Why the Far Northwest Frontier?


When the first major wave of emigrants from the United States came to the Pacific Northwest -- beginning with the wagon trains of 1843 -- it was a land of legend and mystery. Little solid information existed about the area’s climate or resources or about the Indians who already lived there and who certainly had rights to those resources and lands. The United States and Great Britain both claimed control of the area, and the interests of Mexico and Russia could not be ignored, either.

Where to Emigrate, and Why, was published in 1869. A nationwide guide with maps and illustrations, the book puts the Pacific Coast first as a desirable destination. Washington Territory is "exceedingly beautiful, and agreeable," it says, and reports that "There is plenty of room for talent, energy, and capital. The chances have not all been taken, indeed the country is yet in its infancy."

So why did thousands of United States citizens take to wagon or ship or even their feet, leapfrog across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Basin, and try to build new lives in the Pacific Northwest? Most of them were self-sufficient farmers, and planned to continue in this way. Few of them had experience with industry or commerce or life in towns and cities. Yet in a rather short time, the region would be characterized more by extractive industries such as logging and fishing than by family farming, and its people would live predominantly in towns in cities.

What most of us think of as “the American frontier,” was West of the Missouri River, but East of the Cascade Mountains. The Pacific Northwest had a frontier period, but it had different characteristics than were found in most of the rest of the West. The Pacific Northwest, however, also adopted and adapted many of the ideas and icons associated with the West that lay to the East.


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