Frontiers — A guest post by Alma Boykin

*As I expected, I need to go over what I have on Rogue Magic, before I can go on.  In the meantime, enjoy a guest post from Alma Boykin, our very own TXRed. I’m going to be right here catching up on posts for PJM and writing Through Fire.  Also, it’s younger son’s birthday, so after he’s done spending time with his friends, I should block some time for hanging out.  Oh, Alma’s post is on Frontiers, and I want to add that working in indie is very much Life On The Wild Frontier, with circumstances changing and different things learned every week.  For instance, I have in my hands (well on the desk, I don’t have an extra set of fingers to type with) the first book I’ve designed — a trade paperback copy of Death of a Musketeer.  The surprising thing is how professional it looks — considering I designed it with word and a ten year old version of JASC paintshop, particularly (I chose clunkier methods over ramp up time.)  The other surprising thing is how much of a dits I can be.  For instance, the cover is great except on the blurb I got attacked by Sudden capitalization Syndrome, so it will have to be redone.  And inside one of the section breaks seems to have given way, leaving the filler pages numbered.  So I have to do that to, again.  But if you’d told me three years ago I could design and have a book printed… I’d have laughed. Now, it seems entirely “matter of course”.*

 Frontiers, New, Final, and Otherwise

by Alma Boykin

[Author’s note: This is a bit of a ramble and discussion piece as much as history bit.]


Frontier is an odd word, and probably an Odd word as well. It has fallen out of fashion with historians of the US West because of too many Davy Crockett and cowboy associations (thank you, House of Mouse). And then there’s the “high frontier” and “frontiers in medicine,” and “the final frontier” (space or Alaska, take your choice) to further muddy the wordy waters. Since we (historians) are supposed to be getting past the Euro-American-as-good-guy idea of western history, frontier is out and borderlands, cultural transition zone, and other such terms are in. Unless you are a geographer, or look at world history, which is what I’d like to do.

The word, its root, and its sense of “something past/beyond other things” go back to Indo-European. Latin gives us frons-frontes, meaning an eyebrow, a façade of a building, and the idea of something projecting out of something else. From there Latin added a military meaning, which became the Old French frontier meaning the front rank of an army or the prow of a ship (or of a fortification). The usage passed into English and by the 15th century there are references to a borderland being a frontier. North America got its frontier in the 1670s, according to etymological sources and sites.

Prior to graduate school I’d never given much thought to frontiers. Then I decided that I needed the word. To cultural geographers, a frontier is a place where peoples and cultures interact, often exchanging ideas and practices in the process. Terry G. Jordan’s great book, The North American Cattle-Raising Frontiers, is one of the best examples of the geographical frontier, and provided the model I used in my non-fiction work. So a frontier can be anywhere that two different cultures intersect for long enough that information transfers occur. Those transfers often cause changes in behavior, as you would imagine.

Historians of Russia occasionally refer to the Russia’s far-eastern frontier, and point out surficial similarities between the Wild East and Wild West (fur-based extractive economy, contested lands, native peoples integrated by conquest, hostile physical environment.) There’s a sense of weak government presence and control and that the frontier is where real cultures meet before official culture arrives.

Did Europe have frontiers? Yes, several. The area east of the Elbe River formed a frontier for several centuries, as pagan (and later Catholic and Orthodox) Slavs collided with Catholic and Protestant Germans. Later, the plains of Hungary, Transylvania, and the Balkans fit the idea of frontier, as the Ottomans and Tartars battled with the Hapsburgs, Russians, and Poles, passing control back and forth for five hundred years. There are stories of heroism and depravity, of high honor and low treason, of cultural exchanges and ferocious rejections of the other side. As Andrew Wheatcroft points out in the introduction to his book about the Siege of Vienna and its aftermath, Hapsburg/ Austro-Hungarian policies take on a different cast when seen as efforts to secure and defend an eastern frontier. One reason Wilhelmine Germany/Prussia came to define citizenship by blood rather than by birthplace stemmed from the ongoing conflicts with Slavs who refused to assimilate. Brandenburg-Prussia and East Prussia faced an eastern frontier that lingered long after the end of the Teutonic Knights’ kingdom.

