The Frontier In History

But much of the frontier of Australia is occupied by men of means who had behind them government aid and a semi-paternal encouragement in their adventures. The same is true in part of the government-fostered settlement of Western Canada. It was not so with the American West. Here was not the place of the rich man but of the poor man, and he had no one to aid him or encourage him. Perhaps no man ever understood the American West who did not himself go there and make his living in that country, as did the men who found it and held it first. Each life on our old frontier was a personal adventure. The individual had no government behind him and he lacked even the protection of any law.

Our frontier crawled west from the first seaport settlements, afoot, on horseback, in barges, or with slow wagon-trains. It crawled across the Alleghanies, down the great river valleys and up them yet again; and at last, in days of new transportation, it leaped across divides, from one river valley to another. Its history, at first so halting, came to be very swift — so swift that it worked great elisions in its own story.

In our own day, however, the Old West generally means the old cow country of the West — the high Plains and the lower foothills running from the Rio Grande River to the northern boundary. The still more ancient cattle-range of the lower Pacific Slope will never come into acceptance as the Old West. Always, when we use these words, we think of buffalo on the Plains and of Indians, and of their passing before the footmen and riders who carried the phantom flag of Drake and the Virgin Queen from the Appalachians to the Rockies–before the men who eventually made good that glorious and vaunting vision of the Virginia cavaliers, whose party turned back from the Rockfish Gap after laying claim in the name of King George on all the country lying west of them, as far as the South Sea!

New home in the Far West.

New home in the Far West.

The American cow country may with very good logic arrogate to itself the title of the real and typical frontier of all the world. We call the spirit of the frontier Elizabethan, and so it was; but even as the Elizabethan Age was marked by its contact with the Spanish civilization in Europe, on the high seas, and in both the Americas, so the last frontier of the American West also was affected, and largely, deeply, by Spanish influence and Spanish customs. The very phraseology of range work bears proof of this. Scores of Spanish words are written indelibly in the language of the Plains. The frontier of the cow-range never was Saxon alone.

It is a curious fact also, seldom if ever noted, that this Old West of the Plains was very largely Southern and not Northern on its Saxon side. No States so much as Kentucky and Tennessee and, later, Missouri — daughters of Old Virginia in her glory–contributed to the forces of the frontiersmen. Texas, farther to the south, put her stamp indelibly upon the entire cattle industry of the West. Visionary, impractical, restless, adventurous, these later Elizabethan heroes–bowing to no yoke, insisting on their own rights and scorning often the laws of others, yet careful to retain the best and most advantageous customs of any conquered country–naturally came from those nearest Elizabethan countries which lay abandoned behind them.

If the atmosphere of the Elizabethan Age still may be found in the forgotten Cumberlands, let us lay claim to kinship with yonder roistering heroes of a gallant day; for this was ever the atmosphere of our own frontier. To feel again the following breezes of the Golden Hind, or see again, floating high in the cloudless skies, the sails of the Great Armada, was the privilege of Americans for a double decade within the memory of men yet living, in that country, so unfailingly beloved, which we call the Old West of America.

 

By Emerson Hough, 1918. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.

About the Author:  Excerpted from the book The Passing of the Frontier, A Chronicle of the Old West, by Emerson Hough, Yale University Press, 1918. Emerson Hough (1857–1923).was an author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels of life in the American West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in literature and motion pictures.  For years, Hough wrote the feature “Out-of-Doors” for the Saturday Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines. The article as it appears here is not verbatim as it as been edited.

Also See:

The American Frontier

Frontier Folk

Frontier Types by Theodore Roosevelt

Frontier Wars by Emerson Hough

The Great Plains

 

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