John Charles Frémont
As the British colonies on the eastern seaboard became more populated in the mid-1700s, colonists began to look beyond the Appalachian Mountains and contemplate westward expansion. Looking westward, they could only imagine the incredible riches the continent would offer to them. Not much information was known about the territory west of the Appalachians. A 1795 map did offer a fairly accurate picture of the western region of North America, but it mistakenly depicted several inland lakes as being considerably larger than the Great Salt Lake. The map's cartographers probably drew these lakes from vague reports they had received from Indians. In 1806 John Cary produced a map that accurately depicted the Pacific coastline, but he did not include inland details—which resulted in a map that left blank almost the entire region west of the Mississippi River.
Curious to know more specifically what the western region had to offer, President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) commissioned Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) in 1803 to find a navigable water route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. In addition, Lewis and Clark were asked to report as many inland...
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William Clark and Meriwether Lewis
Excerpts from The Journals of Lewis and Clark
Edited by Bernard DeVoto
Published in 1953
By 1800 Europeans and Americans understood the basic geography of most of the world's continents, with the exception of the western two-thirds of North America, the interior of Africa, the Arctic, and Antarctica. France, England, Russia, Spain, and the United States were very interested in the region beyond the Mississippi River in North America for its commercial potential but had not yet explored it extensively. Even Native American communities knew only their immediate areas—the land that they hunted or cultivated regularly. They too lacked a continental perspective.
Thomas Jefferson, obsessed with cartography (mapmaking) and natural history, understood the necessity of exploring and mapping the vast region west of the Mississippi River. When Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the western region of the continent, he believed that the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia were the tallest peaks in North America; that the woolly mammoth and other prehistoric creatures might still roam the Dakotas; that the Great Plains featured volcanoes and a mountain of pure salt; that the Rio Grande, Missouri, and Columbia Rivers all rose from a single source; and
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Excerpt from Adventures of Zenas Leonard Fur Trader
Edited by John C. Ewers
Published in 1959
More than anything else, the growing fur trade attracted white men across the Mississippi River into the interior of North America. Fur traders, also called mountain men, had traveled over the Appalachian Mountains, around the Great Lakes, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the southwestern deserts in search of beaver pelts long before white settlers started to carve farms out of the wilderness. In the early 1800s, with the fur supply between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River depleted and settlements filling up the wilderness land, European fur trappers looked to the land beyond the Mississippi River. The Spanish, French, and British dominated the fur trade in this region when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans began to hope that expanding their involvement in the fur trade would be good for the American economy. Keeping the fur trade in mind as they searched for the Northwest Passage, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported on the abundance of beavers along the western rivers and their tributaries.
One of Lewis and Clark's traveling companions, John Colter (c. 1775–1813), became the first and one of the most famous...
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John C. Frémont
Excerpt from The Life of Col. John Charles Frémont, and His Narrative of Explorations and Adventures in Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and California
By Samuel M. Smucker
Published in 1856
In 1842 John C. Frémont (1813–1890), known as "The Pathfinder," led an expedition between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. In 1843 he led another from Independence, Missouri, along the Kansas River, across the Rocky Mountains, and over the Laramie Plain through South Pass. Frémont's description of the Salt Lake Valley inspired Brigham Young and his Mormon followers to settle there a decade later. Frémont's party eventually reached the Columbia River north of what he called the Great Basin. From there Frémont followed the Sierra Nevada range south into California. The expedition endured a brutal winter season before finally arriving at Sutter's ranch, a site that in 1849 would be overwhelmed by prospective gold seekers.
Like most military explorers, Frémont was motivated by the potential for increasing American territory. However, his findings proved significant for subsequent geographical explorations. With the aid of Charles Preuss, a Prussian cartographer, Frémont produced the first accurate map of the overall trans-Mississippi west as well as a special emigrant map of the Oregon and...
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John S. Smith
For more than three hundred years, white men battled Native Americans for control of the North American continent. Beginning shortly after European settlers landed on the shores of the present-day United States in the early seventeenth century and continuing until the dawn of the twentieth century, white settlers and soldiers waged an unrelenting war to claim the lands that Native Americans, or Indians, had long considered their own. Though the underlying cause of the wars was the white settlers' craving for land, the tensions were heightened by the huge cultural differences that separated the two peoples. Whites and Native Americans had very different ideas about how to use land, the meaning and importance of promises, and how to wage war. These cultural differences added to the tragedy of the Indian Wars.
