Migration and Settlement from the Atlantic to the Pacific,

1750-1890:  A Survey of the Literature

by Kim M. Gruenwald



From Frederick Jackson Turner

to the New Western History


     In the late nineteenth century when Americans were feeling overwhelmed by waves of immigration from south and central Europe, many scholars argued that all that was good about America came from its Protestant English origins—they wrote of an Anglo-American love of liberty and individualism supposedly unknown to newcomers who they considered anarchists and socialists.  A generation later, Congress passed a law to apportion the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country according to their percentage of the population in 1890 before the presence of the newcomers was fully felt.  But a young scholar from Wisconsin latched on to the date of 1890 for a different reason, and he turned the way Americans thought about their history upside down.  In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his frontier thesis as a paper at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  Turner stated that the population of the United States had reached a saturation level of at least 2 people per square mile in 1890, and therefore the frontier was closed.  This was significant, he argued, because it had been the frontier that made the United States unique.  Americans, he said, were exceptional, and it was their centuries-long struggle with the wilderness, not their European traditions, that made them so.  The history of the West as a place continued after 1890, of course, but in retrospect, the date makes an excellent cut-off point for frontier history because Americans began looking outward starting with the Spanish-American War, turning their attention from claiming a continent to overseas imperialism.

     Frederick Jackson Turner characterized the frontier as a moving line—the line between civilization and savagery.  The further Americans of European descent penetrated into the continent from the East, the more American they became.  Turner identified a number of different stages:  the furthest line of colonial expansion to the Appalachians, the expansion to the Mississippi during the first half of the nineteenth century, and expansion into the arid plains and the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific after the Civil War.  On each frontier, settlers wrested the land from Native Americans by force and established farms, as well as social and political institutions.  Turner argued that settlers of all European ethnicities became Americans through this process.  Individualism, self-reliance, and democracy flourished.  He later published a book that expanded upon his thesis:  The Frontier in American History (New York:  H. Holt & Co., 1920).

     Others followed in Turner’s footsteps, and frontier history took on new significance for American scholars.  With the publication of The Spanish Borderlands:  A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1921), Herbert Eugene Bolton coined a new term and made an argument for Spain’s contribution to the settlement of North America.  In The Great Plains (New York:  Grossett & Dunlap, 1931), Walter Prescott Webb theorized that Americans used revolvers, barbed wire, windmills, and railroads to conquer the plains where the Spanish had failed.  Wilbur R. Jacobs, John W. Caughey, and Joe B. Franz provide an excellent overview of the work of these three founders of western history in Turner, Bolton, and Webb: Three Historians of the American Frontier (Seattle: Washington University Press, 1965).

     In the closing decades of the twentieth century, many scholars began to challenge Turner’s interpretation, and the New Western History was born.  This generation argued that focusing on the frontier as a process had long overshadowed the need for a real examination of the West as a place—they favored a regional approach.  They believed that with its mixture of peoples of European, Mexican, Native American, and Asian descent, the West was every bit as ethnically diverse as the East, and after World War II, every bit as urban.

Four historians led the charge.  In Legacy of Conquest:  The Unbroken History of the American West (New York:  Norton, 1987), Patricia Nelson Limerick synthesized much of the best new work to tell the tale of a region filled with large-scale capitalists and ordinary farmers dedicated to making a profit, along with settlers and politicians who preached individualism and self reliance but demanded government help at every turn.  Limerick identified a region fraught with messy interactions between people of all races and social classes that became more complex rather than less over time.  In Land Use, Environment, and Social Change:  The Shaping of Island County Washington (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1980), Richard White examines the impact of Native Americans, early settlers, loggers, and twentieth-century industrialists on the landscape, concluding that both the land and the people emerged in poorer shape for all their efforts. Donald Worster combined environmental history, political history, and business history to examine power relations in Rivers of Empire:  Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1985).  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis:  Chicago and the Great West (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1991) is a masterful work that provides a thought-provoking new model of frontier economic and regional development with an urban area at the core rather than developing at the end of the process.

