turtle; Mike Fink, unrivaled Cock-of-the-Walk among keelboatmen; and even gentle Johnny Appleseed, the Saint Francis of American folk tradition.

George Caleb Bingham introduced the rowdy navigators of the river into art through his Jolly Flatboatmen series. Their rich language and humor found its way into print first through the tradition we know as frontier humor, and eventually through the works of the most American of all nineteenth century writers, Mark Twain. His Life on the Mississippi gives us the best extant example of the raftman's brag:

Whoo-oop! I'm the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansas! Look at me! I'm the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam'd by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the smallpox on the mother's side! Look at me! I take nineteen alligators and a bar'l of whisky for breakfast when I'm in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I'm ailing. I split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my strength! Blood's my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music to my ear. Cast your eye on me gentlemen! and lay low and hold your breath, for I'm about to turn myself loose!17

If, as Ernest Hemingway claimed, all American literature began with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, it was a frontier birth - culmination of a tradition that began on the decks of river boats and around the fires in pioneer cabins.

While the great rivers served as avenues of settlement for the Midwestern frontier - more settlers came down the Ohio River than made the arduous trip over the Cumberland Gap, they also opened to exploration and exploitation the vast western lands of the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-06) sent out by Jefferson to find a short overland route to the Pacific was of limited practical value commercially. But its national impact was nevertheless enormous. As characterized by Henry Nash Smith:

the importance of ...Lewis and Clark...lay on the level of imagination: it gave tangible evidence to what had been merely an idea, and established the image of a highway across the continent so firmly in the minds of Americans that repeated failures could not shake it.18

The Rocky Mountain fur trade opened the far west to exploitation in the wake of Lewis and Clark. In their search for beaver, mountain men discovered the trails and passes settlers later followed west, wagon wheels cutting the first transcontinental highway to the Pacific. The 1820's and 1830's, the heyday of the American fur trade, coincided with the aesthetic discovery of the wilderness and the frontier. Spurred on by this interest, a variety of writers and artists, European as well as American, made pilgrimages to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. There they experienced and documented first-hand the pristine wilderness, the world of the Indians, mountain men and their adventures, and, in due time, the pioneers, buffalo hunters, miners, horse cavalry, and cowboys who populated the Far West. These artists and writers were themselves primarily players in the westward movement. They bequeathed to us a legacy of images that continue to illuminate the spirit of the mythic west for us.

A new generation of Hudson River School landscape artists, including Frederick E. Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran, discovered a true wilderness where the grandeur and sublimity of majestic peaks, vast canyons, and great virgin valleys seemed to dwarf the merely picturesque eastern mountains. Here they found Native Americans living in harmony with the land, part of an unchanging world that seemed as ancient as the almost immortal redwood trees of California. It was a love of the Indians and fascination with their cultures and brought George Catlin, the first American painter to experience the Far West, to the frontier of 1832 for an eight-year sojourn among the Plains tribes. Determined to record for posterity cultures he knew were being destroyed, Catlin worked feverishly to complete some 600 portraits and genre scenes during his years in the field. Working hastily, he omitted mere anthropological and geographical detail to concentrate upon the character of his sitters to endow them with psychological depth and individuality unprecedented in American Indian portraiture to this time. Catlin was also fascinated with the Indian sense of ritual, both in the hunt and in ceremonies, and he recorded faithfully scenes never seen by another white observer. Under Catlin's hands, the common stereotype of the Noble Savage, familiar in both Europe and America, achieved a human dimension that added a note of genuine tragedy to the death of these cultures.

What Catlin did for the Indian in pictures, Francis Parkman did in the words of his book, The Oregon Trail. Determined to study the "manners and characters of Indians in the primitive state," Parkman and a companion spent the summer of 1846 wandering the prairies in the company of mountain men and Sioux Indians, hunting, loafing, and exploring - the fulfillment of every schoolboy's dream.19 Under the influence of the Hudson River painters and the Noble Savage ideal of Romanticism, Parkman found in the West both sublime nature and humanity uncorrupted by civilization. This passage, describing an old Indian in his natural environment, captures both themes as they appear in Parkman's work:

I saw him seated alone, immovable as a statue, among the rocks and trees. His face was turned upward, and his eyes riveted on a pine-tree springing from a cleft in the precipice above. The crest of the pine was swaying to and fro in the wind, and its long limbs waved slowly up and down as if the tree had life. Looking for a while at the old man, I was satisfied that he was engaged in an act of worship, or prayer, or communion with some kind of supernatural being .... To him all nature is instinct with mystic influence.

