Life on the Frontier

Fur Traders


Rangers and Farmer

Life on the Frontier

After Frederick Jackson Turner's famous essay in 1893 "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" the American history was deeply influenced by the life of the first settlers on the frontier, together with the existence of free land, ready to be entered. His thesis shortly says that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development." (2)

So it's worth to take a closer look at the first settlers of the American West, the ones who influenced the development of America that much. Who were they? Why did they come? What was their life like?
Turner categorizes four different classes of settlers by their different lifestyles. There were fur traders, miners, ranchers and farmers.

Fur Traders
Lots of the early settlers in the American West were fur traders. They explored the west on the search for good furs. Many rangers and farmers followed the routes from east to west discovered by Jedediah Smith, co-owner of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. At the beginning of fur trade the settlers wondered about the Indians, giving them the furs for goods with little value. They didn't understand the social structure of the Indians, where giving presents is used in intertribal diplomacy as well as to symbolize specific messages. The second thing was, that Indians lived close to nature and didn't know the laws of possession as we do. The indians on their part, didn't understand what the whites did with all the beaver furs, and why they should get something for beavers. "Europeans and Native Americans did not have the same interpretation of the value of material goods." (1) So a clever trader made up to 100% profit on the furs.
The Indians learned quickly that trading with whites could be profitable to the tribes too. Furs were now given for axes, woollen clothes, iron kettlers for cooking and rum - called "British milk". Apart from the positive effects for the Indians like easier cooking, more comfortable clothes and faster work on woods, the white settlers brought negative influences to the native tribes like alcohol, diseases and corruption.
A Mandan, 1804 to a trader: "In my young days there were no white men, and we knew no wants. The white people came, they brought with them some good, but they brought the small pox, and they brought evil liquors; then Indians since diminished and they are no longer happy" (1, Lavender, First 431, n.2)

The miners
The first gold in the American West was found by James Marshall on January 24, 1848 while building a sawmill on the American River. By June, only a few hundred people remained in the city, stores were closed, ships were left, all people ran to the gold fields.
Soon the message of the discoverey of gold in California reached the east coast. Lots of the so-called forty-niners followed the routes westwards, travelling 5 to 6 months in plan wagons pulled by oxen or mules. The alternatives were the passage by ship around the tip of South America, which took longer than six month, or the route through the rain forests of Panama, which was quite dangerous.
Not only North Americans started to rush towards California, but also people from Asia, South America and Europe crossed the ocean and came to California.
By 1852, about 275,000 gold seekers had travelled to California. Once arrived, they realized that a miners life was hard work, made even worse by the harsh weather. Moreover, the forty-niners felt lonely and isolated on the fields, the food was bad and many became sick. To forget the every day life on the goldfields, the miners wrote letters home, gambled or drank whiskey.
Surprisingly, the miners were normally not the ones who got rich. "As people rushed to the mines, Sam Brannan grossed $36,000 at his store near Sutter's Fort between May 1 and July 10. This was the first example of a general pattern: during the gold rush, those who profited were usually not the miners but those who provided the miners with goods and services." (1)
Bad luck because of the quickly diminishing gold supply made many failed miners earn money by supplying other miners with goods. Thousands of miners needed food, housing, clothes and tools. A typical example was Levis Strauss, a German immigrant, who got rich and famous by selling trousers made of canvas to the miners.
San Francisco soon became the centre of the gold rush. It was the fastest grown city ever, and with a population of 800 (Jan, 1848) to 50,000 (1853) from different cultures it became the "the most culturally and ethnically diverse place in the world" (3)
The goldrush also shaped California, as a land of freedom and chances : J.S. Holliday, author of "The World Rushed In":

"As no where else, you can fail in California. And I think the California gold rush taught people that failure was okay. And the reason being that everyone failed in California--everyone, every day. So failure, was not a distinction, not a burden, not a mark, not a shame. Failure in Des Moin, failure in Youngstown, failure in Savannah, failure in Philadelphia, well, you'd hear "what's the matter with you? Your father's disappointed in you." You don't want to fail at home. But you feel free to fail in California. The result is that people accepted failure-- which is the equivalent of saying they are willing to take risks. And California has been the most risk-taking economy and society in the nation. Maybe in the world." (4)

Rangers and Farmers
At first there was no need for cattle breeding because of the buffalo. Like the Indians, many settlers started to hunt buffalos. Many of the buffalos were killed, in order to feed the railroad construction crew or because of their hides. By 1874, 15 millions buffalos were killed. Cattle and sometimes sheep started to replace the buffalo. By 1845, nearly 300,000 cattle were gazing in wild loose herds. Some were left by Mexicans and some were wild descendents of the Spanish criollos. In the 1850's Texas Rangers started to market the Texas Longhorn, a mixture between corillo and English Shorthorn. Because of the glutted Texas meat marked, the profit minimized. The only way to survive was to sell the cattle on a northern market. In 1866, Charles Goodnight started the first trail to the north, together with 18 cowboys and 2,000 cattle. Reaching the northern market, they made much more profit than expected. It didn't take long that other rangers did the same with their herds - a new industry was born.
Life as a cowboy was not easy. On the trail he had to sleep on the ground, on a range he had to share so-called bunkhouses with other cowboys - a separated building made of cottonwood logs. The floor was made of wood or packed dirt, the interior was simple - walls whitened or papered with old magazines. Because of the boredom after work, the cowboys read a lot, played banjos, fiddles or guitars. On special events the range owner invited to a dance, where some cowboys dressed as woman because of the bad ratio of men to women (10:1) (the only women on the dances often where the wives of the ranch owners). (5, 1)
The farmers had a more comfortable life. Because the government was convinced that "the land in the hands of industrious settlers, whose labour creates wealth and contributes to the public resources, [was] worth more to the United States than if they had been reserved .. for future purchasers" President Andrew Johnson, 1865 (1, Fite, 16). Each qualified person was guaranteed 160 acres of land for a minimal fee of $19. The only condition was that they had to live on the land for at least five years. Farming the land was hard work, fields were plown with oxen and the grain was cut with cradles. The farmers often exchanged labor - cutting wood against planting potatoes. The women made butter, kept chickens and spun flax or wool to sell it on the market. Even children at the age of 4 or 6 had to work. Typical tasks were for example: bringing in water from the barrel outside, filling kerosene lamps and carrying in wood. By working outside of the father's range, the father claimed the son's wage until he was 21 years old. (1, Schob, 174) Though life on the farms was not easy, it was often romanticized in TV - Series like "Our house in the Prairie" and "The Walton's"

As you can see, all the different types of settlers shaped the America we know today. The fur traders as scouts, discovering the best routes to the west, communicating and trading with native Americans, the miners during the great gold rush made the foundation for the big multicultural centres in the west like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where the "Melting Pot of Nations" had its origin - people of all nations worked on the gold fields, Italian next to Chinese, Mexican next to French, German next to Russian and so on. The farmers and rangers provided the west and the east with grain and meat, the foundation for an "independent" America.

1: Mary Ellen Jones: Daily live on the Nineteenth Century American Frontier, Greenwood Press, Westport 1998
2: Turner: The frontier in American History. University of Virginia. 22. January 2001 <
3: Gold Fever San Francisco. Oakland Museum of California. 22. January 2001 <>
4: The Goldrush: Impact. PBS. 22. January 2001 <>
5: Cattle. Pittsfords Central School District. 22. January 2001 <>

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