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America has always been as much an idea as a geographic place. The exact nature of that idea has varied from person to person and group to group, but the central tenant has been freedom. Freedom from the constraints of the old world, bound up in religious, political, social and economic repression, versus the apparent lack of boundaries, the initial absence of all these constraints, and the opportunity to be born again – to be anything you wanted to be based on your ability, good fortune, and hard work.
America, the frontier, was a place to experiment – and the literal pushing forward of the frontier westwards was replicated in pushing boundaries of all kinds, from social and political structures to art and literature. Material success is highly valued, and success generally is not seen as something to be demurely downplayed, but as a worthy aim to be pursued in its own right.
Such an overwhelmingly optimistic idealisation of what being on the frontier meant – able to adapt to whatever newcomer wanted it to mean – and specifically welcoming of newcomers, could not help but have a profound affect on cultural values and identity, reinforced in popular art form through the western story and later films.
Equally, the downside of the settlers pursuing their ambition in their landgrab at the expense of the indigenous population through physical strength and a belief in their own superiority is replicated in the individualistic attitude of pursuing personal goals regardless of the consequences upon others.
Turner’s thesis encapsulates this very idea throughout, with reference early on, to a bulletin of the superintendent of the census report for 1890 agreeing that “up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line” this was the ‘closing of a great historic movement’ as prior to this point the British had dominant power, they had established a permanent colony, economic growth on the east coast – however they were not as widespread as other colonies due to economic focus.
An effectively managed eastern sea front gave naval power, shipping, and protection of the settlement A result of this imposition of law in the east meant people fled punishment by heading west.. Spanish colonies settled in the west coast and the south, influencing Cajun music, food, and places such as California which became known for glory, god and gold with widespread exploitation due to the mining industry. A catalyst for moving west was the ‘get rich quick’ mentality of the Californian gold rush . The French were widespread in both Canada and the US, easily able to settle, able to go fishing, trapping, gather timber, and masses of water from the great lakes. However in 1783 Britain was defeated in the war of independence; president Jefferson then (1803) bought the 803,0000 sq miles of Louisiana from the French, doubling the size of the America nation and removing France as a significant force. It was then that America began to form its own cultural identity.
In order for the nation to develop, a transport infrastructure would be needed. Jefferson launched a two year long detailed survey, managed and organised by the American government to investigate these new ideas. However the expedition had other ideas and sought further expansion and exploitation of land, and the westward movement was given an added push, with the west seen as exciting new land with all hopes and prospects lying there.
As Turner observed ‘In the case of most nations development has occurred in a limited area, and if a nation has expanded, it has met other growing peoples whom it has conquered. But in the United States we have a different phenomenon.’ Turner believed that the United States, shows the triumph of man over nature, across a barren waste land conquering and taming the ‘wild west,'”at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man, he must accept the conditions which it furnishes or perish”. Stating that it showed ‘the progress from primitive pre-industrial society, without division of labour, up to manufacturing civilisation.’ Moreover there is strong emphasis about the continual recession and development of settlements expanding. “The frontier is the outer edge of the wave, the meeting point between savagery and civilisation .This is repeated each time the frontier moved forward, like waves breaking, showing the evolution of society on the frontier.
“The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people-to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.”
To a large degree America was the colonisation of the west, conquering the great lakes, great Plains, painted desert, grand canyon, and rocky mountains. The different nations became ‘a melting pot’ of all cultures and colonies put together to make something new, something all-American. With the common interest, manifest destiny, the future lying west. “The fact is that here is a new product a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.’ And believe that it is from this that democracy formed. To follow your dreams, and gain success is one of America’s dominant ideologies, still deeply embedded in American culture today. Intensely influencing their society as family trees of modern America can be traced back, thus directly making a connection with their ancestors and acknowledging the magnitude of crossing a continent. This family history orientated attitude demonstrates Turner’s point that the landscape and western expansion is centrally linked to the cultural identity of America and their values. For many families would be able to make a direct link to their involvement in the taming of the west, and what it is to be American.
However the native American’s are hardly mentioned in the story of ‘setting America free’ as it contradicts most American vales of freedom and free land. Was the frontier really free land? For thousands of years America was inhabited by the native Americans using their livestock as both a means of living as well as the trail to cross the landscape. The Civil War was seen as ‘setting America free’ however prior to westward expansion there was an estimated population of up to10 million native indians, compared to a massive decline down to 250,0000 when the frontier closed in1890. White people bought diseases, armies and guns, and removed the native Americans from their homes so that the Europeans could settle; by 1880 there were no longer independent cowboys, as to survive they had to then work for industrial cattle farms owned by the east. The US census of 1890 was the closing of the frontier and settling of America. Was it ethnic cleansing? Or setting America free?
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