Leaving the old Indian undisturbed, Parkman then climbed to the mountain top where he too is drawn into a meditation:

Emerging from the dark shadows of rocks and pines, I stepped forth into the light, and walking along the sunny verge of a precipice, seated myself on its extreme point. Looking between the mountain-peaks to the westward, the pale blue prairie was stretching to the farthest horizon, like a serene and tranquil ocean. The surrounding mountains were in themselves impressive, but this contrast gave redoubled effect to their stern features.20

so reminiscent of the typography of Cole's Oxbow painting, Parkman's vision draws him into the sublime wilderness for a rare moment of sharing the old Indian's spiritual world.

Alongside the Noble Savage in these early works of Western art and literature, the popular image of the mountain man of the Rocky Mountain fur trade emerged. Although eventually these men would succeed Boone as pathfinders leading pioneers westward, in the beginning they had turned their backs on the East to enter fully into the wilderness environment. No group of Americans ever adapted so fully to the natural environment as these hardy trappers who could excel even the Indians in survival skills. They had to if they were not to fall victims to the tribes with whom they contended for the freedom and riches of the Rocky Mountain wilderness.

Painter Alfred Jacob Miller came West to visit the annual rendezvous of mountain men, Indians, and fur traders. He had been employed by a wealthy Scottish nobleman to record scenes for paintings to decorate his patron's ancestral castle. The first romantic portrayals of life among the fur trappers originate with Miller's paintings. The gentility of his scene of a marriage between a young mountain man and an Indian bride is far from the actual fact of woman-buying practiced by the trappers - Indian women being little more than a commodity either to seller or buyer. But it is the fulfillment of the same romantic dream of life with a dusky maiden that inspired Herman Melville's Typee. Creator of a rich legacy of paintings of the mountain man, critics have praised Miller for the accuracy of detail in his painting, but detail alone does not make for realism. Essentially Miller created a dream world of romance and adventure that can still stir longings for escape to the mythic West.

The first American writer of note to characterize the mountain man was Washington Irving who went on a tour of the prairies in 1832. "The American trapper stands by himself, and is peerless for the service of the wilderness," Irving wrote:

Drop him in the midst of a prairie, or in the heart of the mountains, and he is never at a loss. He notices every landmark; can retrace his route through the most monotonous plains, or the most perplexed labyrinths of the mountains; no danger nor difficulty can appal him, and he scorns to complain under any privation.21

More importantly, Irving first characterizes the mountain man as a true Westerner by placing him on horseback, thereby establishing for the first time in literature what would become the quintessential western frontier figure:

A totally different class [of trappers] has now sprung up, 'the Mountaineers', the traders and trappers that scale the vast mountain chains, and pursue their hazardous vocations admidst their wild recesses. They move from place to place on horseback. The equestrian exercises, therefore, in which they are engaged; the nature of countries they traverse; vast plains and mountains, pure and exhilarating in atmospheric qualities; seem to make them physically and mentally a more lively and mercurial race than the fur traders and trappers of former days.... A man who bestrides a horse, must be essentially different from a man who cowers in a canoe. We find them, accordingly, hardy, lithe, vigorous and active; extravagant in word and thought and deed; heedless of hardship; daring in danger; prodigal of the present, and thoughtless of the future.22

It would be difficult to find a more comprehensive catalog of the qualities associated with the typical Western hero of popular fiction and film than this one written by Irving more than 150 years ago.

