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 Winning of the West, Volumes 1 and 3

Theodore Roosevelt

Dedicated to Francis Parkman, The Winning of the West is Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to describe the English takeover of North America by mirroring Parkman’s treatment of the French in his seven volume work France and England in North America. According to Roosevelt, the spread of English speaking people around the world, particularly in North America, is the most important historical event of his time, and one that deserves explanation. This takeover of the continent occurred due to the steady movement of English speaking peoples who carried with them and continued to develop a unique, American identity, westward as they progressively conquered the French, Native Americans, and the wilderness.

Volume I of The Winning of the West was written before Turner’s Frontier Thesis and Volume III was written afterwards. It is rather evident that Roosevelt and Turner were inspired by one another’s writings.  Volume I begins in 1763, in order for Roosevelt to show that even before the Americans won their Independence, a unique nationhood based on the frontier wilderness was developing. The landscape characterized by plentiful woodlands and lush prairies was uncultivated land, and thus uncivilized land; the Native Americans, or savages as Roosevelt refers to them in Parkman-like fashion, and French had not used the land for its full potential and thus were not the true owners of it. Though some of the advents that occurred in the battle for western land were regrettable, Roosevelt believes that they were inevitable if Americans were to move westward and were not to leave the land to fritter away in the hands of savages. Those of English descent were of a superior race whose destiny was to take over the continent; this race included the strongest individuals of other European descents that were able to ingratiate themselves into the English way of life. Those that were too weak to make the crossover were better off being taken over by their superiors, Roosevelt believed. The traders and mountain men that preceded the settlers were the originators of a new kind of culture that relied heavily on self-help and individualism. Backwoods settlements were simple, according to Roosevelt. “There was great equality of conditions,” Roosevelt writes, “land was a plenty and all else scarce; so courage, thrift, and industry were sure of their reward.” In Volume III, Roosevelt continues to tout the advantages of a society built on the values of a backwoods way of life. “The character of the westward movement,” he writes, “was determined by the extreme individualism of the backwoodsmen,” which was balanced by his sound common-sense, a gift of his race. Like Turner, Roosevelt seems to choose particular groups of people that serve the narrative that he wishes to produce. The Holston and Cumberland settlements are examples of this individualism helping to create communities that were governed by untainted, and thus very American, democracy. For it was not a new form of government that these individuals were bringing to the frontier, but rather a familiar, British-based government that was adapted and improved to suit new challenges and environments.

In Volume III, Roosevelt describes how Kentuckians in the early 1780s could no longer hunt for their food; instead they were increasingly reliant on communal archetypes such as churches, schools, and mills. In other words, civilization was creeping onto the frontier. Roosevelt paints this picture with almost a lamentable tone. Yet, he also emphasizes that the backwoodsman’s first duty and what made his displacement of the Native Americans justified was to bring order and law to the western lands. How can one balance these two seemingly incompatible ideals, that of the individualistic wildness and the white man’s duty to civilize? At what point does the civilization become so much like that of the East that it no longer holds on to these “American” democratic ideals? If one follows Turner’s evolutionary model for civilization, then it is certain that the western towns will once again come into fully civilized fruition. Roosevelt presents an interesting narrative of the development of the ideals he would later fully illustrate and update in “The Strenuous Life.”

Feature Photo: Theodore Roosevelt / Sidney L. Smith sc. 1905. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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