In the United States and Canada the frontier was the term applied until the end of the 19th century to the zone of unsettled land outside the region of existing settlements of European immigrants and their descendants. In a broad sense, the notion of the frontier was the edge of the settled country was the place where unlimited cheap land was available to anyone willing to live the hard but independent life of the pioneer farmer.
Throughout the history of both countries, the expansion of settlement was largely from the east to the west, and the thus the frontier is often identified with western areas of both countries. Many areas along the Pacific coast were, however, settled long before areas in the interior of North America, and thus in the later half of the 19th century, the frontier existed largely in the continental interior.
Frontier and front are both derived from the Latin "frons," (forehead, front, facade). 'Frontier' was borrowed into English from French in the 15th century with the meaning "borderland," the region of a country that fronts on another country (see also marches). The use of frontier to mean "a region at the edge of a settled area" is a special North American development. (Compare the Australian "outback".)
See also: Colonial America, British colonization of the Americas, French colonization of the Americas
In the earliest days of European settlement of the Atlantic coast, the frontier was essentially any part of the forested interior of the continent beyond the fringe of existing settlements along the coast and the great Atlantic rivers, such as the St. Lawrence, Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware, Susquehanna River and James.
English and French (as well as Dutch) patterns of expansion was generally quite different. With some exceptions, notably in Acadia, French expansion into the continent in the colonial era was largely by traders, who often lived among the Native Americans with whom they did business. Such traders moved widely through the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watershed as far as the Rocky Mountains.
Actual French settlement in these areas, however, was limited to small communities on the lower Mississippi and in the Illinois Country, accompanied by garrisoned military forces to protect the trading communities against other European powers. Likewise early Dutch expansion in the Hudson was intended largely for commercial purposes. The immigrants who arrived at the New Amsterdam settlement seeking to homestead the land were tolerated by colonial officials as necessary for provided food and other services for the trading operations. These patterns developed because both the French and Dutch colonies relied mainly on the fur trade which only needed small numbers of people but large amounts of wilderness and cooperation from the natives.
In contrast, the English agriculture based colonies generally pursued a more aggressive policy of widespread settlement of the New World for cultivation and exploitation of the land, a practice that required the extension of European property rights to the new continent and which brought the English into frequent and bloody conflict with the Native Americans starting in the 17th century, such as King Philip's War. Early frontier areas east of the Appalachian Mountains included the valleys of the Mohawk and Connecticut rivers.
By the middle of the 18th century, much of the prime areas of the British colonies east of the Appalachian Mountains had been settled, resulting in a desire among many colonists to expand settlement into French-held Trans-Appalachia areas, such as the Ohio Country.
This pressure of settlement west of the Appalachians was a large cause of the French and Indian Wars in the middle 18th century. The result of the war was a complete victory for the British, who absorbed the claim to the French territory west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. Despite this victory, the British Crown, in part to preserve good relations with the Native Americans of the region, sought to keep the Trans-Appalachian frontier closed with the Proclamation of 1763, which defined a boundary line of allowed settlement along the Appalachians.
Despite the policy of the Crown, colonists began encroaching across the Appalachians into areas such the Ohio Country and the New River Valley. The attempts of the Crown to forbid such settlement is regarded by historians as a significant cause of the American Revolution in the following decade.
The U.S. frontier
Following the victory of the United States in the American Revolutionary War and the signing Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States gained formal, if not actual, control of the British lands west of the Appalachians. The prohibition against settlement was rendered moot and the lands of the Ohio Country and in western Virginia (present-day West Virginia and Kentucky) were immediately available for new settlement. Some areas, such as the Virginia Military District and the Connecticut Western Reserve in the Ohio Country, were used by the states as rewards to veterans of the war. The issue of how to formally include these new frontier areas into the nation was a important issue in the early Congresses and was essentially resolved by the Northwest Ordinance (1787).
For the next century, the expansion of the nation into these areas, as well as the subsequently acquired Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Country, and Mexican Cession, would absorb much of the energy of the nation and largely define its politics and character, in particular in its relations with Native Americans. The question of whether the American frontier would become "slave" or "free" was a spark of the American Civil War.
In the 19th century, The settlement of frontier became progressively organized through acts of the federal government, most notably the Homestead Act. By 1890, the frontier was officially declared closed. Eventually, the frontier by official definition of the census was a line west of which the population was less than 2 persons per section (one square mile). The frontier was very productive of both adventures and stories. Western movies are generally set on the frontier.
The American frontier was generally the most Western edge of settlement and typically more democratic and free-spirited in nature than the East because of its lack of social and political institutions. The idea that the frontier provided the core defining quality of the United States was elaborated by the great historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who built his Frontier Thesis in 1893 around this notion.
The pattern of settlement of the Canadian frontier was quite different from in the United States. The settlement began considerably later with 1896 generally considered the start date of significant settlement on the Prairies. This was after the best land had been taken in the United States and the Canadian frontier became known as the Last Best West. This delay, and the different political culture, helped make the Canadian frontier a very different place. Before settlers began to arrive the North West Mounted Police was dispatched to the region. When settlers began to arrive a system of law and order was already in place and the lawlessness and anarchy for which the American "Wild West" was famed did not occur in Canada. Before settlers arrived the federal government also sent teams of negotiators to meet with the Native peoples of the region. In a series of treaties the basis for peaceful relations was established and the long wars between with the Natives that occurred in the United States did not spread to Canada.
Extensions of the "Frontier" Concept
Some sense of "frontier" has also been extended to other areas of achievement and conquest. President John F. Kennedy, for example, referred to his own legislative agenda as a "New Frontier." The television show Star Trek famously calls space the "final frontier." Others (e.g., Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder, Stewart Brand) have seen a sort of frontier in the possibilities presented to modern people challenged to re-integrate themselves sustainably in a post-industrial circumstance here on Earth - complete with advanced technology.