     The New Western History included interdisciplinary scholarship, including geographer D.W. Meinig’s Southwest:  Three Peoples in Geographical Change, 1600-1700 [i.e. 1600-1970] (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1971) and his four-volume work, The Shaping of America:  A Geographical Perspective on 500 years of History (New Haven, Conn:  Yale University Press, 1986-1998).  Others studies to consult include John Stilgoe’s Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845 (New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1982) and John A. Jackle’s Images of the Ohio Valley:  A Historical Geography of Travel, 1740 to 1860 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1977).

Readers looking for the latest general overviews of the history of migration and settlement in North America should consult Richard White, ”It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”:  A New History of the American West (Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1991); Gregory H. Nobles, American Frontiers:  Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1997); Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West:  A New Interpretive History (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2000); and Eric Hinderaker and Peter C. Mancall, At the Edge of Empire:  The Backcountry in British North America (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).  Gerald McFarland provides the story of one family’s generational moves across each frontier over the course of 200 years in A Scattered People:  An American Family Moves West (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1985).





The Frontier of Colonial

and Revolutionary America


     During the 1980s, the backcountry emerged as one of the hottest fields in both frontier history and the history of early America.  Scholars began to chronicle what happened as the colonists expanded beyond the Atlantic seaboard into the western Carolinas, western Virginia and Pennsylvania, and into northern New England. As Gregory H. Nobles explains in “Breaking into the Backcountry:  New Approaches to the Early American Frontier,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 46 (October 1989): 641-70, this new generation got busy examining a key paradox of frontier history:  eastern leaders and western entrepreneurs wanted to integrate the economy and society of new territories into the larger Atlantic world, but while settlers themselves shared these goals in many ways, they also sought independence.  Rather than a simple tale of economic and democratic progress, frontier history became a story of competing visions and strategies as farmers, eastern merchants, and western developers all did battle for control over the process of territorial expansion.

     In The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry:  A Case Study of Lunenburg County, Virginia, 1746-1832 (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), Richard R. Beeman chronicles the way in which society changed as residents switched from tobacco to cotton production.  Many scholars have made note of the intersection of backcountry history with that of the American Revolution—see Gentry and Common Folk:  Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier, 1740-1789 (Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 1991) by Albert H. Tillson and An Uncivil War:  The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution (Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1985), edited by Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert.  In The Planting of New Virginia:  Settlement and Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), Warren R. Hofstra follows the fortunes of one region as the residents first settled the area, began to exchange goods and services among themselves, and then began to build stronger ties to international markets back east.

     Books that focus on the economic transformation of western Pennsylvania include Valley of Opportunity:  Economic Culture Along the Upper Susquehanna, 1700-1800 (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1991) by Peter C. Mancall.  It is a short, readable account that traces the evolution of land use and cultural interaction starting with the Susquehanna Indians, moving on to the arrival of American colonists pushing west, and finishing with the impact of the American Revolution and the growth of markets afterwards.  R. Eugene Harper’s The Transformation of Western Pennsylvania, 1770-1800 (Pittsburgh:  University of Pittsburgh Press) is not as deftly presented, but readers may be surprised at the number of people who descended upon Pittsburgh and its hinterland over such a short time, and the way in which entrepreneurs consolidated power and began to construct commercial networks from the start.

     New England’s frontier has not been neglected.  Battles between absentee landowners and settlers seeking land they claimed by working it are the subject of a pair of books:  Alan Taylor’s Liberty Men and Great Proprietors:  The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1990) and Michael A. Bellesiles’s Revolutionary Outlaws:  Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier (Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1993).  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich turns from the struggle of men to the life of one woman on the Maine frontier in A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York, Knopf, 1990).  Ballard’s story makes fascinating reading, and through her eyes readers become involved in family life as Martha moves from being a mother to a grandmother, and then struggles alone when her husband is imprisoned for debt.  Along the way readers can also ford raging rivers to reach needy patients, attend a rape trial, and see male doctors push midwives aside.  William Wyckoff’s The Developer’s Frontier:  The Making of the Western New York Landscape (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1988) and  Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town:  Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York:  A. A. Knopf, 1995) provide readers with accounts of the goals and roles of town developers and boosters who paved the way for the farmers who came after.

