Western Life

The American Frontier – The Settlement of the West

The beginning of the American Frontier was marked by European settlement along the Atlantic coastline and eastern rivers, and continued until the last mainland states were added to the country in 1912. It was marked by the contrasting area at the edge of the European-American line of settlement, which moved steadily westward, from the 1630s to the 1880s. The primary focus of historians during the period is the conquest, and development, of the Native American lands west of the Mississippi River, which include: Texas, The Great Plains and The Rocky Mountains. The American Frontier is, however, also a symbol of the development of the area’s history, geography and culture.

The need to defend communities, the growth of trade and markets, the creation of states and the merging of cultures, contributed to the area’s importance. During the colonial era, the west became a high priority for politicians and settlers. The vast majority of those that settled in the northern areas became farmers, and class distinctions were subtle as subsistence agriculture was the main source of income. Outside trade was limited, before the 1700s, because of the poor transportation facilities to the west. Southern areas also remained farmland, but a large number of rich slave owners began to emerge, and by the 18th century these areas were no longer considered part of the American Frontier.

As the number of people coming to the area grew, settlements became territories which could apply to become states when the population became 100,000. By 1800, the frontier had expanded to the Mississippi River, and St. Louis became the largest town and a chief trading centre. President Thomas Jefferson was in full support of the area’s increase and invested in the frontier, using it to double the size of the nation in 1803. He ensured that the development continued, as Native American tribes were paid for their settled land, and expeditions along the coast of the Mississippi were organised.

As the frontier continued to expand west, fur trading became a widespread endeavour, with trappers moved ahead of settlers to scout the area for beavers, and other animals. Their fur was then sold in Europe, and became a major source of income for the settlers. These traders formed the first known business relationships with the Native Americans, which added to their knowledge about the terrain. They were able to pass this on to other settlers, including information about The South Pass through the Rocky Mountains, which became one of the major routes leading to the settlement of Oregon and Washington.

The 1890 census showed where there was no longer a clear line of advancing settlement, and the end of the era of the American Frontier began to approach. The country’s history, and the character of its citizens, has been greatly influence by the period and its legacy lives on as books, TV shows and films continue to portray what life was like on the frontier.

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