Brian Jackson

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Brian Jackson


Wiki final essay

Throughout American Literature, the frontier has been described as a rough, persisting, and demanding land, as well as a land of rich opportunity for individuals determined enough to conquer it. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the role of personal identity on the frontier. It will investigate how the frontier shapes personal identity, as well as the common characteristics of individuals who exist on the frontier, and injustice that occurs as a result of differing cultures on the frontier. Individuals whose characteristics mirror the tough and persistent characteristics of the frontier are given the chance to redefine their social identity for the better. However the frontier is not a land of equal opportunity; it is a land ripe with prejudice, as seen through various works of American Literature.

Throughout American History, there has been a trend of development in the east which gradually moves westward. The frontier is often associated with this trend, in which individuals move westward to tackle the obstacles of the frontier and redefine their personal identity by developing and extracting resources from the land. The stereotypical identity of individuals who confront the challenges of frontier life are young, white, male, Christians. The majority of frontier individuals fall into this category in American Literature. However it is important to remember that the frontier was in reality ripe with racially, culturally, and religiously different individuals, and the role that these minorities had on the development of the frontier was paramount.

In his poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Walt Whitman develops and image of the conventional frontier individual during the 19th century. The poem is a call of encouragement for the youths of the land to conquer the promising west. He uses language such as “tanned face children,” “resolute children,” “youthful sinewy races,” and “resistless, restless races.” (Whitman). An important theme in the poem is youth. Whitman recognizes the frontier individual as a young determined individual, “conquering, holding, daring, venturing as [they] go the unknown ways,” where “the elder races have halted” (Whitman). Another aspect of the frontier individual that Whitman describes is race. In describing the frontier people as “tanned faced children,” and “youthful sinewy races,” the reader visualizes individuals of Caucasian descent who are accustomed to doing hard labor out in the sun (Whitman). The American pioneer has long been stereotyped as a man of Caucasian decent. This label stems from the first Spanish explorers of America, as can be seen in Chronicle of the Narzaez Expedition.

Chronicle of the Naravez Expedition is a narrative written by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca describing the exploration of America by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. This journey represents one of the first times Europeans set foot in the territory now known as the United States. Understanding Cabeza de Vaca’s identity is important to understanding the identity of the first American frontier individuals, which set the mold for American frontier individuals in later generations. Cabeza de Vaca is a deeply religious European man who sets of towards the New World in search of gold and fortune (De vaca, 7). This identity personifies many of the frontier men of the 19th century during the gold rush as seen in Mark Twain’s piece Roughing It, and the identity of the pioneers described by Whitman. Historically, frontier individuals have been young, male, white, and Christian, and this identity was established by the first European explorers in the 16th century such as Cabeza de Vaca. These individuals saw the frontier as an opportunity to become rich, however, establishing a new occupational identity on the frontier wasn’t easy, as seen in Roughing It.

Roughing It is an account of Marks Twain’s life in Frontier Nevada during “mining fever” in the 19th century (Twain, viii). Throughout the book, Twain struggles to find a frontier job that he actually enjoys. He tries a variety of mining jobs including prospecting, working in a quartz mill, and pocket mining, and he dislikes all of them (Twain). Eventually Twain was able to establish his occupational identity as a Newspaper journalist (Twain, 334). In the 19th century, the allure of the frontier was a place that promised quick and easy fortune. However in reality, the jobs of the frontier required grueling work, and very few individuals were able to “strike it rich.” Like Twain, many individuals struggled to define their new identity on the frontier. The individuals who succeeded had to be determined, diligent, and tough like the pioneers described by Whitman. However, the frontier was not a land of equal opportunity and individuals who didn’t match the traditional white, male, Christian identity were often persecuted against throughout American History.

An important frontier identity to analysis is the identity of the natives. There has always been a clash of culture with regards to Caucasians and Native Americans on the frontier. Early evidence of this can be seen in Chronicle of Narvaez Expedition as soon as the conquistadores landed in Florida. “The following day the Indians of that village arrived and, although they spoke to us, we had no interpreters and did not understand them; but they made many gestures and threats, and it seemed as if they were telling us to leave the country” (de Vaca, 9). As this cultural clash developed throughout history, it took two separate paths, which both resulted in the fading of the Native identity on the Frontier. The first path was one of violence in which the technologically advanced white culture largely exterminated and relocated various native tribes. The second path was one of conversion, in which white missionaries established schools and institutions where Native Americans were forced to abandon their culture and adopt the “civilized” life style of the white man (Zitkala-Sa, 84).

