Icons of Progress

Residence of Ira A. Warren, Emmett Township, Calhoun County, Michigan
Residence of Ira A. Warren, Emmett Township, Calhoun County, MichiganPierce, H. B.
Log Cabin meeting houses
Log Cabin meeting housesP.S. Deuval and Co.
Tippecanoe, the Hero of North Bend
Tippecanoe, the Hero of North Bend

Turner was not the first to write about the frontier as a transformative American experience, but he wrote a moment when American audiences were eager for an explanation of the kind he provided. His argument drew on the history of the frontier itself and on the way Americans—especially Midwesterners—had come to express their popular understanding of the frontier.

Turner wrote that the “wilderness masters the colonist,” forcing Europeans to rely on primitive technologies and the know-how of American Indians. The log cabins and birch canoes of early days would make the story of modern cities like Chicago even more dramatic and powerful. Images of log cabins, buck-skin clothing, and raccoon hats came to symbolize the ability of European settlers to transcend the limitations of their environment.

For instance, when Turner and others told the story of frontier development, the log cabin was the first of a series of lodgings that grew progressively more modern. Paired with a sign of future achievement—the presidency, a completed farm, a church, a great city—the log cabin became a sign of great accomplishments from simple beginnings. When used as a symbol of the past it signified self-reliance and connection to place.

Turner described the transformation of the frontier into modern American society as something of a foregone conclusion. “Stand at Cumberland Gap,” he wrote, “and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.” Each stage of frontier development—Indians, trappers, farmers—passed from the scene almost without conflict to make way for the next.

Images like the Currier and Ives 1868 lithograph “Across the Continent” telescoped generations of frontier development into one scene. With the wagon track paralleling the railroad, the image suggested to post Civil War audiences that they were carrying on the tradition of their forefathers even as modern technology made the task quicker and more convenient.

Native Americans always sat at the margins of these images, or were completely absent. Most European Americans imagined them as “savages” who were part of the very natural landscape and natural resources that they felt was their right to acquire, push aside, or incorporate. But as we will see, this was not the only way to picture the place of American Indians in the drama of the frontier.