The Urban Frontier Essay
The Urban Frontier
Debate still rages as to how the West was won. Among the most popular idea was forwarded by Frederick Turner in 1893 which purports that Pioneers, as they faced the challenges of a new land, established a unique American identity totally separate from the culture of the countries where they originally came from. Turner postulates that the American spirit is a distillation of the Pioneer’s collective experiences at the Western front. (Armstrong, 2003, p. 164) This notion of the American spirit is called the Turner Thesis or the Frontier Thesis, and for a considerable time, it was the foremost and most widely accepted theory in so far as how the American identity came to be.
Expounding on this idea, Turner (1893) wrote, The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom–these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.
Indeed Turner’s theory was so popular that according to Daly & Persky, “U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson supported his ideas.” (1990) These two people were very much into history and their endorsement of the Turner Thesis is nothing short of a validation of the highest kind. Of course as with all scholarly pursuits go, these works are subject to dispute, and may be refuted by other scholars and experts. While there have been other works with different ideas, the Turner Thesis found it greatest challenge in a book called The Urban Frontier, authored by Richard Wade.
In this publication Wade goes against the Turner Thesis and forwards his own hypothesis. The central argument of the book maintains that the Pioneers brought with them the culture and lifestyle of the places where they come from. As such, the American spirit is therefore an integration of the collective consciousness of the Pioneers; a new identity emerging from the traditions of the past, but not far removed from it. New towns and cities emerged from the vastness of the West thriving with the spirit of its founders who brought with them the spirit of the places they have left behind. From here, commerce became a necessity as towns grew and became more complex.
Wade’s work is not entirely novel, in fact there are many works that preceded his volume claiming more or less the same thing. The value of Wade’s work is that he presents his ideas in ways that are scholarly as they are accessible. He presents examples that make readers scratch their heads, asking themselves, “Why did I not think of that?” His discourse makes for an interesting read and the cases he used to prove his points are very compelling and vivid, with traces evident several centuries hence. The readers themselves feel like Pioneers on the verge of making discoveries and blazing new trails.
In the book, Wade employed a sweeping account rather zooming in with numerous details. He looks at a place with a broader perspective, like a Pioneer surveying the vast land that lay in front of him. He began his book by writing about the French influence in New Orleans, and moves on to chronicle other places replete with the footprints of European culture, vestiges of the Pioneers’ original home. According to Reiser’s review, the book actually consists of “five case studies involving Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.” The writer used these areas primarily because “they have been historically been the centers of economic, social, and cultural activity early on in America’s history.” (1959, p. 507)
The Pioneers did not inventor or adopt a new identity coming to America. Every individual Pioneer brought with him the kind of living that he knew from the Old World. After all, it was the only life that they knew and it is only natural for them to use it even in the New World. To forget this way of life and adopt another lifestyle very soon after their arrival would have been highly irregular and unnatural. As a result, the Pioneers were urbanized even as they were coming to America to begin a new life apart from the one they have left behind. The settlements they have created, and which eventually evolved into urban centers did not take place by accident.
It was the product of the collective experiences of the Pioneers working together for the collective good of the community. Deliberation and careful planning were evident in the places that Wade wrote about, and while the Pioneers may have just been making the best of their situation, their decisions are guided by their prior knowledge. Contrary to Turner’s Thesis that the Pioneers randomly adopted and innovated as dictated by the prevailing social and physical conditions of a place, Wade presents the Pioneer as an empowered group of people, who by deliberate design were able to shape their circumstances and bring stability into their settlements.
The Pioneers, from the very beginning were concerted in their efforts to establish order and constancy in their lives, and in so doing, made the New World truly their own. Wade said that while the Pioneers may have come from different places, the collective vision of a new nation “drew people together and blurred artificial distinctions.” (Wade, 1959, p. 129)
The vision of uncertain Pioneers, coming down the Mayflower after months of perilous journey by sea, and to take on once again a journey into an unchartered land is indeed romantic. Imagine their uncertainties and suffering; such thoughts must have defeated even the best of them. But the Pioneers have arrived and they have overcome. They went on to establish the country which the modern world regards as an economic and political leader. Wade, by the power of his book makes the accomplishments of the Pioneers even more astounding.
Wade introduced us to the Pioneer, who inspite of his fears, believed that some things are more important than his own self-doubts. The Pioneer is empowered and intentional in his actions. He was not merely reacting to situations, rather the Pioneer tried his best to create conditions that were more favorable, or redefine the existing ones into something more conducive to his existence. Rather than merely reacting to situations, the Pioneer in Wade’s book shaped his own destiny.
Indeed Urban Frontier has made its point clear, and it has been useful for anyone looking to understand the beginnings of the Unites States. Whether you are a scholar looking for information or leads for a new research or just a fan of history, this book will leave you with a deeper appreciation for that group of people who blazed the trail for all of us follow in their stead. Whether you believe Wade’s ideas or not, it does not diminish in any way the value of this book for having given the Pioneers ownership for kind of country that we have now.
Armstrong, S. (2003). AP U.S. History. McGraw-Hill Profession. p. 164
Daly, D, and Persky, J. (1990). The Western: Myth and Reality. Journal of the West. Retrieved on July 16, 2007 from http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/filmnotes/shanenotes2.html
Reiser, C. (1959). The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Dec., 1959), pp. 507-509
Turner, F. (20027). The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Retrieved on July 16, 2007 from http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/text/civ/turner.html
Wade, R. (1959). The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830. Harvard University Press. p.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 19 March 2017
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