American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview
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Among the host of scholars currently practicing ethnic history, several others deserve at least a brief mention. One of the most perceptive treatments of urban ethnic matters is Kathleen N. Conzen "Immigrants, Immigrant Neighborhoods, and Ethnic Identity: Historical Issues," which grew out of her earlier study of the Milwaukee German community. Two scholars have written brief studies of the relationship between ethnic groups and agriculture. Theodore Saloutos considers this issue on the Pacific Coast, while Robert P. Swierenga "Ethnicity and American Agriculture" expands the discussion to encompass much of the nation. Little attention has been paid to immigrants on the various Southern frontiers, and Forest McDonald draws attention to this historical blind spot in "The Ethnic Factor in Alabama History."34 For a wide-ranging and sophisticated discussion of frontier mobility that includes valuable insights into ethnic issues, see Ralph Mann, "Frontier Opportunity and the New Social History."

The relationship of ethnic groups to the frontier experience would seem, on the evidence of scholarship to date, to vary greatly, depending on the size and density of the ethnic group's concentration and the era and the region in which settlement occurred. It also seems true that most ethnic groups adapted readily to American agricultural and industrial methodologies, modified in the first and perhaps the second generation by survival of group customs brought from Europe. Practically all immigrants conformed to the American constitutional system and in varying degree participated in local and national politics. Most seem to have liked the opportunity to take part in the great American game of real estate speculation with unearned increment the reward. The rate of success or failure seems not worse for immigrants as compared with old-stock native-born people. Life on the frontier was a leveling experience, but some inevitably proved tougher or luckier. A visit to any old cemetery will tell the tale of too many child deaths because of inadequate medical care and high accident rates. The role of women on many frontiers was a bleak one. Relief in the social activities of the churches undoubtedly was a balm to thousands. As seems obvious, generalizations concerning the experience of a specific people on most frontiers call for continuing research. Finally, despite the ever-present geographical factors that the pioneers encountered, their experience proved more a story of the influence of the people on each frontier than the opposite.

Frederick Luebke, "Ethnic Minority Groups in the American West," in Michael P. Malone , ed., Historians and the American West ( Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).
Carlton C. Qualey, "Marcus Lee Hansen", Midcontinent American Studies Journal 8 (Fall 1967): 18-25; Marcus Lee Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, 1607- 1860, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1940); Hansen, The Immigrant in American History, ed., Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940).


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