Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of the frontier was fundamental to understanding its importance in shaping American societies. His frontier thesis stated that the continual presence and progression of the frontier westward across the continent was critical to shaping the American people and institutions, and that its disappearance in the late 19th century signaled a cultural crisis for the United States of America.
[an approximation of the American frontier in 1775 as characterized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner; this schematic has fundamentally shaped the popular mythology of the United States- from creeds and federal policy (westward expansion and manifest destiny) to popular culture and landscape design (Toby Keith anthems and Olmsted’s design for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair). And rightfully so]
The thesis was brilliant- for the first time someone recognized that the rules of the European frontier did not apply here in the Americas. Of course, being the one to take the first major pass, there were some areas that needed more work. Historian Walter Prescott Webb more precisely described the frontier, noting that in the Americas a frontier was “not a line to stop at, but an area inviting entrance. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier has two dimensions, length and breadth.” Another historian of the American West, Herbert Eugene Bolton, argued that the American frontier can’t be understood in terms of an inexorable, Anglo-centric march west. For Bolton, the American frontier was a hemispheric condition of contested terrains; while the Anglo-Americans marched west, the French moved south, the Spanish moved north, the Russians moved east, the British controlled Canada, and the Portuguese expanded in all directions. Purging Turner’s Anglophilia from the Frontier Thesis (it was a common affliction at that time) and combining Webb’s representation of the frontier concept with Bolton’s, we start to render a more interesting and appropriate approximation of the American frontier.
Wider Horizons of the American Landscape
[an approximation of the actual American frontier in 1775; French territory is green, Spanish is dark blue, Portugese is yellow, Dutch is orange, British is red, Russian is pink, areas contested between the British and French are light blue, indigenous nations are mapped with white labels; borders are fuzzy and territories are not homogeneous blocks, but rather heterogeneous zones of conflict and potential]
“A certain philosopher asserts that a space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary. A boundary is not that at which something stops, but that from which something begins its presencing.” [paraphrased]
– William T. Vollman, Imperial
Combining the work of these frontier historians with that of geographers and landscape architects such as Richard Campanella, Elizabeth Meyer, and Peter Jacobson, it is possible to understand the American frontier as a landscape condition: a constructed environment consisting of autonomous objects in relation to one another within a larger context. The American landscape is a hemispheric condition with overlapping and contingent jurisdictions over expansive territories characterized by bigness and smashing. The rivers are bigger, the mountains are higher, the deserts drier, the forests taller, and the horizons wider.
The frontier is non-directional. It is not a thick band of open, receding land at the edge of society but rather a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and colonizing interests are smashing into one another over and over. The frontier in the American landscape is not Turner’s blank space or Webb’s thick zone at the settled edge. It is defined by overlapping and ambiguous administrative jurisdictions at different scales. It is not always clear who is in charge, and that creates a unique set of problems and possibilities- control is ambiguous, there are real and perceived dangers, and there is latent potential. This contingency and potentiality generates the frontier conditions which the Scottish recognized in the Darien Gap, the United States recognized in the Southwest, and the French saw in the Mississippi Valley. As a landscape condition, the frontier is endemic to the American landscape; marked by difficult terrain, massive government investments, a tantalizing mix of potential commercial success and imminent disaster.