Settling the Bluegrass Region From Daniel Boone to Henry Clay and the Frontier Myth
Analyzing the Turner Thesis • We are going to look at the settling of Kentucky in the context of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Turner Thesis”
Frederick Jackson Turner • Develops the “Turner Thesis” in 1893 • “The Importance of the Frontier Experience in American History” • Believes that the frontier experience helped shape American character in a positive way
The Frontier and American Character • According to Turner, the frontier experience helped develop these important American traits: • Democracy & Egalitarianism • Individualism • Invention and Creativity • Courage and Adventurous spirit
Our Setting Boonesborough The Bluegrass Region
Early expansion • “Backcountry” area of the Bluegrass just part of an ongoing westward push that begins in the colonial era. • As the eastern seaboard becomes settled and the province of the planter elite, landless men tend to push further west: • In search of opportunity • Escaping the restraints of the patron-client system • Escaping competition with slave system
“a good poor-man’s country” • Life in the backcountry takes on characteristics that are different from the East: • What constitutes an important figure in the community (A place where you can be somebody.) • Simpler concepts of property • Attempts to create “a good poor-man’s country”
Leaders of the Frontier • What makes a “man” in the Frontier is different • Higher value on practical arts: • Courage • Woodcraft • Physical Strength • Leadership (not governmental efficiency)
Boone and the Frontier Myth • One of the most celebrated figures in frontier mythology is Daniel Boone. • He demonstrates both the truth and falsity of the frontier myth.
George Caleb Bingham, Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-1852
Boone • Daniel Boone is for both better and worse, a good example of the type of frontiersman who “settles” Kentucky. • As a “long hunter” he enters the Bluegrass in search of game and land.
Boone: The Good • Substantial skills as a backwoodsman - resourceful • A leader of men - egalitarian & democratic • Reputation for courage and honesty • Attributes valued in the Turnerian version of “American character”
Boone: Flaws • Gets in over his head. • Skills as a leader in a larger society not as strong. (As Bluegrass becomes more populous) • Basically uneducated and unsophisticated • Undermines his own future and the “good poor-man’s country” as a land speculator for eastern interests. • He’s a lousy surveyor
Boone’s ideal environment • Daniel Boone (and the men & women who are like him) are most successful on the frontier’s margin • The margin of the “frontier line” represents the land most recently occupied by European-descended Americans. • The frontier margin gains reputation as a “good poor-man’s country”
The “Frontier margin” lasts only a short period of time in any one place. • The “good poor-man’s country” disappears quickly for a variety of reasons: • Overhunting of game, end of the “easy” life • Competing land claims locally and from afar • Increasing number of settlers and competing interests reduce harmony
Boone’s Disappearing Bluegrass Frontier • In essence, the Bluegrass ceases to remain the frontier • Before 1780 < 10,000 • By 1790: 61,000 including 12,450 slaves • With an increase in population, the frontier character of the Bluegrass vanishes rapidly
Land speculation & the destruction of the frontier • First wave of squatters and local authorities stake out haphazard and competing claims to land. • Transient occupants buy and re-sell land at rapid rate. • Leads to interpersonal conflict and legal discord.
A big mess! The problem of “shingling” land claims. Total land claims in Kentucky at the time of statehood in 1792 exceed the acreage of the state!
Rise of the Litigious Culture • Land claims often pit uneducated backcountry folk who are ignorant of the law against wealthy land speculators • Courts tend to favor those who can afford legal representation • Squatters and backcountry folk either forced from land or often become tenants on land that they once believed was theirs
The Next Phase of Westward Settlement: Boone to Clay • By 1800, Boone has lost all of his land claims through legal action. • Boone leaves for the next “good poor-man’s country:” Missouri • Henry Clay, the young Virginia lawyer enters Kentucky in 1797.
Henry Clay Clay as a young diplomat and lawyer (left) and aging statesman (right)
Establishing the Bluegrass Elite • Wealthier people, often owning slaves, solidify their claims to property in the courts with the help of lawyers like Clay • In time, the Bluegrass develops along the lines of the aristocratic Virginia that the backwoodsmen had once fled
Westward expansion: First Wave • In the Bluegrass (and many other parts of the South) backcountry types like Boone represent the first wave of white settlement. • Clear away the Indians • Establish a line of “frontier” • Ultimately, their way of life is unsustainable
Westward Expansion: Second Wave • In the wake of the backcountry settlers come yeoman farmers and eventually Eastern elites who establish their claim to the region • Using the legal system, consolidate land claims • Establish state governments and protect slavery, property, and the rule of law • Push backcountry folk further west or make tenants out of them
The Turner Thesis in Fact and Myth • Early on, the frontier does develop into a place where individualism, democracy, and courage matter • Eventually, the trappings of hierarchical society replace life on the egalitarian frontier • The “good poor-man’s country” becomes settled and run by the powerful in a less democratic fashion.
The West and the rise of Democracy • While westward expansion will not supply land for all who go west, many new landowners do emerge. • In order to ensure stability and respect for law, landless men receive the right to vote and sit on juries. • Leads to the “rise of the common man” in politics.
Turner and Democracy • The fact that the “common man” receives greater political rights seems to support Turner’s thesis of frontier and democracy. • As a result, the West will become increasingly important in national politics. • The rise of the “common man” in politics will diversify the character of the nation’s leaders.
A new political dynamic • By 1820, the “frontier” of Kentucky’s bluegrass is no longer a frontier • Men like Daniel Boone no longer play an important role • Instead, the West’s new elite forge a political bond with the “common man” voter and produces a new type of politician: Henry Clay – and ultimately Andrew Jackson.