IF YOU ARE AN AMERICAN of a certain age — and that certain age starts at around 55 and goes north from there — then you will remember a certain television hero, the “rippin’est, roarin’est, fightin’est man the frontier ever knew,” a man who promised that from the top of his coonskin cap to the heel of his cowhide moccasin, he would put an end, with studied violence, to any mischief on the part of Indians, redcoats, or others who offended against the American way.
The legend of the American frontier, of wide-open spaces and their indomitable inhabitants, is in large part the legend of Daniel Boone. His name conjures the image of a gaunt, buckskin-clad warrior, possibly grappling with a fierce Indian or dispatching a grizzly. That Boone would be a simple man, someone who lived to kill bears and Indians, able to sound out only a few words of the family Bible — and very quick to go for his gun if he felt that he needed to shoot you for some reason or another.
But the Boone of folklore is not the Boone of history. The real Daniel Boone was a Quaker, born in 1734 into a Pennsylvania Society of Friends that prized peace and comity. When he was 16, he moved with his family to the frontier of North Carolina by way of Virginia, and he became a professional hunter, working the Appalachian Mountains for months at a time.
Most European emigrants to the United States had little knowledge of hunting, which was reserved for the nobility. In Europe, where there was a patch of land big enough to sustain a population of wild animals, the chances were good that those animals belonged to some baron or earl or lord, if not the king himself.
A successful hunter out on the frontier would have to have knowledge of guns and how to use them, of course. If he were to have any longevity, that frontier hunter would have to acquire some knowledge of Indian languages and customs, making him an intermediary between Europe and Native America and enhancing his status even more. He would, in a word, be multicultural in outlook and deed.
Daniel Boone acquired all these skills. And after he had done so, he served with the British army in the French and Indian War alongside another American who would enter the history books, George Washington. The Virginia gentleman had his bad days. French prisoners of war were executed on Washington’s watch, and when the news got out, the rest of the French army hit back hard. As David Preston recounts in his recent book Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, Washington and Boone had to flee far away from the frontier in order to save their skins from French soldiers bent on avenging their comrades.
Washington stayed far away from the Appalachians for the rest of his life, but in 1773 Daniel Boone led his family over the mountains. He planted corn and raised cattle. He scouted. He acquired property for settlers. He hunted. He served in two legislatures, those of Virginia and Kentucky. He was a man of parts, this Daniel Boone.
In 1784, John Filson, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, published a book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, in which Boone starred as a tough, quick-tempered Indian fighter. It was translated into several European languages. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe held Daniel Boone up as the model of the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “natural man,” while Lord Byron devoted a section of his epic poem Don Juan to the frontiersman, calling Boone “happiest of mortals any where.” Boone traveled to Europe, met nobles and writers, and was hailed as a hero, if an uncivilized one.
He was far from a noble savage. He loved to read, often quoting from the Bible and the classics or reading modern books such as Gulliver’s Travels to his companions around the campfire. (The map of Kentucky is studded with his Swiftian names.) Often portrayed as a country bumpkin, Boone was careful of his grooming and appearance, a man of even disposition in whose household, a visitor reported, “an irritable expression was never heard.” At the height of his fame as an Indian fighter, he protested that he had only killed three men in his lifetime — and then only in self-defense, and not all of them Indian. He may have had reason to spill blood, for he lost some 100,000 acres of land to swindlers over the years, remarking in his old age to a visiting journalist that “while he could never with safety repose confidence in a Yankee, he had never been deceived by an Indian, and he should certainly prefer a state of nature to a state of civilization.”
Daniel Boone, sans coonskin cap, died on September 26, 1820, at the age of 85, at his home in Missouri, which had been a Spanish colony when he moved there in 1799. That was precisely the reason he moved there: Boone was tired of Yankees, tired of con games, tired of fences that the neighbors had put up. And that brings us, in a roundabout way, to our point.
Daniel Boone was a creature of the frontier. But what was that frontier? And where was it?
By definition, a frontier is something that is in front: a sort of no-man’s-land that divides us from them. The word is Latin in origin, and for the people who spoke Latin, more specifically the Romans of the Imperial era, the frontier was a serious business: the term defined the territory that lay between the limits of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the savage territory that was Germany.
