The Dean of Western Historians

Billington and the Frontier Culture

It is usually difficult to choose only one author who is essential to the study of a particular subject.  When it comes to the history of the frontier West, however, the choice is easy.  Ray Allen Billington stands alone above all.  He is the sine qua non of any course on frontier history.  When reading Billington, you are getting two giants of the field in one.  He was inspired by Frederick Jackson Turner, whose “frontier hypothesis” became the basis for Billington’s life work.  While Turner had the perspicacious insight to perceive the significance of the frontier in American history and to write about it in sweeping, almost poetical terms, it was Billington who wrote its history in a comprehensive narrative that is storytelling at its best.  His Westward Expansion is a volume without peer as a history of the frontier from the time European settlers first set foot on what is today the United States to the closing of the wild and woolly Old West during the 1890’s.

I was introduced to Westward Expansion while taking a course on the American West as an undergraduate at UCLA during the 1960’s.  I found the more than 900-page volume a page turner, which made it an anomaly among textbooks.  Its 140 pages of bibliography are without rival and an indispensable research tool.  The cloth-bound volume of densely packed text interspersed...

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