The Challenges of the Frontier

The concepts of the American Frontier and expansion, and its clash with the empires of European settlers

By Elliott West
  • Grades: 9–12

The word frontier has different meanings in different countries. In Europe it refers simply to a boundary between nations. In North America and in other parts of the world colonized by Europeans, however, frontier has taken on other meanings. It refers in some cases to the arrival of European societies and cultures and their gradual intrusion into North and South America, Africa, and Asia.

In the United States the frontier has assumed a much deeper significance. In U.S. popular culture it has been the setting for tales of high adventure, extraordinary feats of daring, and dastardly acts of villainy. In works of fiction, motion pictures, art, television, and other media, the national character is seen as having been forged through the trials and triumphs of life on the frontier The pioneer experience supposedly produced the best traits of the American people — their tenacity, individualism, love of democracy, patriotism, inventiveness, and much more.

Many historians today would question such views, but few would argue that in its broader definition the frontier has had a profound influence, not only in North America but in much of the rest of the world as well. The expansion of European peoples set in motion a variety of complicated changes both among human societies and in the physical world they inhabited. The frontier was a profoundly unsettling force — socially, culturally, politically, and ecologically.

The North American Frontier As Clash of Empires

North America has been shaped by several frontiers, each the result of a European nation's pushing into the continent and seeking its own particular goals. As each advanced into what would become the United States, these edges of influence naturally came into conflict with one another and with native peoples already occupying and using the land.

The first of these Europeans to arrive in North America were the Spanish. After expeditions of exploration and attempted conquest into what is today the southwestern United States by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and into the southeast by Juan Ponce de León and Hernando de Soto, the Spanish established their first settlements at Saint Augustine in Florida (1565) and in villages along the upper Rio Grande valley in New Mexico, including Santa Fe (1598-1610). By 1775, Spanish settlements had spread into a broad arc reaching from San Francisco on the Pacific coast through southern California, across Arizona, New Mexico, southern and eastern Texas and into the Gulf Coast and Florida.

These settlements, the far northern rim of the vast Spanish empire, made up the Spanish frontier of North America. Their purpose was twofold. Working through missions sprinkled throughout the Spanish arc of influence, priests were to convert native peoples to Catholicism. Soldiers, stationed in military outposts called presidios that typically were situated near the missions, were to guard against European competitors. The Spanish frontier was meant to be a protective barrier shielding the more important parts of the empire to the south, in Mexico and the islands of the Caribbean.

The next, French frontier entered North America from a different direction and followed a different pattern. Early in the 17th century (1606-09) the first permanent French outposts were established at Port Royal in Nova Scotia and Quebec in the valley of the St. Lawrence River. The French presence spread quickly into the interior, in part because the French had access to a superb system of waterways The concepts of the American Frontier and expansion, and its clash with the empires of European settlers the St. Lawrence, Great Lakes, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and many of their tributaries. They also had a powerful incentive. In the forests drained by these waterways were countless fur-bearing animals — deer, fox, marten, mink, bear, and above all, beaver — whose pelts brought high prices on the world market.

Spurred on by the fur trade, the French built a series of trading and military settlements along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes (Montreal, Fort Frontenac, Detroit, Fort Mackinac), the Mississippi River (Kaskaskia, New Orleans), and the Gulf Coast (Mobile). Like the Spanish, they were also moved to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Priests, especially Jesuits, were assigned to these outposts and also sent to live among the many tribes within the French orbit of influence. By the early 18th century New France included all of eastern Canada and, except for the Atlantic coast, most of what is today the United States east of the Mississippi.

Both motives — religious and economic — required a close relationship with native peoples. In Native Americans the French found both a vast reservoir of souls they believed must be saved and a labor force highly skilled in trapping animals and preparing their skins for market. As a result, New France was woven together with a system of intricate Indian alliances. To maintain this complex system, the French relied on two figures dispersed across their far-flung frontier — Jesuit priests, or "black robes," who over time often gained considerable authority among the tribes with whom they lived, and trapper-traders, the couriers du bois, who frequently intermarried and also wielded influence in Indian councils.

Yet another imperial frontier pushed into North America, this time not from Europe but from Asia. Out of Siberia came independent Russian traders, called promyshleniki, who plied the islands and coast of Alaska for sea otters in the mid-18th century, forcing native peoples into service as hunters. After the Russian government granted control of that fur trade to the Russian-American Company in 1799, the firm pushed aggressively down the Pacific coast in search of more animals. In 1812 the company founded an outpost in California, later called Fort Ross (a named derived from Russ, or Russian), less than 160 km (100 mi) north of San Francisco.

