Role of the American Folklore and Frontier in Defining America’s National Identity Essay

            America’s culture  is often attributed to its unique government and Constitution however it was the American Frontier which inspired and solidified our true national identity.  The history and culture of America is intimately linked with the exploration of the Western Frontier. The physical land in America was not just a mere setting but essential in chiseling the national character. Conditions of living and conquering the wilderness permanently altered the European settlers of the New England coastline into a new national breed.

It was the frontier which created the first truly free man. The frontier in America had no law, no authority, and men lived by their wits. The role of the American frontier in defining the cultural legacy of America is clearly demonstrated in and perpetuated by American Folklore.            The American frontier was lawless and therefore individuals who lived in West had to learn how to moderate and protect themselves.  The lack of governmental authority in the west differed greatly from the strict governmental control found in the European settlements along the east coast.  This lack of policing allow a new character to develop which has been synonymous with the national character found in the United States (Coffin 5) .  American folklore is full of the tales and tribulations of outlaws.

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  It is through the examination of these stories that the origin of America’s national identity is revealed.  American Frontier outlaws were part capitalist and part savior – a less morally obligated version of Robin Hood.  Jesse James, a notorious outlaw, who was responsible for the death of numerous innocent people.  In folklore having to do with Jesse James and his gang he is considered the American Robin Hood.

  James and Gangs were hailed as heroes in part because the railroads, one of their chief targets, were deeply hated for seizing private lands in Missouri under condemnation orders.  In a story often entitled “Jesse and the Widow,” James and his pals were traveling on horseback somewhere in northern Missouri. It was about noon, they were hungry. They pulled off the main road and found a  widowed woman with small children. They asked her if she could supply them with something to eat.  She went and prepared what little food she had for his gang.

  James, the gentlemen, asked the widow what was wrong.  She explained that after her husband death she had no money to pay for rent.  Jesse James immediately hands her over money to pay the outstanding bill.  James and his gang leave.

  He saves her and her children from being homeless.  However,  later in the tale, his gang awaits the arrival of the landlord who collects the rent and then Jesse James stills the money back from the landlord.  Leeming and Page, in Myths, Legends, and Folktales of America: An Anthology, state “It is important to note that legends of the American West, as extreme as they sometimes appear to be, are relatively close to historical fact, as they have not had the time to be transformed significantly.”(144). American outlaw heroes often have good reasons for being “bad”; they are in one way or another victims of society.

Finally, they are frequently shown to have hearts of gold beneath their apparent bloodthirstiness; they are the Robin Hoods of the New World, robbing the rich, helping the poor, achieving their own kind of “justice” in the face of general corruption.  Fredrick Jackson Turner was an American Historian who examined the unique characteristics that defined American Culture.            The American Outlaw was a defiant individualist and certainly that can be seen in the American cultural landscape.  Similarly, Billy the Kid, who the quintessential American Outlaw.  Upon hearing of his death in 1881, the New York Daily Graphic wrote that “he had built up a criminal organization worthy of the underworld of any of the European capitals. He defied the law to stop him and he stole, robbed, raped and pillaged . .

. he became, in the short span of his twenty-one years, the master criminal of the American southwest.”(Leeming, and Page 145).   Outlaws have always been favorite American heroes. As one of several categories of the much-admired “self-made man” (poor boy makes bad), they are defiant individualists, and Americans like to pay homage to rugged individualism, especially if it challenges authority.  This is one of the most defining features of the American character.   He is most well known for his “Frontier Thesis” which he developed in 1893.

  Shortly, after the United States Census Bureau in 1890 declared the American Frontier officially closed, Jackson’s interest was peaked and he set out to study and analyze America’s relationship with its own frontier.  In  1893 he publicly spoke about this thesis in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition.  Turner stated “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.

” (Turner 1).            Another component of the American’s national identity that came from the frontier was that of the  innovator.  Key character in American Folklore is Johnny Appleseed or John Chapman.

The tales told about Johnny Appleseed revolve around him traveling westward planting apple seeds and cover the land in the west with apple trees.  He did not carry a knife, gun, or weapon of any kind.  It is said that he single handedly planted all American’s apple orchards by hand.   Johnny carried a “bag of apple seeds, and with bare feet penetrate to some remote spot that combined picturesqueness and fertility of soil, and there he would plant his seeds, place a slight inclosure around the place, and leave them to grow until the trees were large enough to be transplanted by the settlers” (Leeming, and Page 127).  Not only was he an innovator but he was also man of great character.  The same spirit of innovation can be seen in the stories told about Buffalo Bill or William Cody.  He is responsible for the success and the permanent place of the Wild West Shows in American history.  To understand America and its culture it was extremely important to understand the frontier and America’s connection to it.

  Turner believed that the frontier “Americanized Americans“.  This Americanization lasted close to 300 years, starting at the colonization of the New England coast and continuing until the west was completely settled.  The free land offered in the west, the frontier, was a safety net which offered property ownership opportunities to people who traditionally could no afford to own anything.  In the text of The Frontier of American History, he comments “”So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power” (Turner 32).            Buffalo Bill was an innovator.  He did a little bit of everything.  He was employed the by the United States Army as a scout. He was a trapper, a bullwhacker, pony express, wagonmaster, stagecoach driver, Civil War soldier, and even hotel manager.