     At roughly the same time that backcountry scholarship emerged, ethnohistory made itself felt.  This is the practice of carefully combining information gleaned from European sources with the theories and models of anthropology to reconstruct the world of early Native Americans who left no written records.  Scholars who refined this approach have written at length about what happened as the eighteenth century progressed when colonists abandoned trade with Indian nations in favor of taking their land.  In the The Dividing Paths:  Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of Revolution (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1993), Tom Hatley provides the most straight forward account of this evolution.  Claudio Saunt’s A New Order of Things:  Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733-1816 (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1999) explores how entry into European markets changed the way Creek Indians governed themselves and their families.  In The Indians’ New World:  Catawbas and their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1989), James H. Merrell focuses on how refugees of tribes weakened or destroyed by contact with Europeans came together to form a new nation.  Theda Perdue concentrates on women’s history in Cherokee Women:  Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1998). 

Others have focused their attention on the Pennsylvania frontier.  Council Fires on the Upper Ohio:  A Narrative of Indian Affairs in the Upper Ohio Valley until 1795 (Pittsburgh:  University of Pittsburgh Press, 1940) by Randolph C. Downes remains one of most interesting and detailed accounts from the Indian point of view.  Downes is not afraid to find humor in some of the situations, and he casts an equally critical and discerning eye on the strategies of Indians and whites.  It is the Indians who are the pioneers on the move in Michael N. McConnell’s A Country Between:  The Upper Ohio Valley and its Peoples, 1724-1774 (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1992).  Pushed west by European encroachment, the Delaware Indians erected a new society on the Ohio only to have colonists follow and take the land from them once again.  In At the Crossroads:  Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2003), Jane T. Merritt focuses her energy on an analysis of the religious images, dream landscapes, and language that marked the rise of racism between Indian and white neighbors, culminating in atrocities by both sides during the Seven Years’ War.




The Trans-Appalachian Frontier


As colonists from British North America pushed west into the Ohio Valley in the 1750s, they helped spark the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France as the two empires did battle over who would control the interior of North America.  After the Revolution, settlement by the newly independent United States began in earnest.  The two best overviews of westward expansion into all the states between the original thirteen colonies and the Mississippi River are Reginald Horseman, The Frontier in the Formative Years, 1783-1815 (New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) and Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian West:  People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1978).   Andrew R. L. Cayton theorizes that federal aid in expelling Native Americans north of the river coupled with neglect to the south created the early foundations for hostility between the sections in “’Separate Interests’ and the Nation-State:  The Washington Administration and the Origins of Regionalism in the Trans-Appalachian West,” Journal of American History, 79 (June 1992), 39-67.  In The Urban Frontier:  Pioneer Life in Early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, and St. Louis (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1964), Richard C. Wade provides a necessary corrective to histories that emphasize farmers to the exclusion of other topics.  Kim M. Gruenwald follows his lead with River of Enterprise:  The Commercial Origins of Regional Identity in the Ohio Valley, 1790-1850 (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2002), a study of merchants and their networks of trade.  Gruenwald traces the economic ties that bound residents north and south of the river in cities and towns large and small into a cohesive region called the Western Country before the rise of the abolition movement helped transform the Ohio River from an avenue of trade to a boundary between North and South.  To compare and contrast relationships between settlers and Native Americans across time and space in the trans-Appalachian West, readers should consult Contact Points:  American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750-1830 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1998) edited by Andrew R. L. Cayton and Fredrika J. Teute.

     Those wishing to delve into the history of the Old Northwest should begin with The Old Northwest:  Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 (Indianapolis:  Indiana Historical Society, 1950) by R. Carlyle Buley.  This is a massive and detailed 2-volume work that is eminently readable and very well indexed.  Buley includes chapters on land policy, the daily lives of pioneers, western society, politics, religion, education, all things economic, and more.  Next they may wish to turn to Peter S. Onuf’s Statehood and Union:  A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1987).  Onuf focuses on the ambiguous nature of the ordinance’s antislavery provision that created little controversy when enacted, but evolved into a source of friction as time went by.  Northern and southerner settlers with differing ideas of how a new territory and state should be run do battle in Andrew R. L. Cayton’s The Frontier Republic:  Ideology and Politics in the Ohio Country, 1780-1825 (Kent, Ohio:  Kent State University Press, 1986) and Nicole Etcheson’s The Emerging Midwest:  Upland Southerners and the Political Culture of the Old Northwest, 1787-1861 (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1996).  Richard Lyle Power takes the story further, examining the interaction between a new influx of Yankees and Ohioans of southern stock after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 in Planting Corn Belt Culture:  The Impress of the Upland Southerner and Yankee in the Old Northwest (Indianapolis:  Indiana Historical Society, 1953).  Donald J. Ratcliffe claims that his Party Spirit in a Frontier Republic:  Democratic Politics in Ohio, 1793-1821 (Columbus:  Ohio State University Press, 1998) is old-fashioned political history, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the way he examines the strong ties Ohioans retained with easterners—his frontier is not an isolated one.  An in-depth, local study of northern society in the West can be found in Susan E. Gray’s The Yankee West:  Community Life on the Michigan Frontier (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