From the beginning, the white conquerors had tremendous advantages. They possessed superior weapons, larger numbers, and a strong sense of purpose—to claim the land from coast to coast. Soon after the United States declared its independence from England, Americans began to pour into the trans-Appalachian West, the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Though they met with...
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Indian Removal Act of 1830
Legislation passed by the United States Congress in 1830
The War of 1812 marked the end of organized Indian resistance to white settlement of the area known as the Old Northwest (the area of land surrounding the Great Lakes and between the Ohio River and the Mississippi River; it included the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota). White pioneers poured into the trans-Appalachian West, settling in the area that now includes the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and other Midwestern states. These settlers discovered, however, that many Indians hoped to remain on the lands that had been occupied by the Indians' ancestors. Though open warfare had ceased, whites and Indians continued to clash over who would occupy the fertile lands that the United States had claimed as the spoils of war. By 1830 many former territories had become states, and these states pushed for the removal of Indians from their land.
Andrew Jackson (1767–1845)—famed for his valor in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 and renowned as a skilled Indian fighter—became president of the United States in 1829 and supervised a concerted effort to remove Indians from the lands east of the Mississippi River. In his first address to Congress as president, Jackson asked: "What good man would prefer a country covered...
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John S. Smith
Congressional Testimony of John S. Smith, Eyewitness to the Sand Creek Massacre
Given on March 14, 1865
Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Massacre of Cheyenne Indians, 38th Congress, 2nd Session, Washington, 1865
Soon after gold was discovered near Pikes Peak in Colorado in 1858, American legislators established the Colorado Territory. In order to encourage white settlement the government tried to negotiate a treaty that would place the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes living throughout the territory on a small plot of land in southeastern Colorado. Many tribes either rejected or ignored the treaty and continued to roam the prairies and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Territorial governor John Evans (1814–1897) encouraged white citizens "to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all . . . Indians," according to Don Nardo in The Indian Wars. Evans also appointed a notorious Indian-hater, John M. Chivington, to lead the militia and drive the Indians out of Colorado.
Although many Indian groups continued to resist white advances in the region, one Indian leader, Black Kettle, believed that his tribe would do better to cooperate with the white men. Thus Black Kettle's Cheyenne obeyed Evans's order to report to the military base at Fort Lyon. After...
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Excerpt from Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer
Interpreted by Thomas B. Marquis
Published in 1931
For years after the Sand Creek Massacre, U.S. soldiers and Indian warriors met in dozens of battles and skirmishes across the Plains region, with neither side gaining a decisive advantage. Eastern newspapers mocked the American forces for their inability to capture the relatively small bands of Indians who were causing so much trouble. The final conflict between these two forces came in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sacred ground to many of the Plains tribes, the Black Hills had been protected by many treaties over the years. However, General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 to protect white settlers who believed that there might be gold in the region. When gold was found, tens of thousands of fortune seekers and settlers moved into this sacred territory. The Indians had no choice but to respond.
In the winter of 1875, thousands of Indians from a number of different groups began to gather on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana. There they planned their strategy for the defense of the Black Hills, unaware of (or ignoring) the army's threat to hunt down and kill any Indians found off their reservations. For its part,...
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Settling the West
- Josiah Gregg
- Henry N. Copp
- Fanny Kelly
- Elise Amalie
Between 1800 and 1870, nearly half a million Americans set out across the frontier on the many trails that led westward. Using the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon-California Trail, the Mormon Trail, or one of the many other trails, these trappers, traders, farmers, and families set out on a journey of discovery. For many the western frontier represented the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to take control of their lives, to strike it rich, to make their own rules, or to claim their own land. Lured by promises—of gold, of lucrative trade, or of fertile farmland—pioneers endured weeks and even months of arduous travel in order to reach their destination and build the communities that defined the American West. The trails they blazed helped pave the way for the civilizing of the West.
The pioneers who journeyed west in the middle of the nineteenth century left their mark on the landscape and on the American character. Physical traces of the trails remain to this day: deep wagon wheel ruts are still visible in deserted stretches of the mountainous West, and many forts that are still standing attract...
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Excerpt from Commerce of the Prairies: A Selection
Edited by David Freeman Hawke
Originally published in 1844
One thing that pioneers had in common was courage. For years, cautious observers in the East had warned against selling one's belongings, packing a wagon, and heading west. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley called it "palpable suicide" and statesman Daniel Webster warned that the West was a "region of savages and wild beasts."
