This analysis explores the frontier between Native Americans and Europeans through a gradual progression in historical scholarship. Within this literature, two dominant themes have emerged: portrayal and contact. For portrayal, a chronological examination includes arguments portraying Indians as savages and obstacles of civilization to portrayal of Indians who exhibited opposition and resistance towards white transgression. In terms of contact, scholarly arguments begin with Columbus and continue through federal Indian removal policy. The two themes combined make shifts in understanding the frontier as a separation of savagery and civilization to an understanding of a frontier as a collapsing repercussion of extinction and domination. In short, there is no stagnant, singular, or frozen depiction of the frontier.
Historiography of the American Frontier
The Frontier between Indians and Europeans
For scholars of Indian-European relations, much of their analysis is dependent upon exploring the theme of contact, in particular its impact on the frontier. Upon the arrival of Europeans on American land, the existence of a frontier is explicit: dividing the Europeans and Indians into two separate entities. Within this arena, multiple forms of contact have emerged, including mutually beneficial alliances, relationships, networks and common grounds. In contrast, the frontier also resulted in the annihilation of many Indians and brought numerous, pervasive disruption to zones of contact. In an attempt to understand this interaction, a series of critical questions have framed this scholarship including how the frontier evolved from a division to the extinction of a species, what the frontier looked like, what it caused, and how historians develop the overarching concept of the frontier.
Because the history of Native Americans has addressed multiple themes, regions, individuals, tribes and time periods, an attempt to define the frontier has produced contentious debates among historians and scholars to reach a conclusive definition of the frontier. However, attempting to link two broad themes; portrayal and contact, suggests a new way of understanding the frontier. Perhaps most importantly, understanding the basis of the frontier begins with examining how historians have portrayed Native Americans. Within this literature, portrayals begin with traditionalist scholars who cast Indians as savages and obstacles of white civilization moving to revisionists who see Indians as victims of white transgression. A third interpretation adds to the portrayal scholarship by recognizing their resistance to European brutality. The other way to view the frontier is the use of contact between Indians and Europeans, highlighted by several topics: Columbus’ landfall, the “Middle Ground,” federal Indian removal policy, and King Philips’ War. Within these scholarships of portrayal and contact, the historiography of Native Americans from a frontier lens is revealed.
Portrayal of Native Americans
The “savagery” interpretation was the first to dominate historical discussion. One of the earliest scholars to portray the Indians, Frederickson Jackson Turner vilifies the Indians as mere savages, depicting them as obstacles to civilization and white settlement in The Significance of the Frontier in American History. In addition to his biased portrayal of the Natives, Turner also illustrates the frontier as an assembly that divides savagery and civilization. This frontier also endangered primitive Indians and threatened their extermination. In a similar manner to Turner, Francis Parkman portrays the Indian from his distinction of Natives “savagery” and settler “civilization” in The Oregon Trail. Furthermore, Parkman demeans the Indians by describing them as ignorant, “diffident and bashful,” as people whose “soul is dormant.” These critical portrayal of Indians and the reiteration of Turner’s thesis forms the orthodox thought on the Indian-European frontier: a division between savagery and civilization.
A revisionist against the savagery school, Vine Deloria presents the Indians as victims in Custer Died for Your Sins. He cites dissolution policies, insufficient government agencies, failed treaties in addition to derogatory Indian stereotypes such as “savages” and “pagans” and a “subcategory of the blacks” as components to victimization upon the Indians (Roemer and Deloria). Echoing Deloria, Dee Brown presents the victimization school through Burn My Heart at Wounded Knee. In particular, Brown emphasizes false promises and broken treaties made to the Indians and further accounts thirty years of white avarice, massacre and outrage towards the Indians in order to attain land and gold. Brown concludes his portrayal of the Native Americans by depicting the remnants of a once noble race transformed into prisoners of war. Within the same school of interpretation, Robert Berkhofer’s The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present adds to the victimization of the Native Americans by tracing the progression of European’s portrayal of the Indians. Berkhofer argues that the initial problem was rooted from Europeans’ bigotry and ethnocentrism behavior when attempting to understand Native cultures, language, temperament, and physical appearance. The striking contrast when juxtaposing Natives and Europeans’ differences led to justifying the Europeans’ trivial view of the Indians as deficient people, in addition to claiming the Natives as inferior in terms of physique, economy and culture. Building on his own work, Berkhofer divides White’s images of Indians into three categories. One image was a good Indian, symbolizing the noble savage idea. The second image contradicts the first; portraying Indians as plain savages and red devils who were meant to be feared and hated. The third image slanders and degrades the Indians into mere remnants of a once noble race, mirroring Brown’s work. These images froze the depiction of Native Americans in historical suspension with little improvement on the Indian image. Within the focus of Indian maltreatment and white oppression framework, this literature sees the frontier as a clear division between victimization and exploitation (Nichols and Berkhofer).
