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Composing Pioneers: Personal Writing and the Making of Frontier Opportunity in Nineteenth-Century America

  • Author(s): Wagner, William E.
  • Advisor(s): Henkin, David M.
  • et al.
Abstract

Few slogans occupy a more prominent place in popular mythology about the frontier than the exhortation, "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country." Despite its enduring popularity, surprisingly little scholarly attention has been devoted to probing the constellation of ideas about movement, place, masculinity, and social mobility that is captured in this short phrase. This dissertation explores how, in the decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Americans began to think and write about the possibilities for "growing up" with new cities, towns, and agricultural communities on the frontier. Although politicians, newspaper editors, booster theorists, and popular authors figure prominently in this story, no group did more to construct and promote this masculine, entrepreneurial, and place-centered vision of the frontier than young men from middle-class backgrounds who migrated to new states and territories in the trans-Appalachian West during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In their diaries, letters, travel narratives, and pioneer memoirs, these migrants generated an unprecedented volume of writing about the possibilities for financial, social, and professional mobility in a new country. Their writing not only shaped popular perceptions of frontier opportunity in their own time; it also left an indelible mark on historical memory of westward expansion in nineteenth-century America.

This study begins by examining how aspiring merchants, lawyers, farmers, land speculators, and other young men used personal writing to survey the geography of opportunity in the trans-Appalachian West. As they searched for valuable real estate or an advantageous place to settle, many began their reconnaissance by writing letters to peers, relatives, and business associates, requesting personalized intelligence about conditions in particular frontier settlements. Not content to rely on second-hand reportage, some set out on prospecting journeys, traveling great distances to purchase land or investigate opportunities in the many new towns and villages springing up throughout the nation's interior. During their journeys, prospectors used travel diaries and letters to collect and synthesize geographical intelligence, and to relay their findings to family members or business partners who were implicated in their decisions about relocation or speculation. All of this evaluative writing helped usher in a new conception of the frontier as a landscape of discrete places--cities, towns, and counties--whose relative advantages and future prospects could be assessed and compared with great precision.

In the months or years after they settled down in emerging towns or agricultural districts, young migrants used a variety of novel writing practices to assert their commitment to their adopted homes, and to fashion themselves as community builders. Some composed boosterish letters to family and friends, speculating about their own prospects and the prospects of their chosen abode. Others produced elaborate narratives of their migration experiences, chronicling the meandering westward journeys that led them to their new place of residence. In the late nineteenth century, many of these antebellum migrants also produced pioneer memoirs, a new type of personal narrative that wove together the story of their own financial, social, and professional striving with the history of their towns, counties, and states. Through their letters, migration narratives, and reminiscences, they constructed and popularized a new image of the pioneer as a young man who moved west, found a permanent home, and grew up with the country. As the later chapters of this dissertation will show, this vision of pioneer masculinity exaggerated some aspects of their experiences and obscured many others. Nevertheless, it became a central part of frontier mythology for many generations to come.

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