By 1800, then, frontiers of three powerful nations were well established in North America. But a fourth frontier — that of England and Anglo-Americans — in time would dominate the continent, at least politically. Once the first beachheads were made along the Atlantic coast during the 17th century, the English moved into the interior slowly, in stark contrast to their French rivals to the north, who by the 1720s dominated the Mississippi Valley and were pushing up the Missouri River.

By the 1750s, however, the English frontier was edging over the Appalachian plateaus. Then in the Seven Years' War (known in North America as the French and Indian War; 1754-63), England forged a stunning victory over France and Spain in America, gaining control over eastern Canada, Florida, and all lands west to the Mississippi. This triumph set in motion one of the most spectacular eras of expansion in the history of global frontiers.

The Frontier and the Making of the New Nation

Ironically, England's victory contributed to problems that soon led to the loss of its colonies. Moreover, the American Revolution gave control of lands beyond the Appalachians to a new nation, the United States, whose western settlements were filled with aggressive, restless, land-hungry pioneers. These became the vanguard of an explosive expansion toward the Pacific. That expansion played a crucial role in shaping the new nation.

By the War of Independence colonists were already moving into Tennessee, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania. The American victory in 1783, which gave the new nation territory from Canada to Florida and westward to the Mississippi, opened the floodgates, and white settlers poured through the Appalachians into the Ohio Valley and, especially after the War of 1812, into the Gulf coastal states. By then the Anglo-American frontier's edge had passed beyond the Mississippi River into country that had been acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The frontier next pressed into Texas in the 1820s, then, via the great overland trails, passed over the continental interior to Oregon and California in the 1840s and 1850s.

In two treaties and an expansionist war against Mexico (1845-48), the United States annexed Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and the Mexican cession, which included parts of New Mexico and Colorado and all of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. These acquisitions added up to more than 3.1 million km2 (1.2 million mi2). From 1783 to 1848, the span of one lifetime, the United States had tripled its size.

During the next half-century the frontier of white settlement moved into the interior of this newly acquired country. This stage of the frontier included what would become some of the most familiar and celebrated episodes of westward expansion and American history.

Already, trappers and traders had traveled over much of the trans-Mississippi West, first to trap beavers and sell their pelts and later to trade with Native Americans for the hides of bison, deer, raccoons, and other animals. These mountain men, many of whom forged trade alliances with Indian groups and relied on native wives as skilled workers and economic liaisons, often went on to serve as guides, government agents, and even urban promoters in later stages of the frontier.

In 1848 the discovery of gold in the American River in mountains east of San Francisco set off a worldwide stampede to California, and subsequent strikes of gold and silver in Nevada, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, and South Dakota's Black Hills set in motion furious rushes, with slapdash towns springing up almost overnight - and sometimes disappearing almost as fast. Discoveries of less precious but still highly valuable minerals, especially copper, sparked rushes into other parts of Montana, Arizona, and other territories.

The boom of the cattle kingdom on the Great Plains began soon after the Civil War with the driving of cattle out of Texas to such towns as Abilene and Dodge City in Kansas and Cheyenne, Wyoming - places that quickly became synonymous with the wild living associated with America's western fringe. As the ranching industry then spread over much of the Plains and Southwest, farming families were also pushing into the Plains, the far Northwest, and parts of the mountain states and Southwest.

Farmers were drawn by huge stretches of suddenly accessible land and, behind that urge, dreams of economic and social opportunities. Out of the South after the Civil War came thousands of "exodusters," former African American slaves who settled in farming communities in Kansas and other parts of the plains. Encouraged by the Homestead Act (1862), which offered 160 acres free to citizens who would cultivate a portion of the land, as well as by railroad corporations eager to sell land granted them by the government, pioneer farmers brought under cultivation more acreage between 1870 and 1900 than their predecessors had between 1600 and 1870.

These surges in immigration quickly brought to a crisis relations with Native Americans who had been hunting and farming in these regions. A series of confrontations between them and the United States military — most famously Red Cloud's War (1868 in Wyoming and Montana), the Apache campaigns (1861-86 in Arizona), the Nez Percé War (1877 in Idaho and Montana), the Great Sioux War and Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876-77 in Montana), and the Wounded Knee massacre (1890 in South Dakota) — were followed avidly by the public in the East and Europe. But it was the steady advance of thousands of farmers, ranchers, and townbuilders that was truly undermining the lifeways of native peoples.

By 1900 there were few parts of the nation that had not felt the influence of this aggressively expanding society. At least in terms of political control, the frontier begun with the English colonies had swept aside those of the Spanish, French, and Russians and had dominated indigenous peoples.

  • Part of Collection:
  • Subjects:
    American History, European Colonization
  • Skills:
    Social Studies

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