While Irving placed the mountain man on horseback as a predecessor to the cowboy and cavalryman, Francis Parkman placed him within the tradition of the white Noble Savage already made familiar by treatments of Boone and Cooper's Natty Bumppo. As his guide, Parkman hired Henry Chatillon, an experienced mountain man. Though Parkman deplored most mountain men he met as degenerate, half-savage renegades, he claims "Henry Chatillon was of different stamp." Though schooled only in the wilderness and unable to read and write, Chatillon "had a natural refinement and delicacy of mind, such as is rarely found even in women. His manly face was a perfect mirror of uprightness, simplicity, and kindness of heart: he had moreover, a keen perception of character, and a tact that would preserve him from flagrant error in any society." To these characteristics, Parkman added generosity, honesty, modesty, and unflinching courage before concluding, " he was a proof of what unaided nature will sometimes do. I have never, in the city or in the wilderness, met a better man than my noble and true-hearted friend, Henry Chatillon."23

But from the beginning, the Mountain Man was doomed along with the Indian before the inexorable tide of immigration across the continent that would overwhelm both. When in 1836 a band of four missionaries - two men and two women - guided by mountain man Joe Meek crossed the Rocky Mountains with their wagon, they marked the beginning of what historians called the greatest overland migration in history. From a trickle of thirteen immigrants to Oregon in 1840, the flow of humanity quickly swelled to a flood: almost 3,000 by 1845, over 6,500 in 1847, a jump to nearly 30,000 with the beginning of the California gold rush in 1849, and nearly 70,000 souls in the peak year of 1852, most of whom were bound for California. Though declining rapidly after 1852, even as late as 1859, over 20,000 people made the overland trek to Oregon or California. The sheer numbers are staggering. An area long characterized by isolation and inaccessibility was suddenly the highroad to the West.

Popular image makers quickly integrated the overland migrants into Wild West mythology with pictures like Carl Wimar's "The Attack on an Emigrant Train" (1856). Actually, such attacks occurred very rarely. On a trail littered with rotting carcasses of dead oxen, human waste, and the debris of thousands of campsites, cholera, not Indians, was the great killer. The familiar pattern of wagon circled at night was more to keep the cattle from straying than to protect against Indian attack. Contradicting these mundane facts, largely imaginary heroic images of the Oregon Trail dominated popular culture until the Civil War interrupted the flow of westward traffic. Soon after the war, the transcontinental railway replaced wagon traffic through the region, but by then the West was rapidly changing and the end of the frontier was in sight.

Settlers had largely passed by the Great Plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains during the great immigration to California and Oregon. But after the Civil War this area became the new frontier as miners, cattlemen, and farmers began to exploit the land. By 1890, America's native people had been rounded up and herded onto desolate reservations. Each of these groups, along with the stagecoaches, pony express, lawmen, saloon gamblers, outlaws, railroaders, and a host of others wrote its own chapter in the frontier myth. Their rich legacy in stories and pictures contributed to the growing legends of the founding of the United States. The cattlemen whose herds replaced the buffalo were pre-eminent among these groups.

The cowboy, the ultimate man on horseback, became in American popular culture the unchallenged king of frontier figures. As portrayed by painter Frederic Remington and novelist Owen Wister, the cowboy of the plains was a direct descendent of a line of noble horsemen stretching back to the days of knight errantry. In Wister's words, "The puncher's ungoverned hours did not unman him. If he gave his word, he kept it; Wall Street would have found him behind the times. Nor did he talk lewdly to women; Newport would have found him old fashioned."24 In addition to inheriting the code of chivalry, the literary cowboy incorporated all the best qualities of his frontier forebears: he was free-spirited, individualistic, self-reliant, expert with rope and gun, and a strict observer of his gentlemanly code toward women and children. Like Cooper's Natty Bumppo or Parkman's Chatillon, he was a natural aristocrat. "Here in the flesh and blood was a truth which I had long believed in words, but never met before," Wister wrote. "The creature we call a gentleman lies deep in the hearts of thousands that are born without chance to master the outward graces of the type."25 Though the great open ranges of the archetypal cattle West only lasted for some twenty years, it was long enough to establish this new man of the frontier as the enduring image of all things Western - and American. As the frontier myth flourished in twentieth century popular culture, the cowboy, the final avatar of the frontier American Adam - who inhabited, according to Wister, "a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from Genesis" - came to typify the imagined West.26

