People on the Land: ‘Closing’ the Frontier Opened a New Set of Issues

Long after its official “closing,” the concept of the frontier continues to affect our public policies and our view of what it means to be American. From land, to technology, to ideas, the frontier lives on.

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The idea of frontier is what you make it.

The American frontier experience shaped the way we perceive land, even now. But there’s also the frontier of ideas. As 2015 draws to a close, we can celebrate expanding science and technological frontiers. We are, as we have been, curious explorers into the infinitesimal and the infinite and everything in between.

America’s unlimited land frontier now seems something out of the distant past in a globalized, highly technological society where Daniel Boone’s mythical “elbow room” is in short supply. While we have preserved some “wilderness,” we live daily in relatively close quarters that are getting closer.

When the U.S. Bureau of the Census declared the end of the land frontier after the 1890 Census, the pronouncement triggered discussions about American identity, where we were going and how we had evolved as we took the land for ourselves.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and later at Harvard, was one of the first to recognize the importance of the Census Bureau’s declaration. His 1893 paper—“The Significance of the Frontier in American History”—outlined his assessment of the role of frontier in settling the country:

Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding peopleto the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.

His paper triggered a long-running argument among historians about how the loss of free land and the inexorable westward advance of white settlers reshaped the republic. The debate mattered, but it wasn’t limited to historians. Wider discussions on the frontier experience examined impacts on rural communities, natural resource conservation, and the larger political economy. The idea triggered a reexamination of national goals and the ways we were using our land and living in our communities.

For example, U.S. Geological Survey hydrographer F.H. Newell, discussed potential “reclamation” to develop vast areas of Western drylands in the secretary’s 1901 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.

With the cessation of Indian wars and of daily news of frontier strife, the people of our country have come to regard the United States as settled and no longer affording opportunity for notable expansion of internal resources. It is true that the frontier of civilization has disappeared…. Now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, when we come to take account of the progress made, we are surprised to find that one-third of the whole United States remains vacant land, still belonging to the people as a whole and at the disposal of Congress.

But the frontier lands, once divided, really did not belong to—or benefit—everyone equally. Agriculture and its markets, our communities, and our natural environment were instead becoming a peculiar national conundrum.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “frontier thesis” said the end of the frontier experience meant a fundamental change in American identity. Historians still debate his thesis.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “frontier thesis” said the end of the frontier experience meant a fundamental change in American identity. Historians still debate his thesis.

Harvard political economist T.N. Carver recognized that residents of frontier communities shared common interests tangled with individualism in “Community Organization” in the 1913 federal Yearbook of Agriculture:

Under the public-land policy of the Federal Government … an extremely individualistic method of settlement was promoted. This doubtless served important public purposes, but it tended to promote disorganization rather than organization….

“Organization” implied that individual farmers needed to modernize to be efficient and improve their living standard. University of Wisconsin rural sociologist C.J. Galpin directly addressed the consequences of “adjustment backward” in Rural Social Problems (1924):

The social problem of farm life … [is] the problem of mounting from the lower level of frontier organization up to the level of modern life and institutions. The problem in the large is one of escape, escape from the menace of an arrested social development and of a stunted breed of society. The stolid peasant is a dwarf product of arrested growth. America is living in hope that its agriculture may escape a peasant society.

Galpin’s view was hardly complimentary. But as farmers modernized in the 1920s, new problems developed. Carver, after witnessing years of agricultural depression, pointed out on the eve of the Depression in “Our Congested Frontier” (1929):

One factor in the present agricultural situation is the overexpansion of our agricultural frontier. A great deal of what is technically called submarginal land has been brought under cultivation. The sooner it can be restored to the purposes for which it is best fitted, namely, forestry and pasturage, the better it will be for the American farmer and the country at large….

Carver blamed misguided government land use policies for the country’s farm problem. The dynamic agricultural frontier negotiated in a political economy shaped by low profits, overproduction, environmental damage, and uneven development. At the same time, modernization, with its individualistic roots in frontier life encouraged mechanization and efficiency that drove farmers and farmworkers off the land into crowded cities.

The frontier’s closing and its implications for rural America were foremost on the minds of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal advisers. In a September, 1932, presidential campaign speech, FDR outlined the Depression’s impacts:

A glance at the situation today only too clearly indicates that equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists. Our industrial plant is built; the problem just now is whether under existing conditions it is not overbuilt. Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land. More than half of our people do not live on the farms or on lands and cannot derive a living by cultivating their own property. There is no safety valve in the form of a Western prairie to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines can go for a new start. We are not able to invite the immigration from Europe to share our endless plenty. We are now providing a drab living for our own people.

Once elected, FDR translated his realistic campaign rhetoric into positive actions that leveraged public works programs to reclaim land on a wide scale, supposedly for the good of all. Water projects, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and Western hydroelectric dams, created short-run jobs and longer-run land conservation to increase long-run land profitability. Roosevelt’s conservation practices made investments for future generations by building physical and technological infrastructure to support planned regional agricultural and industrial development.

In his January, 1934, congressional message on his administration’s accomplishments, FDR noted his efforts to create security based on planned land use:

… When land failed, our ancestors moved on to better land. It was always possible to push back the frontier, but the frontier has now disappeared. Our task involves the making of a better living out of the lands that we have.

Roosevelt always considered himself a farmer and forester. Faced with the Depression’s unemployment and poverty, he revamped the ideas of frontier to dampen individualism and promote community security, at a minimum nation building and perhaps a form of sustainable development.

Roosevelt wanted large-scale technology used in conjunction with conservation principles as he understood them. But the frontiers of 2015—125 years after the “closing” of the U.S. land frontier and more than 80 years after the New Deal—find us more or less generally removed from the land by the technology FDR and others espoused.

Ironically, President Herbert Hoover’s (1929-1933) view of frontiers has persisted and now dominates over the land-based frontier. In his losing re-election campaign, Hoover, an engineer, held a different view of frontier:

… We are yet but on the frontiers of development of science and of invention. I have only to remind you that discoveries in electricity, the internal combustion engine, the radio—all of which have sprung into being since our land was settled—have in themselves represented the greatest advances made in America.

Technology still contributes to the larger rural and environmental conundrum, as agricultural economist Carl O. Sauer noted in “Theme of Plant and Animal Destruction in Economic History” (1938):

The doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanently and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology … has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual…. We have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists.

Sauer’s argument still rings true in 2015, especially if we are cognizant that technology provides thin protection from the realities of nature and the land, especially when our actions disrespect the Earth.

There are no, and never were, any free gifts of nature.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.


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