Tag Archives: US History

Imagining the Frontier Before Drawing It

“Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” -Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

“Like many historians, Turner was interpreting the past in light of recent events. This presentism had great benefits and also great risks. History was bound to to go on. . . Turner himself moved on. In his later essays, he kept adding ‘more history’ as it accumulated. . .” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987


On February 19, 1807, Vice President Aaron Burr was captured after escaping his earlier arrest when President Jefferson accused him of treason for his role in a conspiracy to colonize parts of Mexico. Seven days later, on February 26, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the members of his expedition into the Southwest (which Jefferson ordered) were captured by Spanish authorities and taken to Chihuahua, then under Spanish control. He used the opportunity to analyze New Spain’s weaknesses for the possibility that the US would try to colonize parts of Mexico. The American Frontier, as Turner insists in his “Frontier Thesis,” shaped American historiography, but in 1807, what became the frontier was a highly militarized border zone.

The Pike Expedition began the year Lewis and Clark returned from their own expedition to the Northwest. Exploring modern-day Colorado, Pike lost members to abandonment or bad weather while wandering across the porous border into Mexico.

In his journals, Pike kept careful account of what he encountered, gathering information about local governments and geography. On their way to Chihuahua, Pike notes on March 27 that he “saw the Gazettes of Mexico, which gave rumors of colonel Burr’s conspiracies, the movement of our troops. . . stated in so vague and undefined a manner, as only to create our anxiety without throwing any light on the subject” (Pike, Journals, 240). He later notes on April 24 that he was reprimanded for discussing “subjects of religion or politics” but that he was held as a guest “under coercion of the Spanish government” and not as a prisoner of war. Pike then writes that he patriotically declared to Spanish authorities (over dinner with them): “To my government I am certainly responsible, and to no other” (246).

Because he was so dedicated to his government, Pike ended his 1810 account of his expedition by offering one final conclusion about US-Mexico relations:

Should an army of Americans ever march into the country, and be guided and governed there by these maxims, they will only have to march from province to province in triumph, and be hailed by the united voices of grateful millions as their deliverers and saviors” (Pike, Expedition, 806). As Vice President Dick Cheney put it two centuries later, “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This is how the US framed the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century: as a foreign nation in need of democracy and order.

Spanish colonial officers were suspicious of Pike’s discussions of politics with the locals because they feared that the US, which had separated from the English crown, would inspire Mexico to separate from the Spanish crown, as independence became increasingly popular in the region. Coupled with vague rumors that rogue US politicians planned to conquer sections of North America for themselves, the Spanish authorities had good reason to be suspicious. In 1810, independence movements spiraled into nationalist protests and a bloody war, forcing Spain to grant Mexican independence in 1821. Years later, the US would follow Pike’s advice and invade Texas and northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Unlike Pike predicted, though, the US military was not greeted as liberators.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and his compatriots were punished for trying to instigate exactly what Pike recommended. Jefferson’s exertion of control over who could, and who could not, conquer parts of New Spain demonstrates his role in creating the concept of the “American frontier” as a strategic borderland, rather than a raw, untamed wilderness.

New Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick notes that the “opening of the Mexican borderlands to American colonists and merchants made the region into what it remains today: a true frontier, in the European sense, in which two nations confront each other and compete for control” (228). She goes on to detail Burr’s plot, alongside General James Wilkinson, to colonize parts of the continent and create a new nation using the available resources, admitting that when “Zebulon Pike set out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River in 1806, he might have been acting as Wilkinson’s agent” (229).

Intelligence about the borders of New Spain, then, became part of the ideological basis for the American frontier. The distance between Arkansas and Chihuahua was labeled the frontier because it was a borderland rather than a boundary, like the no-man’s land between trenches on the Western Front in World War One. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” says more about how Americans viewed themselves in the 1890s than in the 1810s. The frontier was framed as contested territory. By the time Turner delivered his thesis, there was no longer a contest in federal or popular imagination.

But the frontier was also about quantification. First, the US had to map, measure, and count everything available in the frontier space, to determine where the gold, silver, copper, fur, timber, coal, and indigenous communities could be found, and where they could be removed to. Knowledge of the land preceded the frontier, rather than the other way around. This is the way American contradiction manifests in the frontier thesis: Americans wanted to discover land that had already been discovered, to be given access to the land they were told to imagine. A blank map could not be tolerated. It had to be filled out.


Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Pike, Zebulon. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Harper, 1895.

Pike, Zebulon. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, Ed. Stephen Hart & Archer Hulbert. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, Ed. Everett E. Edwards, University of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

The 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship

By Gardner Weld Allen (1856-1944) - Our Navy and the Barbary_Corsairs_1904

Decatur’s Squadron Off Algiers, by Gardner Allen Weld, 1905.

