Local Crossroads, Global Networks, and Frontier Cities
Jay Gitlin, Barbara Berglund, and Adam Arenson
In 1800, a Kansas chief known as Coeur qui Brule wrote to the lieutenant governor of Spanish Louisiana, expressing his desire to visit St. Louis: "depuis longtemps je désire voir la ville [for a long time I have wanted to see the town]." Understanding that St. Louis was a place of French manners and values that explicitly equated civilization with urbanity, this native leader was eager for a chance to tour and experience the newest French city in North America. Coeur qui Brule recognized the significance of the cities European Americans built on North American frontiers. With his French name and apparent French language skills, Coeur qui Brule also embodied the kind of social and cultural mixing that occurred in frontier cities, at the heart of the imperial encounter. He further remarked that he did not want to visit, like some chiefs, to seek presents. On the contrary, he said, "I have the heart of a Frenchman (j'ai le coeur d'un français)."
Coeur qui Brule, however, would also have been acutely aware that he would always be a visitor in St. Louis: that the city was, from its inception, a French home, not an Indian one. When a group of 150 Missouri Indians arrived in 1764, while Auguste Chouteau and Pierre de Laclède's workmen were first laying out the town, Laclède hurried back to the site and carefully explained why the Missouri had to leave, disabusing them of their notion to settle in the heart of the new post. Revealingly, before they left, the women and children of the group were engaged to dig a cellar for the company's main building. Yet despite this exclusionary gesture, St. Louis, like other frontier cities, quickly established itself as a place of both enduring interest and influence within Indian country—to Coeur qui Brule and so many others.
Fifty years ago, Richard C. Wade provided an insight that continues to generate surprise: "Towns were the spearheads of the frontier," he declared in the first sentence of The Urban Frontier (1959). "Planted far in advance of the line of settlement, they held the West for the approaching population." As Coeur qui Brule had experienced one hundred and fifty years before that, towns and cities typically preceded rural settlements throughout early North America.
This volume is dedicated to documenting encounters like Coeur qui Brule's, and to explicating Wade's still-surprising insight that the phrase frontier city is not an oxymoron, not a contradiction in terms. We renew conversations about what the juxtaposition of frontier and city reveal, exploring these fascinating, if unexpected, locales.
Frontier cities are urban settlements that emerge from an initial frontier encounter. They are defined by the interplay between their global contexts—economic, cultural, and political ties, as well as the regulations of uninformed and distant policymakers—and their diverse local actors. In frontier cities, natives and newcomers, hemmed in by practical considerations as they shared streets, buildings, and interwoven lives, created the earliest matrix of the American urban experience.
In these urban spaces of encounter, natives and newcomers alike were shaped by both front-door policy decisions and back-door intimacies and interactions. Even the most basic urban places contained many homes, sites of exchange, and roads that entered into, crossed, and left town. Its residents held connections to a wider world, whether through national or linguistic ties, economic networks, or memories of places across the seas or across the mountains that shaped their lives. These qualities gave rise to the Chinese migrants who established fishing camps on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay in the early 1850s, to the French traders bypassing imperial regulations by throwing casks of brandy over the wall to Indian customers on the Rue St. Paul in eighteenth-century Montreal, and to a young indigenous boy named Elvis playing his air guitar outside the contemporary frontier city of Manaus in Brazil.
Frontier cities thus emerge as ideal places to see the intimate personal interactions of new settlements, their world-changing importance in the process of state-making, and how the legacies of these patterns of global and local interaction continue to shape cities to this day. They have much to teach us about the complex interactions between diverse peoples and nations; about the power of symbols and metaphors; and about productively reframing the dialogue between the fields of urban, early American, postcolonial, and American western history.
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Recognizing that our key terms, frontier and city, have a long history of varied and multiple usages, we begin by offering some broad parameters that reflect the ways frontier and city are conceptualized in this volume. The expansiveness of these concepts is what, in large measure, gives them their appealing and ongoing explanatory power, but we want to make sure that we can all understand how we, and our contributors, are using these simple yet profound terms.
A frontier is fundamentally an edge and thus a potential meeting ground, a place of convergence. Although the word's first uses appear in early modern Europe, its contemporary resonance comes from association with the history of the American West—and with westering writ large. Within western history, the term has a contentious yet vitally productive past—rooted in the work of Frederick Jackson Turner and, in particular, his 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Turner viewed the frontier as an east-to-west moving line where "savagery and civilization" met—where hardy pioneers confronted indigenous peoples and the natural environment, and where they established mostly rural settlements whose residents and institutions manifested characteristics, such as individualism and democracy, which Turner perceived as central to American national identity.
While Turner's ideas about the frontier are plagued by sentiments common for his time, his positioning of the frontier as the crucible that forged characteristics central to the making of the American nation and his identification of the frontier as a process through which Euro-Americans conquered the American West and built a landed empire can still be very useful analytical frameworks. Recognizing this, we join those scholars who have reconceptualized frontiers as varied and multifarious zones of encounter, produced by the global push of empire-building nation-states. In these spaces, different peoples worked together—willingly or unwillingly—as they shaped the environment, created mechanisms of economic and cultural exchange, and established some principles for governance in situations typically structured by unequal power relations.
