The Frontier in American Cultureby Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick
Log cabins and wagon trains, cowboys and Indians, Buffalo Bill and General Custer. These and other frontier images pervade our lives, from fiction to films to advertising, where they attach themselves to products from pancake syrup to cologne, blue jeans to banks. Richard White and Patricia Limerick join their inimitable talents to explore our national preoccupation with this uniquely American image.
Richard White examines the two most enduring stories of the frontier, both told in Chicago in 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition. One was Frederick Jackson Turner's remarkably influential lecture, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"; the other took place in William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's flamboyant extravaganza, "The Wild West." Turner recounted the peaceful settlement of an empty continent, a tale that placed Indians at the margins. Cody's story put Indians—and bloody battles—at center stage, and culminated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand." Seemingly contradictory, these two stories together reveal a complicated national identity.
Patricia Limerick shows how the stories took on a life of their own in the twentieth century and were then reshaped by additional voices—those of Indians, Mexicans, African-Americans, and others, whose versions revisit the question of what it means to be an American.
Generously illustrated, engagingly written, and peopled with such unforgettable characters as Sitting Bull, Captain Jack Crawford, and Annie Oakley, The Frontier in American Culture reminds us that despite the divisions and denials the western movement sparked, the image of the frontier unites us in surprising ways.
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In American Culture
An Exhibition at the Newberry Library, August 26, 1994â?"January 7, 1995
By Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick, James R. Grossman
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1994 The Newberry Library
All rights reserved.
FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER AND BUFFALO BILL
Americans have never had much use for history, but we do like anniversaries. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner, who would become the most eminent historian of his generation, was in Chicago to deliver an academic paper at the historical congress convened in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. The occasion for the exposition was a slightly belated celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the Western Hemisphere. The paper Turner presented was "The Significance of the Frontier in American History."
Although public anniversaries often have educational pretensions, they are primarily popular entertainments; it is the combination of the popular and the educational that makes the figurative meeting of Buffalo Bill and Turner at the Columbian Exposition so suggestive. Chicago celebrated its own progress from frontier beginnings. While Turner gave his academic talk on the frontier, Buffalo Bill played, twice a day, "every day, rain or shine," at "63rd St—Opposite the World's Fair," before a covered grandstand that could hold eighteen thousand people. Turner was an educator, an academic, but he had also achieved great popular success because of his mastery of popular frontier iconography. Buffalo Bill was a showman (though he never referred to his Wild West as a show) with educational pretensions. Characteristically, his program in 1893 bore the title Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World (Figure 1). In one of the numerous endorsements reproduced in the program, a well-known midwestern journalist, Brick Pomeroy, proclaimed the exhibition a "Wild West Reality ... a correct representation of life on the plains ... brought to the East for the inspection and education of the public."
Although Turner, along with the other historians, was invited, he did not attend the Wild West; nor was Buffalo Bill in the audience for Turner's lecture. Nonetheless, their convergence in Chicago was a happy coincidence for historians. The two master narrators of American westerinng had come together at the greatest of American celebrations with compelling stories to tell. The juxtaposition of Turner and Buffalo Bill remains, as Richard Slotkin has fruitfully demonstrated in his Gunfighter Nation, a useful and revealing one for understanding America's frontier myth. The Newberry exhibition juxtaposes Turner and Buffalo Bill for reasons somewhat different from Slotkin's. But like Slotkin the exhibition takes Buffalo Bill Cody as seriously as Frederick Jackson Turner. Cody produced a master narrative of the West as finished and culturally significant as Turner's own.
Turner and Buffalo Bill told separate stories; indeed, each contradicted the other in significant ways. Turner's history was one of free land, the essentially peaceful occupation of a largely empty continent, and the creation of a unique American identity. Cody's Wild West told of violent conquest, of wresting the continent from the American Indian peoples who occupied the land. Although fictional, Buffalo Bill's story claimed to represent a history, for like Turner, Buffalo Bill worked with real historical events and real historical figures.
These different stories demanded different lead characters: the true pioneer for Turner was the farmer; for Buffalo Bill, the scout. Turner's farmers were peaceful; they overcame a wilderness; Indians figured only peripherally in this story. In Cody's story Indians were vital. The scout, a man distinguished by his "knowledge of Indians' habits and language, familiar with the hunt, and trustworthy in the hour of extremest danger," took on meaning only because he overcame Indians. He was, as Richard Slotkin has emphasized, the man who ultimately defeated them. In Turner's telling the tools of civilization were the axe and the plow; in Buffalo Bill's, the rifle and the bullet. The bullet, the Wild West program declared, was "the pioneer of civilization."
