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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Catholic Historical Review
Vol. 25 No. 2 (Jul. 1939), pp160‑178

The text is in the public domain.

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 p160  The Significance of the Frontier to the Historian of the Catholic Church in the United States​*

In 1893 when Frederick Jackson Turner advanced his hypothesis concerning the influence of the Anglo-American frontiersman upon the development of the United States, conditions were such that they helped materially toward a ready acceptance of the idea. The statement that "an American is a born enemy of all European peoples" was probably truer at that time than it ever has been before or since.​1 In 1893 reconstruction of the nation after the war of the States was something that the people liked to consider as finished. The United States were truly united in government, by railroads and an unbroken chain of cities, hamlets and farms from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. But the country was not yet recognized by Europe as a world power. National adolescence had come to an end; and just as the youth who attains his majority has a sudden desire to let people know that he no longer depends upon anyone, so we in the 1890's sought to express our self-sufficiency among the older nations. One need not force the parallel farther. It might be suggested, however, that the Spanish American War obtained for us what we wanted, by a means quite similar to that which might have been used by an over-grown boy resorting to his fists to assert his superiority. Be that as it may, in 1893 we were still seeking equality with the great nations of the old world and a theory which encouraged us to believe that we had developed our own characteristic excellence by our own struggle with our own virgin wilderness was a theory not hard for us to accept. If there were murmurs of opposition to Turner's hypothesis when first he proposed it they were lost in the roar of approval.

 p161  Students flocked to the classes of Dr. Turner at the University of Wisconsin. On graduation, they were accepted into history faculties of the country, where they spread the good evangel. When Albert Bushnell Hart decided to edit The American Nation, A History from Original Sources By Associate Scholars, Turner was chosen to write the volume on the rise of the new West.​2 Other brilliant authors conducted researches along the lines indicated by the master and the flow of captivating literature on our territorial expansion began to pour forth from the presses of the land.3

The principal ideas of the theory may be expressed briefly in six propositions:

1. Life on the frontier changed Europeans over into Americans because it put them in a wilderness which stripped them of their former culture, reduced them to a state of near savagery and forced them to adopt the life of the aborigines. From this quasi-primitive existence a new civilization evolved distinct from the old civilization because the new environment where it developed was distinct from that of Europe.

2. This new civilization had a new idea of a nation with a manifest destiny to expand over the entire continent and ignore those geographical features of river and mountain range which constituted the natural boundaries of other countries.

3. This new civilization was so imbued with the idea of preserving national unity that it was ready to force sections to remain united despite any will to the contrary.

4. This new civilization was by the necessity of its evolution a democratic society.

 p162  5. This new civilization was by the necessity of its evolution characterized by a new acuteness, new inquisitiveness, new practical inventiveness, new restless energy, and exuberant freedom.

6. This new civilization, very naturally placed new responsibilities on the United States government, in regard to tariff, land policy, internal improvements, etc.4

It is a surprisingly ingenious theory. It is remarkable how it can be made to fit our history. The westerner becomes the true American. Washington who spent his youth on the frontier, if he did not actually evolve there, at least imbibed the spirit of the West and dominates the revolution and the constitutional convention. Next the muscular frontiersman invades Kentucky, the Old Northwest and Louisiana. Then Andrew Jackson leavens the east with western democracy. A new flood of pioneers win Texas, the Oregon Country, and finally California. Lincoln, the typical frontiersman, preserves the union against the southern planter who has kept contact with Europe and has not evolved into the energetic pleb. Finally, in the era of big business, the inventive genius and restlessness of the West speeds up invention and the production of luxury, and we become what are today the wealthiest and most self-sufficient nation on the globe.

The simplicity with which one may thus explain the principal political and cultural developments of our history may account for the popularity with which the hypothesis was greeted by one group of history teachers who have little time to prepare their matter and less time to think about it. Once they had learned the formula for the first step westward in American history, they realized that the process might be used over and over again as pioneers and students marched in successive waves through the vast wilderness of the hinterland to the Pacific Ocean and June graduation.