By the 1840s, however, several events made the West more appealing to settlers: a long economic downturn that lasted from 1837 to 1842 encouraged many to seek their fortune in the West; Congress hinted that it would give land to Oregon settlers; Britain ceded the present-day states of Oregon and Washington to the United States in 1846; and the California gold rush attracted many people. The Great Migration, the name given to the first major departure of emigrants westward, drew one thousand settlers onto the Oregon Trail in 1843, and more came every year after that. The small trail soon became a well-traveled road stretching to the promised land. Many Americans felt that it was their "manifest destiny"—their right and duty to expand throughout the North American continent and secure these western lands.
A well-stocked wagon was as important as strength,...
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Henry N. Copp
Excerpt from The American Settler's Guide: A Popular Exposition of the Public Land System of the United States of America
Published in 1892
The frontier was the wilderness beyond the borders of civilized towns, a mysterious region that offered people the opportunity to strike out on their own, to make their own successes. For European immigrants, the American frontier offered a dream never before imagined. In Europe, a serf could never think of leaving his allotted plot of land to rise from poverty; a shopkeeper's son could never hope to run his own store before his father's death. Yet in America, just outside of the newly formed towns, hardy souls could determine their own destiny in the unknown.
On the American frontier, as in few other places on earth, a man amounted to the sum of his skills and endurance. Without the established lines of ancestry and wealth that made up the social structure in Europe, the American frontier was open to anyone strong enough or courageous enough to master it and claim its riches. On the frontier, each person had the power to shape his or her own destiny. Never before had a society offered all its citizens the opportunity for success. In the American West, "all men were future 'gentlemen' and deserved...
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Excerpt from Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians
Originally published in 1872
Reprinted in In Their Own Words: Warriors and Pioneers
Edited by T. J. Stiles
Published in 1996
Although legend has it that wagon trains crossing the prairie were under constant attack from marauding bands of Indians, such attacks were relatively infrequent—except on a few trails such as the Bozeman Trail—and rarely led to death. Native Americans posed little real danger to the emigrants. Much of the contact between whites and Indians was peaceful, as Indians provided direction to emigrants passing through their lands, or as the emigrants traded their guns for Indian horses. Some of the native groups demanded that travelers pay a toll to cross their land. But there was also some open conflict between Native Americans and whites. Indians commonly slipped into camps at night and stole horses and other goods. In fact, the Pawnee gained a reputation for thievery. Other groups, such as the Crow and the Blackfeet, disliked the travelers crossing their tribal lands and raided the camps or caught and killed stragglers. In the end, though, few whites were killed by Indians on the Oregon-California Trail, the same trail on which Fanny Kelly traveled.
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Elise Amalie Wærenskjold
An excerpt from "A Lady Grows Old in Texas" from Land of Their Choice: The Immigrants Write Home
Edited by Theodore C. Blegen
Published in 1955
Although many ventured into the West for one reason or another, those who settled and began to "civilize" the frontier truly tamed the continent. Asserts Roger Barr in The American Frontier, "As in earlier American frontiers, it was farmers, the last in the line of frontiersmen, who truly conquered the West. Dissatisfied by the conditions at home, lured by the promise of free land, and aided by new technology, they came by the thousands to the Great Plains beginning in the 1850s." Farmers had to learn new methods of farming; technological advances, such as John Deere's 1837 invention of the steel plow, made their work easier. Another invention, barbed wire (1874), allowed farmers to fence off their land to keep the growing numbers of livestock from trampling their crops.
Farming in the West was encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave settlers up to 160 acres of free land if they settled on it and made improvements over a five-year span. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted an additional 160 acres to farmers who agreed to plant a portion of their land with trees. These acts drew many thousands of settlers
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The Cowboy Life
E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott
Agnes Morley Cleaveland
When most people think of the American West, they think of cowboys. Historian Walter P. Webb described this heroic image in The Great Plains:
There is something romantic about him. He lives on horseback as do the Bedouins [members of nomadic desert tribes in Africa]; he fights on horseback, as did the knights of chivalry; he goes armed with a strange new weapon which he uses ambidextrously and precisely; he swears like a trooper, drinks like a fish, wears clothes like an actor, and fights like a devil. He is gracious to ladies, reserved toward strangers, generous to his friends and brutal to his enemies. He is a cowboy, a typical Westerner.
This stereotype of the cowboy is the West's most recognizable contribution to our national mythology. But what was the cowboy's life really like? And what about the women who also lived in the cattle country of the West? This chapter presents the tales of two real cowboys and a cowgirl.
