Discussion
September 27 through October 8

Tuesay Feb 6: Markets and Money
Thurday, Feb 8: The Prarie

Tuesday, Feb 13: The Whig AlternativeT
Thursdayt. Feb 22 discuss The Cherokee Removal

The frontier, and the contact with peoples who lived on it, played a crucial role in American life from the earliest settlement by Europeans through the early 20th century. Life on the frontier shaped Americans' sense of who they were; it was a place where different cultures and peoples came together. It was a place where a speculative, money-driven market economy clashed with older traditions of living. It was also a symbolic space where Americans tried to sort out who they thought they were.

After Jackson's election the frontier played a vital symbolic role in politics, and American politicians began taking great pains to show their "log cabin" origins.


A "Crockett Almanac" for 1839.
Click on the image to see a larger view

Davy Crockett was a real person, a congressman and frontiersman, a political rival of Andrew Jackson. But he was also partly a self-invented character. His supporters published almanacs and other books like the one shown above, telling elaborate tall tales about Crockett's exploits in the backwoods. Myth and reality blended in his own life, partly through his own efforts. Similarly, Daniel Boone first came to Americans's attention in an 1784 pamphlet by John Filson, a real estate speculator who was trying to encourage settlement in Kentucky. Filson added an elaborate section on "Colonel Boone" and his frontier exploits. Some of it was even true. Boone himself was a surveyor and real estate speculator, who at one point tried to claim ownership of 200, 000 acres of Kentucky. He was unable to make his claims "stick," though, and had to move on. He lived to see himself regarded as "legend in his own time."

It's worth noting that the frontier was always a "commercial space," and always part of political life. From the earliest days the frontier was a place some men and women went to make their fortunes. Land, not tobacco, formed the basis of the fortunes of men like George Mason, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson. Young George Washington became a surveyor largely because surveying gave a relatively poor young man like Washington first hand knowledge of where the good land lay in any new country. The federal government financed itself largely through sales of land. Speculation in western lands could be a path to quick fortune. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, a Virginian, claimed ownership of nearly 400, 000 acres of land in Tennessee.

Making such huge claims "stick" proved difficult. The western territories were poorly mapped, and boundaries were unclear. Land might be bought from Indians. But which Indians "owned" a given piece of land? It was often impossible to tell, and the Indians themselves clearly did not understand property the way white settlers did. "Squatters" might also move into a new region, build a house, clear land, and begin farming. Traditionally, you could come to own land by "improving" it in this way. Land ownership was a very thorny moral question. Who really owned land--the man who worked it, carving farms out of the forest and building homes, or a man who bought a claim on paper, hundreds of miles away?

Jackson's political career began when, as a self taught country lawyer, he argued for the rights of large land holders against squatters and small settlers with competing claims. Jackson allied himself with William Blount, who with his associates claimed more than 4 million acres of Tennessee. Jackson then used these political connections in speculations of his own. For example, in 1815 Jackson himself bought 5000 acres at Chickasaw Bluffs, on the Mississippi, for $100. Fifteen years later he sold half of this land for $5000—it now overlooked the city of Memphis.

Jackson's rise, both economically and politcially, depended on removing Indians from that western land. The War of 1812, for Jackson, was mostly a war against the Creek indians, who he and other insisted had allied themselves with the British. When the War of 1812 ended he continued to fight, at one point illegally invading Florida, which belonged to Spain at the time. Jackson claimed that the Seminoles, a Florida tribe, were attacking white settlers. He then ocupied Florida, on and off, for the next eight years.

To President Monroe, in 1817 he wrote: "I have long viewed treaties with the Indians an absurdity not to be reconciled to the principles of our government." As President, Jackson more or less orchestrated the "Trail of Tears," in which Cherokee Indians were forcibly removed from land the Supreme court had recongized their legal claim to. Jackson's arguments in this case are fascinating, as we will see.