However, there was still another group of independent scholars, small indeed in those days of the theory's almost universal popularity, who sensed that such a repetition of plunges into the wilderness by Anglo-American pioneers neglected the presence of certain facts which had left their mark in the primary sources and in the American character. With a stroke of the pen, Turner had  p163 excluded from his history the fact that Spaniards and French had travelled through, labored in, and settled on the territory which he preferred to consider a wilderness.​5 Men like Bourne, Thwaites, and Bolton felt that this was not a true picture of the facts and came forward with books which were most enlightening to those who chose to stop and read.6

As the years passed by a "Bolton School" of history teachers began to grow up at the University of California. Finally, after Turner's death in March 1932, Dr. Bolton, as retiring President of the American Historical Association, took advantage of the annual meeting in Toronto to bring his theory to the attention of the delegates assembled from all over North America. A few thoughts from his address significant to the Catholic student of frontier history are worth recalling. It began with the suggestion that there

was need of a broader treatment of American history to supplement the purely nationalistic interpretation to which we are accustomed. European history cannot be learned from books dealing alone with England or France, or Germany, or Italy, or Russia; nor can American history be adequately presented if confined to Brazil, or Chile, or Mexico, or Canada, or the United States.​7

Hence it followed that the colonial activities of Spain and France and Holland and Sweden and England in North America must be considered if we are to form a correct opinion of how our nation was built. One cannot present the full picture of our national growth by erasing these people from the scene and concentrating on the Western move of the frontiersmen from the thirteen English colonies because many European nations began on the rim of the continent and

 p164  pushed into the interior opening new mines, new missions, new plantations, new farms, new trading posts, new administrative jurisdictions. Sometimes the advance to the hinterland was a westward movement, sometimes it was eastward, sometimes southward, sometimes northward.​8

The result was that in the territory which is now the United States, almost as soon as Anglo-American settlements crossed the Appalachians they found it convenient to lean upon the aid of the French engagés.​9 From that day until a time about fifty years later when the United States had expanded almost to the Pacific

these hardy souls, half European, half Indian, still formed the backbone of the fur trade both in Canada and the United States. . . . They served as guides into the wilderness, for their ancestors for generations had led the van, whether under English, French, Spanish or American rule. Just as the American cowboy learned his trade from the Spanish vaquero, so the American fur trader borrowed his methods and his lingo from the French métis.​10

Backed by his own researches and those of scholars who had worked under him he was able to conclude his address with the assertion that

in recent years the range of investigation in Western Hemisphere history has vastly broadened. . . . Many of the new discoveries do not fit into the nationalistic pattern. In the old synthesis their significance is lost. In a larger framework, on the other hand, many things which have seemed obscure and secondary became outstanding and primary.

This applies especially to Borderland researches. Brebner studied the institutional relations of New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and concluded that the histories of Canada and the United States should be treated as one. Just as emphatically, those who have studied the borderland areas between Saxon and Hispanic America  p165 are convinced that the two fields are inextricably linked together. Borderland zones are vital not only in the determination of international relations, but also in the development of culture. In this direction one of the important modifications of the Turner thesis is to be sought. (By borderland areas not solely geographical regions are meant; borderline studies of many kinds are similarly fruitful.)​11

Dr. Bolton ended his presidential address by calling upon his listeners to undertake research work into the other borderlines where the Anglo-American frontiersman came into contact with culture, philosophy and religion transplanted from Europe either before his arrival on the scene, or contemporaneously with it. Now, Spain and France were both militantly Catholic countries during all of their colonial occupation of our continent, hence the influence of Catholic contact upon the Turner type of explorer and settler opens up a field of study particularly suited to the researches of the historian of the Catholic Church in the United States.

The retiring president of the American Historical Association had hinted in one part of his discourse that a study of Catholic  p166 mission activity of Spain and France might lead to the necessity for further modification of Turner's thesis.​12 In the January 1935 issue of Mid-America, Dr. W. Eugene Shiels, S. J., published an article under the caption of "The Frontier Hypothesis: A Corollary" which developed this thought. He proved that there were whole portions of the area now embraced by the United States where Turner's idea of the effect of the white man's contact with the Indians was false, due to the previous existence of Catholic missions in such sections. Though the Anglo-American may have held no other aim than the extermination of the aborigine, Shiels did not admit that they gained no result save a "periodic return to primitive conditions" from their association with the Indians.​13 Though not going into great detail, this article suggested that they derived profit from the work of the early missionaries:

The Creeks, Chichasaws,º Choctaws and Cherokees learned to deal with whitemenº through the gray Franciscans, the white Dominicans, or the black robe Jesuits. The Natchez Miamis, Wyandots, even the Iriquoisº had their savagery softened by contact with these pioneers. Crossing the Mississippi, the Pottawatomies, Sioux, Mandans, Arapahoes, Blackfeet, Flatheads, Nez Percés, Willamettes and countless Canadian tribes had their first solid contact with the white race through the missionary. The Indian was as much moved by bravery and disinterestedness and honor as by the profit in peltry, and his relations with the onward sweep of whites were deeply affected by "men of God".​14

