The Frontier In History

By Emerson Hough in 1918

 

Wagon Train, 1847

Wagon Train, 1847

The frontier! There is no word in the English language more stirring, more intimate, or more beloved. It has in it all the passion of the old French phrase, En avant! It carries all of the old Saxon command, Forward!! It means all that America ever meant. It means the old hope of a real personal liberty, and yet a real human advance in character and achievement. To a genuine American it is the dearest word in all the world.

What is, or was, the frontier? Where was it? Under what stars did it lie? Because, as the vague Iliads of ancient heroes or the nebulous records of the savage gentlemen of the Middle Ages make small specific impingement on our consciousness today, so also even now begin the tales of our own old frontier to assume a haziness, an unreality, which makes them seem less history than folklore.

Now the truth is that the American frontier of history has many a local habitation and many a name. And this is why it lies somewhat indefinite under the blue haze of the years, all the more alluring for its lack of definition, like some old mountain range, the softer and more beautiful for its own shadows.

The fascination of the frontier is and has ever been an undying thing. Adventure is the meat of the strong men who have built the world for those more timid. Adventure and the frontier are one and inseparable. They suggest strength, courage, hardihood — qualities beloved in men since the world began–qualities which are the very soul of the United States, itself an experiment, an adventure, a risk accepted. Take away all our history of political regimes, the story of the rise and fall of this or that partisan aggregation in our government; take away our somewhat inglorious military past; but leave us forever the tradition of the American frontier! There lies our comfort and our pride. There we never have failed. There, indeed, we always realized our ambitions. There, indeed, we were efficient, before that hateful phrase was known. There we were a melting-pot for character, before we came to know that odious appellation which classifies us as the melting-pot of the nations.

The frontier was the place and the time of the strong man, of the self-sufficient but restless individual. It was the home of the rebel, the protestant, the unreconciled, the intolerant, the ardent–and the resolute. It was not the conservative and tender man who made our history; it was the man sometimes illiterate, oftentimes uncultured, the man of coarse garb and rude weapons. But, the frontiersmen were the true dreamers of the nation. They really were the possessors of a national vision. Not statesmen but riflemen and riders made America. The noblest conclusions of American history still rest upon premises which they laid.

But, in its broadest significance, the frontier knows no country.  It lies also in other lands and in other times than our own. When and what was the Great Frontier? We need go back only to the time of Drake and the sea-dogs, the Elizabethan Age, when all North America was a frontier, almost wholly unknown, compellingly alluring to all bold men. That was the day of new stirrings in the human heart. Some strange impulse seemed to act upon the soul of the braver and bolder Europeans; and they moved westward, nor could have helped that had they tried. They lived largely and blithely, and died handsomely, those old Elizabethan adventurers, and they lie today in thousands of unrecorded graves upon two continents, each having found out that any place is good enough for a man to die upon, provided that he be a man.

The American frontier was Elizabethan in its quality–childlike, simple, and savage. It has not entirely passed; for both Elizabethan folk and Elizabethan customs are yet to be found in the United States. While the half-savage civilization of the farther West was roaring on its way across the continent — while the day of the keel boatman and the plainsman, of the Indian-fighter and the miner, even the day of the cowboy, was dawning and setting–there still was a frontier left far behind in the East, near the top of the mountain range which made the first great barrier across our pathway to the West.

That frontier, the frontier of Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton, of James Robertson and John Sevier, still exists and may be seen in the Cumberland — the only remaining part of America which is all American. There, we may find trace of the Elizabethan Age — idioms lost from English literature and American speech long ago. There, we may see the American home life as it went on more than a hundred years ago. We may see hanging on the wall the long muzzle-loading rifle of an earlier day. We may see the spinning-wheel and the loom. The women still make in part the clothing for their families, and the men still make their own household furniture, their own farming implements, their own boots.

American frontier life, by Currier & Ives, 1862

American frontier life, by Currier & Ives, 1862

This overhanging frontier of America is a true survival of the days of Drake as well as of the days of Boone. The people are at once godly and savage. They breed freely; they love their homes; they are ever ready for adventure; they are frugal, abstemious, but violent and strong. They carry on still the half-religious blood feuds of the old Scotch Highlands or the North of Ireland, whence they came. They reverence good women. They care little for material accumulations. They believe in personal ease and personal independence. With them life goes on not in the slow monotony of reiterated performance, but in ragged profile, with large exertions followed by large repose. Now that has been the fashion of the frontier in every age and every land of all the world. And so, by studying these people, we may even yet arrive at a just and comprehensive notion of what we might call the “feel” of the old frontier.

There exists, too, yet another Saxon frontier in a far-off portion of the world. In that strange country, Australia, tremendous unknown regions still remain, and the wild pastoral life of such regions bids fair to exist yet for many years. A cattle king of Queensland held at one time sixty thousand square miles of land. It is said that the average size of pastoral holdings in the northern territory of Australia is two hundred and seventy-five thousand acres. Does this not recall the old times of free range in the American West?

This strange antipodal civilization also retains a curious flavor of Elizabethan ideas. It does not plan for inordinate fortunes, the continual amassing of money, but it does deliberately plan for the use by the individual of his individual life. Australian business hours are shorter than American. Routine is less general. The individual takes upon himself a smaller load of effort. He is restive under monotony. He sets aside a great part of his life for sport. He lives in a large and young day of the world. Here we may see a remote picture of our own American West — better, as it seems to me, than that reflected in the rapid and wholly commercialized development of Western Canada, which is not flavored by any age but this.

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