“Westward, ever westward.”
— Henry Wells
The “Frontier” is defined as “a region at the edge of a settled area”. The “American Frontier,” began with the first days of European settlement on the Atlantic coast and the eastern rivers. From the start, the “Frontier” was most often categorized as the western edge of settlement. However, this was not always the case, as English, French, Spanish and Dutch patterns of expansion and settlement were quite different. Early on, thousands of French migrated to Canada and French fur traders ranged widely through the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds and, as far as the Rocky Mountains; however, they rarely built settlements. The Dutch however, did establish permanent villages and trading posts in the Hudson River Valley; but, did not push westward. The English, in the meantime, generally built compact settlements and didn’t push too far westward.
In the course of the 17th century, the frontier had advanced up the Atlantic river courses and the tidewater region became the settled area. In the first half of the 18th Century, another advance occurred. Trappers and traders followed the Delaware and Shawnee Indians to the Ohio River as early as the end of the first quarter of the century.
Governor Spotswood, of Virginia, made an expedition in 1714 across the Blue Ridge. The end of the first quarter of the century saw the advance of the Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans up the Shenandoah Valley into the western part of Virginia, and along the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. The Germans in New York pushed the frontier of settlement up the Mohawk River to German Flats. In Pennsylvania the town of Bedford indicated the line of settlement. Settlements had also begun on New River, a branch of the Kanawha, and on the sources of the Yadkin and French Broad.
The French and Indian Wars of the 1760’s resulted in a complete victory for the British, who took over the French colonial territory west of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Settlers then began to move across the Appalachians into areas such the Ohio Country and the New River Valley. The King attempted to arrest the advance by his proclamation of 1763, forbidding settlements beyond the sources of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic, however, his proclamation would be in vain. From the beginning, the East feared the result of an unregulated advance of the frontier, and tried to check and guide it, but, would never be able to stop the flow of people heading westward.
Following the victory of the United States in the American Revolution and the signing Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States gained control of the British lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. During this time, thousands of settlers, such as Daniel Boone, crossed the Alleghanies into Kentucky and Tennessee, and the upper waters of the Ohio River were settled. Some areas, such as the Virginia Military District and the Connecticut Western Reserve, both in Ohio, were used by the states to reward to veterans of the war. How to formally include these new frontier areas into the nation was an important issue in the Continental Congress of the 1780s and was partly resolved by the Northwest Ordinance in 1787.
When the first census was taken in 1790, the continuous settled area was bounded by a line which ran near the coast of Maine, and included New England except a portion of Vermont and New Hampshire, New York along the Hudson River and up the Mohawk about Schenectady, eastern and southern Pennsylvania, Virginia well across the Shenandoah Valley, and the Carolinas and eastern Georgia. Beyond this region of continuous settlement were the small settled areas of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Ohio River, with the mountains separating them and the Atlantic area. The isolation of the region caused the region to be called the “West,” and the concept of the Western Frontier began to evolve.
For the next century, westward expansion would increase following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the subsequent Lewis and Clark Expedition By 1820 the settled area included Ohio, southern Indiana and Illinois, southeastern Missouri, and about half of Louisiana. These settled areas often surrounded Indian lands, whom the settlers protested against, which would later result in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The frontier region of the time lay along the Great Lakes, where Astor’s American Fur Company operated in the Indians trade, and beyond the Mississippi River, where Indians traders extended their activity as far as the Rocky Mountains.
The rising steam navigation on western waters, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and the westward extension of cotton culture added five frontier states to the Union. In the meantime, the Federal Government was continuing to expand the nation.
In 1845, it annexed Texas and in 1846, the Oregon Treaty ended British claims to Oregon Territory. In 1848, following the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded much of the West and Southwest to the United States. This included what would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming; and in 1853 the United States bought an additional tract of land from Mexico. These new territories attracted hundreds of thousands of settlers.
By the middle 1800’s, the line of the frontier was indicated by the present eastern boundary of Indian Territory, Nebraska, and Kansas. Minnesota and Wisconsin still exhibited frontier conditions, but, the distinctive frontier of the period was found in California, where the gold discoveries had sent a sudden tide of adventurous miners, and in Oregon, and the settlements in Utah.