Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 5-19.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


To speak of pioneers, of the pioneer character, of the pioneer spirit, instantly brings vivid impressi~ns to mind. But what and where is the pioneer landscape? No more elusive or evanescent place exists. The pioneer landscape appears here, there, almost everywhere, for only a moment early in the chronicle of any locale; then it vanishes, never to return. Only once in its history is a place a pioneer country. Other pioneering efforts may follow-the extraction of some hitherto unknown or unusable resource, the creation of some new social orderbut these efforts do not occur in pioneer landscapes or circumstances. Lindbergh "pioneered" in a complex machine produced by a team of experts and funded by big business. The whole world celebrated Lindy for "doing it alone," but "the flight was not the heroic lone success of a single daring individual," as John W. Ward has said, "but the climax of the cooperative effort of an elaborately interlocked technology."

The landscapes we mainly pioneer today are those of tourism, the fastest moving modern frontier after Dutch elm disease. Cleveland Amory's The Last Resorts sets forth a Turnerian process of replacement-a sort of Gresham's Law of intellectual pioneers followed by good and then bad millionaires. And some natives fear that England is fated to end up as a living museum for the delectation of American visitors- visitors as eager to see the lineaments of their remote European past as of their pioneer American heritage. But there is still a long way to go before tourist pioneers resettle the whole world.

As the beginnings of settlement recede into the past, ever fewer people survive who have experienced actual pioneer landscapes. This helps to account for the present popularity of those landscapes. We increasingly hark back to a past we ourselves have never known, one more imagined than real. The romance of pioneering suits our wistful longing for ways of life so briefly and variously experienced that we invest them with whatever forms we choose. This longing brings us full circle from the original pioneers' nostalgia for their previous homelands, celebrated in scores of doleful ballads collected by Theodore Blegen and others.


The pioneer landscape is but one of many realms of modern nostalgia. Preserving and recreating historic areas that exemplify bygone epochs and ways of life is a particularly American mode of expression. During the fIrst third of this century, colonial homes and eastern seaboard villages captured the popular imagination, museum period rooms and restored Williamsburg being the best-known examples. These displays featured aristocratic elegance, avoiding the commonplace or the humble. Later rebirths involved more representative workaday communities: Ford's GreenfIeld and Old Sturbridge Village, refurbished Victorian towns with old-fashioned Main Streets and cracker-barrel stores, and, more recently, antebellum slave quarters and nineteenth-century New England factories and mill towns. The bucolic landscapes of shaker and Amish and Mennonite communities; boom-town mining camps instantly settled, violently occupied, and quickly abandoned; fortresses, battlefIelds, and sites of famous historical episodes likewise have widespread appeal. Frontier and wilderness nostalgia are catered to in the national parks, in Hollywood Hlms, and in the rodeos and dude ranches of cowboy country that were popular resorts for effete easterners for almost a century. Facsimiles of all these historic locales converge in Disney World's fabulous pastiche.