The American Frontier: a place haunted by legends, by Karl Jacoby

le 04/02/2020 par Karl Jacoby
le 03/02/2020 par Karl Jacoby - modifié le 04/02/2020
The Silenced War Whoop, peinture de Charles Schreyvogel mettant en scène une bataille entre Amérindiens et soldats américains, 1908 - source : WikiCommons

Land of the "Far-West" fantasies, a destination of contemporary immigration and an area witness to the Native American genocides, what does this peculiar space, the "Frontier" of the United States, represent historically?

Karl Jacoby est historien, professeur d’histoire à l’université de Columbia. Ses travaux portent notamment sur le concept de « frontière » dans l’histoire américaine et sur l’histoire de celle-ci – principalement le quart Sud-Ouest des États-Unis.

Zone singulière de mélanges ethniques, linguistiques et religieux devenu fantasme par le prisme du cinéma, nous nous sommes entretenus en amont de ses interventions au festival L’Histoire à venir au sujet des singularités et des mythologies liés à ce « Grand Ouest » américain.

Propos recueillis par Julien Morel, vous pouvez également consulter la version française de cette interview.

RetroNews : First of all, what does mean the concept of "the frontier" for an American person ?

Karl Jacoby : The general American culture gives one answer to this question; specific American ethnic groups might give another.  In the general US culture, the frontier is generally still celebrated in terms that would have been familiar to Frederick Jackson Turner (the author of the famous frontier thesis in 1893): freedom, opportunity, democracy, individualism.

When I was in high school (which is now over 30 years ago!) we read Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on the frontier as part of our curriculum; it has been a while, but I do not remember a critical engagement with his thesis.  The frontier lives on of course in American TV, films, and literature through the genre of the Western, which for the century from 1850 to 1950 enjoyed unquestioned preeminence as the favorite form of popular entertainment in the country.

In a more diffuse way, the frontier undergirds American ideas of the US’s special mission in the world—that we are somehow a more free, equal, and democratic society than anywhere else.  (Like the frontier itself, this belief is of course a myth; the US is in fact far more unequal than many other societies, and our belief in a special mission has led us to undertake disastrous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.)

Not all Americans of course share equally in this celebration of the frontier.  Native Americans for obvious reasons see the growth of the US as destructive to their own sovereignty; many Mexican Americans say that “we did not cross the border, the border crossed us” to express their unwilling incorporation into the US.  

And although the US has never had an honest reckoning with the genocide against Indigenous peoples that enabled its creation, there is a strain of popular culture that does preserve memories of the incredible brutality of the frontier.  This goes back to older ways of thinking about the frontier that Turner supplanted (but did not erase altogether): the idea that instead of leading to democracy and progress, the frontier was a space of regression, where Euro-Americans returned to a “savage” state.  Indeed, I would argue that one reason that Turner became so popular is that he provided a more palatable interpretation of the frontier than what had come before him, which featured considerable distrust and even fear of degeneration, violence, and racial mixing along the frontier.


How would yo explain that this very "local" symbol of the frontier, the cow-boy from the "Far-West", became through the ages one of the most beloved symbol of the American identity? Has been this cliché of the tough guy on his horse a sort of a reality?

The cowboy is a fascinating figure because even though today he is thought of as a uniquely American character, most of his fundamental features are in fact borrowed from Mexican ranching practices.  One of the standard nicknames for the cowboy, the “buckaroo” is derived from the Spanish word for cattle herder “vaquero,” and the distinctive saddle, chaps, and hat all come from Mexico.  

In the late nineteenth century, in the face of mass migration, Americans sought a rural symbol of authenticity, however, and they found it in the cowboy.  

With the spread of cheap printing processes, there was a boom in dime novels celebrating Western cowboys.  This was extended by Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show.”  Buffalo Bill (William Cody) was a real-life hunter and scout who was incorporated into dime novels by the author Ned Buntline.  In 1883, Cody started his first Wild West show; this later toured Europe to great success. (Cody actually visited Paris in 1889 for the fair that unveiled the Eiffel Tower.)  With the rise of cinematic technology, the Wild West show proved the template for later movies.

The first US movie with a plot, “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) was a Western film, and by the 1950s Westerns were by far the most popular genre on TV and in the movies.  Although the Western has lost some of its cache, I would argue that the current vogue for Science Fiction reflects many of the same tropes as the Western, only cast on the “final frontier” (outer space).   It is also intriguing that many presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, found it necessary to cultivate images of themselves as cowboys through ostentatious displays of themselves on western ranches.

 As a historian, how do you work on/with these myths? What is your way, in terms of writing, to tell what actually happened near those borders?