Of course this softening of savage nature made it easier for the Anglo-American to advance the frontier. In fact the presence  p167 of fine farms, mines and cattle ranches, occupied by the defenseless missionaries and mission Indians, were often the motives that drew him westward, not any evolutionary instinct toward manifest destiny. In passing, too, it may be noted that in the later period of America's advance, it was often the Indian who had to be removed from the savagery of the white man, lest he be contaminated; while the white man if he had put on the character of the mission Indian when he first came to Montana and California would have run no risk of having reverted to near savagery. On the contrary, the aborigines in these parts, though perhaps not completely ready to be released from missionary directors, were far more civilized than the Anglo-American invaders.15

However, other thoughts suggested by Shiels' article were vastly more significant to the Catholic historians of the frontier than this. The charge frequently levelled at the Catholic Indian missions is that these institutions were useless, since they passed away with the passing of the frontier. The writer asserted that in the colonial scheme of Spain and France their part was not intended to be a permanent one. Theirs was the duty of rendering the natives sedentary if possible, of teaching them to till the fields, raise flocks and herds, and learn useful arts. Along with this, they were expected to Christianize the savages partially at least. Then the civil authorities were to step in and complete the job of making the redmenº good citizens. Says Shiels:

The mission was definitely chosen as a distinctly frontier institution. As such it would be temporary, transient, formative, moving and  p168 not fixed. Both French and Spanish propose it as the front line of their advance. In the mind of the "New Laws" of Charles V, the mission was to be given ten years to do its work. It would then be supplanted by the civil institutions, the cabildo and the parish, and the mission would be moved ahead to the next chosen sector to perform a similar cycle wherever needed.​16

Significant though they be to the Catholic historian of the United States, the findings of Bolton and Shiels have not as yet matured to conclusions as remarkable as those established by another group of Catholic researchers.

In 1914, Dr. Peter Guilday, the esteemed secretary of the American Catholic Historical Association, began his American Church History Seminar at the Catholic University of America. The results of this project soon became apparent in a growing series of monographs and books from the pen of the learned doctor and his students. Then, about 1930, a change in the history faculty at Catholic University of America created a division devoted exclusively to American Church History under the direction of Dr. Guilday. Contemporaneously with this change many of the scholars of the department began to devote their efforts to topics dealing with the position of the Catholic Church on the Anglo-American frontier. To cite a few examples there were Sister Mary Aquinas Norton's Catholic Missionary Activities in the Northwest which appeared in 1930; Father McNamara's The Catholic Church on the Northern Indiana Frontier (1931); Father Walker's The Catholic Church in the Meeting of Two Frontiers 1935; Sister M. Ramona Mattingly's The Catholic Church on the Kentucky Frontier (1936); and finally, Sister M. Aquinata Martin's The Catholic Church on the Nebraska Frontier (1937). These books proved, for the districts covered, that the Catholic Church not only had missions for the Indians in the early days, but long before the log cabin and forest clearing days had passed the Catholic Church was functioning with complete ecclesiastical organization for the white population. In a  p169 word, during the time when the Anglo-Americans were supposed by Turner to be reverting to savagery, the Catholic Church was at work, shoulder to shoulder with the backwoodsman, carrying on in their midst the same efficient cultural program which has been perfected by eighteen hundred years of experience.

The working of this program is built round an overseer, for a fairly large district, called a bishop. Under him come a corps of trained priests dependent on him but so distributed as to be available to the people in all parts of the diocese. These priests are educated in seminaries and in turn supervise schools where the members of the congregation are instructed in a culture of amazing beauty. Dr. Guilday's students proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that such schools, seminaries, priests and bishops did exist in frontier Kentucky, in frontier Indiana, in frontier Illinois and in frontier Nebraska. If further study could demonstrate the same facts for the rest of the various Anglo-American frontiers then Catholicism becomes very important in American history.

Indeed, it seemed to a group of graduate students at Marquette University that her position might be so important that it could be proved that she had more with the growth of western culture than any other element whatever it might be.

From ancient books, almanacs, Catholic directories, the files of Catholic papers and periodicals, these young men and women set about to discover: first whether the Church had an organization on all frontiers; secondly whether such organization was esoteric or really exerted influence on the daily lives and formation of character among the frontiersmen, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

This is not the place to tell all the interesting data that have been uncovered, but the instancing of a few facts will reveal how rich the field is, and why these students think that the day is not far distant when it may be proven that from the creation of the first episcopal See of Baltimore in 1789 until the passing of the frontier the Catholic Church organization both kept step with the advance of the Anglo-American and exerted a tremendous influence upon him.

