> VIRGIN LAND: The American West as Symbol and Myth

by Henry Nash Smith


Eighteenth-Century Origins

What is an American? asked St. John de Crevecoeur before the Revolution, and the question has been repeated by every genera- tion from his time to ours. Poets and novelists, historians and statesmen have undertaken to answer it, but the varying national self-consciousness they have tried to capture always escapes final statement. Men of Thomas Jefferson's day emphasized freedom and republicanism as the defining characteristics of American society; the definitions of later thinkers stressed the cosmopolitan blending of a hundred peoples into one, or mechanical ingenuity, or devotion to business enterprise. But one of the most persistent generalizations concerning American life and character is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward through the passes of the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and mountains of the Far West to the Pacific Coast. This axiom, which was grasped at least in part by Crevecouer, before him by Benjamin Franklin, and subsequently by Emerson, by Lincoln, by Whitman, by a hundred others, comes to us bearing the personal imprint of a Wisconsin historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, who gave it its classic statement in a paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" read before the American Historical Association at the Chicago Worldis Columbian Exposition in 1893. Although Turner asserted that the westward movement was about to come to an end with what he believed to be the closing of the frontier of free land in the West, a whole generation of historians took over his hypothesis and rewrote American history in terms of it. Despite a growing VIRGIN LAND

tendency of scholars to react against the Turner doctrine, it is still by far the most familiar interpretation of the American past.

Brilliant and persuasive as Turner was, his contention that the frontier and the West had dominated American development couId hardly have attained such universal acceptance if it had not found an echo in ideas and attitudes already current. Since the enormous currency of the theory proves that it voices a mas- sive and deeply-held conviction, the recent debate over what Turner actually meant and over the truth or falsity of his hy- pothesis is much more than a mere academic quibble. It concerns the image of themselves which many-perhaps most-Americans of the present day cherish, an image that defines what Americans think of their past, and therefore what they propose to make of themselves in the future.

The present study traces the impact of the West, the vacant continent beyond the frontier on the consciousness of Americans and follows the principal consequences of this impact in literature and social thought down to Turner's formulation of it. Whatever the merits of the Turner thesis, the doctrine that the United States iS a continental nation rather than a member with Europe of an Atlantic community has had a formative influence on the American mind and deserves historical treatment in its own right.

At the opening of the eighteenth century the image of the West beyond the Appalachian Mountains was very dim in the minds of those subjects of the British crown who inhabited the fringe of colonies along the Atlantic coast. The unsettled forest no longer seemed, as it had to Michael Wigglesworth in 1662, a Devils den,"

A waste and howling wilderness

Where none inhabited

But hellish fiends, and brutish men

That devils worshiped1

Yet few English-speaking colonists had reliable knowledge of the interior of the continent. In so far as the West had come under European control at all, it was French. The English colonists had been engaged in war against this enemy as early as the 1690's but not even the boldest prophet could imagine a day when the


English power would extend over the unmeasured expanse of the Mississippi Valley. The imperial development of Britain was moving in another direction, toward dominion over the seven seas rather than toward the blank and remote hinterland of North America.

The earliest analyses of British policy in the Mississippi Valley proceed from these assumptions. Settlement in the interior might be expedient as a means of defense against the French or as an incident of the fur trade, but it had no meaning in itself. There was no reason for the government to encourage inland colonization because agricultural commodities were far too bulky to be transported from the interior to the seacoast and such colonies could have no part in the sea-borne commerce upon which the British Empire was based. The Council of Trade and Plantations declared in a memorial submitted to George I in 1721 that"all the settlemts. that may at any time hereafter be made beyond the mountains, or on ye lakes, must necessarily build their hopes of support much more upon ye advantage to be made by the Indian trade, than upon any profits to arise from planting at so great a distance from the am the sea."2 Even as late as 1765, when the French had been defeated and it was clear that British sovereignty would be extended over the Mississippi Valley, Lord Egremont, Secretary of State, pro posed with perfect logic that Americans with an itch for emigra tion should be forbidden to move out into the interior. They should be directed instead to Nova Scotia or Georgia, near the sea, "where they would be useful to their Mother Country instead of planting themselves in the Heart of America out of reach of Government where from the great difficulty of procuring Euro pean commodities, they would be compelled to commerce and nanufactures to the infinite prejudice of Britain...." 3

