Ohio History Journal

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By Ray Allen Billington. Histories of

the American Frontier Series, edited

by Ray Allen Billington. (New York:

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966.

xiv??302p.; end notes and bibliography.


In his Westward Expansion, one of

the standard texts on the westward move-

ment to 1900, Ray Billington traces, in

narrative fashion and with near encyclo-

pedic detail, the history of the United

States from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The two shortest chapters are the first,

which considers the frontier hypothesis,

and the last, which is concerned with the

frontier heritage. In a sense, the present

volume is a sequel to Westward Expansion,

since it is an assessment of the Turnerian

hypothesis as well as a detailed analysis

of the frontier heritage.

The tools of analysis which the author

employs, in addition to the conventional

ones used by historians, are those of

anthropology, sociology, social psychology,

and, to a lesser extent, demography. Un-

fortunately, readers untutored in the ter-

minologies used in these social sciences

will find the text sometimes labored and

not very clearly worded. Nevertheless,

spatial mobility and motivation are fre-

quently intertwined with behavioral pat-

terns of culture and personality and too

often overlooked by those who would better

understand the American frontier process.

At first blush there would seem to be a

paucity of raw material that is capable of

being well organized by the historian for

such an analytical study. This does not

seem to be the case, however. Billington

has tapped hundreds of travel accounts of

overseas visitors to America in the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the

discerning objectivity of as-others-see-us

commentaries. As valuable as these are,

reliance on such accounts is probably too

heavy at times, because there is a tendency

to forget that the reports are conditioned

by the prejudices, backgrounds, and train-

ing of those recording them.

Billington defines frontier in terms of

place and process. The place is adjacent

to unsettled areas of "a low man-land

ratio" with natural resources in abundance

which can be exploited by the small-

propertied individual for his economic and

social betterment. The process is that

through which the environment of the place

as just described alters "the socioeconomic-

political" standards and experiences of

these individuals.

Generalizations and conclusions are

drawn and documented but then are modi-

fied by exceptions. As might be expected,

the author concludes that the impact of

the frontier on American institutions and

traits can never be defined exactly. It is

his opinion that "To say that three cen-

turies of westering made the people of the

United States more democratic or more

nationalistic is to invite the criticism of

scholars who can prove that this group or

that in America was less democratic or

less nationalistic than such and such a

group beyond the seas" (p. 219). The only

generalization, he argues convincingly, that

can be justified is that certain traits were

exaggerated by the pioneering experience

until these differences were discernible to

foreign visitors.

Pioneering, a selective experience, con-

centrated an unusual proportion of middle-

class men on successive frontiers in the

early states of settlement. Although there

was no orderly procession in the Turnerian

sense, these who migrated were divided

into two loosely defined groups: those in-

terested in using nature and those bent on

subduing nature. Two new environments

influenced the pioneer: physical and social.

The key feature was the considerable

opportunity for upward economic and

social mobility, with faith in progress as

the basic creed of the frontiersman.

Social democracy and political democ-

racy, in that order, made great gains on

the frontier. Also, the frontiersman was

forced to change his attitude about the

role of government in his life. He came