It is usually difficult to choose only one author who is essential to the study of a particular subject. When it comes to the history of the frontier West, however, the choice is easy. Ray Allen Billington stands alone above all. He is the sine qua non of any course on frontier history. When reading Billington, you are getting two giants of the field in one. He was inspired by Frederick Jackson Turner, whose “frontier hypothesis” became the basis for Billington’s life work. While Turner had the perspicacious insight to perceive the significance of the frontier in American history and to write about it in sweeping, almost poetical terms, it was Billington who wrote its history in a comprehensive narrative that is storytelling at its best. His Westward Expansion is a volume without peer as a history of the frontier from the time European settlers first set foot on what is today the United States to the closing of the wild and woolly Old West during the 1890’s.
I was introduced to Westward Expansion while taking a course on the American West as an undergraduate at UCLA during the 1960’s. I found the more than 900-page volume a page turner, which made it an anomaly among textbooks. Its 140 pages of bibliography are without rival and an indispensable research tool. The cloth-bound volume of densely packed text interspersed with well-crafted maps still sits on my library shelf. When in need, I go to it first. I have other textbooks on the American West, sent to me by publishers while I was teaching the course myself, but they all pale in comparison with Billington’s magisterial work.
Each chapter of Westward Expansion not only grasps the big picture and larger significance of events but is full of individual characters and anecdotes that make history come alive. Moreover, it is the compelling story of what shaped our country and turned Europeans into Americans. Best of all, perhaps, Billington wrote and died before publishers required textbooks to be politically correct, which sacrifices history to cultural Marxism. The first edition of Westward Expansion appeared in 1949. I have the third edition. Billington was around to have a fourth edition published during the 1970’s. A fifth and a sixth edition, edited by Martin Ridge, came out after Billington’s death in 1981. I recommend one of the earlier editions. Martin Ridge is one of the best ever to write Western history, but, with the later editions, a new publisher insisted on dramatically reducing the size and scope of the volume, inserting some political correctness, and issuing it in paperback.
Ray Allen Billington earned his doctorate at Harvard and then taught at Clark University, Smith College, and, for many years, at Northwestern. By the time I entered UCLA, Billington was the Senior Research Associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in nearby San Marino. The post at the Huntington gave him the opportunity to research and write to his heart’s content. Billington had, by then, become an indefatigable advocate of Turner’s frontier hypothesis, something that had gone in and out of fashion since Turner first propounded it in 1893 in a paper he presented to the American Historical Association at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Through reading Turner’s paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and through Billington, I became a Turnerian, a position that is anathema to most in academe today.
Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin, which, in 1861, the year of his birth, was only a generation removed from the cutting edge of the frontier. Turner earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin and then a doctorate in history at Johns Hopkins. While doing his graduate work, he was surprised to find his professors ignorant of the American frontier and dismissive of its influence. Europe explained America to them. Turner, however, had grown to maturity watching Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians become Americans, although still remaining identifiably German, Irish, and Scandinavian, and seeing upward mobility and social and political democracy in action. He could not help but contrast this with what he perceived as a more stratified society on the eastern seaboard. He began to think of the frontier as transformative, the principal agent involved in creating this new species—the American.
Without the frontier, he essentially said, we would have remained Europeans. The frontier, however, suddenly changed the man-to-land ratio. Peasants, working the land of aristocrats in Europe, became landowners themselves in America. Through hard work, determination, and their own talents, they prospered beyond their wildest dreams. This did not happen only once but generation after generation for nearly 300 years and stretched from coast to coast. Democracy sprang not from theoretical constructs but from the forests and prairies of America. Through this process traits developed that were peculiarly American or at least disproportionately represented in Americans. This made us a unique people, and our march across the continent, a triumphal procession. It is easy to see why Frederick Jackson Turner is a bad name on college campuses today. If Turner is to be disparaged, though, those in academe must also disparage Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, E.L. Godkin, St. John de Crevecoeur, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others who made some of the same observations long before Turner.