This was a rational analysis of the problem of the Empire. Colonies were sources of raw materials for which British mer chants could find a market either in the United Kingdom or on the continent of Europe. Europe was still largely self-sufficient in the production of foodstuffs except for specifically subtropical items like sugar. There was a British or a European market for furs, for tobacco, and for "naval stores"-turpentine, pitch, tim ber suitable for shipbuilding, and so on. But it seemed unlikely that farmers in the Ohio Valley would be able to produce any commodities worth transporting to a transatlantic market. Hard-headed economic thinking supported the faction in Parliament which opposed taking over the Mississippi Valley from France. And the economic argument was reinforced by the obvious administrative difficulties which would be created by expansion of population beyond easy reach of the seacoast.

But the American West was nevertheless there, a physical fact of great if unknown magnitude. It strongly influenced the debate over the nature of the Empire which preceded the Revolution. The interior of North America was an almost infinite expanse of arable land capable of supporting a large population. It was potential wealth on an unprecedented scale. The magnetic attraction of this untouched natural resource interfered with the conception of an empire based on maritime commerce by suggesting the quite different vision of a populous agricultural society largely self-contained, in the Mississippi Valley. The West therefore posed a major question: Could the fabric of the Empire bé made fiexible enough to allow agricultural expansion in North America without breaking the economic and political integration centered in London?

It was possible for a sincere "imperial patriot" to maintain that such a creative development of the British system was both inevitable and desirable. The decision of William Pitt, for ex- ample, to take over the French possessions in America at the Peace of Paris in 1763 indicated his acceptance of this general view.4 And the American colonies had already produced in BenJamin Franklin a far-seeing theorist who understood what a portentous role North America might play in the future development of British power. Franklin's pamphlets on western settlement were occasioned by his interest in various land companies that were seeking grants in the Ohio Valley from the Crown, but his conclusions were a remarkably accurate prevision of what this new force would mean in the development of American society.

First of all, he grasped an elementary principle distilled from more than a century of English colonial experience in the New World: he saw that agriculture would long continue to be the dominant economic enterprise of continental America. Orthodox theory, which presupposed trade as the basis of British power, had been developed from the point of view of the merchant, and in this broad sense may be, for convenience, called mercantilist. Franklin, on the other hand, speaks as an agrarian. He starts out from the "political arithmetic" of John Graunt, Sir William Petty, and their followers in the late seventeenth century, a method which showed the first steps toward a statistical study of trends in population. But he realizes that the American birth rate, under the influence of an abundant supply of vacant land waiting always just beyond the frontier, bears no relation to the birth rate of "full-settled old Countries, as Europe." Population in the New World doubles every twenty years. Such a geometrical progression leads to staggering consequences. In a hundred years, he asserts, the population of the English-speaking colonies in America will be "more than the people of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side the Water." 5

Here was a new force with which British statesmen must deal. If they might strive to suppress it by legislation forbidding settle- ment in the interior but--as Franklin blandly avoided saying until his patience wore thin under repeated failures to secure ie land grants he wanted--such laws were not likely to have much effect. Besides, a brilliant and constructive alternative lay open to the makers of British policy. The merchants of England must realize that colonies like those in North America were vastly more important as potential markets than simply as sources of raw materials. Franklin undertakes to demonstrate that agricultural settlement of the interior, far from being meaningless to imperial trade, will provide the greatest of all outlets for British manufactures. Developing almost as an aside the theory that was to have currency down to our own day as the "safety-valve" doctrine, he points out that free land will constantly attract laborers from the cities and thus keep wages high. Manufacturing will continue to be unprofitable for Americans on this account in any foreseeable future, and the British merchant will enjoy a natural monopoly of a constantly expanding market for exports. The argument is set forth with admirable clarity in a pamphlet


prepared in collaboration by Franklin and Richard Jackson London agent for the colony of Pennsylvania:

The new settlements will so continually draw off the spare hands from the old, that our present colonies will not . . . find themselves in a condition to manufacture even for their own inhabitants, to any con- siderable degree, much less for those who are settling behind them. Thus our trade must, till that country becomes as fully peopled as England, that is for centuries to come, be continually increasing, and with it our naval power; because the océán is between us and them and our ships and seamen must increase as that trade increases.6

