History | Frontiers in American Identity and Imagination
A300 | 7950 | Stinson


Many Americans, including filmmakers, novelists, and artists,
portray the frontier as central to American life.  Historians, too,
explore and challenge the frontier’s significance in shaping
American identity.  For example, Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893
address, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,”
ascribed America’s unique individualism, innovation, democratic
commitment, and unity to successive westward migrations across the
frontier.  Lamenting the frontier’s supposed closing, Turner urged
further study of the farmers, ranchers, traders, and miners to whom
he attributed America’s triumph.  This course explores frontiers in
relation to key events and trends in American history, from
fifteenth-century explorations to the present.  Throughout, it
examines how diverse European-descended, Native American, and
African American men and women have shaped and been shaped by
frontier experiences.  It also traces how representations of
frontier life influence Americans’ thinking about race, gender, and
politics from one era to the next, and how Americans imagine a
national identity in relation to frontiers.  In particular, the
course considers the following questions:  How are frontiers defined
as places, processes, or myths?  What beliefs or stereotypes do we
have about frontiers, where do they come from, and how can we refine
them?  How did frontiers inspire exploration or settlement, and what
types of social, political, and economic developments did they
inspire in terms of race and gender?  How have different people used
representations of frontiers to imagine and promote visions of
American identity?  The course aims throughout to help students
develop their own interpretations about frontiers in well-
constructed written and oral arguments.  These will be expressed in
class discussions and papers.

The course is structured around three units and a variety of
readings and sources.  Unit 1, “Encountering the Unknown and Making
New Worlds” explores treasure quests, conquests, and captivity
experiences in the colonial Southwest, Southeast, and New England,
as well as in the Revolutionary War.  Unit 2, “Expanding and
Limiting American Democracy,” examines Lewis’ and Clark’s expedition
with Sacagawea, Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears, slavery and
the Civil War, families on the Oregon Trail, and the “Wild West”
Gold Rush era.  Unit 3, “New Frontiers, Old Myths,” addresses
frontiers of empire in the age of Theodore Roosevelt and during the
Vietnam War, twentieth-century suburbanization, environmental
crises, the space race, and sci-fi images.  These topics will be
explored through documents produced by people in the past and
present, including examples from film, literature, music, and the
visual arts.  Sources will include explorers’ maps, plays about
Native Americans, the "Little House on the Prairie" books, “Western”
movies, Star Trek episodes, and writings by modern-day historians.