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Three Frontiers: Family, Land and Society in the American West, 1860-1900.

While few would deny that urban social historians have provided important insights into the process of class and gender formation or the world of work, leisure, and politics, Dean May argues that it is time to look more closely at rural Americans. As he points out, rural Americans made up the majority of the country's population until 1920, and even those who migrated to the cities carried their rural perspective with them. May has taken his own advice to heart. His book examines not just one agricultural community but three, all located in the West. Sublimity in the Willamette Valley and Alpine in the Salt Lake Valley were settled during the first stage of migration to the trans-Mississipi West (1840-1860), while Middletown, located in the Boise Valley, was a product of the 1860s and represents what May considers the "new" West.

May's book makes an important contribution by undermining "the traditional notion of a monochrome agricultural people in the Far West." (p. 224) Despite the shared focus on agriculture, May shows that each of the three communities differed dramatically, especially in the initial stages of development. Although he acknowledges that environment played some part in influencing the character of these western agricultural frontiers, May emphasizes the role of culture in shaping community and in facilitating or inhibiting human ties.

May never defines culture, and its meaning changes depending upon the community under consideration. In Sublimity, where a majority of residents came from southern yeoman backgrounds, regional, class, and family values created the context for the community. May suggests that strong family loyalties encouraged emigrants to settle in clusters of kin and close friends while the memories of the large family plantations of the South led them to claim substantial tracts of land and to erect dignified family homesteads on them. Despite the generous size of their farms, however, settlers left much of their property unimproved. May argues that the yeoman preference for family self-sufficiency intersected with dreams for a family future that was connected to the land. Sublimity settlers did not view land as something to be exploited for the current generation but as insurance for future generations.

In Alpine, religion rather than regional, class, or kinship ties shaped the community. While most of Alpine's settlers were semi-skilled or skilled English workers, "reeling from the social dislocation" of nineteenth-century British industrialism, they apparently discarded their cultural baggage when they emigrated. (p. 55) Mormonism drew these disparate and unrelated people to the American West and provided them with a new cultural identity and home. Church leaders, not settlers, decided that the new community would consist of a central village with outlying fields. Church leaders encouraged the development of rich, overlapping ties among the village's residents by promoting numerous voluntary activities. As a result, the loyalties of Alpiners came to be focused on the community rather than on the family homestead as was the case in Sublimity.

While Sublimity and Alpine were very different sorts of places, each encouraged and valued human connectedness. Middleton, harbinger of our own times, was created by a new national culture that praised individualism, competitition, and material success. While May sees this new culture as a product of an urban and industrial economy, he also speculates about the cultural contribution of the Civil War. Relying on work by Gerald Linderman and others, he believes that the war loosened ties with family and home, narrowed social conscience, and encouraged putting individual interests ahead of broad social concerns. Those who came to Middletown were out for themselves. They hoped to take advantage of the town's economic opportunities, get rich, and then move on to new challenges. Middleton was less a community than a collection of people, mostly men, whose paths crossed at the mill and saloon.

May considers the consequences for women in each of these culturally distinct communities. In Sublimity, women figured prominently. Their high fertility rate ensured family survival while they made important contributions to family farm operations as producers, planners, and administrators. Their opinions were heard and valued in their parlors and in local schoolhouses, but they rarely ventured beyond the familiar circle into the larger community. Alpine women were also valued for childbearing and rearing although children were regarded as less significant in the earthly future of the family than in its celestial future. Because their husbands worked outside the village in family fields, May believes that Alpine women actually controlled the domestic sphere more firmly than did their counterparts in Sublimity. And their influence was diffused more widely in the community through involvement in myriad voluntary activities.

In Middleton, May shows, women were modern, private, isolated, and ironically most free. The married women had the smallest families of any of the communities, no production functions, no kin nearby for whom they had responsibilities, few or no voluntary commitments. Such freedom, May points out, had a high personal price. Middletown women had an impoverished social life, and even in their new consuming role did not feel welcome in the masculine atmosphere of commercial Middletown. Their reluctance to enter male spaces may account for the rise of mail order catalogues.

May shares the interest of other scholars in identifying forces that inhibit or encourage the close human ties he so clearly values. He identifies religion, a strong family presence, the modes of production and exchange, attitudes towards the land, the presence of voluntary associations all as factors that can lead to strong communities. But as he shows, none of these factors necessarily leads to connection. What can be a cement in one community can be a dissolvent in another. His discussion of the role of religion in each settlement is especially insightful.

Three Frontiers exploits a wide range of sources including the census, tax rolls, court records, remininscences and local histories, even the community memories of present-day residents. While May's analysis of statistical data provides the framework for his recreation of Sublimity, Alpine, and Middletown, he never forgets that the residents of these three community "were not statistics but people." (p. 12) Imaginative in using his sources to yield insight into the dreams and hopes of his settlers as well as their material existence, unafraid to speculate, sensitive to the nuances of non-quantitative sources, May has written an excellent and insightful book.

Julie Roy Jeffrey Goucher College
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Author:Jeffrey, Julie Roy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:1051
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