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The frontier myth or myth of the West is one of the influential myths in American culture. The frontier is the concept of a place that exists at the of a civilization, particularly during a period of expansion. The American frontier occurred throughout the seventeenth to twentieth centuries as Euro-Americans colonized and expanded across North America.
This period of time became romanticized and idealized in literature and art to form a myth. Richard Slotkin, the foremost scholar on the subject, defines the myth of the frontier as “America as a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top. Turner’s interpretation of American expansion was that Americans had moved west in waves, and the frontier was the tip of those movements, always the furthest point from civilization. Turner claimed that at the frontier American pioneers were transformed by their interaction with Native Americans and the wilderness to become rugged individuals who prized their freedom and individualism.
As the frontier continued to move west it continued to transform the pioneering Americans who went there, and in turn transform the nation. European ideals were a result of the frontier. American intellect owes its striking characteristics.
In his eyes they are the first step toward civilization, and when they arrive the boundary of the frontier moves westward. In a broad sense, the notion of the frontier was the edge of the settled country where unlimited free land was available and thus unlimited opportunity. While Turner did not create the myth of the frontier, he gave voice to it, and his frontier thesis was a major contribution to the general acceptance of the myth by scholars in the twentieth century.
The focus on the West, and particularly the idealized concept of the frontier, placed those areas as foundational for American identity. Rather than looking to the Eastern city, such as Boston or Philadelphia, as the epitome of American ideals and values, the focus of American history and identity was on the farmers who were slowly but steadily moving farther west, searching for land and a modest income. Turner’s influence can be seen in nearly every single work of Western history to follow, either dealt with directly or indirectly, particularly each time a scholar uses the word frontier. As noted above, Richard Slotkin has devoted a career to studying the myth of the frontier, writing three impressive books on the subject, Regeneration Through Violence, Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation.
Throughout these works Slotkin defines myth as “a set of narratives that acquire through specifiable historical action a significant ideological charge. This definition is useful in understanding how scholars study myth, and why the myth of the frontier is a significant influence to study. Slotkin’s definition of the myth of the frontier presented in the work evolves throughout the trilogy, beginning with the general understanding of the myth of the frontier as viewing America as a land of opportunity for the strong to conquer, then incorporating capitalist exploitation of the land as America evolved into an industrialist nation, finally being used a vehicle for cultural ideology in the twentieth century era in popular culture. Beginning in the original colonies, Slotkin argues that the original colonies brought a synthesis of romantic European myths and ideas to the colonies, particularly the idea that the New World was a place where they could reinvent themselves.
However, since the land was occupied by Native Americans the incoming colonists took the land with violence, hence the title regeneration through violence. Slotkin continues on to argue that the violent interactions with Native Americans became central to the myth of the frontier, and the archetypal hero became one who could mediate between these two worlds.
This is the foundation for the myth of the west that began in the colonies. It was further developed in the nineteenth century to meet the growing needs of industrialization, incorporating the exploitation of land. Being a frontiersman in the so-called Wild West, a cowboy, rancher or gold miner were idealized within American mystery.