As for the pioneer, his days are numbered. As for the Indian, there he stands, a specter on the horizon!
The conflict has been irrepressible. There could be no compromise; the races were too unlike. The Red man had no beauty that our spirits could desire him. The verdict of civilization has been, that his room is better than his company. It is an edict issued from the court of Progress--that ferocious Titan who strides from East to West--that the Indian shall disappear, shall be remanded to the past, shall evanish.
In those great movements by which the populations of the world are transformed, History is blind, cruel, remorseless. She is the least sentimental of all the divinities. She neither smiles at human happiness, nor weeps at human sorrow; she merely attends to her syllogism. When she finds a tribe of nomads living in a valley adapted to the cultivation of corn, she sends the news to some corn-raising race, and leaves the rest to cupidity and the casuists.
And the casuists make a muck of the whole business. They seek a design. They find it in this--that the soil is intended for those who will cultivate it. They fix on this correlation. The hint of nature is, that the clover-field and the orchard must take the place of the brake and the wilderness. It is all very beautiful. The designated race comes in; and the gray squirrel, after giving at the business for a season goes over the horizon followed by a bullet.
But how about the other side of the question? It is well for the supplanters--but the supplanted? The red deer is designed for the cane-brake, and the cane-brake for him. Both are designed for the hunter. Is Nature not as well pleased to be tracked by a buck of ten spikes, as to be wounded in the breast with a hoe?
In this world there is one law: the weakest goes to the wall. Men may as well expect a weight on the shorter arm of a lever to lift a greater weight on the longer, as to suppose a reversal of this law. There is such a thing as a science of Historical Physics, which it is time for thinkers to consider. The fundamental maxim in the dynamics of progress is, that the greater force overcomes the less. They who will, may complain of the result and try to explain it.
The movement of civilization westward, from Babylon to Rome, from Rome to London, from London to San Francisco, has furnished a succession of eras in which the stronger, more highly developed races, have flung themselves in heavy masses upon the aboriginal populations. The latter have yielded, have perished, are perishing. In Greece, the Hellenes came upon the Pelasgians, and the latter were either exterminated or absorbed. Again, in Southern Italy, the (Enotrians were overwhelmed by the aggressive colonists of Magna Graecia. The Gaulish and British Celts sank into the earth under the tremendous pressure of the Roman and the Saxon. The American aborigines, forced back from the seaboard through the passes of the Alleghanies, are swept across the great valley of the Mississippi, and thrown up like pebbles on the plains of the West.
In the great march which has thus substituted the wheatfield for the cane-brake, and made the White man the exterminator of the Red barbarian, there is this that is peculiar: in America the work has been done by a class of men unknown in Europe--THE PIONEERS. Europe was peopled by large bodies of men moving from one country to another. In many regions the antiquarian finds the Age of Stone suddenly cut off by the Age of Bronze, without any intervening Age of Copper. This means that a bronze-bearing soldiery overwhelmed the people of the Stone Age before the latter had developed into a capability of working the metals. The Hellenes came from the east as migrating tribes. The original peoples of the peninsula were extinguished by the invaders. The Gualish nations were trodden under foot by Caesar's armies. The followers of Hengist and Horsa, before whom the Celts of Britain perished, were an innumerable horde. Everywhere, except in our own country, the movement has been en masse. But in America the work has been accomplished by a different process. Here we have had the gradual approach of civilization, and the gradual recession of barbarism. Population has been flung westward in a spray, which has fallen far out beyond the actual line of the column. Hence the pioneers.
It is surprising that no State of the great sisterhood, west of the influence of the Atlantic tides, has been colonized. Every commonwealth has been peopled by the scattered scouts of progress--the pioneers. They have come by twos and threes. The individual, unable longer to endure the hardships of civilization, has moved out to find the comforts and conveniences of the wilderness. At the first he consisted of himself, his dog, and his gun. A little later he consisted of himself, several dogs, one wife, and many children. Afterwards he consisted of himself, with the concomitants last mentioned, and a neighbor of precisely the same definitions.
We have thus had in America a race of men, sui generis--the pioneers--the hardiest breed of adventurers that ever foreran the columns of civilization. They belonged, like other heroes, to the Epoch of the Dawn. The Old World knew them not. They are our own--or were; for the pioneer type is in process of extinction. Like the red tribes, pressed back by their energies, the rugged adventurers who made ourselves possible, are seen only in the glow of sun-down. The line of pioneer life has swept westward from the Connecticut to the Hudson; from the Delaware to the Ohio; from the Ohio to the Wabash, the Wisconsin and the Illinois; from the Father of Waters to the Rockies and the Plains. In a few more years there will be no place on the continent, or any continent, that can properly be called THE WEST. The pioneer has always lived in the West. He will disappear with his habitat, and never be seen more.