There are legitimate criticisms of Turner: He tended to make sweeping generalizations, ignore details, and leave the hard work of organizing all his research into a comprehensive study to others. He enjoyed teaching his frontier course at Harvard, mentoring students, and presenting his views in essays. Turner did not seem greatly upset by his critics. Inspired by his own upbringing in the upper Midwest, he knew he had discovered a truth or at least had synthesized the observations of many great minds.
Billington, like Turner, earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. He arrived at Harvard too late to study under Turner but did study under Frederick Merk, who had been one of Turner’s students and then his colleague as a professor at Harvard. Merk’s course on the frontier was Turnerian in nearly every respect. Billington later said that Merk’s course inspired him to make the American frontier his life’s work. It would be some years before Billington began to write Westward Expansion, but by then he had an understanding and knowledge of the frontier that surpassed those prominent historians he had worked under, including Frederick Paxson at Wisconsin and Frederick Merk and James Blaine Hedges at Harvard. Hedges had suggested the great volume to Billington as a cooperative project but was forced to retire from the work after preliminary drafts of three chapters. By the time Billington was finished, the book ran to a full 37 chapters and followed the frontier from the first Spanish, French, and English settlements through the closing of the frontier during the 1890’s.
In the final chapter, a kind of addendum, Billington specifically addresses the frontier hypothesis and America’s frontier heritage. After reading the first 36 chapters, it is difficult not to have come to the conclusions proffered by Billington in chapter 37. Nearly everything Turner claimed is supported by Billington’s chapter-by-chapter march across the continent. While teaching at UCLA for 15 years, and an equal number of years at other universities, and while attending historical conferences, I would often run into anti-Turnerians. They were usually young professors. I would ask them if they had ever read Westward Expansion. Most would answer evasively, saying that they were familiar with it. When I pressed them, it became obvious that they had not read it. It also became obvious that they really did not know much about frontier history, putatively their field. They were good at postulating Marxist theory and superimposing theoretical models over the American West, but ask them about Old Bill Williams, a possibles sack, the Hawken rifle, Huge Glass, placer mining, the doctrine of prior appropriation, Tom Fitzpatrick, the Butterfield Overland Stage, Bear River Tom Smith, the Bozeman Trail, the Plummer gang, the Bodie 601, Shanghai Pierce, the Chisholm Trail, the Silver Kings, the Pleasant Valley War, the Ophir mine, square-set timbering, the Big Four, Lee McNelly, or the Regulators, and they would stare blankly.
Billington eventually expanded the last chapter of Westward Expansion into a book, America’s Frontier Heritage, which was published in 1963. In America’s Frontier Heritage, Billington takes on all challengers to Turner’s frontier hypothesis. Occasionally, he agrees with the critics, and I think that on all but one of those occasions he is right to do so. Most of the time, though, he staunchly and convincingly defends the hypothesis. It might sound as if the book is dryly analytical, but it, too, is an adventure, especially for those of us who are reading about our own people, attitudes, and behaviors. Much of it is a fun romp, revealing American traits and characteristics for good or ill—but they are ours. Several chapters are similar to the best parts of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America. That should come as no surprise, since Billington relies heavily on what foreign travelers had to say about us, particularly their comments about life on the frontier. It also convinces me that writers such as Grady McWhiney, best known for Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South, and James Webb, whose Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America I reviewed for Chronicles, must have read Billington.
Billington goes well beyond anecdotal observations by travelers, though, making use of studies by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists, and demographers. It all builds to a convincing argument that nearly 300 years of frontiering experience created certain identifiable traits and behaviors not only in the frontiersmen themselves but in their descendants and in Americans in general. Billington does not—and neither did Turner—contend that these traits and behaviors are exclusively or uniquely American, although their critics delight in misstating their arguments in order to knock down straw men. Billington said that the characteristics were only more fully developed, even exaggerated, on the frontier and that they combined and reinforced each other, having what I might call in today’s pharmaceutical language a synergistic effect.
