lthough the American civilization took over and replaced the frontier more than a century ago, the heritage of the frontier is still evident in the United States today. Many people are still fascinated by the frontier because it has been particularly important in shaping American values. When Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, he liked to recall the image of life on the frontier. He was often photographed on his western ranch—chopping wood or riding his horse, and wearing his cowboy hat. President George W. Bush reinforced this cowboy image by inviting members of the press to photograph him on his Texas ranch, wearing his cowboy boots and hat.
For many years, the frontier experience was romanticized in popular movies and television shows that featured cowboy heroes fighting Indian villains. Little attention was given to the tragic story of what really happened to the Native Americans, also known as the American Indians. Today, most Americans are more aware of the darker side of the settling of the continent, when thousands of American Indians were killed, their lands taken, and much of their culture destroyed. There is a renewed interest in Indian cultures, and the Smithsonian now has a museum dedicated to Indian culture in Washington, D. C.
The frontier experience began when the first colonists settled on the east coast of the continent in the 1600s. It ended about 1890 when the last western lands were settled. The American frontier consisted of the relatively unsettled regions of the United States, usually found in the western part of the country. Here, both land and life were more rugged and primitive than in the more settled eastern part. As one frontier area was settled, people began moving farther west into the next unsettled area, sweeping aside the Native Americans as they went. By settling one frontier area after another, Americans moved across an entire continent that was 2,700 miles wide.
They came to believe that it was their destiny to control all the land, and eventually they did. The Native Americans were given small portions of land, called reservations, to control, but the United States government broke many promises and created much misery for the Indian nations.
While most Americans have a more balanced view of the settling of the West, many Americans still see aspects of the frontier, its people, and their beliefs as inspiring examples of traditional American values in their original and purest form.
How did the frontier movement, which lasted more than two centuries, help to shape these basic American values?
To be sure, the frontier provided many inspiring examples of hard work as forests were turned into towns, and towns into large cities. The competitive race for success was rarely more colorful or adventurous than on the western frontier. The rush for gold in California, for silver in Montana, and for fertile land in all the western territories provided endless stories of high adventure. When it was announced that almost 2 million acres of good land in Oklahoma would be opened for settlement in
April 1889, thousands of settlers gathered on the border waiting for the exact time to be announced. When it was, they literally raced into the territory in wagons and on horseback to claim the best land they could find for themselves.
The 1889 rush to claim land in Oklahoma
6 Although daily life on the frontier was usually less dramatic dian die frontier adventure stories would lead one to believe, even the ordinary daily life of frontier men and women exemplified national values in a form which seemed purer to many Americans than the life of those living in the more settled, more cultivated eastern United States.
7 Individualism, self-reliance, and equality of opportunity have perhaps been the values most closely associated with the frontier heritage of America. Throughout their history, Americans have tended to view the frontier settler as the model of the free individual. This is probably because there was less control over the individual on the frontier than anywhere else in the United States. There were few laws and few established social or political institutions to confine people living on the frontier. In the United States, where freedom from outside social controls has traditionally been valued, the frontier has been idealized, and it still serves as a basis for a nostalgic view of the early United States, a simpler time that was lost when the country became urbanized and more complex. Many people living in the West today still hold these beliefs about freedom from government controls.