As different as the two narratives were, they led to remarkably similar conclusions. Both declared the frontier over. Turner built his talk on "the closing of a great historic movement." The opening paragraph of Buffalo Bill's 1893 program gave a conventional enough account of the "rapidly extending frontier" and the West as a scene of "wildness." But it concluded with a significant parenthetical addition: "This last [the existence of a wild", "rapidly extending frontier"], while perfectly true when written (1883), is at present inapplicable, so fast does law and order and progress pervade the Great West." The frontier, which according to Buffalo Bill had opened on the Hudson, had now closed. Indeed, Buffalo Bill the Indian fighter and rancher had become Buffalo Bill the promoter of irrigated farming.
Both Turner and Buffalo Bill credited the pioneers with creating a new and distinctive nation, and both worried about what the end of the frontier signified. Buffalo Bill reminded his audience that generations were settling down to enjoy "the homes their fathers located and fenced for them." But by implication the pioneers' children who inherited the West were a lesser breed. The pioneers had disdained, in the Wild West program's metaphor, to crowd into cities to live like worms. But with the West won, with free land gone, urban wormdom seemed the inevitable destiny of most Americans.
The major elements of Turner's and Cody's stories were not new in 1893. Take, for example, the close of the frontier. Predictions of the frontier's imminent demise had been current for a quarter of a century. In 1869 Albert Richardson's popular Beyond the Mississippi was predicting the end of an era:
Twenty years ago, half our continent was an unknown land, and the Rocky Mountains were our Pillars of Hercules. Five years hence, the Orient will be our next door neighbor. We shall hold the world's granary, the world's treasury, the world's highway. But we shall have no West, no border, no Civilization, in line of battle, pressing back hostile savages, and conquering hostile nature.
Theodore Roosevelt rather begrudgingly credited Turner with having "put into shape a good deal of thought that has been floating around rather loosely." And numerous historians have found elements of the Turner thesis presaged in one form or another in the scholarship of the late nineteenth century. Forty years ago Henry Nash Smith took the process one step further by making the Turner thesis itself an expression of the nineteenth-century pastoral myth of the garden.
To contextualize Turner, and indeed Buffalo Bill, however, creates a mystery rather than solves one. For if these ideas and symbols were so prevalent, how did the particular versions offered by Turner and Buffalo Bill come to be so culturally dominant and persistent? Why did they overshadow, and indeed erase, their antecedents and competitors? No one, after all, reads Richardson; and Pawnee Bill—sometimes Buffalo Bill's partner, sometimes his competitor—is known only to antiquarians.
The answer has two elements. First, the very contradictions between Turner's story and Buffalo Bill's suggest a clue. Turner and Buffalo Bill, in effect, divided up the existing narratives of American frontier mythology. Each erased part of the larger, and more confusing and tangled, cultural story to deliver up a clean, dramatic, and compelling narrative. Richardson, for example, had offered a narrative of conquest that emphasized both hostile nature and hostile "savages." Turner took as his theme the conquest of nature; he considered savagery incidental. Buffalo Bill made the conquest of savages central; the conquest of nature was incidental. Yet both Turner's and Buffalo Bill's stories, it must be remembered, taught the same lessons. Second, the very ubiquity of frontier icons allowed both Turner and Buffalo Bill to deliver powerful messages with incredible economy and resonance. Precisely because they could mobilize familiar symbols, Buffalo Bill in a performance of several hours and Frederick Jackson Turner in a short essay could persuade and convince their audiences.
Both Buffalo Bill and Turner were geniuses at using frontier iconography. They capitalized on our modern talent for the mimetic—our ability to create countless mass-produced imitations of an original. In putting their talents to use, they drew on existing stories as well as on symbols, from log cabins to stagecoaches, that were reproduced over and over in American life. Turner incorporated such icons into his talk; Buffalo Bill adapted them as stage props. Indeed, he re-created himself as a walking icon, at once real and make-believe. As the 1893 program put it at a time when Buffalo Bill was forty-seven years old, "Young, sturdy, a remarkable specimen of manly beauty, with the brain to conceive and the nerve to execute, Buffalo Bill par excellence is the exemplar of the strong and unique traits that characterize a true American frontiersman."
Frederick Jackson Turner: Regression and Progress
Turner's "frontier thesis" quickly emerged as an incantation repeated in thousands of high school and college classrooms and textbooks: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development." Turner asserted that American westering produced a succession of frontiers from the Appalachians to the Pacific; the essence of the frontier thesis lay in his claim that in settling these frontiers, migrants had created a distinctively American democratic outlook. Americans (gendered as male) were practical, egalitarian, and democratic because the successive Wests of this country's formative years had provided the "free" land on which equality and democracy could flourish as integral aspects of progress. Turner's farmers conquered a wilderness and extended what Thomas Jefferson had called an empire of liberty.
Turner summoned the frontier from the dim academic backcountry, but in popular American culture the frontier already stood squarely in the foreground. Turner did not have to tell Americans about the frontier; he could mobilize images they already knew. Ubiquitous representations of covered wagons and log cabins already contained latent narratives of expansion and progress. Americans had recognized for generations the cultural utility of the frontier in their politics, folklore, music, literature, art, and speech. All Turner had to do was to tell Americans about the SIGNIFICANCE of this familiar frontier.
