BETHEL SALER. The Settler’s Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest. (Early American Studies.) Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. 392. Hardback. $45.00. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4663-6.

FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 41 (Dec., 1893): 79-112.

WILLIAM CRONON, GEORGE MILES, JAY GITLIN. “Becoming West: Toward a New Meaning for Western History,” 3-27, in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Pp. 368. $26.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-393-31063-4.

The readings for this week address the American “Great West” as a mythically and historically constructed place. A unifying theme is the writings and legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian of the Midwest who achieved fame in the early 1890s for his articulation of the “frontier thesis.” In a foundational essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner argued that American history and the unique character of the American people, as opposed to their colonial predecessors, could be explained through the frontier experience: “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward.” From this view, “American history [was] in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” From the days of Columbus and the Europeans who made colonies on the tidewater, before the “fall line” of the Atlantic, to the American settlers who crossed the Rockies into California, the frontier had been a site of “perennial rebirth.” Its “primitive conditions” assured the initial creation and subsequent regeneration of what Turner saw as the main “contributions to American character,” namely, individualism, democracy, and nationalism.[1]

The other readings include a 2015, refurbished dissertation of Bethel Saler and an introduction to a 1992 volume by William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin. These works both offer revisions to the Progressive era assumptions that bolstered Turner’s thesis. The authors focus on frontier elements Turner intentionally ignored, such as contestations over land between natives and settlers, the inter-connectedness of all frontiers, and the crucial role that the government played in state formation. Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin offer an update of Turner’s thesis roughly one century after he articulated the concept. They deny several of Turner’s claims, particularly the idea that the frontier represented a universal and inevitable social process, in which a linear “march of civilization” played itself out as white settlers moved up a Darwinian social ladder from hunter to farmer to merchant to manufacturer. Nonetheless, they lament a contemporary disinterest in the study of the frontier among historians since WWII, and they agree with Turner’s animating belief that the frontier is a real and mythic place worthy of analysis. They write that “the West offers rich opportunities for anyone…who wishes to grasp the broad outlines of American history.”[2]

Cronon, Miles, and Gatlin seek to explain how distinct areas of the modern American landscape evolved from a general frontier experience. They want to show the “frontier-to-region” historical process: how “zones of fluid, ongoing conflict and opportunity gave way to the stabler, more coherent areas we know today as the regions of North America.” To them, interrogating this process is a “key task of western history” in the modern era. The authors describe six characteristics of the frontier in their effort to “establish the grounds for a ‘new frontier and regional history.” These are species shifting, market making, land taking, boundary setting, state forming, and self-shaping. While these concepts are awkward and not mutually exclusive, they articulate a definition of the frontier that allows for multiple lines of analysis. Instead of an ever-receding margin of “free land” where white settlers continually rediscover their Americanness, the frontier becomes an imaginative and historical space where contested notions of identity are played out.[3]

Cronon, Miles, and Gatlin proposed a new model for historicizing the “West” by breaking down the clichés associated with Turner’s depiction of the frontier. The Settler’s Empire applies this model to a specific case study. Saler addresses western state formation in the Old Northwest (modern-day Midwest), from roughly 1783 to 1860. She grounds her study in Wisconsin, Turner’s home state and the western-most part of the Northwest Territory, a region which underwent the US federal government’s first experiment in western state formation after the Revolutionary War. Saler explores the government’s attempt to build republican states out of territory that was public domain and Indian homelands. Throughout, she foregrounds the “double history” of the US as both a postcolonial republic colonized by Britain and as a settler empire now seeking to colonize its western landscapes. In this respect, US officials tried to reconcile a new, temporary form of domestic colonialism with a federal system of republican governance.[4]

 The Settler’s Empire is an example of the frontier history Cronon, Miles, and Gatlin called for in 1992. The Northwest Territory is depicted as a diverse terrain of Indians, Francophone creoles, Anglo-American squatters, Euro and African-American traders, and recent European immigrants. State formation is not a top-down process but a political reaction to cultural conflicts “written on the ground.” This broader definition of US frontier allows Saler to address federal imperatives like the Northwest Ordinances, state imperatives like the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and local imperatives like conflicting expressions of race, marriage, dress, religion, family, gender, hygiene, and more. Saler’s epilogue puts her story of Wisconsin’s formation in direct conversation with Turner’s Progressive-era vision, itself a product of the Wisconsin historical profession. Saler historicizes Turner’s thesis by putting it in the context of America’s second age of imperial expansion. She shows how Turner’s portrait of the frontier “sidelined [the roles of] both federal government and regional power” in state formation, and encouraged the nation’s new attempts to transfer its energies to an overseas empire during the Progressive period. Rather than a historically accurate illustration of a universal frontier experience, Turner’s essay used the frontier idea as a rostrum to address contemporary anxieties about race, gender, and the fate of the nation.[5]

[1]               Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 41 (Dec., 1893): 79, 80, 85, 94.

[2]               William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, “Becoming West: Toward a New Meaning for Western History,” 3-27, in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 3-4, 6-7, 11, 6.

[3]               Ibid. 7, 8, 11, 16, 19, 20-26.

[4]               Ibid. 25; Bethel Saler. The Settler’s Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 1, 2, 7.

[5]               Ibid. 10, 8, 40, 12, 302-303, 307.

*This post is part of a ongoing series of précis, or short reviews. Each précis is written on the weekly readings for my course, “HIS 202H: Claiming Land and Identity: Sovereignty and Environment in Native and Settler Societies,” taught by Louis S. Warren. The content of these reviews does not represent the opinions of anyone other than myself, and hopefully the authors whose works are being reviewed.