In 9 AD, a Roman general named Publius Quinctilius Varus led a mighty army made up of three Roman legions across the Rhine River into the Teutoberg Forest in what is now northwestern Germany, where he was attacked by a larger force of Germanic tribespeople, many of whom had at one time or another served in the Roman army and knew its tactics. Call it the Roman Little Big Horn: all 20,000 of those Roman soldiers died in the massacre that followed, and thereafter it was official Roman policy not to tamper with Germany and the wild people who lived along the frontiers of Alps and Rhine.
George Washington’s forces, commanded by British general Edward Braddock, suffered their own Teutoberg Forest in the slaughter that took place near what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the fight that sent Boone running. For the next decade, it was official British policy to keep east of the Appalachian Mountains. The Proclamation of 1763 forbade all white settlement on Indian territory to the west, ordered those settlers already there to withdraw, and strictly limited future settlement away from the coastline. For the first time in the history of European colonization in the New World, the proclamation recognized Indian land titles, and it doing so it put up a big no-trespassing sign telling English subjects to keep their distance from the interior of North America.
The frontier became, if you’ll forgive the word, the backtier: it was the yard in which the children of England were forbidden to play, the very limits of Europe. For a time, that policy kept the colonists from spilling over the mountains, apart from a few headstrong and daring people such as Daniel Boone. They had to content themselves with building farms, and towns, and cities east of the fall line.
Now, Edmund Burke, the English political theorist, knew that people like Boone would defy the law and settle in what he called the “desert,” the assumption being that the woodlands west of the Appalachian barrier were deserted or, if not deserted, only the province of Indians, who didn’t quite count as people. He warned of the effects of letting them travel west: “Already they have topped the Appalachian mountains,” he wrote in 1770,
From thence they behold before them an immense plain, one vast, rich, level meadow; a square of five hundred miles. Over this they would wander without a possibility of restraint; they would change their manners with their habits of life; they would soon forget a government by which they were disowned; would become hordes of English Tartars; and, pouring down upon your unfortified frontiers a fierce and irresistible cavalry.
The English, in other words, once confronting the space and freedom of the frontier, would become Indians. And indeed, that is just what happened: throughout American history, those on the frontier have tended to appropriate Native American dress, customs, and habits, to become not English or Indian but something in between, a third culture. This is what happens on borders generally: people from one culture meet people from another culture, and in time they become a third culture, neither one or the other.
That was certainly the way it was along the U.S.–Mexico border until very recently, when walls began to rise to separate us from them, to assert a difference that few people of the region really felt.
Let people live with freedom to mix things up, though, and strange hybrids can occur. In 1675 and 1676, English settlers and Algonquian Indians in New England lived through 18 months of astonishing violence that we know today as King Philip’s War. We have forgotten about this war today, but, by proportion of population, it inflicted greater casualties than any other war in American history, with more than the usual atrocities: men, women, even children were tortured and murdered, and whole cities were burned to the ground.
King Philip’s War is riddled with mysteries. The English, half a century removed from their ancestral homeland, out on the frontier, had shed some of their ways. They had adopted Native American customs and cuisine, had stopped attending church, had moved farther and farther inland, away from European settlements. The Indians, for their part, had taken to wearing clothes, living in houses, reading the Bible. With identities thus confused, each side waged a war that the other condemned as brutal and savage, and thousands of people died in the bargain.
Europeans were no strangers to bitter wars that hinged on cultural differences and killed thousands. Apart from those who could afford to build castles, people lived more or less in the open. Traditional villages were self-sufficient and self-contained, with people pitching in and doing what needed to be done, sharing chores and tools, with the occasional beggar or traveling peddler passing through to bring news of the outside world. The fields were small, typically only a few acres, and unfenced; the men and women who worked them tended to rent several fields in different parts of the village domain, on the theory that, even though traveling to scattered fields may have been inconvenient and time-consuming, it at least minimized risk: if a crop failed in one field, another might come through all right.
