American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview

2
The Environment and the
Frontier

JOHN OPIE

Environmental history, in many ways, is a modern extension of the logic of Turnerian frontier historiography. As environmental history emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it focused attention even more sharply on two of Frederick Jackson Turner's special interests: (1) separate geographic factors, like terrain, climate, soil, and vegetation, were integrated into unified ecological systems, with emphasis on persistent human dependence on the non-human world; and (2) economic, technological, and material factors were highlighted as essential to historic western expansion.

On the other hand, environmental history first made its mark among historians by its revisionist critique of traditional frontier expansionism. From an environmental perspective, the progressive transformation of "useless" wilderness into today's productive agricultural and industrial society is also an account of irreversible exploitation, waste, and misuse of national resources. This critique is based on a stance derived from the modern science of ecology, which emphasizes the continuous necessity for a dynamic equilibrium between physical resources, flora and fauna, and human intervention. Comparisons have been made, for example, in the 1930s by the geographer Carl Sauer, between geographic dependence of early Native Americans, the "domestication" achieved by nineteenth-century independent crop farmers, and the intensive monoculture of twentieth-century agribusiness.1

Before examining recent and potential future developments, it is important to review the surprisingly long history of an "environmental" approach to American expansion into the wilderness found in the study of Natural History. This discipline, a product of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment rationalism, was distinguished by its comprehensive descriptive approach, which gave equal value to all organic phenomena and their physical setting. Clarence Glacken remarkably encyclopedic 1967 Traces on the Rhodian Shore describes the curiosity about the natural world uniquely aroused in Western civilization since the

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American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vi
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • Notes 6
  • 2 - The Environment and the Frontier 7
  • Notes 21
  • 3 - Economic Development of the American West 27
  • Notes 42
  • 4 - Agriculture and Livestock Production 51
  • Notes 60
  • 5 - Frontier Urbanization 69
  • Notes 82
  • 6 - Frontier and Western Transportation 89
  • Notes 104
  • 7 - Mining Frontiers 109
  • Notes 124
  • 8 - Frontier Social History 131
  • Notes 144
  • 9 - Historians and Indians 149
  • Notes 169
  • 10 - Frontier Women 179
  • Notes 194
  • 11 - Ethnic Groups and the Frontier 199
  • Notes 211
  • 12 - Foreign Affairs and Expansion 217
  • Notes 229
  • 13 - Territorial Government 235
  • Notes 244
  • 14 - The Frontier Army 253
  • Notes 264
  • Sources and Repositories for Frontier and Western History 275
  • Index 279
  • About the Contributors 301
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