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The First Frontier

Thus understood, the American colonies along the Atlantic coast were Europe’s frontier, and their gradual drift away from European patterns was the first manifestation of frontier influence. They began the conquest of the wilderness; they took the first steps in crossing the continent; they became Americans. This, however, was only the beginning. Scarcely had the colonies themselves become firmly established before the western push began anew. Out from old centres, the dissatisfied, the restless, the adventurous made their way into the backcountry. There they encountered long-established Native American populations, sometimes coexisting with them, sometimes forcing them into open resistance but ultimate retreat. Sometimes they moved to secure more room for themselves and their cattle; sometimes, as John Winthrop described it, they simply possessed a “strong bent of their spirits to remove thither.”


Well before the American Revolution they had brought a new west into being: in upper New England, in the Mohawk River valley, in the great valley of Pennsylvania and above the fall line and out into the ridges and valleys of the south. In spite of the limitations placed on expansion by the Proclamation of 1763, already a few settlers had crossed the mountains and opened the way for an even greater west. With the Peace of Paris (1783), Britain ceded the lands east of the Mississippi to the newly independent United States, but it maintained a system of strategic forts throughout the region. The issuance of the Northwest Ordinances (1784, 1785, and 1787) fueled a wave of migration to the Midwest.


Native American tribes, seeing their hunting grounds reduced by the encroachment of white settlers in the Northwest Territory, gathered under the banner of the Northwest Indian Confederation. In 1791 they delivered a stunning defeat to an American military expedition that had been sent to pacify the region. U.S. Pres. George Washington dispatched Gen. Anthony Wayne and a much larger force to the region, and the Americans effectively crushed the confederation at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794). With the subsequent Treaty of Greenville (1795), the confederation ceded a large swath of the Great Lakes region to the Americans. Nevertheless, native peoples had demonstrated that they would not submit passively to the expansion of the frontier into their lands.

This first west differed sharply from the original colonies, which had already begun to reproduce the Old World social and economic patterns, along with their class distinctions. It was, as Turner called it, a “democratic, self-sufficing, primitive agricultural society in which slavery and indentured servants played little part” and in which poverty and toil went along with a scarcity of social accumulations. As population spread and increased, differences between coast and interior became increasingly apparent, and strife often developed over taxes, representation, internal improvements, and religious matters.

Bacon’s Rebellion, the Regulator movement, and soon Shays’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion were all expressions of an east-west conflict produced by expansion.

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