HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
THE WESTWARD MARCH OF A PEOPLE
IT has been noted that with Jefferson a new political force first made itself felt in national politics. This was the frontier. This ever moving frontier has been the one distinctive feature of American society. A full understanding of its influence unlocks many a difficult problem in that history.
He who would write the history of Greece, Italy, or England has but to describe the life of a body of people occupying a peninsula in the Mediterranean, or an island on the edge of the Atlantic. The scene of his story is fixed. But the history of the United States is the description of the march of a mighty army moving westward in conquest of forest and prairie.
The inundating ocean of population was held for a moment by the great Alleghenian dam. At the period we have been considering, it had just sought out the low places and the unguarded ends and was flowing through and around that dam. Along the buffalo paths, the Indian trails, and down the open rivers it was flowing into the great Mississippi Valley. As it flowed it widened the forest trails for the pack trains, and graded them for turnpikes, and finally leveled the hills and spanned the rivers with bridges on which to lay the iron track of the locomotive.
This army had its scouts, its advance guard, its sappers and miners, its army of occupation. These various battalions reproduced in turn the various social stages through which the race has passed. Biology has taught us that the embryo reproduces in syncopated form the various steps in the evolution of living organisms. The ethnologists and the pedagogue know that in the same manner the child moves through mental stages much like those along which the race has traveled. In the same manner the successive stages of settlement in the march of America's army of pioneers tells again the story of social evolution.
The advance guard of hunters, trappers, fishermen, scouts, and Indian fighters reproduced with remarkable fidelity the social stage of savagery. They lived in rude shelters built of logs or of prairie sod, found their food and clothing by the chase, gathered around personal leaders, were often lawless, brutal, and quarrelsome, though frequently they displayed the even more characteristically savage traits of taciturn silence and fatalistic courage. These men penetrated hundreds of miles into the wilderness ahead of all fixed settlements. They sometimes fraternized and lived with the Indians. Such were the French coureurs du bois, who gathered furs from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, exploring rivers that have found place upon the maps only within the last few decades. When these scouts had spied out the land the first body of the main army of conquest appeared. This was composed of the little groups of settlers who clustered along the watercourses and the main lines of advance. These settlements, drawn together for mutual defense
against the Indians, the wild beasts, and the forest fires, and for mutual cooperation in house-raisings, husking, quilting, and logging "bees," with their "common" pastures in the surrounding forest and their democratic social and political organization, were so much like the Germanic "tuns" described by Tacitus, and the AngloSaxon villages of pre-Norman days, that one of the foremost American historians gravely explains the resemblance by the classical reading of New England Puritans.
The people who formed this stage were migratory. No sooner had they carved out a little clearing in the wilderness than they moved on to take up the same task farther west. They too rallied around leaders, generally combined hunting and fishing with farming, and in every war in which the United States has been involved, save the latest, formed its most effective fighters.1
With this social stage came the beginnings of agriculture. It was a crude
cultivation of the soil that borrowed its methods as well as its only important
crop from the Indians. This crop, around which the agricultural life of large
sections of the country has centered up to the present time, was Indian corn, or
maize. This plant seems to have been especially evolved to meet the conditions of
the American frontier. Without it another
1. T. Roosevelt, "The Winning of the West," Vol. V, p. 128:
The men who settle in a new country and begin subduing the wilderness plunge back into the very conditions from which the race has raised itself by the slow toil of ages. The conditions cannot but tell upon them. Inevitably, and for more than one lifetime, . . . they tend to retrograde instead of advancing. They drop away from the standard which highly civilized nations have reached. As with harsh and dangerous labor they bring the new land up toward the level of the old, they themselves partly revert to their ancestral conditions; they sink back toward the state of their ages-dead barbarian forefathers.
generation or more would have been required for the advancing army of settlement to have reached the Mississippi.
It can be grown in the midst of the forest if the trees be "girdled" by removing a ring of bark, which causes the leaves to fall until the sunlight can filter through. A sharpened stake will do for a planting tool if nothing better is at hand. It will produce a considerable crop from virgin soil with little cultivation, and responds richly to added care. It grows rapidly, and its green ears furnish food early in the season. When ripe, it is easy of storage, is not injured by freezing, contains a great amount of nourishment in small bulk, and, what is perhaps most important of all, can be most easily prepared for food. In no one of the various forms in which it entered into the dietary of the pioneer was any elaborate preparation required. On a pinch an open fire to roast the green ears or the ripened kernels sufficed to satisfy hunger. It took the place of the pastures to which the colonists had been accustomed in Europe. As higher stages of agriculture were reached it became the foundation of the entire livestock industry of the nation.1
Following this stage in the East, and preceding it in the West, where the Indians
were held back by the regu-
1. Roosevelt, "Winning of the West," Vol. I, pp. 110-111 ; Massachusetts Agricultural Report, 1853, P. 485; Stickney, "Use of Maize by Wisconsin Indians," p. 71; Shaler, "The United States of America," Vol. I, pp. 26-27; Census of 1880, volume on "Agriculture," Part I, p.135 J. H. Salisbury, "History and Chemical Investigation of Maize "; Parkinson, "Tour in North America," pp. 198-199; Drake, " Pioneer Life in Kentucky," pp. 47-57; Michaux, "Travels," etc., Chap. XII. These are some of the works discussing the importance of corn in this stage of American history and describing the methods by which it was cultivated and prepared for consumption.
lar army and not driven out by the frontiersmen, came a third division composed of the cowboys, herdsmen, ranchmen, as they were variously called. Here we find a reproduction of many features of the nomadic stage of social evolution. When the race passed through this period, the large social unit which the care of the herds demands was supplied by the patriarchal family so familiar in the pages of the Old Testament. In America the rancher with his force of cowboys, cooks, etc., formed a very similar self-supporting unit. We are accustomed to think of this stage as having been confined to the second half of the nineteenth century and the Great Plains region.
