The Elephant in the Room

Elephant - Western Observer - April 23 1831_Page_15
From the Western Observer, April 23, 1831.

I stumbled across this ad from the Western Observer, a Jacksonville newspaper, dated April 1831. It throws a wrench into everything we think we know about the frontier.

It is the literal elephant in the room that brings together various threads questioning standard historical narratives that privilege patriarchy, whiteness, and Americans’ obsession with manifest destiny. 

To bring you up to speed, the standard historical narrative to which I refer is best summarized by Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” His thesis was this:

“American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.”

In other words, Americans are awesome because white settlers had to live in primitive conditions for a while. Its the classic pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” scenario.

It’s easy to see how Turner developed his ideas. In their diaries and letters, white settlers took tremendous pride in taming the “howling wilderness.” This was nature at its most bare, a wild space to be culled of savagery (read: Native Americans), and built anew. Take for example, this letter dated November 1, 1830, from John Matthews, a Congregational minister working for the American Home Missionary Society. Writing from Kaskaskia, Illinois, Matthews writes optimistically to his benefactors:

“And there remains much land yet to be possessed. In view of this fact, we must say to the honor and glory of God, that he hath done great things for us, whence of we are glad. We do hope yet that by the blessings of God upon us that this late, howling wilderness will be made as the garden of the Lord.”

-John Matthews to the American Home Missionary Society, 1 November, 1830. American Home Missionary Society Papers, 1816-1894, Letters from Illinois, 1830-1836, microfilm reel 16, American Antiquarian Society.

As he wrote his letter, that elephant was probably on a flatboat, making its way up the Mississippi. Okay, maybe it would be too heavy for a flatboat. I actually have no idea how the elephant got there, but that’s not the point (though wouldn’t you love to know?). The point is that white settlers relished log cabins and frigid winters, all the while complaining of discomfort, because first, it really was uncomfortable. But more importantly, they fully understood the novelty of their movements west and the roles they would play in the physical and conceptual creation of the young republic. It was as though they anticipated Tuner’s frontier thesis and wrote source material specifically for him.

To mention the elephants would expose their very close cultural, commercial, and physical connections with the rest of the United States and the world. It would lift the veil on the myth of isolation and rebuilding one’s society from scratch. It would force them to acknowledge that they ported with them a very modern economy. We can look upon the manufactured cloth, musical instruments, and fine china often found in frontier cabins as “rare luxuries.” Those are things you can lovingly pack and cherish as reminders of the folks back east. We can overlook that fact that most of those items could be purchased here in Illinois and still buy into what historian Joyce Appleby described as:

“… images and myths that could resonate among [ordinary white men and women] without evoking the curse of slavery, nor troubling the national conscience about violently displacing the indigenous peoples.”

– From Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 53.

But elephants disrupt that myth.  You can’t lovingly pack an elephant. To acknowledge the elephants reveals that the frontier experience was not quite the isolated, “primitive” experience as traditional narratives want us to believe. That elephant had to sail across the ocean and make its way to Jacksonville. In 1831. That required extensive networks for infrastructure, communication, and commerce. It also cost 25 cents just to see it. That decided who saw the elephant and who did not. The women at the alms house, servants, and others on the peripheries of the frontier myth were likely too busy, too unwanted, and to poor, to see it.

We all agree that rural spaces are just as conceptual as they are geographical. It’s teasing apart those concepts that takes time. The myth of the frontier is still a staple of local lore and tourism here in Jacksonville. One county history composed by Charles Eames in 1885 described impressions of the first (supposedly first) white settlers.

“The country lay about them in all its native wildness. No signs of life were seen, save foot-prints in the brown paths, worn by Indian feet, and the shy, frightened birds, squirrels, or deer, that darted away into the wildwood, at the approach of the emigrants. No foot of white men save that of the adventurous scout, or wandering hunter, had pressed the sod of these wild prairies, or roamed through the trackless forests.”

– Charles M. Eames, Historic Morgan and Classic Jacksonville (Jacksonville, IL: Daily Journal Steam Job Printing Office, 1885), 36. Available on Google Books

Eams’ books is loaded with good information and it is a go-to source for the history of Jacksonville. But it has to be used carefully. These myths continue to inform us today and lead us to planting monuments like this one on the town square:


“Welcomed” immediately stands out as an odd word choice, but it makes sense if you look at the historical record. According to the diary of agent Jesse C. Douglas, who helped oversee the forced removal of the Potawatomi from Indiana and Michigan to Kansas, the people of Jacksonville did indeed welcome the group with a “serenade from [a] Jacksonville Band” and the presentation of “tobacco and pipes.” So it could be construed that the white people were in fact “welcoming.” Then again, his diary also described how earlier that day a child was crushed under the wheels of the wagon. The following day two more children died while crossing the Illinois River. Scarce food, putrid water, and high mortality rates gave this forced march its name. Welcoming or not, the people of Jacksonville were complicit in  forced removal and genocide. Talk about an elephant in the room. In 1860, just twenty-two years later, the faculty at the Jacksonville Female Academy – many of whom lived in town in 1838 – began assembling collections of Native American pottery and artifacts so that their young students could study what they deemed to be extinct cultures. From their perspective, they had conquered “primitive society” in their inevitable march toward progress.

I’ll end by saying that Turner wasn’t entirely wrong because certainly, the idea of the frontier had a profound affect on the development of American culture and society. As historian Doug Kiel recently noted:

“The Midwest is a region whose history is in need of considerable revision. Not only would the introduction of new histories of the American Midwest open a wider space for American Indian histories, but also in the process, these new midwestern histories could broadly reframe the region as the outcome of many contested frontiers. Already there exists an important body of scholarship focused on multicultural encounters in what is today the American Midwest, but as of yet, comparatively little of this work has extended past the 1840s.

-Doug Kiel, “Untaming the Mild Frontier: In Search of New Midwestern Histories,” Middle West Review 1, Number 1 (Fall 2014), 11.

My hope is that American Athena can add to this conversation and explore the development of identities in a frontier town over the course of a century.

For more eloquent reading on the creation of American mythology and the historical record, some good places to start are Jim Buss, Winning the West With Words (Oklahoma, 2011) and Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minnesota, 2010).


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