The vision roused Franklin to one of his rare moments of en- thusiasm. "What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land!' he exclaimed with an emotion that we need not judge insincere. 'What Increase of Trade and Naviga- tion! What Numbers of Ships and Seamen!" 7

Nevertheless, Franklin's blueprint for a new Empire could hardly fail to arouse misgivings in English minds. He exhibits an unaccustomed naïveté in a letter to Lord Kames in 1760: "I have long been of opinion, that the foundations of the future grandeur and stability of the British empire lie in America . ." 8 It was asking too much of Englishmen to look forward with pleasure to the time when London might become a provincial capital taking orders from an imperial metropolis somewhere in the interior of North America. Yet the idea had found expression long before Fwranklin seized upon it. Bishop Berkeley had written with gentle melancholy in the 1720's that 'Westward the course of empire takes its way," 9 and Englishmen were familiar with his notion of a fated succession of world states. The empire of Greece had given way to that of Rome, Rome had yielded preëminence to northern Europe, the empires of France and Spain had waned as Britain had waxed in power. Was America fated to be the next inheritor of universal sway? By 1774 a contributor to the Middle- sex Journal noted with disapproval that the idea of America as the future seat of empire was widely current in England, and a humorous skit in Lloyd's Evening Post, to which the mid- twentieth century has lent a grim dramatic irony, pictured two Americans visiting London in 1974 and finding it in ruins like Balbec or Rome.10 Americans naturally took such ideas more seriously than did Englishmen. The theme, for example, is developed at length in a poem on "The Rising Glory of America" written by Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge for the Princeton com mencement of 1771. "Say," exclaim the class laureates,

Shall we ask what empires yet must rise,

What kingdoms, pow'rs and states where now are seen

But dreary wastes and awful solitude,

Where melancholy sits with eye forlorn

And hopes the day when Britain's sons shall spread

Dominion to the north and south and west

Far from th' Atlantic to Pacific shores? 11

In 1771 the vision was ambiguous: the question of whether Britain's sons on the Pacific shore would still be loyal subjects of the crown was left tactfully vague. But with the achievement of American independence, the belief in a continental destiny quickly became a principal ingredient in the developing American nationalism. In 1784 Thomas Hutchins, a protégé of George Croghan who was interested in western land speculations and had been named "Geographer to the United States," published in his Historical Narrative and Topographical Description of Louisiana, and West-Florida a prophecy concerning the future development of the new nation that left little to be added by the philosophers of Manifest Destiny in the 1840's. Using the traditional notion of a series of world empires, he finds in the natural resources of the North American continent promise of a power greater than any in the past. He estimates the habitable area of the continent--including Spanish possessions--at three and a half million square miles, and announces: "If we want it, I warrant it will soon be ours." The inhabitants of the potent empire which had already begun to develop in the New World, so far from being in the least danger from the attacks of any other quarter of the globe, will have it in their power to engross the whole commerce of it, and to reign, not only lords of America, but to possess, in the utmost security, the dominion of the sea throughout the world, which their ancestors enjoyed before them. In a word, "North-America . . . as surely as the land is now in being, will hereafter be trod by the first people the world ever knew." 12


Even conservative New England responded to the soaring theme when Timothy Dwight included in his Greenfield Hill a rhapsody on westward expansion:

All hail, thou western world! by heaven designed

Th' example bright, to renovate mankind.

Soon shall thy sons across the mainland roam

And claim, on far Pacific shores, their home;

Their rule, religion, manners, arts, convey

And spread their freedom to the Asian sea.

Where erst six thousand suns have roll'd the year

O er plains of slaughter, and o'er wilds of fear

Towns, cities, fanes, shall lift their towery pride~

The village bloom, on every streamlet's side

Proud Commerce' mole the western surges lave

The long, white spire lie imag'd on the wave

O'er morn's pellucid main expand their sails

And the starr'd ensign court Korean gales.