In America, it was different. Fields were typically owned, not rented. They were single, not scattered. And there were no peasants as such to pitch in and help each other bring in the crops. Neighbors were useful when it came to fighting off Indian attacks, but necessary nuisances at other times, and Americans expressed their attitude with what was a comparative rarity in Europe: a wall or fence to keep those neighbors out.
Indeed, English observers of the American scene were puzzled by what one correspondent called “a mania for enclosures.” Another London paper commented, “The stripping of forests to build fortifications around personal property is a perfect example of the way those people in the New World live and think.” Life must have been very dangerous, one would think, for such protections to have become necessary, but it really wasn’t: if fences were used almost exclusively for military reasons in the Old World, in the New World they proclaimed, “This land and this stuff are mine.” Fences did away with the need for the hired shepherd, a rarity in the New World. With fences, you did not need to keep an eye on your animals, because they could not wander far, or on your neighbors’ animals, which could not wander in and eat your garden.
The result: Six million miles of boards were made into wooden fences in all the fields east of the Mississippi River, according to the calculations of one agricultural census. If we accept the figure as accurate, the cost of those fences in those days would have been nearly $2 billion — about the size of the national debt in the years just before the Civil War, which indicates just how important keeping our possessions from others was to us.
The closed frontier officially opened at the end of the Revolutionary War, when the provisions of the hated Proclamation of 1763 were scrapped. By that time, more than 100,000 Americans were already living illegally west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Within a few years, towns like Nashville and Cincinnati were founded, as hundreds of thousands of new settlers pushed across the Appalachians and into the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. By 1820, the frontier had moved well into what was called the Old Northwest, into Illinois and Michigan. By 1830, it had crossed the Mississippi. By 1840, the land organized as states was smaller than the land organized as territories, and the states began to argue over whether slavery would be allowed into this new country. The argument grew fiercer as the years wore on. By 1850, when the frontier had bypassed the Rocky Mountains, the western Great Plains, and the Southwest, which were full of uncooperative Indians, and jumped straight to California and Alaska, the argument about slavery turned into the beginnings of the Civil War. Kansas, at the frontier’s eastern edge, turned into a bloody battlefield marked by staggering atrocities and murderous civil war; we still remember it today as “Bleeding Kansas,” where armed vigilantes fighting for and against slavery did a thriving business.
Edmund Burke’s English Tartars materialized almost as soon as the frontier opened. These backcountry Americans wanted to do as they pleased without suffering being told what to do. They wanted to shoot whatever game they cared to, cut down whatever forests they cared to, sink mines into whatever mountains they cared to, and they bitterly resented it when any government told them otherwise. In frontier South Carolina, they revived a group called the Regulators, the ancestors of the Texas Rangers and other vigilante outfits, and rode around hanging suspected criminals, killing any Indians they met, and advising those who looked different from them to keep on moving. As the frontier moved, the Regulators moved with it; these are the men who brought us the Alamo and the War with Mexico, the Sand Creek Massacre and the Skeleton Cave Massacre and Wounded Knee, the men who kept on pushing west until there was no more west to push to, whereupon they moved on to places like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq.
They were a violent bunch. But if you were an Anglo, at least, the frontier was not a particularly dangerous place to be. For every Western gunfighter there were a hundred stockbrokers, for every outlaw 10 thousand farmers. In cities like Denver, Seattle, and Albuquerque, very few citizens owned guns, or had need to, for all the wet dreams of the NRA to the contrary. The decades-long war against Native America was being staged in remote corners of the country, and, as for bad men, few but the local tall-tale spinner had ever seen one.
In 1890, nine years after the death of Billy the Kid, the superintendent of the US Census announced that the West was filling up so fast that “there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.” In just a quarter-century, the frontier had been settled. Three million families started farms on the Great Plains during these years. As they came, those people staked out what was theirs, fiercely defending their little empires against their neighbors. The result: The open frontier, the land of lone individuals and wide open spaces, was crisscrossed with fences.
They built walls, and streets, and houses, too. Though we like to think of the West as a rural place, by 1890 most of the West’s population lived in cities — the most urbanized region in the country. Today, more Arizonans live in cities than do residents of New York State.