On June 7, 1797, the US Senate ratified a treaty with Tripoli, which President John Adams signed into law three days later. This Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1796 was one of four maritime agreement between the infantile United States and the Maghrib States (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis), known in the west as the Barbary Coast. These treaties were meant to protect American ships in the Mediterranean from pirates operating in the region.

The treaties soon failed, largely because of the toll of payments owed to the Maghrib States and the pirates’ continued ransoming of American sailors. President Adams opted to pay the ransoms and tributes, but his slave-owning Southern successor Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the North African states, sparking a war during the first year of Jefferson’s presidency, the first of two conflicts known as the Barbary Wars.

Late during the Obama Administration, several commentators on both the left and right compared Obama’s foreign policies to the Barbary Wars. An article in The Atlantic called US involvement in the 2011 Libyan Civil War “The Third Barbary War.” Others compared the Barbary pirates to ISIS, while those on the far right erroneously claimed that Jefferson went to war with Islamic terrorists.

Both camps miss the point: as usual, those on the right conflate terrorists with literally every other state-with-Muslims-in-it in history, while liberal commentators misrepresent Barbary piracy as comparable to religious terrorism. Historian Max Boot notes that both the US and Britain utilized piracy in the same ways, noting that “the corsairs of North Africa were no more–and no less–piratical than Sir Francis Drake or Sir John Hawkins. . . both of whom operated as privateers” and that “the US government was so attached to this practice that it refused to sign the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing privateering as a weapon of war” (8).

Furthermore, twenty-first century US Middle-Eastern policy differs ideologically from Jefferson’s. Edward Said points out that in the US, unlike Britain and France during this period, “there was no deeply invested tradition of Orientalism. . . the imaginative investment [in the Orient] was never made either, perhaps because the American frontier, the one that counted, was the westward one” (290). The US was interested in controlling the narrative, and therefore the economic value, of the American West (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase) rather than North Africa, which is perhaps the opposite of the Bush/Obama/Trump era.

While the Barbary Wars are easy to exploit for ideological op-eds, the pre-war treaties are more instructive. Specifically, the 1796 Treaty demonstrates that the early US conceptualized itself on equal footing with other seafaring powers, and was willing to alter the national identity it presented to that end.

Consisting of twelve articles, the 1796 Treaty proclaims first that there “is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary” (Article I) and that the two states should avoid naval conflicts with one another. As such, the Treaty states that trade “is on the same footing with those of the most favoured nations respectively (Article IX).

Article XI is now controversial for its implications, and is worth quoting at length: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims],-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Here, the US emphasizes at length that it does not have a bias against the Maghrib States on religious grounds. Yet Article XI is still out-of-place. In a strictly economic treaty, the US stresses religious difference, or its indifference to religion. Despite Article XI’s clear message, there is overwhelming evidence of a legalized bias against non-Christians after Independence. Gaustad and Schmidt write that “Delaware’s 1776 constitution required all public officials to swear their belief ‘in God the Father, in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’. . Pennsylvania in 1790 vowed to deny state offices to any atheist as well as to anyone who did not believe in ‘a future state of awards and punishments.’ Only Protestants could be elected in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Georgia–according to their constitutions” (131).

And yet, in the 1796 Treaty, the US publicly reshaped its cultural identity in order to make the treaty more appealing. American culture warriors insist that national identity is non-negotiable, but Article XI contradicts this at an international level. In contrast, the US crafted its national identity as an open slate, not just for states but as a union. From the beginning, malleability was intentional, not a growing list of exceptions to the rule. Malleability was the whole point of America.

I want to argue here that the US had a global consciousness from its inception, and not just when it entered World War One. Instead, it built its global consciousness on the trading and military strategies of Britain and France, as well as its own perception of itself as a frontier space, as a blank chalkboard upon which its leaders could draw and erase American identity.  Like the imagined Frontier, America was made to sustain multiple contradictions in what it was. A savage but easily conquered wilderness, a piratical state against piracy, not built on Christianity but where only Christians can be elected.

The land-owning businessmen who created America self-consciously crafted a flexible state that was easy to change as needed. The problem is that the mechanisms of change, of political dynamics, are still in the hands of economic elites.

The Barbary Treaties demonstrate a deliberate American flexibility, an exchange of identity for financial expansion. If this flexibility is more openly acknowledged, even utilized–if we finally recognized America’s founding blankness–then more people might be able to survive and even thrive in America. Until then, the nation is a chalkboard ruled by people who only know how to use the erasers.


Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. Basic Books, 2002.

Gaustad, Edward S. & Leigh E. Schmidt. The Religious History of America. Harper Collins, 2002.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1994.