Literature And The Frontier

Stirrings of national consciousness appeared more and more strongly with the emergence of a truly American literature. Foremost among the writers of this new American school were Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Irving's humorous History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, published in 1809, drew its inspiration wholly from the local American scene. Some of Irving's best work, such as the story of Rip Van Winkle, is set in the Hudson River Valley of New York and reveals America as a land of legend and romance.

Similarly, Cooper's talent found expression through indigenous materials. After attempting a novel of the conventional English type, he published The Spy, a tale of the Revolution which won immediate popularity. Next came The Pioneers, a vivid prose picture of the simple life of the American frontier. In the Leatherstocking Tales, a series of novels published between 1823 and 1841, Cooper made a pioneer, Natty Bumppo, and a silent-footed Indian chief, Chingachgook, permanent figures in world literature. Cooper's tales of the sea were also products of American influences.

A significant literary event in America was the founding in 1815 of The North American Review, ably edited by Jared Sparks. The Review drew enough contributions and support from the young intellectuals of New England to give it an enduring place in the nation's developing culture.

A force that did much to shape American literature - and, more importantly, American life - was the frontier. Conditions along the entire Atlantic seaboard stimulated migration to the newer regions. From New England, whose soil was incapable of producing grain competitively with the cheap and fertile western lands, came a steady stream of men and women who left their coastal farms and villages to take advantage of the rich interior of the continent.

In the back settlements of the Carolinas and Virginia, people handicapped by the lack of roads and canals giving access to coastal markets, and suffering from the political dominance of the tidewater planters, also moved westward. This movement profoundly affected the American scene: it encouraged individual initiative; it fostered political and economic democracy; it roughened manners; it broke down conservatism; and it bred a spirit of local self-determination, coupled with respect for national authority.

With the passing years, the westward migration moved beyond the headwaters of the coastal rivers, and over the Appalachians. By 1800, the Mississippi and Ohio valleys were becoming a great frontier region. "Hi-o, away we go, floating down the river on the O-hi-o," became the song of thousands of migrants.

The westward flow of population in the early 19th century led to the division of old territories and the drawing of new boundaries. Then, as new states were admitted, the political map was stabilized east of the Mississippi. Within a halfdozen years, six states were created - Indiana in 1816, Mississippi in 1817, Illinois in 1818, Alabama in 1819, Maine in 1820, and Missouri in 1821. The first frontier had been tied closely to Europe, the second to the coastal settlements, but the Mississippi Valley was independent and its people looked west rather than east.

Frontier settlers were a varied group. In the van were the hunters and trappers, described by an English traveler named Fordham as

"a daring, hardy race of men, who live in miserable cabins. . . . They are unpolished but hospitable, kind to strangers, honest and trustworthy. They raise a little Indian corn, pumpkins, hogs and sometimes have a cow or two. . . . But the rifle is their principal means of support."
Dexterous with the axe, snare, and fishing line, these men blazed the trails, built the first log cabins, and held back the Indians.

As more and more settlers penetrated the wilderness, many became farmers as well as hunters. A comfortable log house with glass windows, a good chimney, and partitioned rooms replaced the cabin; the well replaced the spring. An industrious man would rapidly clear his land of timber, burning the wood for potash and letting the stumps decay. He grew his own grain, vegetables, and fruit: ranged the woods for venison, wild turkeys, and honey; fished the nearby streams; looked after his cattle and hogs. The more restless bought large tracts of the cheap land and, as land values rose, sold their holdings and moved still farther west, making way for others.

Farmers were soon followed by doctors lawyers, storekeepers, editors, preachers, mechanics, politicians - all those who make up a vigorous society. The farmers were the sturdy base. Where they settled, they intended to stay and hoped their children would stay after them. They built large barns and sound brick or frame houses. They brought improved livestock, plowed the land skillfully, and sowed productive seed. Some erected flour mills, sawmills, distilleries. They laid out good highways, built churches and schools. Almost incredible transformations were accomplished in a few years. Thus, in 1830, Chicago was merely an unpromising trading village with a fort, but long before some of its original settlers died, it had become one of the largest and richest cities in the nation.

Many strains were mingled in the new west: Scotch-Irish, Pennsylvania Germans, New Englanders, and men of other origins. By 1830, more than half the people living in America had been brought up in an environment in which Old World traditions and conventions were absent or very weak.

In the west, men were valued not for family background, inherited money, or years of schooling, but for what they were and could do. Farms were easy to acquire; government land after 1820 could be bought for $1.25 an acre (0.4 hectare) and after 1862 could be claimed by merely occupying and improving it. In addition, tools for working the land were easily available. It was a time when, as the journalist Horace Greeley said, young men could "go west and grow up with the country." As they went west, the New England and southern emigrants carried with them many of the ideals and institutions of the regions from which they came.