AMERICAN FRONTIER, THE. The American frontier, from an early period in the history of the continent, has affected the imagination of the pioneer who desired to exploit it, and of the visitor from afar who viewed it. Long before its existence and its significance attracted the attention of indigenous his torians, it had drawn comment from the alien observer as an environment in which unusual processes were at work, and in which new human values were being born and old values were attaining new proportions. The various definitions that have been accorded it have depended largely upon the momentary use to which the frontier was being put by white men, or upon the functional relation ship of the frontier as it has stood with settled society on one hand and with primi tive virgin soil upon the other.
The cultural values of the frontier have come piecemeal. First, there was the plorer's frontier, as the European invader brought one geographic region after other within the field of recorded human knowledge. Next came the frontiers of the missionary, the soldier and the trapper, upon which each of these scouts of society lived his life. The first of these worked upon the souls of the native inhabitants, who were destined to recede as the world became aware of their existence; the ond was staking in a new world, for one great Power or another, the claims that it was hoped one day to exploit ; the third, the trapper, differed from his priestly or his military fore-runner in that he, first among white men, lived on the land he found and derived from its products a basis for existence. None of these changed the face of nature. All gave way, eventually, when the frontier of the farmer made its appearance and dotted the land with cabins and cleared fields. There is a long succession of later frontiers that may be traced in American history, as alongside the farmer's frontier emerged also the frontiers of the miner, the lumberman and the railroad; and out of them came the frontiers of established local ment, of locally created capital, of industrial society and of the various aspects of culture or religion. In each of these several fields the frontier provides a means for studying institutions while they are in the formative stage, and before they have become inextricably involved in the complex of a progressive and sophis ticated society.
From a different point of view the frontier may be described as a region, a process or a fixed line. As a region, it may be considered as a place in which the new forces of western civilized life are being applied for the first time, and in which a new social group is finding itself and is creating its internal bonds. As a process, it concerns itself with the ways and means whereby the institutions of older society are being worked over and selected according to their survival values, within the territorial limits of the frontier region. As a geographic line, it may be shown upon a map for any period at which statistical evidence is available ; and in this connection it is always the line that may be drawn separating territory possessing an arbitrarily selected average of residents per square mile, from territory of less than that average number. The decennial census of the U.S. Government, since 179o, has provided the basis for this cartographic identification of the frontier. In most of the recent census reports maps are shown for each decennial period, with shadings indicating the distribution of populations of under two inhabitants per square mile, of 2 to 6, of 6 to 18, of 18 to 45, of 45 to 90 and of over 9o. The steps in this scale that American historians have com monly accepted for their study of frontier lines are the first and the second. Most frontier lines are drawn at under two, or over six ; and in either case the line thus drawn shows, for the period of the census concerned, the region near which the frontier process was most typically at work. A series of frontier line maps, made ten years apart, from 1790 until 189o, shows that invariably the zone of contact between settled America and the wilderness ran irregularly from north to south; and that at each decennial census it had made a perceptible advance along most of its front towards the west. At the date of the first census the line ran not far from the watershed of the Appalachians ; after 1890 it had passed be yond the Great Plains, and the whole of the United States was so nearly occupied that no sharp frontier line can be indicated. The duration of the period in American history in which a frontier line can always be shown runs, therefore, from the moment of the initial settlements in the 17th century until the close of the 19th century. To-day, there is no frontier in the true sense, and the frontier episode is closed.
The history of the frontier in America falls easily into three major divisions, that may be separated roughly by the treaties that closed the Seven Years' War (1763), and by the panic of 1837. Each of these periods has characteristics that warrant its treatment as a logical unit.
The first period is dominated by the planting and extension of the English colonies in North America. No serious damage is done by ruling out both the French and the Spanish. The French, confined mostly to the valley of the St. Lawrence, failed to develop a pioneering population ; and their settlements existed chiefly as a residence for the missionaries, the military men and the trappers who were uncovering the interior of the continent without chang ing its aspect. The Spanish settlements in the southern portions of the United States were even less aggressive in the spreading of civilization than the French. And both French and Spanish proved themselves unable to stand up against the competition of the invaders from the British settlements.
As the frontiersmen met their problems certain conditions were emphasized that were not unique or new, but that were not so clearly visible in older and more complicated societies. Striking among these conditions was a trend towards equalitarianism, with its resulting consequence in social and political democracy. For the bulk of any frontier group, and during a period of years that averaged perhaps 20 in a single frontier community, nearly the whole attention of society was devoted to the primary physical tasks of reclaiming the land and erecting the dwellings. The period begins when the earliest pioneer makes his appearance ; it ends, normally, when the first of the native-born children leave the home cabin to move on to a new frontier. The uniformity of activity necessary for survival placed a high premium on physical and moral virtues, and threw into the discard matters of social standing, cultivation of taste, birth and even financial status. There were few things on a frontier that could be bought ; least of all personal service. With all at work each resented the occasional individual who escaped work. There was a tendency to dislike those not in step with the community. Men equal in actual status found it easy to generalize upon equality, and to resent artificial prominence. A rough and ready democracy grew up, that gave tone and character to all_ the frontiers that ap peared and passed.