     Though it may be argued that the Ohio River was not really a boundary between sections within mainstream society before the 1830s, there’s no denying that it was always just that from the African American perspective.  Readers should begin with Stephen Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil:  African American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900 (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1999) for an excellent study of the interaction between African Americans and their white neighbors north of the Ohio River.  Juliet K. Walker’s Free Frank:  A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 1983) chronicles the story of a man who moved from Kentucky to Illinois to engage in land ventures.

     There are many excellent studies of the pan-Indian movement that developed in response to white encroachment west of the Appalachians, including A Spirited Resistance:  The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) by Gregory Evans Dowd.  For a more in-depth biography of one of the movement’s leaders, readers should turn to The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1983), an excellent examination of the role of Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, by R. David Edmunds.  Relationships between Native Americans and white settlers—both economic and familial—are the focus of Lucy Eldersveld Murphy’s A Gathering of Rivers:  Indians, Metis, and Mining in the Western Great Lakes, 1737-1832 (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 2000).  She highlights the changing patterns of white encroachment and the strategies that Indians adopted to combat it.

     As for Kentucky, Elizabeth A. Perkins delved into the memories recorded by a mid-nineteenth century chronicler to explore the mental territory of the earliest settlers in Border Life:  Experience and Memory in the Revolutionary Ohio Valley (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1998).  In “The Consumer Frontier:  Household Consumption in Early Kentucky,” Journal of American History, 78 (September 1991): 486-510, Perkins added more weight to notions of strong connections binding East and West that modify earlier models that emphasize isolation. In The Buzzel About Kentuck:  Settling the Promised Land (Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 1999) Craig Thompson Friend assembles a variety of studies by scholars of early Kentucky, and in Along the Maysville Road:  The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West (Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 2005), he focuses his attention on the evolution of society along the most important route from the Ohio River to the Kentucky Bluegrass.  Stephen Aron’s How the West Was Lost:  The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) provides the best account of the evolution of Kentucky settlement and society.

     As for the cotton frontier, in The Ruling Race:  A History of American Slaveholders (New York, Knopf, 1982), James Oakes provides an interesting analysis of the way ordinary settlers expected slavery to help them get ahead as they moved west.  In order to compare this view with that of the planters themselves, see James David Miller, South by Southwest:  Planter Emigration and Identity in the Slave South (Charlottsville:  University of Virginia Press, 2002).  History from the bottom of the economic ladder is ably recounted in Charles C. Bolton’s Poor Whites of the Antebellum South:  Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississppi (Durham, N.C.:  Duke University Press, 1994).  For in-depth local histories, see Edward E. Baptist, Creating an Old South:  Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier before the Civil War (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Donald P. McNeilly, The Old South Frontier:  Cotton Plantations and the Formation of Arkansas Society, 1819-1861 (Fayetteville:  University of Arkansas Press, 2000); Daniel S. Dupre, Transforming the Cotton Frontier:  Madison County, Alabama, 1800-1840 (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1997); and Willam Oates Ragsdale, They Sought a Land:  A Settlement in the Arkansas River Valley, 1840-1870 (Fayetteville:  University of Arkansas Press, 1997).  Kinship networks and sex roles take center stage in Joan E. Cashin’s A Family Venture:  Men & Women on the Southern Cotton Frontier (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1991).

     The intersection between westward movement from the Appalachians to the Mississippi and the religious revivals of the first half of the nineteenth century can be found in a trio of books:  Ellen Eslinger, Citizens of Zion:  The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism (Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1999); Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross:  The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York:  Knopf, 1977); and Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Conn:  Yale University Press, 1989).  