The first fact to be noted is this. Just when the frontier of the United States crossed the Appalachians, that remarkable thing in  p170 Europe, known as the French Revolution, by closing innumerable Catholic seminaries and universities, cast into exile a group of highly trained priests. The elite of this group came by scores to the new republic. Thus, Father Nagot, the director of the famous Seminary of St. Sulpice, came from those splendid halls of learning to "One Mile Tavern" which had been purchased by Bishop Carroll and there assumed the duties of directing the first seminary in the United States.​17 Fathersº Badin and Nerinckx, the founders of the Church in Kentucky, were university men; Father Flaget, who was to become the first bishop of Kentucky in 1812, was a graduate of the College of Clermont and had been professor of the seminary at Nantes. Father Gabriel Richard, one of the most remarkable of them all, was a university man and was to have taught mathematics when he came to America, but the frontier called. He heard the call, and labored there with extraordinary influence. Fathers Beeston and Perigny, the latter a doctor of the Sorbonne, were so exceptional for learning that the one was chosen as secretary, the other as curator, of the Baltimore public library. Father Gallitzin, the Russian Prince who had been trained for the most exacting court of Europe, was brought to America indirectly by the Revolution.​18 Such were the men who came to our country through the providential workings of the French expulsions. And they came in such numbers that while Bishop Carroll bemoaned the fact that he had only 25 priests for his vast diocese of the entire United States to the Mississippi River, twenty years later this number had grown to 137.​19 A hundred and thirty-seven men is not a host even though they were such outstanding men, but they were in a sense an army for they did not come to work as individuals, but  p171 they were bound into a most efficient organization under the exceptional bishop of Baltimore.

When, after the accomplishment of American independence, Protestants on the Atlantic seaboard had all they could to reorganize their individual congregations and there was chaos for the sectaries on the frontier, Carroll marshalled this efficient force of his at all points of vantage with the strategy of a general. To him the backwoods were as much to be cared for as the coast cities. The year after his appointment, while he still had but twenty-five priests, one of them, Father Paul de St. Pierre, was sent to the then farthest boundary of the union: to the French villages of Kaskaskia and Cahokia.​20 Before the battle of Fallen Timber, Father Badin was at Pottingers Creek in western Kentucky, and in 1810 when Tecumpsehº was threatening to drive the scattered whites from the Old Northwest, Father Flaget was consecrated bishop of the very country that was in dispute between them and the Indians. It is important to note that while this far-flung army of priests was working in such close contact with its superior the teachers of Protestant sects were almost completely cut off from eastern Protestantism with the result that the backwoods were deprived of any other type of learned divines. The men who acted as Protestant ministers were but pious pioneers who turned from weekday labors with ax and gun to conduct a Sunday prayer service.​21 Because such men had no knowledge of theology, and no schools of Protestant divinity appeared west of the Appalachians till long after the frontier days were past, this was a time of innumerable schisms from old sects and the foundation of as many entirely new creeds.​22 In a very enlightening article by Ray A. Billington which appeared in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, December 1935, it is said that not until the foundation of  p172 the American Home Mission Society in 1826 were orthodox groups of Protestantism able to make a definite entrance into the Middle West. Mr. Billington makes the statement that the society was organized primarily because at that time it was feared that the fragments of western Protestantism were about to be absorbed into the Church of Rome.​23 There was some foundation for such fear in 1826, because by then the number of Catholic priests had increased amazingly in the Mississippi Valley, teaching bodies of Catholic religious orders had arrived, and the number of Catholics had grown by leaps and bounds. Murray says that by 1820 the diocese of Bardstown had 25 priests, 35 churches and 40,000 Catholics. St. Louis, a few years later, counted 15,000 Catholics in its vicinity.24

But let a moment's attention be devoted to some of the cultural influences which had been brought to bear on the frontier since the day in 1793 when Badin entered Kentucky. In 1805 the Trappists opened a school in that State.​25 The Dominicans started a college near Lexington in 1808.​26 In 1817 the Lazarists opened a college at the Barrens, near St. Louis.​27 In 1823 the Jesuits came to St. Louis and a few years later took over the Latin school which Bishop Du Bourg had started. Eight years later they obtained a charter for St. Louis University, thus making it the  p173 oldest university west of the Mississippi River.​28 In the meantime, in 1809, Mother Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg and shortly after they began to open new missions, at about this time the Religious of the Sacred Heart came to St. Charles, Missouri, 1818. In 1812 Father Nerinckx launched a community of nuns in Kentucky known as the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross, and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were established by Bishop David in the same state in 1815. A congregation of Sisters of St. Dominic was organized by Father Wilson in 1822. In 1833, in Philadelphia, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary began their educational work which soon spread to the west, and Indiana was still a frontier in 1840 when the Sisters of Providence established themselves at St. Marys-of-the‑Woods.29