In reality the era of the cowboy only lasted a few decades, from just after the Civil War...
(The entire section is 1064 words.)
Excerpt from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as "Deadwood Dick"
Originally published in 1907
The cowboy is considered the hero of the American West. A tough, straight-talking man who spent long days on the range driving cattle to market, the cowboy maintained a sense of honor and decency and was often perceived as a protector of women. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, this American cowboy is a myth—only a reflection of what people would like to think about the past. Real cowboys were more complex. Many, like Nat Love, were rowdy, fun-loving men unlikely to be pointed out as role models to anyone. And as an African American, Nat Love does not fit the cowboy stereotype portrayed in old movies. Love's story indicates that the cowboy life may have been quite different than what we usually imagine.
Love's memoirs are filled with fantastic stories of his adventures. He tells of his winning the name "Deadwood Dick" in a shooting contest that pitted him against the most famous cowboys in the West, and of his capture and later escape from a band of Indians. "Horses were shot out from under me, men killed around me, but always I escaped with a trifling wound at the worst," recalled Love. The excerpts from The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle
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E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott
Excerpt from We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher
Originally published in 1939
By E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott and Helena Huntington Smith
E.C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott was by all accounts a regular cowboy who had worked on the range in the 1870s and 1880s. Abbott was "discovered" by a journalist named Helena Huntington Smith, who had read an interview with Abbott in a Montana newspaper. She began to meet with him and soon became convinced that his stories needed to be documented. Working with the aging cowboy in 1937 and 1938, Smith wrote as quickly as Abbott talked, preserving the tone and excitement of his stories.
On December 17, 1860, Abbott was born in Norfolk, England. His family moved to the United States when he was a baby and settled near Lincoln, Nebraska, where his father became a farmer. Abbott's father, who he described as "overbearing and tyrannical," wanted Abbott to join him in working the farm, but the young man had other ideas. He was enthralled with the cowboys who passed through Lincoln and by the age of twelve had left school to look after his father's herd of cattle. Though he was not yet living the life of a cowboy, he knew that someday he would. The excerpt from Abbott's autobiography begins when he was fourteen and just about to start his career as a cowboy....
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Agnes Morley Cleaveland
Excerpt from No Life for a Lady
Originally published in 1941
In the 1800s cattle drives were considered men's work. But that didn't mean that women didn't play an important role in the cattle boom of the late nineteenth century. In fact, some of the infamous female figures in the West were as romanticized as their male counterparts. Horse thief and cattle rustler Belle Starr was widely known as the female Jesse James, and Calamity Jane was as celebrated as Wild Bill Hickok for her exploits with a gun. In the rowdy cattle towns that popped up across Kansas, dance hall girls and prostitutes were very colorful figures. However, most women—like most cowboys—led more ordinary lives than the legends indicate. Ranchers' wives worked alongside their husbands to build the ranches that were the bases for cattle drives. On small farms and ranches in the Far West, women often had to do much of the same work as men, as well as cook and take care of the children.
Agnes Morley Cleaveland was not a cowboy, but she was as close as a woman came to being a real cowgirl. Born Agnes Morley in 1874 to a renowned railroad engineer who owned plots of land throughout the West, Miss Agnes, as she was known on the ranch, grew up in the high desert country of southwestern New Mexico, near the village of Magdalena. Her parents worried about bringing up...
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The Gold Rush
Elisha Douglass Perkins
Conflicts between Indians and Whites
The discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley of northern California, inland from the San Francisco Bay, in 1848 marked the beginning of one of the most dramatic periods in American history. The day James Marshall's eye was caught by a shiny object in the bottom of a ditch while he managed the construction of a sawmill for his boss John Sutter would be recounted again and again as news of the discovery spread around the world. Soon thousands of adventurers would migrate to California, searching for their own fortunes.
The California gold rush lasted just a few years, but it dramatically changed the future of the state and the nation. Of the thousands who migrated to California with hopes of instant riches, only a few struck it big in the gold fields. Many more built new lives providing services in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. Others died on the arduous journey west or—if they were Native American, African American, Chinese, or Hispanic—faced discrimination as white settlers took control of the state. The gold rush changed California from a sparsely populated Mexican territory to a rapidly growing state within a decade.
When gold was first...
(The entire section is 617 words.)