Mythic history is invariably a distortion of the actual unfolding of events and often a denial of their true significance. Critics complain today that the western myth is Eurocentric and racist in its attitude towards Indians and other minorities, sexist in its treatment to women, and insensitive to the environment in its adulation of exploiters of the fragile land. All these criticisms are just. We might recognize with Richard Slotkin that "a people unaware of its myths is likely to continue living by them," or "that myths reach out of the past to cripple, incapacitate, or strike down the living."27 But we should also acknowledge with William H. Goetzman that myth, which he calls "the tale of the tribe," is important to us because it "weaves together the many strands and layers of complex human experience into one understandable story that inspires the people or the tribe to go on as one into succeeding epochs, sustained by an increasingly timeless tradition."28 Today, when the new historians of the West are divorcing Western history from Frederick Jackson Turner and the mythic vision American history and literature inherited from him, it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that the mythic West was a compelling and often positive force in the development of American culture. It was, as Robert Athearn has written:

more than an emotion or a state mind. More than a fantasy floating around in the American mentality on gossamer wings - ethereal, hard to define, impossible to corner. It is real.... The...American lives in two worlds: the day-to-day scene and the make-believe or fantasized world that has, for a great many people, actual substance. And there is no conflict between the two.... Agreed, the factual frontier is gone, but the possibilities, the promise that it held, are very much alive in the national mind.29

One might add, not just Americans, but people throughout the world have taken to heart the myth of the West. They join in affirming the dream that the frontier represented: a dream that man could become the best that he might be, the hope that a nation might transact a destiny that would fulfill the best hopes of civil progress. These dreams and hopes are the continuing legacy of the myth of the American frontier.


1"The Significance of the Frontier in American History," The Frontier in American History (New York, H. Holt and Company, 1921), 38. Turner's famous essay was first presented before the American Historical Association at the Chicago World's Fair, July 12, 1893. It is widely reprinted in anthologies. Volume 100 of The March of America Facsimilie Series (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966) reproduces the text from the 1893 annual report of the AHA. 

2Quoted by Henry Nash Smith, Virginia Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 1950; Rpt. 1970), 37. 

3"Sweet Land of Liberty," Colliers, (Vol. 136; July 8, 1955), 55. 

4The Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 467. 

5For an extended definition and discussion of American frontier myth, see Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press: 1973), and The Fatal Environment: The Mythology of the Frontier in an Age of Industrialism, 1800-1890 (Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press: 1985). 

6Turner, Frontier in American History 3. 

7Michael Wigglesworth, quoted by Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 4.

8William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956), 130. 

9John Filson, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke: and an Essay towards the Topography, and natural History of the important Country: to which is added, an Appendix Containing. The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon ... (Wilmington, DE, 1784). Reprinted in facsimile as Volume 50 of The March of America Facsimilie Series (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms, 1966). 

10Ibid, 81. 

11Quoted by Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1973), 79. 

12James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (Albany, State University of New York Press: 1980), 293. Originally published 1823. 

13Ibid, 294.

14Smith, Virgin Land, 61. 

15James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers; of The Sources of the Susquehanna (New York : Hurst & Company, Nd.), 250. 

16Turner, Frontier In American History 2-3. 

17Mark Twain Mississippi Writings: Life on the Mississippi (New York: The Library of America, 1982), 241. Originally published 1883.

18Smith, Virgin Land, 17.

19Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountains (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1872), 33. 

20Ibid, 330-331. 

21Washington Irving, The Adventure of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 15. Originally published 1837. 

22Ibid, 11. 

23Parkman, Oregon Trail, 49-51. 

24Owen Wister, The Virginian (New York: Penguin, 1988), xlvii. Originally published 1902.

25Ibid, 9. 

26Ibid, 10. 

27Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence, 4, 5. 

28William H. Goetzman and William N. Goetzman, The West of the Imagination (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1986), 434. 

29Robert Athearn, The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986), 274.