Seen in this way, frontiers illuminate the centrality of empire-building and nation- making to North American and global expansion because they are among the most significant places where those processes occur. Imperial ambitions and realities among the English, Spanish, French, and Russians drove settlement in North America, and imperial aims fueled the expansion of the United States from early on. By defining frontier cities in ways that actively link them to empire-building and nation-making across North America and beyond, our goal is to both re-energize the concept of the frontier within the historiography of the American West and to simultaneously dislodge it from that tradition—to show that frontiers are not unique to the American West—and to demonstrate how the concept of the frontier has relevance for other fields dealing with intertwined histories of conquest and encounter.
In this sense, frontier is meant to possess analytical breadth, providing an opportunity for both the questioning and connecting of our common assumptions. It brings forth all the messiness, occasional beauty, and terrible violence wrought by processes of change and transformation that accompanied the waves of imperial and nation-making processes that stretched across the globe. And it reminds us as well that within North America, westering was not contained in the West—a frontier was both a moving target and a space shaped by many perspectives.
If, in spatial terms, a frontier is an edge and a meeting ground, a city is similarly a point of convergence and connection. A city is also distinct from its surroundings. Whether it is its size, density, the number of specialized, nonagricultural workers, or some other factor, a city is defined, in part, by its contrast with that which is not urban—the countryside, the farm, the woods. As planning texts back to classical times and scholarship dating back to Raymond Williams's 1973 work The Country and the City make evident, this contrast is freighted with centuries of cultural as well as political and economic meaning. Cities might be defined by kingly decree or bureaucratic jurisdiction, by the realities of urban life or merely the aspirations of urbanity.
As every city dweller knows, cities are places where order is beyond individual control, self-sufficiency is neither possible nor desired, and intercultural conversations are a fact of life. The medievalist and urban historian Roberto Lopez noted that the earliest "ideogram meaning 'city' consist[ed] of a cross enclosed in a circle." Both a home (the circle) and a place of convergence (the crossroads), with that convergence entailing "a quickening of communication," a city allows for and encourages exchange within a relatively safe haven. Even before large numbers of people reside there, a critical mass of skills and specialized roles is usually present. Urban space facilitates a range of social relationships and, reciprocally, the social needs of a city direct the creation of urban space. The cities that result from these processes exist as both concrete structures and as powerful symbols, laden with social and cultural meanings. They hold tremendous innovative power, existing along geographic fault lines and within networks of trade, politics, and culture, but few realize how deep these dynamic forces reach. Cities—in all their social, spatial, economic, and temporal variations—contain both buildings and peoples with many stories. Built to manage complexity, cities provide a distinctive framework for viewing frontier encounters.
Frontiers, however, are still generally conjured up as rural spaces—where one finds pioneer farming families, lone miners, and cowboys—not urban ones. More often than not, "the frontier" is imagined as a line of rugged, rural outposts, despite the fact that urban frontiers are actually central in the way people imagine the West. Western-themed amusements are often quintessentially urban spaces that replicate a town's commercial strip containing the iconic western saloon; and real mining camps were some of the most urban spaces around in terms of population density and economic activity.
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By reclaiming frontiers as urban phenomena, we are self-consciously stretching the way "the city" and "the urban" have increasingly come to be defined in two crucial ways. First, we seek to make an important temporal correction to what has become a trend in both urban western history and U.S. urban history writ large. Increasingly, historians have focused their attention on analyzing and describing a post-World War II America of suburban sprawl, framed powerfully by the racial politics refracted through the "urban crisis" of those decades, without considering the distinctive patterns of urban living, in the West and other regions, that stretch centuries before.
By bridging the gap between early American history and studies of the infrastructure and politics of modern cities, we make a crucial intervention in the way processes of urbanization are understood. The frontier cities described and analyzed in this volume—with their stories of native-newcomer interactions, gendered and racialized spaces, and global-local networks—are utterly relevant to the issues that animate studies of contemporary cities.
Moreover, within urban history, there is a tendency to conceive of cities as completely belonging to newcomer societies, part and parcel of tidy forms of settler colonialism that tend to make invisible processes of displacement and removal. The early histories of these places belie such assumptions, revealing the importance of cross-cultural interactions in city locations and design, social and economic structure, and remembered origins. We know that contemporary native peoples all over the world live, as often as not, in urban areas. What we have not acknowledged is that native peoples have been living in such places all along. Just as we have conceived of frontiers as zones that could not have contained cities, so have we been determined to deny that native people could live urban lives; rather, they must somehow reside in spaces that are remote, backwards, and lacking the civility we attribute to the very notion of the city.
