John Mack faragher, sugar creek – question one Essay

John mack faragher, sugar creek – question one            The myth of the “rugged individual” conquering the frontier remains a popular image in American culture, more than a century after historian Frederick Turner proposed it.  However, as John Mack Faragher demonstrates in Sugar Creek, the frontier was settled and transformed not by fearless individual settlers but by groups of people who worked, socialized, and cooperated with one another in order to create viable communities, which were the real agents of “taming” the frontier.            Faragher clearly shows that communities of individuals from similar backgrounds and engaged in similar pursuits turned frontier regions into stable, secure, economically viable places, particularly because of their group efforts.  However, Sugar Creek’s first settler fit the “rugged individual” image.  Virginia-born Robert Pulliam had previously been a subsistence farmer at Wood River, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, far from commerce, government authority, and medical care.  His family’s existence was isolated, far from prosperous, and vulnerable to misfortunes.  In fact, Pulliam suffered a leg injury that grew infected and required a painful amputation, since no doctors were near enough to treat it promptly.  Faragher writes that “Robert Pulliam’s peg-leg stood as a lifetime symbol of frontier isolation” (Faragher 6), illustrating some of the perils frontiersmen faced in the absence of community.

            In addition, being an individual on the frontier meant added vulnerability to Indian attacks.  Both in Wood River and Sugar Creek, the Pulliam family witnessed the murders of their neighbors, whose small numbers meant minimal protection against the well-armed, belligerent Kickapoo, who refused to assimilate to encroaching white culture and fought viciously against whites until the 1820s.  Faragher claims that “the Kickapoo hatred of assimilationists and their belief in the efficacy of violent resistance” (Faragher 23) made Sugar Creek a dangerous place for rugged individuals who lacked the strength afforded by a surrounding community.            On the Illinois frontier, as elsewhere, group solidarity was completely necessary for turning uncultivated regions into stable farming communities.  Few pioneers sought to be completely isolated, unless they dared to face Indian retaliation and other hazards.  Also, economics played a major role in being part of a community at almost every level.

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  At the most basic one, the presence of neighbors (whether as legal owners or squatters) was not only tolerated but welcomed, mainly to ward off speculators who inflated land prices and discouraged squatters from eventually buying their farms.            In addition, family bonds were important in settling the frontier, particularly at Sugar Creek, where 80 percent of the long-term settlers arrived as part of extended kin networks (Faragher 56), reflecting the settlers’ Southern origins and pioneering style.  The presence of relatives helped communities remain stable, says Faragher, adding that “many, if not most, of the single men and families who came without associates passed through the community.

  A lack of kin . . . accounted for their lack of permanence” (Faragher 59-60).            Families were really the fiber that held frontier communities together and kept them viable, because they provided mutual assistance in a harsh, often dangerous and materially meager environment.  Marriage meant entering the community as a full-fledged member, and it united the settlement’s families into ever-larger networks while fostering even more cohesion.  Family was the heart of the frontier social and economic order, and more family often meant more stability.

  Divorce was rare, since it undermined the fabric of the community as well as breaking up families.  Faragher notes that only three divorces were recorded in Sugar Creek between 1818 and 1860, attesting to the role of the family in sustaining the community (Faragher 82).            Family farms were Sugar Creek’s chief economic pursuit, and before 1860 they usually functioned at the subsistence level, not as large, lucrative economic concerns.  Apart from the dangers, a single man was rarely a successful frontier farmer, simply because, as Faragher says, “[Until] they married most men could not muster the labor necessary to begin farms of their own” (Faragher 99).

  Thus, the need for family was always present and simply made sense from a practical standpoint.  The entire family was needed to perform the numerous tasks required, and having many children meant having a larger labor force.Faragher adds that the frontier community needed its large families, and the larger they were, the better.  “Since there was no certain supply of labor outside the family .

