Guest column: Westward expansion: Roots of ‘Americans’

Guest Column by Patrick Griffin

What does the frontier mean for America? We have been told for generations that understanding it is fundamental for coming to terms with white American identity. It helped foster certain sensibilities that can explain individualism, relations to the state, and understandings of other groups.

We could think of frontier in terms of a John Ford movie, as a place where America is most visibly revealed in the most stripped-down way possible. Eastern preoccupations and contrivances melt away under the heat of Monument Valley, and so we see in an unmediated way the essence of what it means to be an American. 

 What we are left with are simple formulations. I don’t say this to criticize Ford. In fact, I think as a filmmaker, storyteller and craftsman he knows no peer. His frontier invites us to understand America and by implication ourselves as a culture today and perhaps even as individuals.  

The line between civility and savagery, Ford suggests, runs through all of us. I will be discussing these lines but in different ways. 

Moving to the West a century before Ford, I want to try to see if the way that Americans engaged the frontier had an even deeper history, a deeper past that tells us a great deal more about how Americans made sense of the people they confronted on the frontier. 

So I hope to challenge us to think about what makes us “American,” and to see how violence and reform often go hand-in-hand. Or to put it another way, the line that Ford lays out for us is a lot more blurry than he would suggest.