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Westward Expansion

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Westward Expansion

Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, by Ray Allen Billington, with

the collaboration of James Blaine Hedges (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company,

1949, Fourth Edition, 1974, 840 pp., maps, tables, bibliography, index.)

As the preface to the first edition states, Westward Expansion attempts to follow

the pattern that Frederick Jackson Turner might have used had he ever compressed his

researches on the American frontier within one volume. Dr. Billington makes no pretense

of original scholarship except in limited instances. Instead a synthesis of the voluminous

writings inspired by Turner's original essays is presented. In that respect, the book is

highly successful. Dr. Billington masterfully weaves these monographs, essays, texts, and

learned journals, into a readable yet pedantic overview of the history of the American


Subsequent editions incorporate and appraise the newer viewpoints on the frontier

advanced from the date of original publication in 1949 through 1981, the year of Dr.

Billington's death. The fifth and final edition was published in 1982. Textual revisions

from the fourth to the fifth edition were slight. Certain changes were made to rid the text

of sexism, as masculine nouns and pronouns gave way to neutral words. Thus,

"frontiersmen" became "pioneers" or "Westerners."

All editions share an outstanding bibliography. The fourth edition bibliography is

nearly 150 pages long. As in previous editions, Dr. Billington followed the practice of

briefly summarizing each new entry, suggesting its significance in the historiography of the

frontier. The book also provides a variety of maps and charts to aptly exemplify points.

Dr. Billington was a professor of history and senior research associate of the

Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, at Northwestern University when the book

was written. He has been described as a disciple of Frederick Jackson Turner, of Harvard

University, who first formulated the "frontier hypothesis." The first chapter of Westward

Expansion is revealingly entitled "The Frontier Hypothesis."

The thesis of the book is that no one force did more to "Americanize" the nation's

people and institutions than the repeated rebirth of civilization along the western edge of

settlement during the three centuries required to occupy the continent. Bowing perhaps to

recent scholarship, Dr. Billington concedes that the westward moving area of free land

alone does not explain American development. The persistence of inherited European

traits, the continuous impact of changing world conditions, and the influence of varying

racial groups were equally important forces in shaping the nation's distinctive civilization.

Still, the continuous rebirth of society in the western wilderness, provided Americans

unique characteristics not shared by the rest of the world. Thus, the most Dr. Billington

concedes is a modification of Turner, not a refutation.

According to Dr. Billington, the frontier was a vast westward moving zone,

contiguous to the populated portions of the country, peopled by a variety of

self-aggrandizing individuals intent on exploiting the natural resources of their respective

zone. The expanding west was an area of seemingly unlimited resources and opportunities

where people could improve their lot through trapping, trading, ranching, mining,


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