Victor Nuovo: How the West was won
Editor’s note: This is the 52nd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Basic to the idea of the frontier is the belief that beyond it, wherever the frontier happened to be in the course of our nation’s westward expansion, there is always more land to be settled — a promised land, which is free for the taking; in the minds of some adventurers, it was the place of El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. This promised place became the central theme of narrative of western expansion. In its retelling, the frontier was transformed into a place of a national epic, whose dimensions were huge and vast and untamed, like the nation itself. It became the focus of the great American myth, “the myth of the frontier.”
And then Hollywood discovered it, and made it the theme of many films, culminating, in 1962, in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s epic film “How the West was Won” featuring an “all star cast,” narrated by the late Spencer Tracy, who concludes with this coda, which represents it as a transfiguration:
“The West that was won by its pioneers, settlers, adventurers is long gone now. Yet it is theirs forever, for they left tracks in history that will never be eroded by wind or rain –— never plowed under by tractors, never buried in compost of events. Out of the hard simplicity of their lives, out of their vitality, of their hopes and sorrows grew legends of courage and pride to inspire their children and their children’s children. From soil enriched by their blood, out of their fever to explore and be, came lakes where once there were burning deserts — came the goods of the earth; mine and wheat fields, orchards and great lumber mills. All the sinews of a growing country. Out of their rude settlements, their trading posts became cities to rank among the great ones of the world. All the heritage of a people free to dream, free to act, free to mold their own destiny.”
This was the myth of Manifest Destiny refashioned for the big screen, the frontier thesis incarnate, “made flesh.” Frederick Jackson Turner might have felt vindicated.
But the land beyond the frontier was neither free nor unsettled. Nor was it a savage place. An Indian wearing moccasins was not a savage, though a white man may have been. If there was any savagery, and there was an abundance of it, it arose from this nation’s Western expansion, which was a phase of the European expansion that began with Columbus, who was inspired by the Renaissance — “the age of discovery.” Thus savagery was a product of European colonization and its westward expansion, the effect of European civilization as it went about colonizing the world. Ultimately, the European Renaissance was the source of the meaning of “the myth of the frontier.”
The place of this myth is the Great Plains, that vast territory extending from the Mississippi to the Rockies, The Prairie, which was first peopled by emigrants, who crossed over from Asia over 10,000 years ago and became the first settlers of North America. They were well settled when the first European settlers appeared. They were not savages, rather over millennia they had become properly “indigenous,” which is to say, they regarded themselves as natural products of the land.
The 19th century was the great age of territorial and industrial expansion in the United States. Richard Slotkin, the foremost historian of the myth of the frontier, has aptly entitled his history of it, “The Fatal Environment.” His purpose is not to celebrate the myth, but to demythologize it, to reduce it to history, which is the way that all myths should be regarded if truth be told. To represent it, he chose one of its most celebrated heroes, George Armstrong Custer, and its incarnation, Custer’s last stand at the battle of Little Big Horn, which Hollywood refashioned in the patriotic film “They Died With Their Boots On,” released in 1941, starring Errol Flynn in the title role.
But all of this is mere window dressing concealing the troubling narrative at the heart of the myth that comes to light when it is reduced to history; it is all about the treatment of indigenous peoples. It is a tragic tale, in many cases reprehensible, even when it is well meant.
In this respect, a more suitable symbol for the myth of the frontier is Col. Richard H. Pratt (1840–1923). Like Custer, he served with distinction during the Civil War, and afterward took part in the so-called Indian Wars on the Great Plains. He played a leading role in implementing the federal policy of assimilation of indigenous peoples initiated during the last decades of the 19th century. Among the institutions employed were government boarding schools, whose purpose was to Americanize Native American children. Pratt founded and headed one of these, and became a leading spokesman for its aims and purposes. In a speech delivered in 1892 he summarized their purpose:
“A great general [Philip Sheridan] has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Which leads one to wonder what Pratt believed “man” to be?
Pratt may also have been the first to use term “racism” in common discourse. To his credit, he named it to condemn it, which illustrates the profound moral ambiguity and irony of the history of this nation’s western expansion and in our discourse about it.
Slowly, the myth of the frontier receded in American consciousness, until July 1960, when John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic presidential nomination and declared the opening of a New Frontier; he imagined a frontier not bordering on land, but on new economic and political opportunities, scientific discoveries, and technological improvements. Subsequently, at Kennedy’s inauguration, Robert Frost added to this the frontier myth in a poem that he recited at Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony, sounding the theme that “The land was ours before we were the land’s”; he advocated surrender to the land as the fulfillment of our destiny:
“Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.”
These are indeed high-sounding words, but their effect is to conceal the moral ambiguity that lies beneath the myth of the frontier.
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