A third school of interpretation that transcends the victim school of thought by including resistance in the portrayal is Angie Debo’s Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place. The main character Geronimo, was a leader of the Apache tribe who spread terror throughout Arizona and New Mexico because he was well-known for perpetrated murders and depredations. During the implementation of a concentration policy that drove away the Apache bands from their land, Geronimo exhibited fierce resistance and retaliation against the violation of guarantees of personal settlement. His responses were used by Debo to crucially implicate that the Natives did not weaken under Europeans’ abuse, and instead demonstrated opposition and resistance. This third interpretation subsequently portrays the frontier as a division between resistance and exploitation.
Indian and European Contact
Other Native American historical scholarships focus on contact when addressing the frontier, in particular, the involvement, relationships, and consequences in terms of contact. These interpretations of the frontier center around specific topics: Europeans’ arrival, cooperation in building an integrated American society, the “Middle Ground,” federal Indian removal policy and King Philips’ War. For example, James Merrell looks at the repercussion Indians faced from Columbus’ landfall and subsequent Europeans by dividing Native American history into two reigning paradigms: before and after European contact. The distinguished timeline provides a clear discern of both the development and abolishment of Indian civilization. Prior to contact, Merrell argues the American landscape was a flourishing land with a growing population whose societies and cultures rivaled Europe. Furthermore, Native Americans established multiple, large-scale trade networks with different tribes residing across vast regions. Merrell affirms that civilization was already in progress even before the arrival of Columbus. However, subsequent contact with Columbus and the rest of the foreign powers disrupted Indian society and its existing civilization. According to Merrell, colonial encroachment led to increased diseases, land seizures, thinning of resources, regional warfare, suppressed religion and disrupted food ways, as well as considerable dislocation- all significant forces reducing these dynamic societies. As a result, the remnant groups coalesced into the larger Indian tribes in order to ensure physical and ethnic survival against European transgression. Merrell’s focus on the catastrophe brought upon the Indians becomes the fundamental shift that served to split the history of these groups into distinct periods. This forces the scholarship to confront an illustration of the frontier depicting a line between disruption and domination (Merrell). Consequently, this perspective signifies the transparent turmoil brought upon Natives and also establishes the existence of a civilized society before 1942 when Europeans emerged and dominated the New World.
Using Indian-European contact as a primary method of depicting the frontier, yet presenting a more optimistic perspective compared to Merrell, Colin Calloway’s New Worlds for All synthesizes the Indian-white relationship by demonstrating cooperation and mutual influence between the conqueror and the conquered. The relationship between Indians and Europeans presents sensitivity to the power relation that mediated cultural exchange. For example, Calloway recognizes a reciprocated cooperation between both Indians and Europeans, and interchangeable dominance over land that depended upon time, place, and the overlapping interests of the natives and colonists. Notably, Calloway avoids a bias that most historians present colonists as those possessing the omnipotent force of inevitability as they invaded America and Indians as those struggling to be a part of American civilization. As a result, he blurs the frontier boundaries standing in between the two parties, but instead presents a fair and matured engagement occurring between Indians and Europeans. For Calloway, this is a frontier where there is no disunion or hostility, but only active players shaping American landscapes, trade relationships, diplomacy, medical practices, warfare, food ways, and the history of ideas.