Excerpt from Reminiscences of Early San Francisco 1847–48
First published in the Sacramento Daily Union in 1873
Reprinted in A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California Before the Gold Rush, 1999
Edited by Joshua Paddison
It took several months for people in San Francisco—barely one hundred miles away from Sutter's Mill—to hear of Marshall's discovery of gold on January 24, 1848. As the first news of gold trickled through the small California towns, some were skeptical. In San Francisco, a town of about five hundred people, settlers were busy setting up shops to support the growing farming communities; farming was considered the best economic opportunity in the territory at the time. However, as workers from Sutter's Mill began buying goods with gold dust, the rumors of gold in the hills of California were hard to deny.
The curious editor of the California Star newspaper, Edward Cleveland Kemble, wanted to know if the rumors were true. He joined the first party to leave San Francisco for the gold mines. In 1873, Kemble published a rare perspective about the beginning of the gold rush in a series of articles for the Sacramento Daily Union. His reports highlight the skepticism of the party and the difficulty in...
(The entire section is 3457 words.)
Elisha Douglass Perkins
Excerpt from Gold Rush Diary: Being the Journal of Elisha Douglass Perkins on the Overland Trail in the Spring and Summer of 1849
Written between May 1849 and February 1850
Published in 1967
Edited by Thomas D. Clark
In 1848 the discovery of gold in California created a wave of excitement across America. The news of gold in California spread through the United States like wildfire, and the migration to California increased. The New York Herald reported that "the great discovery of gold has thrown the American people in a state of the wildest excitement. Gold can be scooped up in pans at the rate of a pound of pure dust a scoop. 'Ho! For California' is the cry everywhere." Similar announcements appeared in newspapers across the country.
By the summer of 1848 other westerners—Hawaiians, Oregonians, Mexicans, and Latin Americans—caught wind of the discovery and set out for California. Late in 1848 the Oregon Spectator reported that "Almost the entire male population has gone gold digging in California." In July 1848, the number of gold seekers stood at two thousand; by October there were five thousand; and by year's end they numbered eight thousand. Yet there were more to come. Many of the first Californians to reach the gold mines—known as the...
(The entire section is 5178 words.)
Native Americans and the California Gold Rush
Excerpts from Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Slavery of Native Americans
During the California Gold Rush, 1848–1868
Edited by Clifford E. Trafzer and Joel R. Hyer
Published in 1999
With its mild climate, its vast and fertile interior valleys, and an abundance of game, the region we now know as California once supported a large native population. Historians estimate that before contact with the Europeans some three hundred thousand native people lived in the territory known as California. These Indians organized themselves into more than one hundred different tribes. Each of these groups had distinct cultures and traditions, and all benefited from an environment that provided them with the best diet of any native population.
Blessed with ample land and food, California's indigenous peoples found little reason to come into conflict with one another. This peaceful life began to change in 1769, when Spanish missionaries arrived on the California coast and set out to convert the native population to Christianity. The Spanish sought to extend their empire northward into California. They began building missions (churchbased districts), pueblos (villages), and presidios (forts) in the southern territory around San Diego extending all the...
(The entire section is 4041 words.)
The Closing of the Frontier
The conquest of the American frontier is one of the most exciting and dramatic stories in American history. Settling western lands required nearly a century of warfare and hardship as Americans fought the British and many Indian groups to lay claim to the West. The United States was born out of the Revolutionary War, which was fought in part to guarantee the rights of colonists to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet winning the war and declaring independence from England didn't automatically open the West to the Americans. For four decades after they declared their independence in 1776, Americans battled the British and a variety of Native American groups to take possession of the lands stretching west to the Mississippi River.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the American victory in the War of 1812 opened the continent to western expansion. The Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of the United States, adding a vast expanse of territory that reached from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. The
(The entire section is 534 words.)
Frederick Jackson Turner
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History"
Excerpted from The Frontier in American History
Originally published in 1920
In 1893 a then little-known historian named Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) delivered an address at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago that changed the way Americans thought about the American character and the conquest of the West. For years, scholars and historians who had tried to explain the development of America emphasized the European influences on American culture. According to these scholars and historians, the explorers, the settlers, their material culture (the physical things they owned), their institutions, their beliefs and values—all had been forged in Europe. Yet such explanations ignored a decisive factor in the shaping of the American character, argued Turner. That factor was the frontier.
According to Turner, what separated Americans from Europeans was the constant availability of new land to the west. In his speech, Turner maintained that the frontier—that region just beyond or at the edge of a settled area—washed away all European influences and created a distinctive American character. Although settlers in America brought their European culture and beliefs with them, they found themselves confronting a radically new...
(The entire section is 4900 words.)