The frontier hypothesis of Western growth and cowboy poetry
On July 12, 1893, in Chicago, a University of Wisconsin history professor took his turn at the conference lectern. Frederick Jackson Turner began his talk by quoting from the 1890 bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line."
That simple bureaucratic pronouncement, Turner went on to say, declared the closing of the frontier, and the official end of an era of westward expansion. Turner then put forth his Frontier Hypothesis, applauded and assailed by generations of historians to this day: "American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West."
Patricia Limerick, a professor of history at the University of Colorado and a high-profile opponent of the Turner thesis, states in her book "Legacy of Conquest" the following: "In fact, the apparently unifying concept of the frontier had arbitrary limits that excluded more than they contained. Turner was, to put it mildly, ethnocentric and nationalistic. English-speaking white men were the stars of his story; Indians, Hispanics, French Canadians, and Asians were at best supporting actors and at worst invisible. Nearly as invisible were women, of all ethnicities."
Limerick goes on to propose that hardheaded businessmen for whom Manifest Destiny meant making money, meant the entrepreneurship of colonization quickly subdued the primitive frontier of Turner's imagination. The movement westward was an unbroken series of business decisions and the ruthless imperatives of capital investment, and any character development along the way was specious at best.
What does the frontier hypothesis of either historian have to do with cowboy poetry? This writer proposes that the relatively short history of cowboy poetry tracks along both theories of westward movement. Borrowing from the narrative traditions of the British Isles, the stories, songs and ballads of the American cowboy certainly imbued Turner's frontier with the romance he said was there – the romance of American character development, the romance of lawful and good men performing lawful and good work on the primitive edge of civilization. Celebrated again and again around the trail-drive campfires of Texas and New Mexico and Arizona and other Western states, were fluidity, opportunity and simplicity, values Turner identified. Turner was the father of Western history, and the post-Civil War ranch workers were the fathers of cowboy poetry. The two parties were working together, ideologically, although it is extremely unlikely that either was aware of the other's existence.
Contemporary cowboy poetry had its beginnings at the 1984 Elko, Nev., gathering, organized by folklorist Hal Cannon. In the 17 years since that momentous occasion, cowboy poetry has evolved as dramatically as a con-temporary history professor's argument. While both make reference to the legacy of balladeering or academic thought, today's cowboy poet, or today's university historian, has moved on, and quite decisively. Modern cowboy poetry is, as stated by one well-known practitioner, creative writing. The stuff of hard work is there to be sure, and the romance of horseback vistas and morning coffee laced with the aroma of rain-washed sagebrush is there, to be sure, but so are other things. Professor Turner's West, and the cowboy and poetry it unwittingly embraced, is now Professor Limerick's West, and the cowboys and cowgirls are writing poetry that now recognizes all ethnicities, and the contributions of all Western women. Today's cowboy poetry takes head on the stringencies of the ranch economy, and the frontierless west where newcomers from Urban America fancy themselves frontiersmen and women. Slapping leather used to mean urging your horse through the dense chaparral chasing a maverick; today it could as well mean brushing the dust off your Harley seat after knocking back a few beers on Whiskey Row. The thing is, a cowboy poet today might just write about either event. The American frontier may no longer exist, but weather-beaten and callused poets who know exactly the kind of West, in which they now live and work are pushing the frontiers of imagination daily.
(Richard S. Sims is director of Sharlot Hall Museum.)