Traditionally, frontier did mean a definite line separating two nations or peoples. The implication in meaning was confrontation. In nineteenth century America, it was native Americans versus the settlers. As the Indian resistance dissipated, the definition of frontier changed to a line between civilization and wilderness. Simply put, one side of the frontier was where people (settlers) lived and the other side was where there were no settlements. In this definition of frontier, the concept of place or geography plays a large part: the frontier is next to civilization, loads of room exists for each individual, resources appear to be boundless, and the opportunities for social and economic betterment near limitless. Living standards for individuals were changed by the availability of enormous tracts of land and richly abundant natural resources. Indeed, the set of geographic circumstances were unique in providing the opportunity for vast self-improvement.
To understand the motivation for westward migration is complex, and involves an understanding of two terms, deficiency motivation and abundancy motivation. Deficiency motivation is a response to man’s basic urge for survival and security. Escape is the key word. Life in one’s present location does not provide the comforts desired. On the other hand, abundancy motivation implies a basic contentment with one’s present lot, but the individual desires excitement, adventure or an even better life. Accepting that American pioneers had varying degrees of one or both of these motivations, the pioneers were markedly different from those people who chose to stay at home. Wherever these early settlers landed, they would produce societies that were enormously different from those they left behind.
These early pioneers were not content to accept life as it was, either good or poor, but were anxious to move to improve their lives, and moving involved the harshest of conditions, unforeseen dangers and a complete uprooting of what they knew of as home.
The profound and lasting effects of the pioneer spirit are important for students to learn because this spirit has shaped America’s history in a unique way. The mere act of moving westward meant a severing of ties with tradition. Although all were transplanted Americans, having already migrated from other countries at some point, the pioneers had a uniqueness peculiar to their starting point in America. This lack of common heritage made violence and lawlessness a usual problem in frontier societies. There were not traditional behaviors to rely on. Interestingly, individuals who migrated directly from parts of Europe other than England to western areas showed a much stronger inclination to remain where they originally settled. American pioneers originating from England were much more prepared to move when the opportunity seemed right.
The Americans were a competitive, ambitious, upwardly mobile people who had a strong sense of self-reliance. The conquering of an environment by an individual was a mark of success. Fear of unknown places was unacceptable and no hindrance to movement. These traits, first formulated in western expansion, persist today with the slightest modifications.
Two groups of American pioneers bear consideration when attempting to understand the conflict presented in
. Generally the first newcomers on undeveloped frontier territory were
of the land. Examples of this group are fur-trappers, explorers, missionaries and herdsmen. They all depended on the wilderness in its pristine state for their survival. The image of the fur-trapper in A.B. Guthrie’s T
he Big Sky
is a striking example of this group. When an area was trapped-out, they needed to move on to another, and in the process provided initial access into previously unexplored areas of America. They learned to co-exist with the native Americans and due to a need to trade their furs, caused the establishment of settlements such as the Hudson Bay Company. Fur trappers, as did cattle ranchers, began on the eastern frontiers and continually moved westward as they used up the resources. On the heels of the users, came the subduers of the frontier whose existence depended on clearing the forests, fencing in the land and literally destroying the wilderness. This group can be subdivided into three smaller categories— backwoodsmen, small propertied farmers and the propertied farmers who completed the frontiering process.
That the users and subduers should be in conflict, eventually, when the wilderness ran out, is important for understanding Shane’s primary conflict. This concept of American western migration sets up the problem that motivates the novel: The cattlemen could no longer use the land that the ranchers wanted to tame.
The Starretts of
are a pioneer family on the frontier. Although there are other homesteaders and ranchers, the abundance of land and the opportunity for self-improvement were certainly vast. The setting for
clearly fits the frontier description as presented earlier. The problem arises, as it eventually did on the frontier, between the users and subduers. The Starretts are subduers who are encroaching upon the cattle ranchers’ open ranges, at least in the eyes of the cattlemen. Why did the cattlemen feel that they had rights to the land that homesteaders seemingly got by law? In the early days of the cattle range, there was room enough for all. Cattlemen would move to another area of the range if they came across another rancher’s cows. There were laws against driving stock from where they were comfortable grazing. Water controlled the range. Cattle were able to travel many miles to water, and the person who controlled the water had few troubles.
The cattlemen had set up a society with their rules of behavior and they coexisted within the limits of their organization.
Along came farmers who had been guaranteed their 160 acres of land and decided to take it directly in the middle of the range. Fences around a farm kept cattle from freely grazing as they always had, and certainly partitioned off valuable sources of water. With them, ranchers brought a civilization that contradicted the aims of the cattlemen. It is within this historical context that
portrays a pioneer family, who represents a new order of behavior, yet who are too small in number to overcome the old order. The Starretts are the symbol of what America was to become, the new society of people who were looking for a better way of life, upwardly mobile, if you will, and who had come against a formidable foe. The cattlemen are a symbol of the old way, and as Joe Starrett says of Fletcher, “the old ways die hard.” For the country to grow, vast areas of land could not remain merely grazing areas for cattle. Cultivation of the land was essential for people to put down roots and to have a feeling of belonging. The pioneer spirit would not allow for giving in to pressure, and at the first signs of weakness by some homesteaders, Starrett reminds them that this is indeed where they have put down roots, and on their own, with no outside help, they have built something worthwhile.