Blogs > Cliopatria > Mulling over Frontier Theories

Sep 13, 2004 5:19 pm


Mulling over Frontier Theories



Geitner Simmons of Regions of Mind notes an interesting question about how and why the American West was settled.

A professor posed an interesting query to the H-West listserv last week:

I lectured Tuesday about westward expansion in the post-Civil War era. I read a quote from Horace Greeley urging New York's poor to take a farm in the West and" crowd nobody, starve nobody." Then I opened it up for questions.

A student pointed out that at many times in history, ruling elites have used frontiers or distant edges of the empire as a convenient dumping ground for unwanted minorities or disagreeable elements of society.

Her question: can we see the Homestead Act of 1862 and its promotion in the post-Civil War period as an effort by Northeastern elites to offload what they saw as unwanted human rubbish onto the West? In other words, as a cynical political move rather than solely as government acting to fulfill the Free Labor dream? Can it be flipped on its head to be seen as an effort in negative social engineering (remove the awful) rather than positive social engineering (accentuate the good)?


The equation of frontier settlers and the unwanted seems to hold up quite well in comparative history. In European history, the question of who left to populate new continents is familiar. In the eighteenth century Britain transported unwanted and undesirable elements (especially criminals) to the American colonies and, when that option was closed by American Independence, to Australia. The missionaries of eighteenth-century California were likely a mix of untalented, restless and troubled monks who inflicted their frustrations on natives. In the nineteenth century France turned its colonies into a repository of criminals who might return to the metropole one day.

There are a few problems with this theory. Mr. Simmons points out that while this argument has some strengths, people who populated the American West required some means to do so. They were not simply the “dregs of society”–the poor and landless could not always migrate at will:

Those who migrated to the Plains, California, and the Pacific Northwest in the mid-nineteenth century were not urban poor, but primarily middling farmers who were struggling to support their families on midwestern farms.

Those living on the most marginal farms, or who were working as laborers on farms or in cities did not have sufficient capital to move their families hundreds or thousands of miles to start over on far western frontiers, even if they were offered free land.


Still, we must admit that migration attracted some people who were down on their luck.

But I also think that this question must be asked: did governments really want to deposit the unwanted on their frontiers and peripheries?

I am very skeptical of a positive answer. Frontiers and peripheries are not empty space–indeed, they could have native populations. They are also places where the reach of government is weak, and where challenges to authority over the frontier abound.

I see two basic problems. First, administering far off territories is laborious. States cannot police them and they cannot provide services without difficulty. States tend to fear that frontiers will turn into ‘badlands’–like the Wild West or China’s Muslim provinces. Second, frontiers border other nations who are themselves trying to secure their territory and who might have a claim on the frontier as well. Again, China’s frontier is being drawn into the politics of the “stans”–the Muslims republics that splintered off from the Soviet Union.

Why would states want to encourage people they consider unreliable to migrate to places that were difficult to control? The threat to the state is that the settler population will become unstable, drawing the state into an international conflict that might result in territorial loss. The federal government believed that its hold on the Louisiana territory was threatened by Louisiana’s complex racial mixture and the liberties of free blacks. Furthermore, there was concern that Spain would try to use ethnic tensions to destabilize Louisiana, thus gaining control over it. Currently, I am writing about German political exiles who wanted to settle in Alsace in the 1920s. The French government feared that these exiles would incite ethnic conflict that would give Germany a claim on the eastern départements.

Policies on settlement had to take into account strategic concerns. Consequently, states wanted stable, reliable populations that consisted of loyal, upright citizens. Governors tried to prevent former slaves and refugees (especially those from the Carribean) from coming to Louisiana. When Bismarck annexed territories in Africa and the Pacific as German colonies, he dreamed that entrepreneurs would lead the way to settlement.

All these go to questions of how states control territory. At some point states cannot continue to use force in order maintain their integrity. They rely on citizens to maintain the legitimacy of the state’s presence and to maintain security. If the state must rescue its citizens, it must do so with overwhelming force. The old situation cannot be restored: the needs of the settlers must be met fully. Such was the case with Bacon’s Rebellion and the Herero War. Ariel Sharon has been pondering these issues as well: whether or not the Israeli settlement in Gaza and the West Bank are legitimate, they can be maintained only at great cost to Israel. Defending the settlements may be too expensive.

Ultimately, peripheries and frontiers are not impoverished places that vacuum up the destitute. Indeed, cities on the periphery can be quite prosperous. They are ports of entry for goods and ideas into the nation. They are also places where people can benefit from cross-border relationships. If states fear that far off territories will become ‘badlands’, they also struggle with peripheries that become independent through their affluence.

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Jonathan Dresner - 9/13/2004

In modern times, the government of Japan wrestled mightily with this tension. Migration appealed to the dispossessed and landless, but it also appealed to the opportunistic. The government did use migration as a way to 'drain' lower achieving members of society away from the home islands, but they were also very concerned with the success of their emigrants and colonial settlers. So they recruited from among the poor but they screened them pretty carefully, when they could.

And they spent a great deal of time and energy trying to make sure that emigrants did not embarass them as a nation.


Oscar Chamberlain - 9/13/2004

In the Confederation and Early National period, many elites in the East (and in partcular the Northeast) did fear the West. They feared what they considered its uncivil people and uncivilizing tendencies. In an odd way, they were in perfect agreement with Frederick Jackson Turner as to the impact of the frontier; they just didn't think it was good.

Even the Northwest Ordinance, in its Confederation form, reflected this concern. It assumed the necessity of a period of tutelage. It also--and this is rarely remembered--limited the soveriegnty of any states carved out of the Northwest by denying them the right to leave the Union.