Title Reviewed:
American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest

Author Reviewed:
Gregory H. Nobles

Andrew R. L. Cayton


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 94, Issue 1, pp 65-66

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. By Gregory H. Nobles. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997. Pp. xvi, 286. Illustrations, bibliographical essay, index. $24.00.)

Readers seeking a straightforward synthesis of the exploding historical literature on North American frontiers will find exactly what they are looking for in this book. Gregory H. Nobles seems to have familiarized himself with virtually everything that scholars have written on the subject. Only two decades ago many historians considered frontier studies essentially dead. It was a field dominated by the legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner, the scholar who posited in an 1893 speech that the impact of settling and resettling supposedly empty lands had made the United States into an exceptional nation. Turner's adherents published a pile of scholarly monographs that attempted to demonstrate the validity of his interpretation everywhere from colonial New England to Australia. Subsequent critics attacked Turner and his followers, pointing to evidence that undermined their sometimes unsubtle equation of the frontier with democracy, equality, and individualism. By the 1970s the argument had become stale. What more was there to be said on the subject?

Plenty, as Nobles's book makes clear. A generation of scholars has revitalized the field by thinking of frontier studies in terms of multicultural encounters. They have emphasized the roles of women, Indians, Hispanics, Africans, and others in both carrying out and resisting the expansion of the United States. Above all, they have argued that frontier history must be understood as a story of often savage and duplicitous conquest rather than benign settlement.

Nobles discusses these historiographical debates in an effective introduction. He then writes a narrative of frontier encounters that begins with the initial arrival of English-speaking peoples in eastern North America in the early 1600s and ends with the official closing of the frontier in 1890. The chapters are lively and efficient presentations of the evidence and interpretations in the recent literature. Nobles strives for balance both in content and tone; there is no dichotomy between good and bad guys. American Frontiers is not a polemic. Instead of attacking other historians, Nobles concentrates on constructing a reliable and readable story. Judged on these terms, his book is a success.

For all the sound and fury of revisionism, however, Nobles's book is surprisingly similar in its overall contours to the frontier syntheses written decades ago by historians such as Frederick Merk and Ray Allen Billington. He is more critical of American policies; he takes Indians seriously, not just as people in the way of American expansion; and he devotes considerable attention to such relatively new subjects as African Americans and environmentalism. Still, American Frontiers tells a very familiar tale: how, for good or ill, English-speaking peoples in the course of a couple of centuries occupied and transformed most of the North American continent into one of the most dynamic and powerful nations in the history of the world. In its basic outline this narrative has a power far beyond our ability to bend it to our purposes, no matter how much we argue about what we ought to call it.

ANDREW R. L. CAYTON is professor of history, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. His books include Frontier Indiana (1996) and Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk to the Mississippi valley (1998), which he has edited with Fredrika J. Teute.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.