Besides these teaching Orders there were many schools and colleges conducted by diocesan priests. Father Gabriel Richard, called the "leading educator of the Northwest", had organized the first complete grade and secondary school system at Detroit by 1808. He later became the co-founder of the University of Michigan and served as Vice-President and professor of six of the thirteen branches taught there. To him also goes the credit of bringing the first printing press to Michigan.​30 Father Byrne opened a school at Lebanon, Kentucky, in 1821 which educated 1,200 boys in the next twelve years. It was taken over by the Jesuits in 1831.​31 Bishop Flaget established St. Joseph's College at Bardstown in 1819. He had opened a seminary prior to this.​32 Bishop Fenwick had a seminary in Cincinnati as soon as he was installed there. What is more important for the understanding  p174 of the general cultural influence of these undertakings is that they were all conducted along lines of traditional courses of studies best suited for gaining their objective, and there was no experimental stage. Moreover, with the exception of the seminaries, all these institutions were open to Catholic and Protestant alike. Jefferson Davis as a boy spent some time at the College of St. Rose conducted by the Dominicans.33

Another Catholic contribution toward the humanistic leavening of the crude backwoods communities was the introduction of libraries brought there by the learned priests of France, Germany, and Italy. Father Gibault in pre-Revolutionary days had a library of two-hundred and eleven volumes at Cahokia, which included works on art, music, gardening, history, surgery, and medicine.​34 Bishop Bruté brought a library to Vincennes in 1834 which is still housed in a building next to St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and attracts the attention of visitors today. Bishop Du Bourg in 1817 at St. Louis had a library of almost a thousand books. These facts seems to prove that there was no time when the Catholic Church was not among the foremost dispenser of belles lettres on the frontier. With regard to the maintenance of art and architecture in the backwoods she was even more important and held an almost unique position in this respect.

At Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1816, Bishop Flaget laid the cornerstone of his cathedral. Three years later it was completed and it is described in the following words by a contemporary.

It is very large and beautiful,​a comparatively with most other buildings in these parts. On it is raised a handsome steeple, containing a large bell and clock. (Allow me to interrupt the quotation to say that this was the first church bell in all the state of Kentucky) . . . on its summit, as usual in our Catholic Churches, the glorious cross . . . silently announces, even to the distant traveler, the love, the mercies, and the triumph of Our Redeemer. The ceiling is vaulted and four pillars on each side separate the nave from the aisles. The sanctuary is very spacious and in it,  p175 besides the high altar, there are two others and the pulpit becomingly decorated. A beautiful painting of the crucifixion hangs over the high altar, and on each side of the wall, which from the two side altars near the railing takes the inclination of a bow, are two paintings, one representing the descent from the cross, the other the solemn reproof made by St. Bernard, with the consecrated host in his hand, to William Duke of Aquitaine.​35

The exterior of this church was red brick with a very pleasing Ionic porch supported by twelve lofty columns and decorated by numerous statues. It still stands and is prized so highly that it has been included in the Historic American Buildings Survey.​36 Imagine the impression it created on the Kentuckians who came in from their log cabins, with the din of the battle of Tippecanoe still ringing in their ears, for its dedication. They gazed with awe at the pictures donated by Louis Philippe of France and Francis I of Naples, and listened enraptured to the organ, the first ever brought to Kentucky, feeling the thrill of the liturgy as it was enacted by the bishop and his seminarians attired in rich vestments donated by foreign benefactors. Their pride swelled and Father Nerinckx was able to record that

Merchants of Bardstown . . . contributed $50, $100, $200, $400 although non-catholics.​37

Similar structures with similar endowments of art were soon reared at Cincinnati, Louisville, Vincennes and in St. Louis. In the latter city in 1818, Bishop Du Bourg had erected a temporary cathedral  p176 and covered the walls with pictures, some reputed to be by Rubens.​38 The second Bishop of St. Louis built what is known today as the Old Cathedral. It is another outstanding example of the architectural beauties of the Catholic Church on the frontier and was erected by Bishop Rosati in 1837. At this date the whole country beyond was a wilderness known only to the trapper. Fremont had not yet mapped the Oregon Trail. However, by then there were four bishoprics in Middle West and the four bishops gathered for the dedication of the monumental stone structure. A contemporary account of this event affords some idea of the impression made by this building on the large concourse of people who assembled to witness it:

Inside the church is: in the first place, the sanctuary four feet higher than the rest of the church. It is 40 feet long and 30 feet wide and is separated by a Corinthian balustrade which forms the Communion rail, reached by several steps running all the length of the sanctuary. The back of the sanctuary is decorated with four fluted columns, all of Corinthian style; in the pediment above is an oval window before which was placed a transparent picture representing the Holy Ghost under the form of a dove, emitting on all sides rays of light, some of which lose themselves in clouds in the midst of which may be seen angels; on either side of the pediment is the gilded figure of an angel carrying the two tables of the Old and New Law respectively. The organ loft is placed on one side of the sanctuary. . . . The picture of the main altar represents Our Lord Crucified with the Blessed Virgin, St. John and the holy women at the foot of the cross. This picture impresses greatly the Protestants who see it. . . . (The Church's) main body is made up of three aisles divided by two rows of five columns . . . . 27 feet in height and 3½ in diameter; the capitals which are of stone, painted in brass finish, the architrave and frieze and the large cornice running along both sides of the nave, are Doric. The vault of the nave soars forty feet above the ground. (The description goes on to expatiate on the stucco ceiling and the fourteen large windows, but sufficient has been said to gather some idea of the effect it must have had on the culture of the infant city. One other item in this description is worth noticing, however. The writer adds that "Protestants . . . come with pleasure and in goodly numbers" to sit in the pews of the cathedral.)​39

 p177  It was said that only a small part of the cultural influence exerted by the Catholic Church on the character of the frontiersman could be included in this paper. The Marquette University graduate students found this influence at work, with similar results, wherever they were able to investigate frontier activities of the Church. There was Mazzuchelli who evangelized the upper Mississippi; then, in 1837 when Bishop Loras was appointed, he went into Iowa and drew the plans for the cathedral of Dubuque as well as the first state capitol and the city of Davenport. He finally returned to Wisconsin to found the Dominican college at Sinsinawa. Cretin began as an Indian missionary on the site of St. Paul and then as the first bishop of that diocese spread Catholic learning and beauty. Baraga did the same for the diocese of Marquette and the Lake Superior region.​40 In the Oregon country five years before the first American immigration Father Blanchet arrived and was consecrated archbishop the very year that the Americans got there. When gold was discovered in California, two priests, Fathers Langlois and Brouillet, went from Oregon to San Francisco and the next year Bishop Alemany was consecrated bishop of that See. In 1851 Bishop Miège was consecrated to take care of what was to become Kansas and Nebraska eight years before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and before John Brown made the Kansas-Nebraska bill a by-word of Civil War history. When Denver began to grow mushroom-like, due to the influx of the "Pike's Peak or Bust" immigrants, Bishop Machebeuf was installed and the cultural influence of the Catholic Church grew with the town.​41 Similarly, on every frontier north, south, east, and west where the Church went with the pioneers, the arts and culture accompanied her religious foundations.

It would seem that enough has been said to show that there is a very important significance of the frontier to the historian of the Catholic Church in the United States. There is much yet to be done in studying the place of Catholic national groups who broke the wilderness. There is room for much research with regard to  p178 the Catholic mission as a frontier institution. And there is an almost limitless field for the endeavor of those who will study the effects of the organized hierarchy upon the pioneer settlements. When this whole story is told, then Turner's Anglo-American backwoodsman will enter into the significance of the frontier only as a rather unimportant factor in the development of American character. Moreover, he will prove to be a very different individual from what Dr. Turner imagined him to be. Far from reverting to near savagery and then evolving into a new kind of superman, it may be shown that the Anglo-American whose life in Protestant New England, New York, Virginia, and the rest of the colonies was characterized by almost primitive simplicity, came out to the frontier, found the Catholic Church spreading her culture, and often profited greatly by the contact.

Raphael N. Hamilton

The Author's Notes:

* Paper read at the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association, Chicago, December 28, 1938.

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1 Turner, The Frontier in American History, preface, ii.

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2 Turner, F. J., The Rise of the New West, New York, 1906.

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3 A number of these books are catalogued in Everett E. Edwards, References on the Significance of the Frontier in American History, a publication of the U. S. Department of Agriculture Library (Bibliographical contributions, no. 25), Oct. 1935, pp62. A goodly number of scholars turned to the editing of contemporary journals. Suffice it to recall R. G. Thwaites's series, Early Western Travelers. Others dealt with typical Western institutions such as H. M. Chittenden in his History of the Fur Trade, and Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri. Still others studied the means of communication, as A. B. Hulbert with his series on Historic Highways. Finally there were those who put the whole theory into fascinating historic treatises of our nation, such as America Moves West by R. E. Riegel and the Epic of America, by J. T. Adams.

