I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.
The Far Western Frontier: 1830-18601
Ray Allen Billington
- Ray Allen Billington, The Far Western Frontier: 1830-1860, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1956).
Ray Allen Billington was preeminent historian of the American frontier. Billington was particularly well-known for his strong belief in pluralism and denunciation of the notion of the United States as a “melting pot.” He believed that the differences between cultures in America were just as important as the similarities. The Far Western Frontier: 1830-1860 is Billington’s account of American western migration. Billington declares two main objectives for his western narrative. First of all, Billington wishes to describe the different groups that moved west as well as the events that contiguously affected this movement. Secondly, he wants to continue the analytical argument over the validity of Turner’s Frontier Thesis by bringing new scholarship into the debate. Each chapter follows either a discriminate group as they cross the frontier or the events, such as the Mexican War, that shaped these movements.
In The Far Western Frontier, Billington advances much of Turner’s theory. One of the most apparent instances of this advancement is Billington’s treatment of the mountain man. Like Turner, he equates the mountain man’s existence with the return of Western man to the savage state. Free from conventionalism and dependent on their environment, mountain men developed a callous egoism, which numbed them to the sufferings of others. Also following the same vein as Turner, Billington states that one of his goals is to “examine the impact of each of these environments on those who settled under their influence.” (xviii) Billington portrays the movement westward as largely a battle against nature. Billington also sticks closely to Turner’s idea of sectionalism. Billington places more emphasis on the fact that there were many diverse groups that encountered different circumstances and brought with them different institutions and ways of life from the East. The individuals of the frontier “founded not one but a galaxy of empires, scattered widely over a vast and distant land,” he concludes. Billington includes groups that Turner ignored, most likely because they did not fit into his theory, such as the Mormans. The Mormans were a group of individuals that clung to their heritage. Unlike the independent frontiersmen Turner describes, the Mormans depended on the close-knit structure of their communities. The Mormans also brought European ways directly into the West by recruiting for member overseas. Billington does not support the idea that there was a disconnect between the East and West, in fact he often asserts that even though they were leading new lives, the pioneers and even the mountain men thirsted for a connection to their Eastern lives. Billington presents the history of the frontier as a cycle in which the settlers started off in the East, disconnected from it, and ultimately clamored to reconnect to it by the late 1850’s.
By and large The Far Western Frontier is a book that is imbued with lofty academic goals. However, Billington allows most of these goals, though impressive in theory, to fall flat. First off, Billington claims that one of his main objectives is to examine the role of environment and to prove or disprove Turner’s emphasis on it. Though, he touches on the subject, most of these examples seem shallow and lack any kind of groundbreaking nature. Additionally, he often hints at the fact that he believes that these settlers brought with them and adapted the institutions of eastern United States and of Europe. Again, this idea is presented, but not fully flushed out. Billington’s theories get lost in the complexity of his narrative. Billington provides a very detailed description of westward movement, but unfortunately this leads him to neglect those objectives that he announces in the beginning of the book. The Far Western Frontier, though not perfect, does open up a great deal of information and ideas for further study, which may (I’m guessing) be further illuminated later in this course.
Feature Photo: Great Mormon Tabernacle – Salt Lake City, 1868 by Andrew J. Russell; Library of Congress.