There is even a hint of the vision of world brotherhood to be set forth later in Whitman's "Passage to India"

Then to new climes the bliss shall trace its way And Tartar desarts hail the rising day From the long torpor startled China wake Her chains of misery rous'd Peruvia break Man link to man; with bosom bosom twine And one great bond the house of Adam join~ The sacred promise full completion know And peace, and piety, the world o'erflow.13

Thomas Jefferson had already made a more concrete analysis of the process by which he believed the entire continent was to be peopled from the "original nest" of the Atlantic settlements. The inhabited parts of the United States, he noted in 1786, had already attained a density of ten persons to the square mile, and wherever we reach that the inhabitants become uneasy as too much compressed, and go off in great numbers to search for vacant country." The lesson of Daniel Boone's venture beyond the mountains had become clear:

We have lately seen a single person go & decide on a settlement in Kentucky, many hundred miles from any white inhabitant remove thither with his family and a few neighbors, and though perpetually harassed by the Indians, that settlement in the course of 10 years has acquired 30.000 inhabitants, it~s numbers are increasing while we while we are writing, and the state of which it formerly made a part has offered it independence.14

At this rate, he estimated all the territory east of the Mississippi would be occupied within forty years. Then the people would begin settling beyond the river, and eventually, no doubt, pour into South America as well.

Even before the treaty of peace that officially marked the end of the Revolution, Philip Freneau had elaborated his vision of future glory in the West. The North American empire of the future, he wrote in 1782, would bring agriculture to the summit of perfection and make the nations brothers by disseminating the riches of the New World throughout the earth. The world's great age would begin anew 'those days of felicity . . . which are so beautifully described by the prophetic sages of ancient times. As in a hundred yet unwritten rhapsodies on the West, the physi- cal fact of the continent dominates the scene. The American interior is presented as a new and enchanting region of inexpres- sible beauty and fertility. Through stately forests and rich meadows roam vast herds of animals which own no master, nor expect their sustenance from the hands of man. A thousand rivers flow into the mighty Mississippi,

who from a source unknown collecting his remotest waters, rolls forward through the frozen regions of the north, and stretching his ex tended arms to the east and west, embraces those savage groves, as yet uninvestigated by the traveller, unsung by the poet, or unmeasured by the chain of the geometrician; till uniting with the Ohio, and turning due south, receiving afterwards the Missori [sic] and a hundred others, this prince of rivers, ill comparison of whom the Nile is but a Rivulet and the Danube a mere ditch, hurries with his immense flood of waters to the Mexican sea, laving the shores of many fertile countries in his passage, inhabited by savage nations as yet almost unknown, and without a name.15

The emotions that have gone into this passage are even more remarkable than its overt content. The stately trees, the buffalo (somehow transformed into mild sweet-breathed dairy herds, perhaps through the connotations of "meadows"), the bland cli mate, are bathed in a golden mist of utopian fantasy. The charm ing hint of frontier-boasting in the comparison between the Mississippi and rivers known to fame in the Old World serves as ccmic seasoning for the solemn and elevated prose; and the whole is pulled together at the end on a note of remoteness, strangeness yet haunting potential accessibility. What traveler should penetrate the groves and solitudes, what explorer name the nameless savage tribes, what poet sing the westward-flowing rivers?

The early visions of an American Empire embody two different

if often mingIed conceptions. There is on the one hand the notion

of empire as command of the sea, and on the other hand the

notion of empire as a populous future society occupying the in- terior of the American continent. If these two kinds of empire are not mutually exclusive--for we can readily concede that patriots would want to claim every separate glory for their country--they nevertheless rest on different economic bases and imply different policies. Engrossing the trade of the world is an ambition evidently taken over from the British mercantilist ideal. On the other hand, creating new states in the dreary solitudes of the West is an enterprise that depends upon the increase of population resulting from agricultural expansion into an empty, fertile continent. This second version of the American Empire, based on agrarian assumptions, more nearly corresponds to the actual course of events during the nineteenth century.

Both these conceptions predict the outcome of the westward movement. Empire conceived as maritime dominion presupposes American expansion westward to the Pacific. The idea draws upon the long history and rich overtones of the search for a northwest passage to Asia, or, in Whitman's phrase, a "passage to India." It will occupy our attention in Book One. The hunter and trapper who served as the pathfinder of overland expansion and became one of the fixtures of American mythology forms the subject of Book Two. The very different idea of a continental empire dependent upon agriculture, and associated with various images of the Good Society to be realized in the West, may be called the theme of the Garden of the World. Its development will be traced in Book Three.