- Historic Sites
“full Speed Ahead And Damn The Tomorrows”
Our Frontier Heritage of Waste
December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
These class distinctions differed, however, from those in established societies in the relative ease of access to the upper strata. Society on the frontier was atomized, with no established group in control. Instead, a power vacuum existed at the top, beckoning the able and the ambitious. The relative ease of economic self-advancement for the fortunate few was determined by no set guidelines. Class distinctions were difficult to maintain where a servant girl might marry the community’s leading citizen (by no means unusual along the frontiers, where women were few), where the town ne’er-do-well could be skyrocketed to riches with a turn of his shovel in a placer mine, where the poorest farmer could reap a fortune with a lucky land speculation. The class structure was more “open ended” in such regions than in the settled East or Europe.
Equally fatal to traditional distinctions were two popular attitudes universal along the frontiers. One was belief that monetary wealth, not distinguished ancestry, was the measure of social eminence. What a man was, not what his family had been, determined his place in society. “Out west,” a British visitor noted, “the one question is ‘what can you do,’ not ‘who was your father?’ ”
Just as important was a universal refusal to recognize that class lines did exist, even when they were apparent. The lowest figure on the social totem pole saw his lot as only temporary, soon to be replaced by affluence and prestige, and acted accordingly. When a stranger in a pioneer town spoke of “servants,” he was rudely reminded: “There are no servants here; all are hired hands.” When a worker was asked who his “master” was he answered: “I have no master. My employer is Mr. So-and-so.” Servant girls expected to be treated as equals and made part of the family. If, wrote a housewife from the Michigan frontier, a servant “was not invited to sit at first table with company, not included in invitations,… not called Miss Jane or Miss Eliza, she was off in a moment.” An Ohioan lost a crew of hard-to-get workers when he neglected to invite them to breakfast with the family; a honeymooning couple was abandoned by their driver when they tried to have one meal by themselves.
Nor was this insistence on equality confined to the “common folk”; the “better sort” were just as eager to prove that they were no better than their neighbors and hence entitled to the same treatment. One pioneer housewife, dismayed at seeing a guest dip her fork into the serving dishes, offered to serve her. “I’ll help myself, thank ye,” she snapped back. “I never want no waitin’ on.” Those with more possessions than others apologized rather than boasted, saying that carpets were “one way to hide the dirt,” a fancy table “dreadful plaguy to scour,” and that kitchen conveniences were “lumberin’ up the house for nothin’.” “In the West,” wrote a French traveler, ”… every man with a coat to his back is a gentleman, quite as good as his neighbors.” This was the frontier creed, whatever the realities of the social structure.
These attitudes, bred into generations of Americans during their three centuries of westering, persist even today. Our distinctive social democracy encourages Americans to believe that the upper levels of society are not automatically closed to them, places a higher value on merit than on ancestry, and minimizes hereditary prestige as a factor in the escalation process. That view was captured by a cartoon published some years ago showing an Englishman saying disdainfully to an American hostess: “It is a defect of your country that you have no leisure class.” “But we have them,” she answers, “only we call them tramps.”
By opening the gates to all the aspiring and worthy, frontiering contributed to the emergence of another unique facet of the American character. This was the compulsion to work hard. As early as 1633 the Massachusetts General Court decreed that “No person, householder or other, shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think fit to inflict.” Here was voiced the frontier creed. For in the early West endless labor was essential not only to the individual’s personal success but to the welfare of society. Forests must be cleared away, stumps grubbed from the ground, trees burned, cabins built, crops planted, the necessities of life fashioned from nature’s materials. Each individual’s efforts were a measure not only of his own success but of the success of the community in its struggle for survival. Those who failed to contribute their share were shirking their duty to society no less than to themselves. They were branded as social outcasts, and were driven out or “hated out” of the community. Work thus became a habit as well as a necessity, not simply in regions swayed by the Puritan ethic, but on all frontiers. Even the games played by pioneers were insidiously contrived to masquerade work as play; barn-raisings, and logrollings, and husking bees, and quilting parties might be pleasureful for the frontiersmen, but they served a practical end that was even more essential.