Frontiers in history.
Often this theme leads us to think of the American West. We might think of open plains filled with cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs, Native Americans, pioneers, and farmers. But frontiers are everywhere, and they've been crossed throughout history.
Early humans pushed geographic boundaries, spread across the Earth's continents, and crossed its vast oceans. Ancient civilizations crossed frontiers to find resources, established trading partners, and spread their ideas of government, economics, culture and religion. Kingdoms, empires, and nation states grew, expanded, clashed, collapsed, and reestablished themselves over time. Individuals and groups of people crossed frontiers in science, medicine, art, literature and technology. To determine whether an event in history crosses as a frontier, consider these three ideas. First, people often referred to as pioneers, crossed frontiers. Pioneers adapted to unknown situations. They use creativity, ingenuity and grit. Second, a frontier is a place in history with a clear before and after. Once a frontier is crossed, history changes. Finally, pioneers develop ideas to survive and thrive in these new environments.
The myth of the American West.
Many classic accounts from the American West center around stories of white settlers and heroic cowboys, but this idea is not as clear as it might seem. While many Americans pushed what they perceived as the frontier further west, they were not moving into unsettled land. For centuries Native nations called the American West home. These indigenous peoples developed advanced systems of farming, hunting, and gathering that sustained complex indigenous cultures, religions and nations. They lived on the Great Plains, in the desert Southwest, along the California coast, and in the Pacific Northwest. When considering the frontiers of the American West, consider multiple perspectives. While the Dakota Territory was a frontier to American settlers. It was home to many native nations including the Chippewa, Mandan and Lakota. In what ways did the US Federal government encourage settlers to move West? What role did railroads play? How did Native nations and white settlers interact? In what ways did conflict and disease challenge both communities?
The history of the American West contains many lesser known stories. What new voices might you uncover? For instance, what are the contributions of Asian Americans to the formation of the American West? Students interested in immigrant stories might look to the frontiers in Asian American history. The National Endowment for the Humanities, a More Perfect Union initiative commemorating the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, asks you to explore stories that reflect our journey toward a more inclusive and just society. What role did Chinese immigrants play on the western frontier? Consider the contributions made by Chinese immigrants as builders of the transcontinental railroad. What were their experiences? What prejudices did they face? In what ways did they speak out against injustices in their communities?
How did women cross social and political frontiers in the American W in 1869? The territory of Wyoming became the first to grant women the right to vote due in part to Doctor Grace Raymond Hebard, an engineer in the Wyoming State Engineering Office. Hebard lobbied for women suffrage. In 1890, Wyoming became the first state where women could vote. How did Hiebert and others pave the way for future female leaders like Wyoming's first governor Nellie Tayloe Ross? In what ways do women's histories challenge preconceived notions of the American West?
Pioneers cross frontiers.
Why do people cross frontiers? Do they have economic or personal goals? What drives a person or group of people to leave their homes and venture somewhere new? What factors push or pull groups of people to seek a new life in a new place? Do you have to leave your home to become a pioneer? History is full of stories of migrants and immigrants.
Local history offers fascinating examples of those who cross frontiers without ever leaving their hometowns. Consider the story of Levi Garland Nelson, owner of Nelson Barbershop. How did Nelson traverse a frontier when he and other newly freed Black men opened Barber shops in places like Doylestown, PA after the American Civil War? Does Nelson's story demonstrate how the Black community Crossed economic frontiers. How can local history provide evidence of the struggle for Black freedom, equality and prosperity in the United States?
In the 1850s there were few vocational or educational occupations for women. Why did schools like the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania create opportunities for women, including women of color, to become physicians? In what ways were pioneer physicians, such as doctors, Katherine McFarland, Ruth Jackson, Alma D Maroni, and Virginia Apgar trailblazers. Did they change the way medicine was practiced? Provide care to those who could not afford it. In what ways did these pioneers influence how medicine is practiced today? What stories can you find in your local history? Do you see your ancestors or other local figures challenging boundaries and creating new opportunities for themselves and their communities?
Frontiers are places in history.
How and where do we create cities and towns and what do we consider the edges of civilization? What planning goes into their creation, do people build towns and cities with specific goals in mind? Frontiers are places in history. Once a frontier is crossed, history changes. Consider the stories of planned communities. The National Park Service explores different communities from the Colonial period to the mid 20th century. These historic sites explore frontiers where settlements established military outposts, religious communities or agricultural settlements where none had previously existed. Why were these places formed? Do they represent frontiers? For whom? How did these places influence the people who came to live there?
Ideas creating frontiers?
Can ideas be frontiers? How do innovations in technology, science and the arts open new lines of thought? And what ways do inventions and innovations change the way we live? In the 18th century an independent American nation was a radical idea. The idea of a representative democracy replacing a monarchy pushed the boundaries of political thought and parent practice. What philosophers influenced the revolution's leaders? Where do we see these ideas in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the US Constitution?
Fast forward to the early 20th century in moving picture technology. Films captured expeditions to new geographic frontiers. The North and South poles. Students might explore the life and adventures of Louise Archer Boyd who photographed and filmed some of the earliest images of the Arctic. What did she uncover about these under explored regions? Can her work be considered a frontier? How and why? What influence did her work have on the science of glaciology, biology or astronomy?
Frontiers in world history.
The theme of Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas, challenges students to explore new frontiers of their history education. Frontiers who not just exist in U.S. history. Students might explore Muslim mathematician Al-Khwarizmi's work on algebra in the 900s. Did these early advances in math change society?
How have others broadened those areas of study over time? Considered the development of written language, such as the ancient Sumerian development of cuneiform. In what ways did written language influence what we know of ancient civilizations? Students interested in world politics might explore the actions of Simone Bolivar known as El Libertador, and his efforts to liberate Venezuela from Spain, or look to Mahatma Gandhi in his role as a leader in India's independence movement. How did these leaders resist colonial regimes? Did they achieve their goals for independence? In what ways did they cross political, economic, military or social frontiers?
Frontiers are everywhere. They're crossed every day. The pioneers who crossed frontiers faced unknown situations that forced them to adapt and change. These new ideas change the way we live, work and play. Seek out new places. Consider new voices. Find new ideas. Frontiers can be found throughout history. We cannot wait to see what stories you uncover in your 2023 National History Day project.