American Frontier

The frontier is the margin of undeveloped territory that would comprise the United States beyond the established frontier line. The frontier line was the outer boundary of European-American settlement into this land. Beginning with the first permanent European settlements on the East Coast, it has moved steadily westward from the 1600s to the 1900s with occasional movements north into Maine and Vermont, south into Florida, and east from California into Nevada. Pockets of settlements would also appear far past the established frontier line, particularly on the West Coast and the deep interior with settlements such as Los Angeles and Salt Lake City respectively. The “West” was the recently settled area near that boundary. Thus, parts of the Midwest and American South, though no longer considered “western”, have a frontier heritage along with the modern western states. In a view about the frontier, Richard W. Slatta wrote:

Historians, sometimes, define the American West as the land west of the 98th meridian or 98° west longitude. This line of longitude runs through the middle of Texas and Kansas and up through the eastern third of Nebraska and the Dakotas. Some definitions of the region include all land west of the Mississippi or Missouri rivers.

In the colonial era, before 1776, the west was of high priority for settlers and politicians. The American frontier began when Jamestown, Virginia, was settled by the English in 1607. In the earliest days of European settlement of the Atlantic coast, until about 1680, the frontier was essentially any part of the interior of the continent beyond the fringe of existing settlements along the Atlantic coast. English, French, Spanish and Dutch patterns of expansion and settlement were quite different. Only a few thousand French migrated to Canada; these habitants settled in villages along the St. Lawrence River, building communities that remained stable for long stretches; they did not simply jump west the way the British did. Although French fur traders ranged widely through the Great Lakes and midwest region they seldom settled down. French settlement was limited to a few very small villages such as Kaskaskia, Illinois as well as a larger settlement around New Orleans. Likewise, the Dutch setup fur trading posts in the Hudson River valley, followed by large grants of land to rich landowning patroons who brought in tenant farmers who created compact, permanent villages. They created a dense rural settlement in upstate New York, but they did not push westward.

Areas in the north that were in the frontier stage by 1700 generally had poor transportation facilities, so the opportunity for commercial agriculture was low. These areas remained primarily in subsistence agriculture, and as a result, by the 1760s these societies were highly egalitarian, as explained by historian Jackson Turner Main:

The typical frontier society, therefore, was one in which class distinctions were minimized. The wealthy speculator, if one was involved, usually remained at home, so that ordinarily no one of wealth was a resident. The class of landless poor was small. The great majority were landowners, most of whom were also poor because they were starting with little property and had not yet cleared much land nor had they acquired the farm tools and animals which would one day make them prosperous. Few artisans settled on the frontier except for those who practiced a trade to supplement their primary occupation of farming. There might be a storekeeper, a minister, and perhaps a doctor; and there were several landless labourers. All the rest were farmers.

In the South, frontier areas that lacked transportation, such as the Appalachian Mountain region, remained based on subsistence farming and resembled the egalitarianism of their northern counterparts, although they had a larger upper-class of slave-owners. North Carolina was representative. However, frontier areas of 1700 that had good river connections were increasingly transformed into plantation agriculture. Rich men came in, bought up the good land, and worked it with slaves. The area was no longer “frontier”. It had a stratified society comprising a powerful upper-class white landowning gentry, a small middle-class, a fairly large group of landless or tenant white farmers, and a growing slave population at the bottom of the social pyramid. Unlike the North, where small towns and even cities were common, the South was overwhelmingly rural.

Ben Davidson

Hello, I have been studying all aspects of history for about 25 years. I have a BA History from the University of Bedfordshire. My historical areas of interest are anything really, but I specialise in 19th - 20th century Britain, America and Ireland. I am also strongly aligned with most military history, really enjoying WW2 and the US Civil War. Chuck in the king or queen and Bob's your uncle.

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