Southern Europe, most notably Spain and Portugal, were frontiers for 700 years. One reason why Spain never had quite the same feudal system as France and England stemmed from that frontier. Spanish Christians had to carry arms in order to fend off the Moors (and mercenaries). The Spaniards’ right and duty of self-defense made it a lot harder for the crown and nobles to impose control over the common people, no matter what early modern governments might have wanted to do. Geography played a large role as well, and explains why the conquistadores (many from Extremadura) reached the American Southwest and shrugged instead of blanching with dismay like Anglo-Americans did. And why they called the descendants of converted Indians genizarios, or janissaries.

Fredrick Jackson Turner, in his seminal essay about the frontier in American history, used the US Census definition of frontier as a place with less than 10 people per square mile. The Census Bureau declared the frontier closed in 1890. Turner thought this would have deleterious effects for the country, since it turned off a social relief valve of sorts. His frontier became the next generation’s Wild West. In the 1970s, New Western historians announced that “frontier” no longer served a purpose, because the idea had been shaped and defined by Anglo-American perceptions and ideology. Hispanos and Native Americans recognized no such place (wellllll, mostly didn’t recognize). At the same time popular culture latched onto it even harder, giving us the variations mentioned at the start of this ramble.

Some people talk about frontier values, either as good or as bad things. The frontiers I’ve looked at share some commonalities. Physical strength remains critical to survival, or the ability to use tools to give the advantages of greater strength. Men need to be strong, stable, willing to work hard and to fight to protect their holdings and families. Women have a somewhat separate area of work, concentrated on the home or on a home territory, but still need to be able to take care of themselves and their children/dependents when the fertilizer hits the impeller. Honor, trustworthiness, wary respect for others, and a willingness to learn from and about the “other” even as you fight/work against them are important, and appear again and again in legend and in practice. I’d note that the “other” can be the environment in some cases as well as other people.

So, is the frontier dead or just sleeping? Cultural collision points still exist, notably the Balkans, the Caucasus Mountains, and (potentially) the Himalayas. By Fredrick Jackson Turner’s definition, large swaths of the western US are once more frontiers, as the population has shifted and concentrated in towns and cities. Several readers of this blog have talked about space and extra-solar settlement as the next frontier, the next place of exploration, settlement, and possible cultural contact. Robert Ballard probably looks at deep oceans as a frontier, since they have less than ten people per square mile and large swaths remain only semi-explored and mapped. (Note that the population definition only includes humans and not Great Old Ones.)

It strikes me that Americans, including those who are Americans by spirit instead of by place-of-birth, need frontiers, need places “lost beyond the ranges.” They can be mental, cultural, or environmental, but some Odds are going to roam, and society benefits from a certain degree of self-reliance, a sense of identity, and the willingness to say “I protect my people” and “this I will not do.” Frontiers have shaped humans for ages, and I doubt they’ll disappear within my lifetime. No matter what some people might prefer.


57 thoughts on “Frontiers — A guest post by Alma Boykin

    1. My maternal ancestors tended to move every other generation, usually over state or national borders, sometimes accompanied by the neighbor’s livestock. 😉

      1. lol– mine just didn’t know how to take care of stock. My father seems to be the only one with the knack, but his mother came from good farmer stock The moving part? Well… maternal side – Vikings… in hot pursuit.

        1. Mine continued the tradition on this side of the pond. I recall my Grandfather talking about when he lived in Montana they used to round up wild horses and drive them across the border into Canada and sell them. I don’t remember if it was a state or federal law against that, but since the local sheriff often went along on the drive, they didn’t have to worry about local law enforcement.

  1. Some were *unskilled* musicians who had to keep moving to avoid the rotten vegetables/fruits? [Very Big Evil Grin]

    1. It’s on your head– This is a Bagley story–

      I did have a group of great-great-uncles (add more greats to get to the gold rush years) who were traveling fiddlers. They would play for food. Unfortunately they did not have too many farmer skills– lol One story goes that they killed a deer and left it hanging on the roof of the dugout. Wolves came to get the deer and were banging on the roof and doors. The uncles played and sang all night until the wolves left. The next morning they skedaddled out of there. The wolves had torn and eaten the deer over their heads. 😉

  2. Lively and interesting post. Thank you. I was wondering what the next frontiers would look like but then I realized that there are certainly a lot of cultural frontiers colliding in the world today. It’s a fascinating time to live.

