American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview
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The Frontier Army


Frontier military history was one of the earliest forms of historical writing in the United States. Indian captivity narratives, America's earliest history, fall within the realm of frontier military affairs. The struggle to defeat the Indians, the chief duty of American military forces for more than 200 years, has always fascinated writers. Much that was produced, usually by antiquarians, was dismal, but some of the books, notably the narrative histories of Francis Parkman and Theodore Roosevelt, were superb.

Nevertheless, despite the long-standing interest by writers and readers in the military frontier, it is a field of study that has not been particularly distinguished. For too long it has been dominated by antiquarians, local historians, and popular historians, who produced an incredible mass of books and articles of stunningly poor quality. Some of this material has added to our knowledge of the military frontier, but most of it has been narrow, myopic, and ethnocentric. For the most part, these books have concentrated on individual engagements or campaigns, usually viewed in a void untouched by larger national or international questions. It has only been in the past thirty years that professional historians, employed in both the academic and the public sector, have taken up the topic of the military frontier and rescued the field from amateurs of varying levels of talent. Notable among these historians have been Robert M. Utley, Francis Paul Prucha, and William H. Goetzmann, who led a renaissance in this field in the 1950s and 1960s. They have since been joined by numerous other historians, making this a lively and important field of study.

Frontier military history begins with the earliest European penetration of the American wilderness. Some of the best writing, much of it falling under the banner of "new" military history, has concerned colonial affairs. Unfortunately, much of this work is labeled as colonial history, often escaping the view of Western historians. Articles in this path-breaking field tend to go to the Williamand Mary Quarterly


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