One of the greatest controversies the frontier hypothesis has engendered is whether the frontier acted as a safety valve, as Turner argued, allowing those discontented with their lot in life in the urban East to move westward for opportunity and upward mobility. Such migration militated against the development of the rigid class system that prevailed in Europe. Studies have shown, however, that most families who packed up and trekked to the frontier were already living west of the urbanized east and were repeating a process that their ancestors had begun. City-dwelling families in New York, for example, rarely become farmers in Iowa. Thus, it is argued, the frontier was not a safety valve for urban masses. Moreover, farm families usually went west when they had cash reserves and a good stock of supplies, not when they were desperate. Billington is quick to concede these points and argues instead that the frontier was an indirect safety valve—that farm families moved west rather than off the land and into the cities, where they would have intensified competition for jobs and services. He also argues that the frontier was a psychological safety valve: City dwellers thought that, if things got too bad, they could always escape to the West. Moreover, says Billington, the West was a resources safety valve: Precious metals, timber, coal, iron, and grazing lands allowed America to develop rapidly and to do so without seeking colonies overseas.
I only take exception to Billington so quickly conceding the first point concerning the safety valve. I grant that studies have shown that farm families in the East were the ones who tended to become farm families in the West, and that they tended to do so in good times rather than bad. However, every study cited looks at families, rather than individuals, and concentrates on farmers. There were thousands of individuals who yearly left eastern cities and towns for the West, sometimes to work on farms but most of the time to trap beaver, cut timber, build railroads, pan for gold, herd cattle, deliver freight, fight Indians, guard bullion shipments, haul ore, survey land, dig wells, string fences, enforce the law, flout the law, or a thousand and one other things. Richard King, who became the greatest cattle baron of the Old West, began life in New York City as the son of Irish immigrants. When his parents died, he was made an apprentice. He ran away when barely in his teens by stowing away on a ship. By the time he died, he owned a ranch of nearly a million acres in Texas. Harry Longabaugh was born in a small town just west of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He grew up reading dime novels about cowboys and gunfighters. He left home at 15, headed for Wyoming. We have known him ever since as the Sundance Kid. And so it goes for thousands more.
Billington’s chapter on the social aspects of frontier democracy in America’s Frontier Heritage is my favorite and perhaps captures the essence of being an American like no other. “There is nothing in America,” Billington quotes a European visitor as saying, “that strikes a foreigner so much as the real republican equality existing in the Western States, which border on the wilderness.” The mountain men, sourdoughs, cowboys, teamsters, and others judged men on their individual merits—not on titles, lineage, or wealth. As a cowboy told a supercilious scion of British nobility, “You may be a son of a lord back in England, but that ain’t what you are out here.” When another British nobleman insisted on being addressed as “Esquire,” the cowboys laughed and said that they would be calling him “Charlie.” “Superiority,” noted an English traveler, “is yielded to men of acknowledged talent alone.” A titled Englishman traveling through the cattle country of the northern High Plains brought a bathtub with him. Upon ordering a hired packer to fill it, the frontiersman instead drew a revolver and shot the tub full of holes, telling the nobleman that he now had a shower. When an aristocratic visitor asked a Wyoming cowboy if his “master” was at home, the drover replied angrily, “the son of Baliel ain’t been born yet.”
Another Billington work that is essential to any student of the frontier is The Far Western Frontier 1830-1860, which was first published in 1956. In colorful, flowing narrative Billington takes the reader to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail, into the Rockies with the mountain men, over the Oregon Trail with the pioneers, south of the border with American troops during the Mexican War, to the Great Salt Lake Basin with the Mormons, to California with the forty-niners, and to gold and silver strikes throughout the West. He captures the spirit of the times and the character of the people. It simply does not get any better.
If you have time to read only one author on the frontier West, then Ray Allen Billington is the one.