Turner masterfully deployed the images of log cabins, wagon trains, and frontier farming—and the stories that went with them. He fashioned these into a sweeping explanation of the nation's past. Along with the familiar themes of conquering a "wilderness" and making homes upon the land, Turner emphasized another, less familiar, theme: in advancing the frontier, a diverse people of European origins had remade themselves into Americans. "The frontier," he declared, "is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization." "In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics." Turner had extended the meaning of progress. Progress was not merely an increase in material well-being but was cultural as well: growing democracy, greater equality, more opportunity.
Like his academic peers, Turner used no visual images to illustrate either the talks he gave or the academic articles he wrote. Instead, he relied on an almost painterly prose that evoked familiar scenes of migration, primitive beginnings, and ultimate progress. Americans already thought in terms of great achievements from primitive beginnings; Americans already thought of themselves as egalitarian and democratic. They had already symbolized such beliefs in images of log cabins and migration into a land of opportunity, and had turned those images into icons. Turner used the icons.
Turner often placed himself and his audience not in the West but in popular representations of the West. He instructed his audience to "stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by." He asked them to stand figuratively where George Caleb Bingham placed the viewer in Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap (Figure 2).
This figure standing at the gap, or on the height or border, and watching progress unfold was one of the central American icons of the frontier. Its elements were at once relatively constant and quite flexible. The observer might—as in the Bingham painting, or in Francis Palmer's 1866 lithograph The Rocky Mountains—Emigrants Crossing the Plains, or in the illustration "Emigration to the Western Country" (see Frontispiece)—face the emigrant party already on the road. They are surrounded by a vast emptiness and, in Bingham's painting, darkness. A second variant placed the viewer on a height behind the migrants, who were now, more often than not, departing from the known and familiar and heading west, as in "The March of Destiny" (Figure 3). Indians might appear on the margins of the picture, but the space into which the migrants moved was to be understood as vast and devoid of people (see Plate 1).
The emblematic titles of such pictures as "The March of Destiny" made their meaning obvious. Such didacticism was a common device. In one of the most familiar pictures of westward movement, the Currier and Ives print Across the Continent: "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" (Figure 4), a wagon train wends westward in the distance, but it is almost incidental. A railroad train steaming toward the center of the picture now bears the major burden of progress. The train leaves two Indians literally in its smoke as it departs a frontier village on its way west, while in the distance two more Indians pursue a fleeing herd of buffalo.
Turner, in standing with his readers at Cumberland Gap or South Pass, invoked these representations of settlement as a movement of pioneers into a largely uninhabited nature. This was how the pioneers themselves understood their experience. Wagon trains, Indians quietly moving to the margins of the scene, and the steady progression into the open and available West were the symbols used, for example, in the 1890 commemorative pictorial map of the route of the Mormon pioneers (see Plate 2). It is no wonder that Turner's interpretation of the West evoked such a deep popular response. The Turnerian plot resonated with already-familiar images of westward migration.
Standing on the height and watching progress unfold was the dominant image of the Turnerian story, but its power rested on two other Turnerian ideas: that the "free land" into which the pioneers moved was available for the taking and that American progress began with a regenerative retreat to the primitive, followed by a recapitulation of the stages of civilization. Turner gave these ideas a powerful, almost epigrammatic, formulation and argued that they explained all of American history. The iconography of the frontier had already prepared his audience to accept these bold claims as mere common sense.
By the nineteenth century western North America was represented conventionally on maps as largely empty and unknown. But earlier maps, those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, had portrayed a densely occupied continent teeming with people. The 1718 Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi (Figure 5) depicted an occupied continent with Indian as well as European towns and villages. A similar 1776 map of the region east of the Mississippi showed an equally inhabited interior. Although Europeans had only a partial knowledge of this interior, they assumed that it was occupied.
By the nineteenth century all this had changed. In illustrated maps, as in contemporary prints depicting the progress of pioneers, only a few scattered Indians appeared. They were either retreating or quietly observing the coming of whites. The maps Americans studied at school broadcast the same message even more forcefully. The map of the early republic in the companion atlas to Emma Willard's widely used nineteenth-century school text vividly portrays the West as empty land (Figure 6). Small villages of French Canadians appear on the map, but Willard has completely erased Indians. This message of settlers peacefully occupying vacant territory recurred in the popular literature of the West. Joaquin Miller's "Westward Ho," for example, celebrated a conquest "without the guilt/Of studied battle."
Excerpted from In American Culture by Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick, James R. Grossman. Copyright © 1994 The Newberry Library. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Richard White is McClelland Professor of Pacific Northwest History at the University of Washington. Patricia Nelson Limerick is Professor of History at the University of Colorado. James R. Grossman is Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for Family and Community History at the Newberry Library in Chicago.
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