Hidden Histories

The American Frontier: Romantic Portrayal vs. Reality

Friday, 12/9/11

Today's culture is permeated with so-called 'reality' television shows, which in some ways are no doubt 'mirror-images' of at least a portion of our society, while others are blatantly more fiction than fact, characters and events simply 'staged' for the camera and a gullible public that thrives on sensationalism.  The same was true for the frontier period of American history, with its stark 'reality' of scalpings, murders, death by wild animals, disease, accidental misfortunes on farm or within the forest, as well as fictional renditions of persons and events (though occasionally based somewhat on 'fact'), as rendered in such popular novels, as those by famed author, James Fenimore Cooper.

Luckily, many primary sources exist describing 'life on the Frontier,' by which one can at least gain a semblance of the perils and harsh reality that our ancestors endured, as well as an almost nostalgic yearning for a time long past that could prove to be either 'Edenic' or 'Hellish,' depending perhaps on one's perspective.

Elias Pym Fordham, describing the frontier of Illinois Territory in 1817, remarked:


To be at an unknown distance from the dwellings of man...and then to lie at night in a blanket, with your feet to a fire, with your rifle hugged in your arms, listening to the howling wolves, and starting at the shriek of the terrible panther: This it is to be in a wilderness alone.

One visitor to a Kentucky pioneer station or fort, during the time of Daniel Boone in the late 18th-century, stated how:



The whole dirt and filth of the Fort, putrified flesh, dead dogs, horse, cow, hog excrement and human odour," coupled "with the Ashes and sweepings of filthy Cabbins, the dirtiness of the people, steeping skins to dress and washing every sort of dirty rags and cloths, will certainly contribute to render the inhabitants of this place sickly." One visitor to Boonesborough itself, remarked how its residents were, "a poor, distressed, half-naked, half-starved people," while another settler lamented how there was "no bred, no salt, no vegetables, no fruit of any kind, no Ardent sperrets, indeed nothing but meet {meat}.

 A Mr. Andrew Boggs, along with his wife Margery Harris, were the first settlers in what is now Centre County, Pennsylvania, at a place called 'Bald Eagle's Nest' (the site of Milesburg) in 1769. Boggs ran a 'Trader's Inn,' which was visited on one occasion by the Rev. Philip Vicars Fithian, of Greenwich, New Jersey, who was on a tour of the frontier in the spring of 1775. The good parson relates how the pioneer post was located in a "pleasant spot," with a "broad creek running by the door." However, his appreciation for his lodgings 'soon soured,' since he then remarks that,   


Soon after we had dined, two Indian boys bolted in (they never knock or speak at the door), with seven large fish--In return Mrs. Boggs gave them bread and a piece of our venison. Down they sat in the ashes before the fire, stirred up the coals, and laid on their flesh. When it was roasted, they eat in great mouthfuls and devoured it with the greatest rapacity...

I sat me down on a three-legged stool to writing. This house looks and smells like a shambles--raw flesh and blood, fish and deer, flesh and blood in every part--mangled, wasting flesh on every shelf. Hounds licking up the blood from the floor...naked Indians. Ten hundred thousand flies. Oh, I fear there are as many fleas. Seize me soon, kind sleep, lock me in they sweet embrace...as I lay me down let me...lose my senses! 

Stop! oh, stop! sleep to-night is gone. Four Indians came droving in, each with a large knife and tomahawk...For all this settlement I would not live here--for two such settlements--not for five hundred a year.

Lucy Watson, who had lived on the frontier in New Hampshire in 1762, recalled in later years, how as a child her family "could hear the wolves howling near them every night. The Foxes could be heard to Bark by day as well as by night. The Panthers too, were several times heard. They cried like the voice of a woman in distress, and would deceive Persons so as to incline them to go after them..."

Lucy goes on to relate how her family had went "to work to cutting down Trees, to burn them away and get the Land clear. This they did themselves, for they could not get any hired help.--The wild wooden state was such, that formerly a Mrs. Pritchet, with her infant Son, got lost therein--She wandered about till the child died and she buried it under a Tree root, where the ground was broken by the blown over tree. Hunger and anxiety bewildered her mind and when she was found after many days of search...she was so wild she fled from them. Her clothes had been nearly torn off by the bushes and brakes."

Many early frontier families, floated down the Ohio River on 'flatboats,' from Redstone, located in what is now Fayette County, Pennsylvania, to Limestone (now Maysville, Kentucky my home town), where many such would-be settlers were waylaid, captured, or murdered before ever arriving at their intended destination. One such family was that of Jacob Greathouse, and his party of sixteen, in the spring of 1791. Other pioneers in their group had previously arrived at Limestone, but the Greathouse family had not appeared as expected. Thus, a relief party of frontiersmen went to search for them, and soon found them all, from the youngest to the oldest, scalped and tortured.

Jacob Greathouse and his wife "had been tethered each to a sapling...Their bellies had been opened...and a loose end of the entrails tied to the sapling. They had then either been dragged or prodded around and around so that their intestines had been pulled out of their bodies to wind around the trees as they walked...Greathouse himself had stumbled along until not only his intestines but even his stomach had been pulled out and wound into the  obscene mass on the tree. They had been scalped and burning coals stuffed into their body cavities before the Indians departed."

Such accounts as the above were quite often the realities of 'life on the Frontier.' Yet, still there literally hundreds of thousands of pioneers who ventured westwards. Frederick Jackson Turner, an historian and son of early Wisconsin settlers, would write a seminal essay, entitled, "The Frontier in American History," wherein he would vividly recall the 'hybrid' culture created on the frontier, with the merging of Native-American and Anglo-American societies. Though he advocated that American democracy had originated as the result of the frontier experience, later scholars such as Ray Allen Billington, would challenge his thesis, but admit that Turner's theory held true in that "the frontier environment" did indeed heighten or intensify democratic institutions, rugged individualism, and independent thinking.

It is appropriate to close this blog entry with a famed quotation, taken from Turner's essay, which contains much truth as well as 'romance' of the frontier experience in America. He states:


The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, mode of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car, and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him.

Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.

Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe...The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.

The 'frontier' is a massive subject in and of itself, in regard to our American heritage. Luckily, much of its past reality and romance can be found here, within the primary and secondary sources, available at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.