Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier

By Matthew Rebhorn | Go to book overview

The audience members would have also heard Turner’s tacit invitation to further conquest and domination even as the frontier, in his words, was coming to a close. If the effectiveness of the Turner Thesis is at least partially due to its simplicity, then his paean to conquest comes as a natural outgrowth of the American frontier’s drive toward “incessant expansion.” “Movement has been its dominant fact,” he concludes about the American nation, and so it is natural and expected that its citizens will continue to push that line of civilization beyond the continent, that “the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise” (37). The Turner Thesis thus became just another name for Manifest Destiny and went hand in hand with the U.S. government’s seizure, just five years later, of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and Manila, as well as the suppression of a colonial uprising in the Philippines that would last from 1899 well into 1902. The Turner Thesis would become most pointedly enacted in 1903 when Turner’s fellow author, Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the United States, assisted Panamanian separatists to dissolve their bonds with the Colombian government in exchange for American rights to extraterritoriality over the Canal Zone.8 The American people—at least as represented by Roosevelt’s political maneuverings—had, indeed, demanded and seized a “wider field” for the implementation of their frontier ideology.

While fervently opposed to the kind of academic elitism of Turner, Cody and his Wild West nevertheless proved a perfect ideological mate for Turner in 1893. For the thirty years from 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was one of the nation’s largest, most popular, and most successful performative ventures (Slotkin 66–67), and part of its popularity no doubt sprang from the way, as Paul Reddin notes, it “provided a simplified, patriotic, and believable national epic that blended history and mythology and legitimized the view of Manifest Destiny that sanctioned the use of force.”9 If we turn to some of the material Cody used to promote his show, we see a striking parallel with the same ideas that Turner was proposing just a few hundred yards away in Chicago in 1893. From the program for the show, for example, we can read the following:

[While it is] a trite saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” it is equally true
that the bullet is the pioneer of civilization, for it had gone hand in hand with the axe
that cleared the forest, and with the family Bible and school book. Deadly as has been
its mission in one sense, it has been merciful in another; for without the rifle ball we of
America would not be to-day in possession of a free and united country, and mighty in
our strength. (qtd. in Slotkin 77)

While Kasson argues that Cody and Turner disagreed about the idea of the frontier as a “process” and that Turner insisted on a much more

-3-

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