NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer, 1960
THE FRONTIERSMAN AS RECLUSE AND REDEEMER
Warren S. Walker
JUST ahead of the settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries moved another breed of men almost as exotic as
the Indians with whom they associated but far more believable.
These were the frontiersmen—the Boones, the Crocketts, the
Carsons—advance scouts thrown out by civilization for one of its
longest overland marches in history. Driven by a variety of motives—
discontent, misanthropy, restiveness, adventurousness—these
individuals separated from the main body of society to live alone
in the still uncharted reaches of the forest. But the knowledge and
skills they acquired there put their services in high demand, and
they were often called upon, ironically, to be the agents for a way
of life they had tried to flee. They blazed trails, hunted game,
located potable water, negotiated with the Indians, and, in general,
taught the pioneer families how to survive in the great
American wilderness. Then when the crush of humanity and the
restrictions of society became unbearable in the new settlements
they had helped to establish, they pushed still farther westward,
only to be overtaken again and again till the land gave way to
the sea and the cycle was finally halted. As if according to some
master plan, they stepped forth at the moment they were needed,
fulfilled their purpose, and then were consumed by the creature
Civilization [Parkman observed] has a destroying as well as a
creating power. It is exterminating the buffalo and the Indian....It
must, moreover, eventually sweep from before it a class of men, its
own precursors....so remarkable both in their virtues and their
faults that few men will see their extinction without regret.
And it is of this class of men, whose passing the historian here
laments, that James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking is the
beau ideal. He is at once a sharply individualized representative
of the type, and beyond that a mythical hero who symbolizes the
whole phase of history in which the type flourished.
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