It was also a corporatized place, then as now. Thomas Jefferson had recommended that the federal lands of the West be given away, since they cost almost nothing — his government, after all, had paid only $15 million, about $250 million in today’s money, for the vast territory called the Louisiana Purchase, a sum that Jefferson had been prepared to pay France just for the port of New Orleans alone.
He wanted those lands to be free and open. But that’s not the way it worked out. Instead, for most of the 19th century, the frontier lands were sold off in 640-acre parcels, not to individuals but to the railroads and other corporations, which then turned around and sold them in smaller parcels to farmers, ranchers, and other settlers. The government used the money to retire debt, the corporations to grow rich. It was a happy arrangement all around, though one that doesn’t fit in neatly into our national myth.
The frontier, that corporate creation repositioned as the wide-open land of liberty, remains a potent symbol. When John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, he called on the country to enter a new frontier. Since that time, Americans have repeatedly searched for new frontiers — in outer space, atop the world’s tallest peaks, on the floors of the oceans, in cyberspace.
Now we are in the second decade of a new century, 524 years after the first Spanish arrival, 409 years after the first English arrival in the New World. There is not much frontier left to us, though the great real-estate transaction that was the history of the frontier goes on, and though Lord knows there is plenty of civilizing left to do around these parts.
Having moved the Indians to the side, we still play Indian. Just go to Sedona, and you’ll see that for yourself. (Do so, and then reread Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, which, though published in 1962, remains depressingly current.)
Because we are Americans, too, we still demand that we be left alone to do whatever we want to, and we are deeply, childishly resentful when we are told that we cannot. Politicians know this — which is why they promise us that they’ll never make us do anything distasteful, like pay taxes or make sacrifices so that the next generation can have a little bit of the pie.
And everywhere you look, of course, there are fences: alongside every road, alongside every highway, between houses, everywhere. And new ones are going up every day, meant to keep them, whoever them might be, from getting at what is ours. One politician in particular — I cannot bring myself to utter his name, on the theory that speaking of the devil will indeed make him appear — has promised to build a wall so mighty that no one in the them camp could ever hope to climb over it to circulate among us, at least not unless we expressly invited them in.
But that’s just the sort of thing that politicians promise all the time. Ask Darrell Issa. Ask John McCain. Shihuangdi, though emperor and answerable only to the celestial gods in his day, probably made a few speeches promising how the Great Wall would keep any Hsiung-nu rider from traversing the broad avenues to Xi’an, a promise that doubtless brought on much laughter in Hsiung-nu encampments up and down the line. Some Roman legionary no doubt made the same promise with respect to the wall built in Britain at Hadrian’s behest, though I have to doubt that he had enough hubris to suggest that the Picts would pay for the thing.
In any fulfillment of our latter-day politico’s program, the wall would be built by Mexican hands using Chinese steel. Never mind the fact that we already live, all of us on this frontier, on whatever side of it, along a militarized, walled, fenced, patrolled, sensored, monitored, watchtowered line that would have done the East German security state very proud indeed. A wall so high that no sun could get through would be a superfluity, though it makes for nice rhetoric.
We love our walls, and we love our fences. Paradoxically, we also love our ideas of the freedom of movement to wherever we wish, no matter what anyone in charge might tell us. Some of us are willing to sacrifice freedom for security, some the other way around, but most Americans, used to having it all, want both. We love our borders, strung with barbed wire and buzzed by drones, but we love the open range that leads up to the borders just as much. We don’t quite know what we want, but we know one thing: we want what’s ours, and we want to keep it away from the others. My stuff. My country. Us. Them. Ours.
The frontier of the American mind lies in the promise of limitless space, limitless opportunity, and limitless freedom. Did it ever exist? Perhaps, if only for a brief moment. For the rest of us, the fences are real, but the open country — well, that territory is largely a fiction, a figment, something for us to daydream about while hearing pleasant stories extrapolated from a strange and violent past, something best done, I imagine, while wearing a coonskin cap.
Gregory McNamee is the author or co-author of more than 40 books and a contributing editor of Encyclopedia Britannica. He is a research associate at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona and lives in Tucson.