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4 Cf. Turner, The Frontier in American History, chap. I.

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5 Turner, The Frontier in American History, preface, i.

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6 Thwaites contributed France in America to Hart's American Nation Series in 1900; Bourne recognized the necessity of treating the activity of the Spaniards when he added Spain in America to the same series in 1904; Bolton and Marshall wrote a book on the Colonization of North America in 1920, which included both Spanish and French activities. In 1928, Bolton published History of the Americas which maintained that the history of all colonizing nations of our hemisphere must be studied to understand our national development.

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7 Bolton, "The Epic of Greater America", The American Historical Review, XXXVIII, 448.

Thayer's Note: I've started to follow Bolton's advice on this website: a full-length history of Chile is now onsite, and I expect to continue with histories of other American countries, accessible from a History of the Americas orientation page.

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8 Bolton, loc. cit., 453, and on page 463 he emphasizes the fact that with regard to "the outcome (of this struggle) none could predict, patriotic historians to the contrary notwithstanding".

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9 Harrodstown and Boonesboro, the first settlements in Kentucky were made in 1774, and in 1778 George Rogers Clark was allying himself with Father Gibault, pastor of the French settlements of Kaskaskia and Cahokia, to win the French town of Vincennes and the old Northwest.

Thayer's Note: Clark himself stresses this facet of his campaign to "win hearts and minds"; his own account of his alliance with the Catholic community is given in The Conquest of The Illinois, pp45‑53, 59 ff.

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10 Bolton, loc. cit., 465‑466.

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11 Bolton, loc. cit., 473. A few months after Bolton's address was delivered, Dr. Joseph Schaefer, Superintendent of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, attacked Turner's fundamental principle with regard to the evolution of the near savage frontiersman into the new American civilization. In an article entitled "Turner's Frontier Philosophy" which appeared in The Wisconsin Magazine of History for June 1933, he brought forth the evidence of extensive researches with regard to immigration as proof that it was a second wave of eastern Americans or emigrants direct from Europe who became the fathers of western American society. These men purchased the partially improved lands of the frontiersman, and hence did not have to strip themselves of European culture. On the other hand the white men who had made savages of themselves together with their illegitimate offspring never improved their state but regularly moved on into the wilderness as soon as a more respectable society caught up with them. If it is asked what became of this sort when the frontier ceased to be, we might add that they found a frontier in the vague country of "Gangland" and may be found there still, practising a near savage life as usual.

The publication, posthumously, of Turner's Significance of Sections in American History afforded the occasion for other criticism of his theory. One reviewer, Louis M. Hacker, in The Nation, July 26, 1933, wrote: "One scarcely exaggerates in saying that the patient and obscure toiling of another long generation of American historical scholars will be required to destroy this influence; for Turner and his followers were the fabricators of a tradition which is not only fictitious, but also to a very large extent positively harmful."

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12 Bolton, loc. cit., 452‑453.

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13 It may be noted in passing that the Catholic missionaries were the only ones who had any extensive success with the Indians during the frontier days. Adams, The Epic of America, 35, remarks of Protestant divines: "Nor, again . . . were they fired with any missionary zeal. There was some talk now and then of the glory of converting the heathen, but for the most part little or nothing was done toward that end. The Reverend John Elliot, in Massachusetts did attempt it, and translated the Bible into Algonquin, but he was almost the only person who ventured to think of the Indian as a soul to be saved rather than a child of the devil to be fought when need be — 'devilish men who serve nobody but the devil' — as Dominie Michaelius called them."

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14 Shiels, loc. cit., 5‑6.

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15 For the most part, the story of the mission Indians still remains to be told. But a few splendid books dealing with certain phases of the work have been published: Englehardt, The Missions and Missionaries of California; Palladino, Indian and White in the Northwest; Chittenden and Richardson, Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre Jean De Smet. In connection with the missionary activities of Father De Smet, it is well to remember that he has been credited with saving our government millions of dollars and untold lives through his activities as ambassador to hostile tribes as the frontier moved up the Missouri and along the Platte (Donnelly, Historical Records and StudiesXXIV). It has also been said that if Father De Smet's solution of the Indian land program had been adopted there would be no Indian problem today. His suggestions are contained in New Indian Sketches, 139‑140.