In more recent years, a new interpretation of Indian-white relations emerged to illustrate the establishment of a common ground between the two societies. This concept of a common ground differs from the traditional groundwork that argues relentless hostility between Indians and Europeans, and instead presents a “Middle Ground” where both cooperation and conflict exist to shape relations between societies. In The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republic in the Great Lake Regions, 1650-1815, Richard White explains the intent of this common ground was to bridge significant cultural differences without resorting to warfare, and it necessitates a complete elimination of military domination and extraction. Moreover, White illustrates the middle ground as a trade zone where economic goods were a shared culture that bonded Natives and Europeans. Although trade was built on economic reasons, White depicts the middle ground as a paternalistic, brotherly, and spiritual zone. This is illustrated through the dynamic engagement in operating a middle ground together, especially reflected on the salutary relationship between Indians and the French. Within White’s concept of the middle ground, he importantly distinguishes multiple interactions, not all of which were positive. For White, the British did not adapt as well as the French, and the Americans dismissed the idea of a middle ground because they were convinced that the Indians were too exotic. Americans, according to White, rejected Indians as part of American civilization, which explains the lack of mutual and cooperative interaction with the Indians. A more temperate interpretation, but one that reached generally the same conclusion emerged in Daniel Usner’s Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783. Usner expands White’s middle ground concept by including Africans people into this important, cross-cultural interaction space. Looking at colonial Louisiana, Usner uncovers a multicultural frontier society of whites, blacks, and Indians. This coexistence created extensive trade networks, racially distinct cultures which resisted and accommodated imposing imperial orders. Usner sees the middle ground not only as an interaction and engagement ground between the groups to ensure survival, but also states the importance of maintaining a civilized sphere for the three to coexist. Usner, in a more recent work, The Frontier Exchange Economy of the Lower Mississippi Valley in the Eighteenth Century further discusses the network of cross-cultural interaction, in which natives and colonial groups circulated goods and services with each other. In this analysis, Usner describes the three races’ contribution to the society: slaves worked on agriculture, and as boatmen, soldiers, interpreters, and hunters. Indians produced animal skins for an export economy, traded food and livestock with other residents, and provided military services. Europeans engaged in entrepreneurial and agricultural enterprises. With each society holding different responsibilities in economy engagement; mutual reliance among each other is evident in order to progress economically and to exchange goods and services to meet each economic demand. Because the concept of the middle ground has proven to be an effective lens for understanding this history, scholars have continued to develop and expand this perspective over the years. In particular, Jay Gitlin, in On the Boundaries of Empire: Connecting West to its Imperial Past examines the middle ground as an interaction point that identifies the group that bore greater power between Natives and colonists. When one had the upper hand, or a more prominent power than the other, it signified the role of the empire in manipulating political, economic and social structures. Similar to White, Gitlin argues that the French were more open-minded and tolerant in adopting a middle ground and also outwitted the British when it came to Native contact. As a result of this new emphasis of the middle ground, multiple and dynamic cultural points of interaction were fostered for mutual benefit. The frontier- as means of understanding this period, has evolved into a well-defined space where both conflicts and cooperation shaped the societies in terms of competing or converging interest (Birzer).
From Merrell’s earlier book, Indians New World that discusses the circumstances Native Americans endured before and after contact. He takes a different approach from his previous study by analyzing denizens involved in frontier matters and the occurrence on the frontier. Merrell’s Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier argues a different kind of frontier encounter from the ones previous scholars have envisioned. Most importantly, and in contrast to the argument contributed by White, Usner, and Gitlin, he insists that there is no middle ground. Instead, for Merrell, the frontier was a ground inhabited by middlemen and liaisons, and was a territory to mitigate Indian-white interactions that often incite violence. As an example of this, Merrell cites the Irish fur trader George Croghan, French-Iroquois Andrew Montour, German immigrant Conrad Weiser, Oneida Montour, and Moravian missionary Christian Frederick Post all of whom downplayed differences and made up areas of common interest, common experience, and similar ideologies to settle disputes between Indians and Europeans. Merrell explains how vital these frontiersmen served the purpose of diplomacy to exist between the frontier as the Indians and Europeans could barely contain their rages against each other. The need for diplomacy, even with the adoption of common practices, protocols, personal styles, and sharing of food between Indians and Europeans was substantial as Merrell argues that no amount of borrowing and cross-cultural relations closed the distance between the colonist and the Indian. Within Merrell’s interpretation, a new impression of the frontier exists with denizens who inhabited the region to play the role of negotiators (Cayton).
