American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview

11
Ethnic Groups and the Frontier

CARLTON C. QUALEY

In a nation populated by immigrants and their descendants, it seems logical that an interest in ethnic groups should stand near the center of American historical studies. This has seldom been the case, however. Even stranger is the fact that students of the frontier process through which the United States became populated demonstrated little interest in this topic until the past two or three decades. It has become academically fashionable to blame, or at least criticize, Frederick Jackson Turner and Walter Prescott Webb for these professional oversights. After all, they provided much of the intellectual framework accepted by frontier and Western historians, and clearly neither of them focused much attention on ethnic groups or their significance in the settlement process. In fact, at times, both stressed issues and approaches that tended to deflect historical inquiry from such topics. Turner's use of the frontier experience as a mode of Americanizing foreigners and Webb's insistence that the Plains environment forced people to alter their ideas and actions certainly did not invite the study of cultural preservation. Yet such a blanket condemnation is much too simplistic. Turner, at least, suggested that his students ask the sort of questions that recent scholars use when dealing with ethnic topics. As Frederick Luebke pointed out so clearly in his recent "Ethnic Minority Groups in the American West", Turner's ideas about sectional conflict offered the pattern and suggested some of the questions that might have been applied to ethnic groups and issues.1

Turner did encourage a few of his students to consider subjects that now constitute some of the newest and best trends in social history. Marcus Lee Hansen is an early example of this, and for a time, he became a major figure in the study of immigration to the United States. Hansen offered generalizations about the immigration and settlement process that occupied an entire generation of historians. In his effort to demonstrate cultural distinctiveness among immigrant groups, he suggested that few Europeans went directly from the Atlantic Coast to the frontier. Rather, most of them, he thought, acted as "fillers-in" of

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