Frontier Folk

By George Booth in 1880

The Pioneer by Harper's Weekly

The Pioneer by Harper’s Weekly

What do we mean by the frontier? And what, by frontier folk? The terms came into vogue when tolerably well-defined lines marked the onset of civilization at the far West, and all beyond was wilderness. Yet today, with settlements scattered over all the Territories, the phrase loses none of its significance. It still has a geographical import, and another, deeper than the geographical, suggesting a peculiar civilization and a certain characteristic mode of life. It does not bring to mind those prosperous colonies whose lands, surveyed, secured by good legal titles, and freed from the danger of savage inroads, have a permanent population busily engaged in founding homes. It takes us rather to the boundaries of the Indian reservations, along which scattered camps and settlements of white men are fringed; to lands which, though legally open for settlement, are constantly menaced by Indians; to those strange, shifting communities which sometimes, like Jonah’s gourd, spring up in a night only to wither away in a day.

The first element of success in a frontier settlement is that a sufficient number of nomads should be willing to sustain each other in the belief that “this spot is to be a city and a centre.” The news that a considerable group is already gathered on any such foreordained and favored spot bring others; nor do the arrivals cease until a day comes when it is bruited abroad that some of the “first citizens” have revised their views of its glorious destiny, and have left it for a new Eden. The sojourner in such regions — he cannot be called an inhabitant — lives in expectation of the coming settler who will pay him cash for his “claim”; or else perhaps, he devotes himself to discovering a lode or a placer, which, if disposed of, may put him in funds for a year’s spree; or again he may be a trapper, perpetually shifting his place as the peltry grows scarce.

These indicate the respectable callings or expectancies of the solid men in frontier life; but, they are surrounded by a larger throng of men, who hang about settlements with the possible hope of an honest El Dorado, but, who, in the meantime, and until this shall come, take to the surreptitious borrowing of horses without leave, or to the industries of the faro table, or to the “road agency,” by which phrase is signified the unlawful collection of a highway toll amounting usually to whatever of value the traveler may have about him. There are no superfluous refinements and gradations in frontier society. The citizen is either “an elegant gentleman” or a liar and a horse-thief. Yet, even people of the latter description are rarely molested unless taken in the actual practice of their profession, which they ply, to say the truth, with such discrimination as to make interference with them difficult; but, if caught in the very act and overpowered, their fate is sudden — they are “got rid of.”

In fact, homicide on the frontier, as compared with horse-stealing, is a peccadillo. The horse has a positive value; the thief, a negative one. Justice does not pursue the man who slays his fellow in a quarrel; but, if it grasps the stealer of a purse on the prairie or of a horse from the herd, his last day has come.

Yet he always has the chance of escaping capture, and of playing in other frontier cities the role of “elegant gentleman” on his earnings, reimbursing himself in a professional way; and he may continue in this career even if suspected, provided he does not ply his vocation in those communities which he honors with his presence when not engaged in prosecuting his business. Personal violence is, however, mostly confined to instances where it is for the profit of the aggressor. The traditional free-fight, or killing a man at sight, is rare, probably much rarer than in the Southwest. Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri River, was the place where, according to the story, the early morning visitor at the bar-room, before it had been swept out, expressed his surprise, although he knew the soil to be good for vegetables, at the excellence of its fruit, judging from the large size of the grapes he saw on the floor when he was informed, “Stranger, them’s eyes!” — the results of the preceding evening’s amusement. Yet, in two visits to Benton, the writer saw not the least sign of violence even in amusement, although he would be sorry to have some Bentonians around his camp at night if the horses were not well guarded or to meet them on the prairie without sufficient protection.

Trial of a horse thief, 1877

Trial of a horse thief, 1877

If a settlement becomes permanent and prosperous, whether through commerce, mining, or agriculture, the first settlers sell out as soon as they can get cash in hand, and seek new domains. There are men who have passed their manhood in taking out claims, building ranches, and “realizing” for better or for worse, on a journey from Texas to Montana, sometimes taking in California by the way. Very often the wife, children, and stock of the pilgrim accompany him. Often a cabin is put up and inhabited by a family, with a retinue of cattle, horses, pigs, and poultry in the barn, only to be deserted the next year on the mere report of some better claim to be found further on. There never seems to be any real misery among these shiftless people. Their children grow up sturdy and ignorant, their stock and chickens multiply as they journey on. It may be a new stage-route which gives them a year’s sustenance, such as it is, by their squatting on good enough grass-land to be able to fill a hay contract. Or, they may go to a point near which some new military post is about to be built, where they can raise some vegetables to sell to the troops before the company gardens become productive. Or, they may take out a claim on some really good spot, where permanent settlers speedily follow them. But, as soon as they can see flour, bacon, and tobacco, and find a little in the pocket for whiskey and clothes, sufficient to last for a year ahead, off they go again, — not so much like gypsies, who will often revisit the same spot, as like the Wandering Jew, pursued by an avenging angel, driving them from contact with steady and methodical people. Their household stuff is packed in their “prairie schooners,” as their wagons are called, and on they move by easy stages, seldom taking the trouble to pitch a tent at night, the women sleeping in the wagons and the men on the ground beneath them. There is plenty of grass for the stock, and the weather is pleasant. There is no especial hurry or worry: it is only necessary to reach somewhere, in time to put up a log hut and a shed for the stock, for the winter’s shelter. The little army of the United States, spread over a country as large as the Roman Empire, does its duty so well that there is only occasional danger from Indians roaming away from their reservations, and the military telegraphs are now so far extended that timely warning is usually given if war parties are out.

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