The mythic aspects of the American West are both the best and worst parts of the field.  The best in the sense that many Americans are drawn to the topic because of the vast popular fascination with frontier violence, Indians, and the like.  The worst in the sense that we historians more often than not find ourselves in a losing battle with movies and other forms of popular culture that portray the region in far more dramatic ways than is possible to an academic historian who is attempting to talk about the West and the borderlands with some degree of complexity and nuance.  

Even if we cannot dislodge the popular images of the West altogether, I enjoy the struggle.  And every now and then there is a movie like John Sayle’s “Lone Star” (a dramatic retelling of the history of Eagle Pass, Texas) that manages to use actual history to talk about the rich diversity of experience in the borderlands.

Your work focuses on the interactions and blends between cultures, languages and ethnies on those borderlands. Which type of communities have you worked on?

I have worked on the indigenous communities displaced by National Parks (Crow, Shoshone, and Havasupai) [in Crimes Against Nature];  the ethnic groups involved in the “Apache Wars” of the 19th century (Anglo Americans, ethnic Mexicans, Tohono O’odham, and Western Apache) [Shadows at Dawn]; African Americans along the Texas-Mexico border [The Strange Career of William Ellis].  

Some scholars talk about the borderlands as a “third space,” neither Mexico or the US but its own place with its own culture and language [“Spanglish”: a hybrid of English and Spanish].  But I think that the borderlands are even more complex than just a blend of Mexico and the US.  

I am struck by the marginalized groups that have found the borderlands to be a “region of refuge” of sorts from the US and Mexico alike: Chinese who created cross border communities in the 19th century in the face of anti-Asian racism in the US and Mexico alike; the Black Seminoles, a Native American-African American hybrid group that fled from Florida, to Oklahoma, to Mexico, and, lately, back into the US; or the Kickapoo, who journeyed all the way from the Great Lakes to northern Mexico in an effort to insulate themselves from US intrusion.

To you, is there a US historical event that summariaze perfectly all the stakes and paradoxes of this culture of the border?

The easy answer to this question would be the Camp Grant Massacre, which is the subject of my second book, Shadows at Dawn (translated into French as Des ombres à l’aube).  This event took place close to the border in 1871 and featured an assault by a combined force of Anglos, ethnic Mexicans, and Tohono O’odham Indians on a would-be Apache Indian reservation in Aravaipa canyon, in which some 120 Apaches, most of them women and children, were killed.  Not only does it reveal the tremendous brutality that could exist in the borderlands as well as the ethnic diversity; the fact that several of the Anglo leaders of the massacre went on to found the local historical society demonstrates the clear links between enacting physical violence against Native Americans and justifying this violence through the production of historical narratives that lies at the heart of the rise of Western history as an academic field.

More generally, I am fascinated by the peculiar juxtapositions that the border produces.  One I’ve been pondering recently is that shortly after US forces led by General Stephen Kearny occupied Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1846, they staged a blackface minstrel show in the Governor’s Palace on Santa Fe’s Plaza.  There were almost no African Americans in New Mexico at the time, yet these minstrel shows powerfully underscored how becoming American involved rejecting Blackness (albeit a Blackness that was a parody of actual African American life).

 In Europe, local border cultures are a very common heritage. In Pays Basque, you can see a constant blend of French upbringing, local Basque culture, while people having relatives on the other side of the Spanish border ; in some geographic zones of Romania, people still speak Hungarian and German. Are you interested and have you worked on those border cultures of the Continent?

I only read English, Spanish, French, and a very limited amount of Tohono O’odham and Apache (which do not have much of a written literary tradition in any event) so I have not done research in European borderlands.  I have, however, read in some of these areas because I have found it suggestive for my own work.  I am a big fan of Peter Sahlin’s book Boundaries, which looks at the creation of the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees.  I have also read Timothy Snyder’s work on eastern Europe (books like Bloodlands and The Red Prince).  In addition, I have found Jan Gross’s work on community violence in Poland, with the shifting of borders, illuminating (works like Neighbors) as well as the scholarship of my former colleague Omer Bartov, especially his most recent book, Anatomy of a Genocide.

How the American historical tradition and upbringing used to deal with all its border history?

Although the term borderlands history is rather old (having been coined by Francis Bolton in the 1910s in his writings on Spanish Jesuit missionaries such as Padre Kino) the actual historic study of border regions in the US is rather recent, really only gaining steam in the last decade or so.  Since most history as it is taught in primary and secondary schools still confines itself to the nation state, I fear that there is very little incorporation of borderlands history into most history curriculums.  Even here at Columbia (which has one of the great history faculties in the US), I am the first historian to teach borderlands history.  In some places, there is outright hostility to borderlands history: in Arizona, for example, there was a law passed against teaching “anti-American” classes, which was designed to target courses in Mexican-American history.