  3. With Odds, it seems that if physical frontiers are shrinking or disappearing altogether, whether by govt fiat or cultural shift, we make our own new frontiers. Witness roleplaying games (online, in-person, or LARPing). If we can’t go to Mars or another solar system yet, well then, we’ll just go to Narnia and you can’t stop us! Lol.

  4. Frontiers have often been places for social experimentation, often of a religious nature (the Pilgrims in New England, the Mormons in Utah) and it is tempting to think we need frontiers for such social experiments today.

    The problem is that we have a surfeit of social experiments taking place; it’s just that they’re not taking place on the frontier. Obamacare is not limited to the Pilgrim’s frontier of Massachusetts, the way Romneycare was; it is being tested on the entire country. And it is hardly the first such experiment.

    This seems to me to be consistent with Turner’s notion of the frontier as safety valve.

    I like the observation about Ballard. It strongly suggests that a good course of action would be sinking the Federal Government, much of it, in the depths of the ocean.

      1. No – the environmental impact of drowning so much red tape might endanger life on Earth as we know it. Far better to incinerate, albeit in a way that minimizes ash. Nuclear furnace, perhaps?

      1. Oops another Chuck. I will have to change my handle to prevent confusion. I’ll try Chuck-K if that works and isn’t taken

        1. We’re thinking of meeting at Pete’s Kitchen on Colfax 1962 at three pm for a pre-thanksgiving huns get together. I shall look like the witch of endor, since I’ve not had time to have my hair done or dyed, but you guys understand, right? 😉

        2. Ooh, which holidays are you thinking of buying? Make sure you check the warranty and long-term operating expenses before purchasing.

  5. I guess I had always thought of frontiers along the US Census definition, you know relatively unpopulated and un/partially explored. Never thought of clashing cultures as a frontier. Maybe that is because there are cultural clashes all over Europe and the areas of the world with the oldest settled histories, so I just don’t see that as a viable definition.

    1. Bearcat, I think North Americans, and probably Australians, are so used to looking at topography as the definition of frontier that cultural frontiers come in a distant second at best. After all, even if there had been no humans living in North America prior to the Europeans’ arrivals, it would still have been dang hard to make a living as a farmer in western Kansas or a rancher in northern Alberta. But once you start looking at other edge places, you start finding cultural frontiers along with climatological and topographical frontiers.

      That’s why I began with the definition used by the cultural geographers and worked out to the more familiar North American definition. Feel free to disagree. 🙂

  6. Agreed we for some value of we need a place behind the ranges to go look – from Huck to Manny – but be it revisionist or not there is a flipside when the frontier is distant and different.

    “The crushing course they took
    And nobly knew
    Their death undaunted
    By heroic blast
    The hospital’s host
    They dragged to doom
    Hail! Men without mercy
    From the far frontier!”

    Kornbluth emphasis added

    Perhaps nicer when the frontier produces only creoles. In the post WWII generation women in the Swiss Romande commonly used a newish verb Putzer picked up from putzen. Putzen was used by the German speaking au pair girls who were there to learn French not teach German. I wonder to what extent information sharing marks a frontier? Hard to think of places like Lausanne and Berne within if not easy walking distance at least easy bicycling distance as frontier territories.

    In the United States today I suspect the biggest frontier (Hat tip Donald Hamilton Mona Intercept and others) is between summer people and year round residents hence the don’t Californicate meme. Manners are quite different as between crowds and country side cf Green Pastures but I don’t think that’s enough to fill the need –

    1. In the Blue Ridge Mountains it is a truism that there are three group identities: natives, accepted as/by natives & damn yankees. One way to identify them is that the first groups never say “we do it differently (implicitly superior) where I come from.” They do say (if only under their breath, “Whyn’t you go back and stay?”

      1. I live in the Blue Ridge also, and years ago an acquantance with deep roots here told me that her mother was 21 years old before she learned that “damnyankee” was two words.