This has limited our ability to see, for example, the existence of native and métis satellite villages—or, dare we say, suburbs—in some of the frontier cities described on these pages. It is impossible to comprehend early St. Louis without observing its nearby villages of St. Charles, St. Ferdinand de Florissant, Carondelet, and Portage des Sioux. Over half the residents of the St. Louis metropolitan area lived in these satellite villages in 1800, and it was in this suburban periphery that many of the most fascinating social, cultural, and economic exchanges occurred. The failure to broaden our view of what constitutes urban space on past frontiers has thus hindered our ability to find points of connection between scholarship on modern cities and that of earlier frontier cities.
Second, as we assert, frontiers are deeply connected to empire and crucial sites of urban development; yet in the tradition of U.S. historiography, the imperial, nation-making function of cities has typically been overlooked. By focusing on processes of urbanization in a frontier context, we bring to the forefront the ways in which urbanization both was fueled by empire and was an engine of it. For example, in the context of the diverse, rapidly growing instant city of nineteenth-century San Francisco, an important aspect of empire-building involved creating a recognizably American social order in a fluid population that was predominantly male and immigrant, thanks to the gold rush. In part this was done through politics and laws that linked citizenship to whiteness, and thus codified who had rights by defining who was white. But in a far-flung place where the arm of the state could reach only so far, an American social order was also asserted and contested in the kinds of cultural venues typically found only in urban areas: hotels and restaurants; places of amusement; tourist attractions; fairs and exhibitions. These were places where people came face-to-face with one another and, through the prisms of race, class, and gender, articulated varied and competing views of themselves and those around them.
The absence of empire from the study of U.S. cities detracts from the ability of urban history to recover its comparative and intercultural roots and tell stories connected to larger, global contexts. By reasserting the urban nature of frontier places, we highlight a North America shaped by imperial agendas, global markets, and diffuse urban models and connections. This focus provides a crucial untold chapter in the history of the construction of place, by and for North Americans, interacting in the first great age of globalization. The stories this volume reveals about Montreal, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities are not, moreover, about these places as we know them today. Instead, we are focused less on the stories of metropolises and more on the stories of how these cities came to be established, how their residents maintained a double focus on the local environment and distant, more global worlds, and what conditions existed so that these sites would not be among the countless abandoned settlements across human history.
Our conceptualizations of frontier and city thus allow us to see the two terms as a productive analytical fit. The early histories of frontier cities are the local stories of encounters and negotiation, set into larger global and hemispheric contexts. Their struggles, compromises, and legacies then shape and influence the making and remembering of that place even after that initial frontier is long gone. In their development, frontier cities followed no mythic line of settlement, nor did they all move in lockstep through a certain pattern of evolution.
Frontier cities connected people, and hence we are concerned with connecting histories. Colonial spaces and the frontier; global history and the history of the American West; urban studies and postcolonial theory; the re-invigorated interest in indigenous politics and culture—these disciplines and studies need to be connected, and the analysis of frontier cities offers one very fruitful way to make those connections. In the existing scholarship, too much is separated. Histories of American Indians or the environmental impact of colonization rarely consider cities and their dense political, market, and material interconnections. And insights of postcolonial analyses of power networks and empire—so important to studies of India, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific—have been only loosely applied to North America. Comparative works seeking to define the global frontier or the character of western expansion have been even scarcer. We recognize, of course, that the historiography of urbanization in the American West is rich and contains innovative studies of the interdependency of city and country, the role of western cities in the national economy, and the contribution of the West to changing American notions of community and urban form itself. Many of these studies, however, are too easily contained within the standard narratives of settler colonialism and nation building. What we are arguing for here are studies of frontier cities that include imperial and indigenous perspectives and have a transnational and comparative vision that can connect backward and forward in time.
Despite the attempts of new western historians to pay more attention to cross-cultural interaction, markets, and the changing modes of communication and transportation on various frontiers, the field of western history today seems outflanked by the innovations in colonial history, which has broadened its inquiries to include native communities, and re-imagined its subject as part of an Atlantic World that includes early modern Europe, Africa, and America. Yet western historians have also always been cognizant of borders and those who cross them—the margins of political, economic, and cultural communities. In this age of re-globalization, as national and geographic boundaries become ever more fluid, the insights of earlier generations of western history seem ready for application for a wider world, one that reaches back into the origins of European settlements around the world. At the same time, too many histories of early American cities tell a "colonial" story, focused only on stories of self-shaping distinctiveness or provincial emulation. When the word frontier is substituted for colonial, new kinds of social relations, both local and global—before relegated to the periphery—magically appear.
If we maintain, as did the inhabitants of frontier cities themselves, a double focus that captures the immediate and intimate along with the distant and global, we will see—with the open eyes of a Coeur qui Brule—a frontier with cities and cities with intriguing and important edges that we simply have not noticed. We have missed not only local stories but also stories of empires and far-reaching commercial networks. Their absence from the study of urban North America detracts from our ability to recover the comparative and intercultural roots of current U.S. cities, born within global networks of trade, culture, and politics.