The pioneers were a people of heroic virtues--and no literature. The situation forbade it. The actual life of the men who made civilization possible in the larger part of the United States was remanded at their death to tradition. The pioneer bard starved. The pioneer annalist left his note-book to his son, who lost it while moving further west. The next generation repeated the story of frontier life as it had been received from the fathers. A few wrote. From Canada to the lagoons of Louisiana a traditional lore grew up and was perpetuated. Then came books, most of them written with little skill and no dramatic quality, often garrulous, sometimes dull. In them, however, were portrayed the incidents and accidents of that daring life which was soon to sink behind the horizon.
A few of these frontier books were written by the actors; others, by those who had not participated in the scenes described; most, by persons of little scholarship or wit. Until the present time few works on pioneer life and adventure have been produced which have exhibited artistic merit and literary ability. The flash of life through the cumbrous drama has been obscured by dull conception, coarse diction, ungainly style, and unnatural arrangement. It is important at the present epoch, when the sun of our heres' fame is setting, but has not set, that a true and vivid picture should be preserved of the life which they led, and the deeds which they performed.
As it respects this preservation for posterity of the annals of our Pioneer Age--the story of our great adventurers and heroes--there is thus presented an alternative between the now and the never. What is not present accomplished in the way of an authentic records of the daring exploits of the fathers will never be accomplished at all. It is a question of immediate photography. The pioneer may still be sketched ere the sunlight fades into darkness; but the evening cometh, when no instrument, however delicate its lenses, can supply the want of a living subject for the picture. In another generation the sketch of the American adventurer will be but the reproduction of a wood-cut, instead of a photograph from nature. Whoever by genius and industry contributes to fix in our literature an adequate conception of the lives and deeds of our heroes, will make himself a favorite of the present and a friend of the coming generation.
Such a work requires the skill of a dramatist. It is not enough that the story of the men, "who by their valor and warcraft beat back the savages from the borders of civilization, and gave the American forests to the plow and the sickle," should be told even passably well; it must be told with the fervor and living power of the drama. Shakespeare is now recognized as the prince of historians. If we would study the story of the struggles of York and Lancaster, we shall do better in the three Henrys and the two Richards than in the flat and lifeless pages of Hall and Hollinshed. It has remained for our times to discover that the historical imagination is better than the historical microscope. The former discovers men; the latter, insects. The former composes the Drama of Life; the latter, the Farce of Particulars.
The present work is a series of dramas in prose. It gathers and relates the exploits of our national heroes. The characters live and act. The material is gathered from the wild, but not extravagant, annals of frontier life. Every scene in this book is a true photograph from Man and Nature. The incidents are real. They are sketched with a dramatic power which can be paralleled in no other book devoted to the romance and tragedy of American adventure. The author has precisely that kind of fervor which is requisite to make alive the very pages whereon his characters are marshaled for our interest. The book conforms emphatically to the prime conditions of narrative: it is interesting and true. The interest is maintained by the vigor and enthusiasm of the treatment; the truth has been elicited by a careful culling and comparison of the various traditions, which are thus given a new lease of life.
The book is a work of art. It is composed with a skill worthy of the highest species of literary effort. The arrangement of the several parts, and the adaptation of style to subject, show on the part of the author a rare combination of brilliant fancy and artistic taste. Mr. Mason has made the happy discovery that dullness in a book is never commended, except in the columns of a magazine called the Owls' Own Quarterly.
To all classes of people THE ROMANCE AND TRAGEDY OF PIONEER LIFE will recommend itself. The book will be read--which is an important consideration in the premises. The American boy will take fire as he turns these pages. The mild-eyed youth in the bubble-stage of sentiment will wonder than such things could be and not o'ercome the actors. He who has reached the zone of apathy in the Middle Age of Man will find in these thrilling stories of the life that is setting a-west food to revive the adventurous spirit; and the nonagenarian may chance to be re-warmed to hear again so graphically related the traditions that hovered about the fountains of his youth.
A book so well conceived and admirably executed--so vivid in its delineations of the lives and deeds of our national heroes, and so picturesque in its contrasts and surprises--can hardly fail of a hearty reception by the public.
JOHN CLARK RIDPATH.
ASBURY UNIVERSITY, SEPT. 1883.
The Tragedy and Romance of Pioneer Life
Created November 16, 2000
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