. . [children] were an economic necessity, and choices about fertility could not be divorced from the requirements of production” (Faragher 100).  Males and females alike over age ten worked the fields, while other forms of labor were divided by sex; man and boys worked the fields, hunted, and cleared the forest, while women and girls cooked, cleaned, mended, spun cloth, and produced goods which made frontier life more tolerable.  A woman’s life was particularly difficult, and Faragher asserts that white women on the frontier had harder lives than their Indian counterparts, who bore fewer children and had more rights (Faragher 113-116).

  On the frontier, where manufactured goods were scarce before 1860, family farms had to produce as much as possible, and they frequently depended on their neighbors for bartering or selling goods to each other.Frontier communities generally enjoyed a degree of civility and cohesion that made life safer and somewhat easier than lone individuals or isolated families would have had.  Avoiding one’s neighbors was unwise; Faragher maintains that “any man who tried to live in isolation from others, like the stereotypical frontier individualist, was considered to be committing a serious offense against civility” (Faragher 131).  Indeed, the community spirit pervaded nearly every aspect of frontier life – in social, economic, and even religious terms.  Because even large families could not supply all of their own labor or goods, they traded often with their neighbors and exchanged food, medical care, tools, and help with various tasks very frequently, creating a tight web of mutual obligations.  Sugar Creek’s people kept careful account of these, being well aware of the value of their goods and services, but a mercenary spirit did not motivate them.  The fact that local farmers and craftsmen did not charge their neighbors interest, says Faragher, meant not that they were financially ignorant but that “money in their exchanges functioned simply as a measure of account” (Faragher 135), not an end in itself.Social life also helped build and strengthen community cohesion.

  Weddings were each year’s chief social events, and gatherings organized around collective labor (“bees” or “frolics”) were common.  These events were nominally centered on gender-specific tasks; for women, they involved quilting, spinning, or picking fruit, while men rolled logs, husked and reaped grain, and hunted pests like snakes and wolves.  For both sexes, competition coexisted with a party-like atmosphere which involved as much play and alcohol consumption as actual work, though it helped make communal tasks more enjoyable and built neighborly spirit.Not everything in the Sugar Creek community was placid or peaceful, since the small Yankee minority often clashed with the much larger Southern-born majority, particularly where education was concerned (the Yankees were mainly responsible for establishing a school and hiring schoolmasters).

  In addition, the Catholic minority lived largely apart from their Protestant neighbors and, while the two groups were civil, a degree of separation tinged their relations.  In addition, they seldom married outside the faith, so that Catholic farms stayed in Catholic families, and they were even more isolated during the 1850s as the nativist, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” Party enjoyed its brief heyday.  Protestants, though divided into sects, generally socialized and intermarried across sectarian lines and were united by the waves of revivalism that swept the frontier in the decades before the Civil War.  Faragher comments that despite some sectarian rivalry, Sugar Creek’s Protestants “shared in common a message that amounted to a cultural consensus .

. . [and] accepted the worldly responsibility of the church to regulate the moral behavior of the community” (Faragher 169).

  Community life also meant shared outlooks and morals, and deviating from these undermined one’s standing with one’s neighbors.Sugar Creek disproves Turner’s long-popular idea that rugged individuals conquered the frontier.  They would have fared poorly without surrounding communities of neighbors and relatives with whom they often needed to exchange labor, goods, medical care, food, and other scarce commodities.  Being unable to receive these things generally meant failure for an isolated farmer without a nearby network of relatives or neighbors.  Frontier communities afforded the safety and social outlets but also the infrastructure necessary to turn wilderness into viable agricultural land, and made the difficult task of civilizing and transforming the frontier somewhat easier.  In Sugar Creek, the pioneers recognized the difficulty of taming a wild landscape and clearly saw the need to build a community in order to further their own interests, and a spirit of neighborly cooperation generally prevailed there.

  As the book proves, the frontier was settled and transformed by rugged people – not rugged individuals (who seldom succeeded alone), but by rugged communities who saw their own good within the common good.Faragher, John Mack.  Sugar Creek.

  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

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