In “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” Zitkala-Sa is taken from her family and sent to such an institution. To her dismay, during her stay, the missionaries redress her in Caucasian style clothing and cut her hair. This is an attempt to force the Native American cultures to submit to the “superior” white culture. The missionaries disrespect Zitkala-Sa culture beliefs, for example, she says that “among our people, short hair was worn by mourners and shingled hair by cowards!” (Zitkala-Sa, 90) In addition to changing her appearance, the institution attempts to change her identity by teaching her English, converting her to Christianity, and generally regulating her daily activities. She writes of her required chores that “it was next to impossible to leave the iron routine after the civilizing machine had once begun its day’s buzzing.” (Zitkala-Sa, 96) As a result of her school days, Zitkala-Sa struggles with her personal identity after she is released. She claims that “even nature seemed to have no place for me. I was neither a wee girl nor a tall one; neither a wild Indian nor a tame one” (Zitkala-Sa, 97). A reoccurring them in frontier America is an attempt to suppress minority races by dominating white men. Another example of injustice that occurs on the frontier as a result of this is in regards to the Chinese.

Chinese individuals have played an important role in the development of the frontier throughout American History. According to Mark Twain, there were seventy thousand to one hundred thousand Chinamen on the pacific coast during the Gold Rush (Twain, 293). This large concentration of a minority race on the frontier resulted in social injustice during the 19th century. “Any white man can swear a Chinaman’s life away in the courts, but no Chinaman can testify against a white man. Ours is the ‘land of the free”—nobody denies that—nobody challenges it. (Maybe it is because we won’t let other people testify)” (Twain, 293). A piece that exemplifies a Chinese individual’s struggle in a white controlled frontier is “Its Wavering Image,” written by Sui Sin Far.

This piece is similar to “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” because the protagonist struggles to define her personal identity. The central character in “Its Wavering Image” is a young woman named Pan, who is half white, half Chinese, and lives in Chinatown in San Francisco (Far, 61). In the story, Pan has a romantic relationship with a white journalist named Mark Carson (Far, 64). Mark Carson attempts to convince Pan to abandon her Chinese identity and completely embrace her white character, because he is uncomfortable with the fact that he is falling in love with a Chinese girl (Far, 63). After Carson publishes an insulting article in the local newspaper, Pan feels betrayed by the white man. As a result, she abandons her white identity and embraces her Chinese identity, much to Carson’s dismay (Pan, 66).

This story is a classic representation of many white individuals mentality regarding minority races throughout American History. Instead of assuming a tolerant attitude towards different cultures, the European-decent majority on the frontier often attempted to smother out the cultural practices of the minority groups. They did this by forcing their own cultural practices on them, or refusing their entrance to frontier land. The central cause of this intolerance is hard to identify, however it is safe to assume that is partially caused by fear of the unfamiliar. The lifestyle of the Native Americans seemed savage and strange to the average white frontier individuals. They saw it as a threat to their more “advanced” and “civilized” way of life. In order to minimize this threat, they set up institutions and schools like the one described by Zitkala-Sa, to “save” the Natives from their “savage upbringing.” Furthermore, the promise of fortune that fueled the gold rush resulted in a large influx of Oriental individuals. Once again, the white majority felt like their way of life was under threat, which resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This act prevented Chinese immigration to America which successfully slowed the growth of Chinese communities and effectively minimized their cultural influence (Williams).

Understanding the personal identity of frontier men and women is crucial to understanding the frontier itself. The frontier offered a golden chance for an individual to redefine his or her occupational identity as seen in Mark Twain’s Roughing It. However, the work available on the frontier was often grueling and intense. Because of this, the frontier attracted brave, tough, resilient and determined individuals as described by Whitman in “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” These characteristic are universal to frontier men and women throughout American History. However, Whitman also produces some identity stereotypes in frontier America that are not necessarily true. Typically, the American Frontier individual is imagined as young, male, white, and Christian. The origin of this stereotype can be traced all the way back to the Spanish exploration of America during the 15th, 16th, and 17th, centuries. The conquistadores that participated in the early exploration of the American Frontier matched these stereotypes as seen in Chronicles of the Narvaez Expedition. Although the majority of frontier individuals since the conquistadores also match the stereotypical identity, it is important to remember that the frontier was rich with cultural diversity. Some minority cultures that were momentous to the development of the frontier include Native Americans, and Chinese people. Unfortunately, these individuals often struggled to define their personal identity on the frontier because of oppression from the dominating white culture. Evidence of this can be seen in “School days of an Indian Girl,” and “Its Wavering Image.” The American Frontier has always been a demanding place, and the men and women that are present there are strong, resolute individuals form a variety of different cultural backgrounds.

Works Cited

De Vaca, Alvar Nunez Cabeza. Chronicles of the Narvaez Expedition. 1905. Trans. Fanny

Bandelier. Introd. Ilan Stevens. New York: Penguin Books. 2002. Print.

Far, Sui Sin. “Its Wavering Image.” Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings.Urbana and

Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1995. Print.

Twain, Mark. Roughing It. 1962. Introd. Elizabeth Frank. New York: Signet Classics, 2008.


Whitman, Walt. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc., 2012. Web. 7 Dec.


Williams, Jenny. Chinese Exclusion Act :1882.David Koeller, 2004. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.

Zitkala-Sa. “The School Days of an Indian Girl.” American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other

Writings. Washington. Hayworth Publishing House. 1921. Print.

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