Expansion Beyond the Mississippi River


     The first migration and settlement of Europeans into North America came from the South and began west of the Mississippi River—the Spanish came north from Mexico before the English settled Jamestown.  For an overview of the topic from Spanish exploration in the early sixteenth century through Mexico’s independence in 1819, readers should consult David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1992).  Elizabeth Ann Harper John expands the story to include a third group in Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds:  The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the South, 1540-1795 (College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 1975).  Captives and Cousins:  Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2002) by James F. Brooks spans 400 years and focuses on the evolution of how Indians, Spaniards, and Americans dealt with captives in turn and how they interacted with each other.  As for the New Western History, William DeBuys focuses on environmental history and differing cultural values pertaining to land use among Native Americans, Hispanics, and Anglo Americans in Enchantment and Exploitation:  The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Moutain Range (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1985).

As for the Lone Star State, David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1936 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1987) presents an excellent overview.  Recent books include Mark M. Carroll, Homesteads Ungovernable:  Families, Sex, Race, and the Law in Frontier Texas, 1823-1860 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2001) and Walter Struve, Germans & Texans:  Commerce, Migration, and Culture in the Days of the Lone Star Republic (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1996). 

     For an overview of how westward migration affected Native Americans, readers should start with Robert Utley, The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890 (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1984).  Of course Indians were pioneers, too, and William G. McLoughlin takes on the topic of how they adapted to the arid West in After the Trail of Tears:  The Cherokeess Struggle for Sovereignty, 1839-1880 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1993).  Colin G. Calloway has edited a collection of Native American accounts of westward expansion so that readers can read about their point of view in their own words in Our Hearts Fell to the Ground:  Plains Indian Views of How the West Was Lost (Boston:  Bedford Books/St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

     For books that focus on the journey west itself, readers can turn to John Mack Faragher’s Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1979) and John D. Unruh’s The Plains Across:  The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979).  Readers can find many scholars that focus on the trials and tribulations of farmers once they arrived, including Allan G. Bogue, From Prairie to Corn Belt:  Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1963) and Gilbert C. Fite, The Farmers’ Frontier, 1865-1900 (New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966).

     For the nuts and bolts of the development of mining in the West, Rodman W. Paul’s Mining Frontiers of the Far West, 1848-1880 (New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963) is considered a classic, and it was reissued in 2001 by the University of New Mexico Press with three new chapters by historian Elliot West.  Many, many published first-person accounts of the Gold Rush can be had by interested readers, but J. S. Holliday’s The World Rushed In:  The California Gold Rush Experience (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1981) is a special one.  The diary of William Swain who went west seeking gold in 1849 and returned home to western New York two years later is complemented by carefully rendered maps and the inclusion of seventeen illustrations drawn by another man on the trail—Joseph Goldsborough Bruff.  Bruff’s pictures are grand, yet unsentimental, and really allow readers to see the trail to California through the eyes of participants.  The best current scholarly treatments of the Gold Rush include Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Days of Gold:  The California Gold Rush and the American Nation (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1997) and a collection of essays edited by Kevin Starr and Richard J. Orsi--Rooted in Barbarous Soil:  People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2000).  As for the way that society evolved once the rush ended, readers should turn to Ralph Mann’s After the Gold Rush:  Society in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, 1849-1870 (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1982).

Americans were on the trail to Oregon before the Civil War, too.  The Pacific Northwest’s history is different in some ways from the rest of the trans-Mississippi West because it is not an arid land.  The most important studies include John Fahey, The Inland Empire:  Unfolding Years, 1879-1929 (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1986);  Katherine G. Morrissey, Mental Territories:  Mapping the Inland Empire (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1997);  Dean L. May, Three Frontiers:  Family, Land, and Society in the American West, 1850-1900 (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Peter G. Boag, Environment and Experience:  Settlement and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Oregon (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1992).  As for the Native American point of view on all this change, readers may turn to Alvin M. Josephy’s The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1971.)

