It is said that American Newspaper frequently seems to thrive in proportion to the general activity surrounding it; indeed, to this day, the finest papers operate in the largest, most bustling cities. The newspapers of the old west, then were no exception to this rule, as the relatively high level of commotion on the untamed frontier only served to the heighten the desire for the stability and assurance that the institution of the press seemed to promise. Further, while the frontier newspaper often came into existence to satisfy the wants of an information starved populace, other times the printer struck out on his own and attempted to beckon people to the town he wished to promote. So, the western newspaper supports a number of contradictory impulses, as the western printer and his paper could both denote stability and promote mobility.

paperin' ain't easy!
Hardships abounded for the western newspaperman

In his 1831 tour of the United States, Alexis De Tocqueville noted that “In America there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper.” Indeed, this is especially true of frontier America, as among the most notable aspect of the 19th century frontier newspaper was the sheer number of daily and weekly papers in existence. In the 1820s Cincinnati had seven weeklies and two dailies.(Lyon, 5) The frosty frontier burg of St. Paul, Minnesota, population 10,000, was able to support four dailies and 3 weeklies.(Boorstein, 125)Meanwhile Tucson, Arizona kept six papers in business. (Lyon, 5).
a typical press
A typical smaller printing press.

Aside from the declaration of their ubiquity, it can be difficult to make sweeping generalizations regarding 19th century Western newspapers. Indeed, the tracts could take all manner of form, from the meticulous work of a devoted local citizen, eager to spread the news about town, to the bulletin of an unscrupulous huckster, one who took the citizenry’s money for little in return. The content of the paper, too varied wildly. From single issue political periodicals to religious papers on a mission to save souls, the frontier paper frequently did more than simply report the news. As diverse as the land they purported to cover, the western newspaper is not an easily explained entity; suffice to say the paper filled a need for the denizens of the western states in the 19th century.

Although a vital institution, most of the frontier papers were a far cry from their modern day successors. Indeed, in articulating the sundry items that he considered to be worthy of print, the editor of the Missouri Gazette included "essays on morals and government, concise pieces of history, antiquities, topography, botany and vegetable materia medica, and mineralogy, with such hints on husbandry as may tend to induce the planter to embrace those wonderful advantages nature has thrown in his way, indian manners and customs with their best speeches, cases argued and determined in our courts, or any thing that may contribute to enliven the passing moment by an ingenious Tale or Song, which will be gratefully received and carefully inserted." (Quoted in Dary, 129). Apparently, for a population aching for some sort of intellectual stimulation, any "news" was good news.

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Last updated January 20, 2002