While previous interpretation sees cooperation, and most importantly, mutual reliance among both white and Indians, a different interpretation looks at a more tragic period of time. Exploring the atrocious consequence of Indian-white relations, this perspective is defined by the focus on Thomas Jefferson’s administration that created foreign policies that accelerated Indian disappearance, as indicated in Bernard Sheehan’s The Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian. Sheehan analyses how whites promoted governmental dealings and policies to civilize the Indians. The process and methods of civilization, important for Sheehan’s assessment, incorporated deceit and manipulation, yet exhibited an optimistic but unrealistic desire to evolve the Indian to a white man. This “philanthropic” ideal certainly deviated away from its initial objective, as the civilizing process led to a swift-moving frontier pressing the Indians to relinquish their land. Not only that, Sheehan contends the philanthropists had weakened tribal organizations and lowered the Indians’ self-esteem in the attempt to “make the Indians more like the white man.” But the Jeffersonian philanthropists began to recognize the great threat Indians pose as they approach a richer civilization; the fear of a growing and menacing Indian power. This resulted in a public adoption of the Indian removal policy, in attempt to isolate them from white settlement. Sheehan brings a powerful statement, mentioning that the white’s sympathy proved to be more deadly than his animosity, highlighting the plain irony in the philanthropists’ intent to assimilate Indians into white civilization: the disappearance of an entire race. As a result, Sheehan provides a clear representation of an obliterated frontier; with the Indians extinction and the white’s domination.
Following a similar pursuit as Sheehan who describes the frontier as a deteriorated region as a result of Indian extinction, Jill Lepore illustrates the Great Narragansett War, which brought similar repercussions to Indian society and also brought devastation to the colonists. The war began with the betrayal of a converted Massachuseuk that led to his murder by King Philip (Pokunoket Chief Metacom) and his men. Massachuseuk, loyal to the English, had informed them of King Philip’s plan of attack on the colonies. King Philip grew furious over the deception and ignited a war. The war grew considerably, influencing other Indians across the land, inciting the smaller Native American tribes to take part in the war against English colonists. The war ended with King Philip’s decapitation and consequently caused the remaining Indians to be sold into slavery or face death, leading to near extinction of the Native Indians. As a result, Lepore considers King Philips’ War the costliest war in American history for Native Americans because the massacre intensified their severe decline in population. This crucial historical event not only saw a swift obliteration of any existing forms of frontier due to the fallen indigenous race, but it also depicts the devastating annihilation of New England colonies. Lands and towns were destroyed, thousands were killed during the deadly fight, and thousands more died from cold, starvation, diseases. The frontier, as a result of this depressing war, inevitably was eradicated: one side saw a complete massacre of its population, and the other faced a ruined society (Lepore).
From the writings of Native American history, scholars have provided clear implications from their interpretations of portrayal and contact. In terms of portrayal, it is evident how historians characterize both Indians and Europeans, yielding a basis in understanding the frontier. In terms of illustrating the frontier through contact, the central focus on involvement, implication and consequence have resulted in altering the frontier interpretation. In conclusion, the frontier exhibits an eloquent historiography of its own; from a zone that divides ferocity and civilization, then to a frontier that divided conquest against victimization and resistance, subsequently to an arena of cooperation and converging interest to eventually face the inevitable collapse of the frontier as a result of a great war and detrimental policies. This historiography presents a volatile yet dynamic depiction of the frontier. In time, historical scholarship develops a liberal change; giving equal justice to both Indians and Europeans to write their history, taking account both sides of the story without an overly bias. However much the colonists possessed literal advantage and the ability to twist the indigenous people’s version of the story during the early historical writing period, it would have never survived the trials of time. History inevitably will find itself being manipulated and rewritten, changed accordingly to present condition.
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Merrell, James. “The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbours from European Contact through Era of Removal.” University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
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Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life. University of Wisconsin Press, 1849.
Roemer, Kenneth M., and Vine Deloria. “American Quarterly.” American Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 2, 1970, pp. 273–273. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2712102.
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Turner, Frederickson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” American Historical Association, 1894, http://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha- history-and-archives/historical-archives/the-significance-of-the-frontier-in-american- history. Accessed 11 November 2017.