  He embodied what it meant to be an American.  American can and do anything they want in terms of careers and life choices.  “Buffalo Bill Cody was another real-life figure who capitalized on his heroism with his Wild West show.

The systematic inventions of public relations firms on behalf of corporations and celebrities have a long and time-honored history on this continent.”(Leeming, and Page 5).   Buffalo Bill is recognized as an early innovator of the western frontiers.  He also had some very liberal beliefs about current issues and is not afraid to express them.  He objected the killing for buffaloes by hunters for only their hides.  He worked in Wyoming to establish preserves for animals and he thought hunting should be limited.  Cody believed that women had the right to vote, and “If a woman can do the same work that a man can do and do it just as well,” he said “she should have the same pay.”   The folklore surrounding Johnny Appleseed and Buffalo Bill is where the origins of the American inventor  can be found.

  They  lived by his wits and had only the clothes on their backs (Coffin 238).  It is the memory of their diligence and entrepreneurial spirit which can be found in America’s national character.            The final component of the American identity is the role of patriot protector.  This theme is seen again and again in American Folklore.

  Davy Crockett, in his time, was a pioneer, soldier, trapper, explorer, state legislator, congressman, and most importantly a patriot liberation.  Much of the legends which surround Davy Crockett were originally perpetuated by himself.  The kind of humor embodied by Crockett in his own stories about himself and in stories told about him is peculiarly American and typical of the frontier.

It is rustic, unintellectual, boastful, uncouth, and full of a kind of backwoods wisdom that looks down upon eastern elitism and snobbery (Leeming and Page 5).  It was only within the western frontier, that man from humble beginnings could chisel out a place in history for himself.  Davy Crockett built his own legacy not with money, or family pedigree but with the sweat and courage.  Crockett is most well known for his role in the Mexican War where he  and 139 other were massacred at the  Alamo.   The at the Alamo held off the Mexican army for eleven days.

  They managed to kill over 2000 Mexican soldiers.  This cemented Davy Crockett’s role in American cultural history.  Turner’s believed that the western movement was the main factor contributing to the basis of American’s institutions and culture.  “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with he simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.” (Turner 2).            Like Davy Crockett, Casey Jones is also a character within America folklore that plays the role of the selfless protector.  Jones was an engineer for a train route which traveled between Chicago and New Orleans.

  As favor to the railroad he worked for he agreed to take the place of an engineer who was sick.  This train left Memphis and was heading to Chicago.  Despite his best efforts he was a good 90 minutes behind schedule as he reached Mississippi.  At this point he realized that there were two other trains heading toward his train.  Which mean he was unable to move from one track to another to avoid just one of them.  Unfortunately he was traveling too fast to break in enough time and realized he would have to run into one of the trains.

  While other train workers jumped Casey Jones stayed to slow the train so passengers could more safely jump off to save themselves.  He was killed in the train accident and popular folklore says that when he was found his hands were still both on the brake and throttle.  Americans have a long history of being patriotic liberators and protectors.  It is ingrained in America’s national spirit and can be seen through American history (Oring 211).  Davy Crockett and Casey Jones are just two examples of people in American history  whose stories are retold in American folklore and have contributed to the creation of American’s cultural identity.            In The Frontier of American History, while he writes about America as an example and offers a  general explanation that he believes could be used in understanding other nation’s cultural growth patterns.  Fredrick Turner believes that the growth and settlement are the first period of progress in any nation’s development.  “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power.

But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits“  This expansion is followed by followed by periods of social and economic development.  Each of which is frontier all it’s own.  Turner explains with an example:Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file–the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer–and the frontier has passed by.

Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between (Turner 12).            American folklore, then–its continuum of mythologies, legends, and folktales–is a reflection of the reality of American experience.  Its primary vehicle is the tall tale, or “windy,” an absurd and impossibly exaggerated extended straight-faced anecdote marked by tall talk–a combination of slang, dialect, exaggeration, and word coinage that resulted in words like rampageous or explatterate–and in lies. Writers such as Artemus Ward ( Charles Farrar Browne) and Mark Twain ( Samuel Clemens) would make literary use of the tradition; Twain “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is an example (Leeming, and Page 131).

  Almost all American folklore occurs in American’s western frontier.  It is these heroes, legends, and American mythology was created.  Borne out these stories were values and traditions that still define what it means to be an American today.  Jesse James and Billy the Kid were outlaws – individualists with hearts of gold.  Johnny Appleseed and Buffalo Bill were innovators who built their legacy through hard work and an unique independent spirit.

  Casey Jones and Davey Crockett  were men who are remembered for being protectors and memorializes in American folklore, as heroes and truly American men.   It is through the retelling of American Folklore that the daily events of regular people make up history – that is it is true history.  It is clear from examining the bulk of American folklore that the values exhibited in those stories created and have continued to  nurture American’s national identity. The sole contributing factor that defined this national identity was the living, working, and conquering of the western frontier in American.

Works CitedCoffin, Tristram Potter, ed. Our Living Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore. New York: Basic Books, 1968.Leeming, David, and Jake Page. Myths, Legends, and Folktales of America: An Anthology. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Oring, Elliott. “The Arts, Artifacts, and Artifices of Identity.” Journal of American Folklore 107.424 (1994): 211-233.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt, 1947.


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