History of the American Frontier, 1763-1893. By Frederic L. Paxson, Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company. $6.00.
The frontier, as census officials and historians have defined it, had already vanished before its immense significance in American life began to be realized. A third of a century ago Frederick J. Turner, then a young professor in the University of Wisconsin, declared that with the disappearance of the line marking the fringe of western settlement the first great period of American history had come to an end, and that our national development during this period must be explained in terms of the ever-receding West and its colonization. A school of historians has since arisen to proclaim him prophet and a host of learned explorers have followed the trail he blazed. Like the pioneers whose migrations they have traced, the investigators of western history have turned their backs on exhausted eastern fields and barren eastern controversies; like the settlers whose triumphs they have recorded, they have conquered a wilderness and exploited a virgin soil; their point of view, like that of the regnant West herself, has come to be generally accepted, if not triumphant. It was inevitable that the center of historical interest, like the center of population, should move westward, and that the influence of the outlying regions upon public policy and the formation of the dominant national character should in time be recognized. The historians of the West, in their reaction against metaphysical arguments about the constitution and moral disquisitions upon slavery, may have swung too far in the direction of economic determinism; in their reaction against hero-worship they may have emphasized environment too much and individuals too little; but they have contributed more to American historiography during their generation than any other group, and have vitalized the story of national development as no one else has done.
Until Professor Paxson’s book was published no general history of the American West had yet appeared. Although the western point of view has been generally accepted by historical scholars and has influenced almost all the historical writings of recent years, most of the results of the investigations which have established it have not been readily accessible to the general reader. They have generally been embalmed in monographs or buried deep in the publications of learned societies, where the non-professional reader will not disturb them. The time is ripe for a summary of these findings and for a survey of the whole of our national history from the vantage point of the frontier. Professor Paxson, Turner’s successor at Wisconsin and himself long an honored worker in the field of western history, is well qualified for such a task, and he has given us a volume which is thoroughly dependable.
His story, it should be said, is not that of a single geographic region throughout its economic and political evolution, but of the westward-moving frontier region from the decade before the Revolution to the disappearance of the frontier line. He treats of the land, its settlement, its sale, of pioneers and Indians, of transportation, agriculture, cattle-raising, and mining, of the formation of new states and territories, and of the continuous influence which the newly-settled areas have exerted upon the policy of the nation and the character and institutions of the people as a whole. Such a work cannot be conveniently summarized, for it is itself a summary of the major portion of United States history. The author himself claims originality only in the sense that he attempts “to show the proportions of the whole story.” Scholars and teachers, even though they may already have learned to interpret national history in terms of western development and may already be familiar with much of the information which the book contains, will none the less welcome it with enthusiasm as an exceedingly useful addition to a professional library. It is unpretentious in literary form and too concise for rapid reading. The general reader may regard it as formidable, but if he be unfamiliar with the work of the western historians he will find in it a rich store of information with which to supplement a conventional knowledge of American history, and will gain from it new insight into the conditions which, until our generation, dominated our national life and rendered it perennially dynamic. It may be that American institutions are now relatively static and that in economic, social, and even intellectual life, we are approaching the European type, but the conquest of the wilderness made possible the unexampled prosperity and the political isolation of which we so long have boasted, and the conditions of the vanished frontier have left an impress upon our national character which time will not soon efface.