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16 Shiels, loc. cit., 7. For a fuller consideration of this function of the mission one may consult Bolton, "Mission as a Frontier Institution", in The American Historical Review, October 1917. In 1936 at Loyola University, Chicago, the Jesuit Institute of History was inaugurated to study the American Missions of the Society of Jesus. Father Shiels is on the staff.

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17 Dilhet-Browne, Etat de l'Eglise dans les Etats Unis, 16, 51.

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18 Dilhet-Browne, op. cit., 51. Shea, Defenders of the Faith, 277. Brownson, Life of Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, 60‑61, 72. Dr. Herbermann, treating of "The Sulpicians in the United States" in the Historical Records and Studies, vol. 9, well may say: "It was a great advantage to the budding Church of the United States that Dubourg, Dubois, Flaget, Bruté and David were men . . . who in culture, scholar­ship, and learning were vastly superior to the average American minister of the Gospel."

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19 Dilhet-Browne, op. cit., 51.

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20 Walker, The Catholic Church in the Meeting of Two Frontiers, 124.

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21 Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, 21.

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22 Sweet, op. cit., 304‑307, 317‑318, traces some of the schisms of the Methodists and Presbyterians; in his Religion on the American Frontier, he notes the breakup of the Baptists, 22‑60. Fish, Rise of the Common Man, 183‑184, says "this was indeed a period particularly marked by the formation of new (religious) groups", and he instances Campbellites, Millerites, Mormons, Transcendentalists, etc.

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23 Billington, "Anti-Catholic Propaganda and the Home Mission Movement", Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XXII, 372. In this respect one must keep in mind that the Great Protestant Revival of the early nineteenth century was in the West not a revival of any of the existing Protestant ideology. One has but to read descriptions of backwoods camp meetings with their emotional paroxysms, during which people rolled on the ground in the agony of their conversion, to understand that this religion of fear was something that approximated savage superstition and primitive propitiation of a vengeful deity reply than any form of Christianity. Cf. Sweet, The Story of Religion in America, 327 ss.; Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, VI, 87 ss. Billington's book The Protestant Crusade, which carries further the idea that Protestants were afraid of losing the Mississippi Valley to Rome, published December 1938, came to hand too late to be quoted in this article.

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24 Murray, Popular History of the Catholic Church, 253.

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25 Burns, J. A., The Catholic School System in the United States, 176.

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26 Webb, The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky, 202.

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27 Fox, Life of Bishop David, 60.

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28 Garraghan, The Jesuits in the Middle United States, I, 192; Rothensteiner, History of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, I, 333.

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29 Code, Great American Foundresses, 92, 216,º 131, 159, 233, 265, 299. Fuller descriptions of these foundations may be read in Maes, Life of Father Nerinckx; Callan, The Society of the Sacred Heart in North America; Webb, The Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky; Fox, Life of Bishop David; O'Daniel, The Father of the Church in Tennessee.

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30 Burns, op. cit., 183‑185; also Jordan, "Sketch of the Life of Father Gabriel Richard", Records, American Catholic Historical Society, XXXVII, 268.

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31 Webb, Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky, 284‑285.

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32 Burns, op. cit., 322.

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33 The wealthier non-Catholics gladly sent their children to Catholic schools, for as Slosson says in The American Spirit of Education, 107, "According to modern standards the school equipment of those days was unspeakably bad."

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34 McDermott, Mid-America, October 1935, 274‑275.

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35 Shea, John G., History of the Catholic Church in the United States, I, 291‑292; also Webb, Centenary of Catholicity in Kentucky, 240.

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36 Architectural Forum, November 1934. Rines, E. F., Old Historic Churches of America, includes this church in his descriptions of American architecture. Contemporaneously Protestantism in the west had contributed nothing of value to this art.

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37 Maes, Life of Rev. Charles Nerinckx, 130.º Here again the Catholic Church had a vast advantage over the Protestant sects as purveyors of culture because they had European societies which contributed the best art and vestment and altar furniture as well as money to these churches, and the priests who traveled in Europe to obtain these aids for their missions had the opportunity to study the architecture of the Old World and the ability to reproduce it in the new. Cf. Roemer, The Leopoldine Foundation, and The Ludwig Missionsverein.

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38 Rothensteiner, op. cit., I, 273.

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39 Ibid., I, 510‑514.

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40 Mazzuchelli, Memoirs, 183, 242. Hoffmann, M. M., The Church Founders of the Northwest. Verwyst, Life of Bishop Baraga.

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41 Howlett, Life of Bishop Machebeuf.

Thayer's Note:

a See St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral's website and, for the interior, the beautiful photographs by its recent restorers.

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Page updated: 27 Apr 19