In the period between the War of 1812 and the outbreak of the Civil War, westward advance proceeded with impressive speed. Settlers poured through the mountain gaps into the mighty central valley lying between the Appalachians and the Rockies, carried white civilization beyond the Mississippi into Texas, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, and moved through the last huge barrier of western mountain and desert to found new states in California and Oregon.
In the Jacksonian age, frontiering was a complex and many-sided activity. Far ahead of the main advance ranged the hunter, the lumberman, and the miner, for the first valuable products of the wilderness were furs, timber, and precious metals. Such men were professional pioneers; some were rude farmers, while others were prospectors or land surveyors. They blazed the trails and cleared a path for the advance of the main army of settlers, the mass of small farmers who came west to raise crops, build communities, and found states. These were drawn from the South, the East, and the far corners of Europe not mainly by the lust for gold or quick wealth, but by the most powerful magnet of all, virgin land.
What kind of songs did these pioneers—hunters, lumbermen, and farmfolk—sing? They sang everything which Americans had created or inherited: lullabies, colonial and revolutionary songs, ancient European ballads, sea songs, psalms, and spirituals. This fact is well illustrated in the manuscript song books in which the pioneers painfully copied down for themselves and their children the songs which they treasured. All of our American songs were frontier songs simply because Americans sang them on the frontier.
But the frontier was not only a place where people sang. Frontiering was also an occupation which produced songs that expressed specific aspects of pioneer life and experience. During the Jacksonian period, the frontier produced its own special and unique songs telling of lumbering, hunting, Indian fighting, overlanding, and the gold rush. The body of songs produced by such experiences in this period was very rich: in this section, we shall try to suggest through a small sampling something of its beauty and profundity.
Over the course of time, an idealized image of the frontier has become embodied in literature and raised to the status of a folk myth that exercises a continuing and extraordinary