Another condition of frontier life was an unusual openness of mind in certain directions. In most settled societies of the world, personal status was so nearly fixed at birth that it was safe to assume a future without change. But to the frontiersman change was the orderly expectation of life. Within two decades the successful pioneer saw his virgin claim develop and improve, his acreage increase, his cleared fields spread, his herds multiply. He saw grow around him the roads, schools, churches, county towns and institutions of government. He saw the transition from Indian country to sparse farming, the progress from arbi trary territorial government to full participation by the auton omous State, the spread of the available country towards the west as the Government bought land from the Indian or took it over from Spain or Mexico. And in his mind grew an idea of progress that time has scarcely dimmed in the American mind. His community was less than usually bound to rigid classifications and was abnormally ready to look upon and accept a change. He was always a romanticist as he brooded over his future ; and in public affairs this state of mind turned easily into a spirit of expansion.
A more precise consequence of his economic status was his normal tendency towards the acceptance of inflationist theories of finance. Every frontier was improved, largely, by borrowed money. Although the capitalist with ready money to use or lend was not unknown, the average pioneer citizen was obliged to borrow in order to develop his farm. He borrowed amid the enthusiastic conditions of a boom period. By a kind of auto intoxication the frontier community magnified its hope of profits, elevated the value of its land and multiplied its probable crop. Loans were made on inflated valuations ; rates of interest were promised that could never be earned. Debt was spread over the whole farm, yet it was always a matter of years before more than a small fraction of the total acreage could be made to yield. The community borrowed to build its roads and public build ings ; when railroads came, the community and its people bonded themselves to subsidize the railroad. From the mixture of blind enthusiasm, lack of skill and actual fraud that accompanied frontier promotion came a situation of heavy debt at a high inter est rate that reduced the community to bankruptcy when the boom was over or hard times came. On such occasions, without fail, the local response to hard times and unpayable debts was the appearance of inflationist schemes and the suggestion of stay laws to prevent the forcible collection of debts. The land banks of New England, the paper money revolt of Shay, the banking restrictions of the Jackson period, the stay laws of Kentucky, the repudiation of State debts, the demand for greenbacks and the cry for free silver in turn indicated the frontier tendency to accept inflation as a remedy. And the tendency was given pro found political meaning because of the uniformity of the frontier group and the lack of capitalistic dissenters among the debtor farmers. And the directness of the American representative sys tem gave an easy route for the translation of this discontent into party action.
Repeatedly, in every region of the United States, the frontier set-up was prepared, and the resulting community fitted into the matrix and developed towards a balanced and normal life. The process was repeated so often, and under such nearly uniform con ditions, that the American frontier affords one of the few places in which it is practicable to study human affairs as in a laboratory. The experiments were staged not by premeditation but by standard conditions that repeated themselves for many generations. Raw nature and stark human power were again and again brought to gether; and from their contact emerged human self-governing groups. The effect of the process, as group of ter group selected for its use the institutions it valued, and abandoned the customs, re strictions and institutions that seemed to have lost their meaning, was to launch American society as a whole, and to transmute the person, of whatever race, into a new type that was already known as American when Benjamin Franklin made his appearance at the courts of Europe. Its constant tendency was towards direct popular government on a representative system, towards a broad ening opportunity for all in affairs political, economic or social, and towards a new status for women. Enough has already been established by the historians of the frontier to indicate that herein is the most distinctive factor in the making of the United States.
Twenty-five years after the separation from England there came a second wave of frontier discontent with the trend of affairs, and it was Thomas Jefferson who organized and led the democratic revolt. His political followers were scattered over every State, among the young and the little; but on the frontier his name aroused enthusiasm in the average mind. His democ racy, more than a little derived from the French revolutionary phi losophers, was instantly acceptable in a community where equality in fact was the common condition. He and his lieutenants gov erned the United States until their enthusiasm cooled, their youth ful ideals settled into middle-aged conservatism, and until a new democracy of the Mississippi valley ranged itself behind the per sonality of Andrew Jackson.
In 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected president of the United States, and ,for a third time a frontier party took charge of American destiny. A minor revolt, but one with many re semblances to that of Jackson, took the government away from the Jacksonians in 184o, and placed the Whig Party in power. And 20 years later, the new Republican Party, whose enthusiasms ran highest among the newer communities of the north-western States, gained control of the government and entered upon the struggle to prevent the extension of slavery and for the maintenance of the Union, with a typical child of the frontier, Abraham Lincoln, at its head.
A generation after Lincoln, the new States of the western plains, where railway activity had promoted immigration faster than the country was able to support it, festered with discontent. And again there was the element of absenteeism, of inflation finance, of the protest of the common man against the power of the great, of the desire for a re-making of the institutions of administration and government. In this, as in the earlier revolts, there was lacking any great desire to change the basis of affairs, or to alter the philosophies of life. There was little of socialism or revolution but much of a desire to capture the organs of government and to operate them in the interest of the common people. The issue was fought in 1896, over the slogan of free silver and behind the crusading leadership of William Jennings Bryan. For once the western sequence of party creations was stopped. An embattled East resisted and prevented victory for free silver and Populism. But it was because the country had changed and the frontier had become a reminiscence rather than a living fact. No comprehension of American politics is possible without an understanding of the ways and means by which, for a century after independence, this democratic wave sequence kept alive the ideals of western democrats in protest against the rigid classifica tions of older and industrialized society.
The significance of the frontier in American life was never clearly expressed until in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner, a pro fessor in the University of Wisconsin and himself a child of the north-western frontier, published a monograph, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Thereafter, by its sheer convincing quality, Turner's idea gave a new reasonableness to American history that young historians absorbed without knowing it ; and that older historians, almost without exception or protest, adopted. It forced a general restatement of American history, now that the organizing principle was recognized. And this re statement is still under way, making progress as new studies develop the meaning of local affairs, or as new syntheses attempt to bring together the whole of the American story.