        1. Tsk, don’t know where mah haid’s at (in defense, it’s bin a trying couple weeks and I now has more character than you can shake a birch rod at) but the three groups in the Blue Ridge are:

          Newbies (family has only been here three or four generations but they’s all right folks)
          Damnyankees & Halfbacks (Yankees what moved to Florida, couldn’t hack it and moved up here; generally considered worse than damnyankees)

          On the plus side, many of our local folk have helped redistribute wealth from damnyankees to local industry by selling ready-to-be-developed ski slopes (lovely Southern views, lets you ski longer through the day) to damnyankees too much smarter (and too eager to buy property for a song before the yokels realize what a gold mine they’re sitting atop of) to check local snow fall records.

  7. With the cultural clashes, I wonder if the Internet could be considered a frontier, although the governments or the world are trying hard to bring it to heel.

    And I guess it’s just a symptom of Liberalism that the westward expansion is no longer considered a Frontier, but a plague on the Indians or a spreading cancer on the land. Their self-hatred is precious to them, and they must pass it down to our kids.

  8. An important question is whether they are cut off from easy communication. Burke, in his speech about conciliation with the American colonies, pointed out with the ocean between them there were limits, because months pass between their questioning something and getting an answer. The telegraph produced drastic changes in the British Empire.

  9. I like this Turner feller. (Flinders Island 1.7 people per square mile, and if you take the three little towns out – 0.6 of a person per square mile. Agree about the safety valve. And I like and agree with your list of characteristics common to frontiers-people. I think you could add a deep regard for the spirit of the law, and very little for the letter thereof, and a degree of mental flexibility that is lost when life is safe and predictable. Oh and a poor regard for authority unless it is local and proved itself.

    1. ” I like and agree with your list of characteristics common to frontiers-people. I think you could add a deep regard for the spirit of the law, and very little for the letter thereof, and a degree of mental flexibility that is lost when life is safe and predictable. Oh and a poor regard for authority unless it is local and proved itself.”


  10. Flinders Island must be quite a pleasant change from KwaZulu-Natal? and I don’t doubt the folks currently show the “list of characteristics common to frontiers-people” as amended.

    On the other hand looking back in the lower 48 of the U.S. of A. I don’t see the characteristics enumerated as dominating on the frontier – whether the frontier begin at the eastern seaboard as it once did or Turner’s frontier centuries later – certainly not when expressed in uniformly favorable terms. Nor do I trust anything of the “again in legend” sort as a guide.This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. For my money I’ll consider something like The Frontier Mind, A Cultural Analysis of the Kentucky Frontiersman by Arthur K. Moore (1957) as not too fawning at the alter of manifest destiny nor yet too iconoclastic in tearing manifest destiny down – rather the work of a researcher who began intending to document the legend and ended by documenting something rather different.

    Whatever the specific facts on the ground may have been there was no shortage of bad luck in the stony soils of New England (see e.g. the tales of Hamlin Garland and his family as they moved from Maine to Hollywood) and the jury in The Devil and Daniel Webster were credible men of the frontier be the tale libelous or not. Liver Eating Johnson might or might not have a different less pleasant tale of the information exchange between Flathead and Crow peoples.

    The lecture early in Tunnel in the Sky suggesting a distinction between romantic times and romantic people strikes home to me. Arguably after the frontier has passed folks think the people then must have been romantic to match the times. Maybe so but maybe not. I’d like to think say Tales of the Flying Mountains with a romance at its core be a realistic story of that frontier but I don’t think it is.

    My domicile, if not my residence, is on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake for 6-7 <10 residents per square mile but that's lying with statistics – for any summer day – see the suggested distinction between summer people and year round residents – Yellowstone and Teton Parks and the hotels, motels and tourist cabins are a teeming mob.

      1. Surely but just maybe Monty, Darby and Dan were as much pioneers in Happy Valley as Dora Brandon. Hard to draw a conclusion -or a prediction – from “For many years the only law we had was the Golden Rule, unwritten but closely followed. ”

        A subsidized link with civilization that “brought things into the valley” may well have changed the logic of empire for the better. On other new frontiers the logic of empire may be a cold equation.

        But it is nice to live with elbow room.

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