The American Frontier: Dream or Nightmare?

Throughout the nineteenth century the American frontier was a continuously-advancing line which marked the westward movement of settlers. It separated the natural and native Indian from the civilized and artificial white. It was a meeting place of two entirely different cultures, a place where, on the one hand a tragic clash took place, and on the other a priceless lesson was learned.

Two hundred years ago many were eager to settle the wilderness that lay beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Equipped only with an ax, a rifle and self-confidence, and cherishing the belief that at the end of the exhausting journey lay a life of bliss, the first pion-eers of the Wild West were tradesmen, artisans, mechanics, farmers and prostitutes. Frequently a migrant was a man with nothing more than farming experience, who drove his plank-wheeled cart burdened with a group of small children, clothes, pots, a bag of corn and a barefoot wife. Fear of the unknown and the unpredictable future of his family must have been great. But such a migrant was by no means poorer than many of the others. Often men traveled west on foot, equipped only with a wheelbarrow or even a single bag. The essence of the frontier experience was the spirit of competition with nature, enemies and one's own weaknesses, desires and disabilities.

The greatest migration on earth

The frontier dream had a least three main aims. One was to gain political liberty and flee from the terrors of monopoly, debt and dirty towns. The second was to make money, or at least improve one's living standards. The last, but not the least, was the fulfillment of a mission. That was why such different groups of settlers moved westward and why the migration was one of the greatest the earth had ever seen.

Having reached their target, the pale and exhausted pioneer-farmers seemed to be happy and optimistic about staying in this western Arcadia. This was despite the fact that weather conditions, Indian attacks, malaria and other diseases, to say nothing of loneliness and poverty, often meant that their lives were worse than before. The West was where they could relish freedom and independence and that made their trials worth it.

One cannot deny the powerful impact the settlement made on the national consciousness and pride of Americans, and on many writers and artists from other continents. The frontier started to be regarded as the 'cradle of American democracy,' as Frederic J. Turner, a Wisconsin historian, called it.

Life on the Western plain

Cutting down trees and clearing the ground for a small farm were the first two activities a settler would perform. After several days of work a settler would call his friends and neighbors for a meeting, drink whiskey and try to persuade them to lend him a hand with building a cabin. Next, he would grow some corn and vegetables on a field beside his new hut. Generally more than five acres were cleared by one settler: half an acre was given to wheat, the other half to a vegetable garden and the rest to corn and pumpkins, as those were a staple food in those days.

All household utensils like furniture, tools, harness and the cart were homemade. Dressed in woolen and cotton clothes and wearing shoes made of animal skin, men had their hands full keeping the farm going. But life was not any easier for women. They lived as the colonial women had in the early days of the country. As there were few stores on the plains, the pioneer women sewed clothing, wove quilts, made soap, candles, and other goods themselves. All the food needed through the long winter had to be cooked and preserved too, so no woman could say she was bored in summer or fall.

Families on the plains usually lived miles apart and as a result they had to look after themselves on their own. Women had duties like educating children, treating ill husbands or helping with planting and harvesting. Still, they were strong enough to keep up their spirits and those of their men. In their spare time a pioneer family would relax by visiting neighbors, going to church or attending such special events as picnics, weddings and dances.

Triumph or shame?

Though it was the beginning of a new life for whites, the frontier settlement was a threat to the existence of the Native Americans. Recently, historians have begun to criticize the so-called triumph of settlement. One example is Patricia Nelson Limerick of the University of Colorado who says: 'The conquest that used to be a national ideal, has recently become an object of contempt. The branch [of historians] that dealt with the national heroes and praiseworthy deeds is starting to devote more and more attention to the victims. And there are plenty of them in the West: aborigines (exhausted and outnumbered), women and children (exploited), landscape (devastated), and the ideals (crushed).' Such being the case, the process of the col-onizing of America appears to be a double-faced fact.

Magdalena Niemczyk