Like the other social stages, however, it has traveled across the continent. It
existed wherever abundant pasture could be found, not yet divided into farms, and
not too far from a market to permit the driving of the cattle to the place of
slaughter. This stage was found prior to the Revolution in the Carolinas and
Virginia, on the eastern slope of the Alleghenies.1 It came over
1 John H. Logan, "History of the Upper Country of South Carolina," speaking of prerevolutionary times, says (pp. 151-152):
"Not far from the log hut of the hunter stood that of the cow-driver. . . . The business of stock-raising at this time on the frontier was scarcely less profitable than it is at present (1859) in similar regions of the West. . . . Having selected a tract where cane and pea-vines grew most luxuriantly, they erected in the midst of it temporary cabins and spacious pens. These were used as inclosures in which to collect the cattle at proper seasons, for the purpose of counting and branding them; and from many such places in the upper country, vast numbers of beeves were annually driven to the distant markets of Charleston, Philadelphia, and even New York. . . . These rude establishments became afterwards, wherever they were formed, the great centers of settlements founded by the cultivators of the soil, who followed just behind the cowdrivers in their enterprising search for unappropriated productive lands."
mountains behind the hunters, trappers, and conquerors of the wilderness and flourished in the wild pea pastures along the Ohio. By 1830 this stage was reached on the prairies of Illinois ; a decade later it had crossed the Mississippi, where it was to reach its final spectacular efflorescence on the Great Plains at the foot of the Rockies.
Following the ranch came the small farmer, permanent towns, manufacturing, and the general features of the small, competitive system. From here on to the present the course of evolution will be considered under other heads.
Within each of these stages, and more especially the latter, there have been minor divisions that have moved across the country within the general army at approximately the same rate of speed. Some of these divisions have never occupied certain sections. Changes in methods of transportation have fundamentally altered the whole order of progress of the army. Yet in spite of these deviations from the ideal simplicity that has been sketched, the mighty fact of these onward marching battalions of society is the dominant feature of American history, without a grasp of which that history is an almost unintelligible maze.
When we speak of the "frontier," therefore, it is necessary that we say which frontier is meant, for the advancing crest of each of these waves has been the frontier for that social stage. The word is most frequently applied to the stage in which the wilderness was cleared, the prairie sod broken, and the land made fit for agriculture. As it is used henceforth in this work, unless otherwise defined, it will be applied to that whole series of
frontiers up to the time of the coming of small industries and competitive capitalism.
While the frontier existed, this was the only country in the world that for many generations permitted its inhabitants to choose in which of the historic stages of social evolution they would live. The competitioncrushed, unemployed, or black-listed worker of capitalism moved west into the small, competitive stage with its greater opportunities for self-employment or for "rising." He could move onward geographically and backward historically to the semicommunistic stage of the first permanent settlers who would help him raise his log cabin and clear the ground for his first crop of corn. If he felt himself hemmed in by even the slight restrictions of this stage, he could shoulder his rifle and revert to the wilderness and savagery.
The frontier has been the great amalgamating force in American life. It took the European and in a single lifetime sent him through the racial evolution of a hundred generations. When he had finished, the few peculiar customs he had brought from a single country were gone, and he was that peculiarly twentieth century product, - the typical American. Only since the frontier has disappeared have great colonies grown up in which all the national peculiarities of those who compose them are accentuated by the internal resistance to the seemingly hostile territory about them.
Those individuals who are most commonly instanced as distinctively American are largely born of the frontier and have passed through its successive stages. The frontier has given rise to the only race of hereditary rebels in history. One strange feature of this westward
march has been the remarkable tendency of the same families to remain continuously in the same social stage, moving westward as the succeeding stage encroached upon the one they had chosen. The fathers of those who settled on the Great Plains and in the valleys of the Cordilleras lived in the states of the Mississippi Valley, and their grandparents conquered the forests in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, while the preceding generation had its home in western New York, Pennsylvania, or Virginia.
This pioneer race had large families, a high deathrate, but a far higher birthright. It has been pointed out that this applied the principle of natural selection in a most pitiless and effective manner.1 It produced a race physically large and strong, mentally alert, and socially rebellious. It is a race willing to try social experiments. The man who within his own lifetime has seen the whole process of social evolution going on under his eyes is not a believer in the unchangeableness of social institutions.
These social stages have not existed side by side without friction. Each has desired to use the government to further its interests. In this conflict of interest is found an explanation of many political struggles. It was such a clash of interests that made itself felt in the fight over the constitution. It was a factor in the election of Jefferson. It appears again and again throughout American history.
In many respects the description of the frontier and its progress which has been
given here applies only to the non-slaveholding states. While slavery existed
1 Doyle, "English Colonies in America," Vol. V, p. 96.
changed the method of westward advance in the South fundamentally. The
struggle of these two methods of westward movement culminated in the Civil War,
and it was the battle for the frontier that brought the slavery question to a
climax. These various general features of the frontier movement are brought
together in this chapter, not in order to treat them in full, but in order to
emphasize this highly significant phase of American history and make more
comprehensible a whole series of questions which must appear in the consideration
of that history.1
1. F. J. Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," is by far the best discussion of this phase of American history. See also Semple, "American History and its Geographic Conditions," Chap. IV; and Gannet, "The Building of a Nation," p. 39 et seq.