History professor looks at the reality of the American frontier in the late 1800s
12/15/2014 9:08:51 AM
Elaine_thumbnailWhen people think of the American frontier, they often picture cowboys, horses, and gun fights. History professor Elaine Naylor says it is more a story of Americans looking for economic opportunities and of dreams of building great cities. Naylor’s research looks at boosterism and the promotion of economic development on the American frontier from the 1850’s to the 1890’s, as well as the violent expulsion of Chinese immigrants from the Puget Sound area.

In particular, Naylor looked at Port Townsend, a town on Puget Sound in Washington State. The town, like many others, had aspirations to be ‘a great city.’ One of the roads to economic prosperity was for people to help develop an area and Naylor found interesting proof of this. She has recently had a book published by McGill-Queen’s University Press on her research called Frontier Boosters: Port Townsend’s elusive dream.

At the same time, there was a movement to expel all Chinese immigrants from the Puget Sound region.

“It was quite a nasty, violent movement, and people died,” Naylor explains. “Port Townsend was the only town in the area that did not seek to expel the Chinese.”

Naylor found that the people in the town decided to not go along with the expulsion, not for moral, but for economic reasons.  

“Sufficiently large numbers of people in the town really cared about whether the town would develop. So, in a sense, they were active boosters, people who worked to bring immigrants into the town,” she says. “They made a connection that the violence that accompanied expulsion would damage the town’s prospects for drawing immigrants and investment to the area. That is what grabbed me, it seemed that this was the story that Port Townsend and the County had to tell.”

Naylor says in the nineteenth century, frontier development was seen as being dependent on the establishment of cities that would become metropolitan areas. All these different places were seeing potential for great city status and working for it. Port Townsend did not realize its dream of becoming ‘the great city,’ which in the end came down to which town got the railway link — and that turned out to be Seattle.

According to Naylor, historians tend to see boosterism as an activity of elites and not factor in the rest of the population.

“It seems to me that in Port Townsend people were very committed to development. Their reaction to Chinese expulsion movement demonstrated this. You didn’t have to be a big landholder or a businessman because most owned some property and everyone in one way or another was connected to the local economy. Everyone had something to gain.”

Many of Naylor’s sources for her research on Chinese expulsion are accounts by people who were expelled. She is now extending her research to tell their story.  

“I am interested because in much of what is written about the expulsion, the Chinese are faceless victims. Of course they were not faceless and they were victimized, but they were more than victims. They fought expulsion and their leadership in Seattle, for instance, negotiated support and they were partially successful.”