One of the main objections to Turner’s frontier thesis voiced by many scholars was his emphasis on the rugged individual.  A wealth of community studies emerged that told a different story.  Susan Sessions Rugh writes about an Illinois town in which New Englanders, southerners, and settlers from the mid-Atlantic states competed for land and markets in Our Common Country:  Family Farming, Culture, and Community in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2001).  John Mack Faragher once again focuses on issues of gender in Sugar Creek:  Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1986), and also posits the interesting idea that there existed a persistent, small core of settlers in frontier towns that controled things while the majority picked up and moved on to greener pastures on a regular basis.  For in-depth local histories of ethnic communities readers can turn to a trio of books:  Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers:  The Migration from Balestrand, Norway to the Upper Middle West (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1985); Royden Loewen, Family, Church, and Market:  A Mennonite Community in the Old and New Worlds, 1850-1930 (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1993); and Frederick C. Luebke, European Immigrants in the American West:  Community Histories (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1998).  Of course one of the groups that set itself apart most clearly were the Mormons, and their history can be explored in Newell G. Bringhurst, Brigham Young and the Expanding American Frontier (Boston:  Little, Brown, 1985) and Klaus J. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1981).  Readers will have no trouble finding books about cowboys, but should balance such fare with Robert R. Dykstra’s The Cattle Towns (New York:  Knopf, 1968) for business concerns and life at the end of the trail. 

The experiences of women in the West are ably examined in Anne M. Butler, Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery:  Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90 (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1985) and Sandra L. Myres, Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915 (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1982).  New Mexico Women:  Intercultural Perspectives (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1986) edited by Joan M. Jensen and Darlis A. Miller, is a wonderful collection of essays that span the period from the first Spanish incursions through the twentieth century.  For a collection of biographies, turn to Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain, eds, By Grit & Grace:  Eleven Women who Shaped the American West (Golden, Co.:  Fulcrum Pub., 1997).

     Overviews of African Americans who ventured west include Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier:  African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York:  Norton, 1998) and Monroe Lee Billington and Roger D. Hardaway, African Americans on the Western Frontier (Niwot:  University Press of Colorado, 1998).  For more detailed community studies, consult Nell Painter, Exodusters:  Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York:  Knopf, 1977) and Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community:  Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1994).

The Asian experience is examined in general in Jack Chen, The Chinese of America (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1980), and more particularly and locally in Liping Zhu, A Chinaman’s Chance:  The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier (Niwot:  University Press of Colorado, 1997) and Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943:  A Trans-Pacific Community (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2000).  Some historians have begun exploring issues of race more generally.  Their work includes Najia Aarim-Heriot, Chinese Immigrants, African Americans, and Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848-82 (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 2003) and Arnoldo De Leon, Racial Frontiers:  Africans, Chinese, and Mexicans in Western America, 1848-1890 (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 2002).





There are many resources available for those who would like to find out more about the numerous topics that pertain to the history of migration and settlement in the United States before they settle down to hone in on the topics that interest them most.  Reference works include Howard R. Lamar, ed., The New Encyclopedia of the American West (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1998) which includes entries that pertain to all 50 states; Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, Martha A. Sandweiss, eds, The Oxford History of the American West (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994); Sucheng Chan, ed., Peoples of Color in the American West (Lexington, Mass.:  D.C. Heath and Co., 1994); and the four-volume Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography (Glendale, Calif:  A.H. Clark Co., 198801994), edited by Dan L. Thrapp.  Scholarly journals to consult include the Western Historical Quarterly and the Journal of the Early Republic.





     As the New Western History took hold, some began to disparage the concept of the frontier by referring to it as the “’F’ word.”  Scholars dismissed Turner’s definition of a frontier as the line between civilization and savagery and most began studying the West as a place.  There’s no doubt that Turner had the story wrong:  the wilderness wasn’t an empty place waiting to be conquered; Indians played a much more critical role than that of obstacles to be overcome, and they certainly didn’t disappear; individualism and self-sufficiency weren’t all they were cracked up to be--the role of government and big business proved to be critical, and most moved west (or north or east) in groups for support; ethnic differences did not disappear; and power and domination arose along with democracy.  But Turner was on the right track, and he had the right idea.  From the mid-eighteenth century onward, Americans were obsessed with expansion as they gazed west from the Atlantic.  For many, independence and a rise in status didn’t wait just over the horizon, but the fact that Americans believed it did proved to be a powerful motivator even if the reality didn’t always measure up to the vision.  Turner presented the history of the frontier as a tale of triumph, but in fact the real story of complex human interaction among whites, Indians, Hispanics, blacks, Asians, men, women, farmers, land speculators, businessmen, politicians, and all the rest is much more interesting and has much more to tell us about how the United States that we know today came to be.