A New Identity on the American Frontier

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House in the Southwest

A new frontier society was created. Cultural traditions brought from the interior of New Spain were modified by the influence of those on the land.

During the 19th century, frontier society had a range of ethnic identities. The process of mestizaje; racial and cultural assimilation, that involved Europeans, Indians, and some Africans laid the ground for Southwestern culture that is unique from anywhere else in the world. Although social differences still remained, the African influence was most dominant in Texas, where economic success overrode racial makeup as per an individual’s classification.

African Influence

According to census reports, some Africans arrived on the frontier as slaves, they were few. Most Africans arriving on New Spain’s far northern frontier worked a long side other laborers. Many found themselves integrating into colonial society, adapting to Spanish surnames and learning the Spanish language. Although the Spanish Crown extended its official policy on slavery to its Far North, they feared that imposing regulations on the Africans would trigger revolt. Due to the dire need for laborers, those on the frontier did not enforce such regulations. As Africans arrived on the frontier, they brought with them traditions from their native home lands, as well as some traditions that they may have adopted from former slave owners in the South.

Equality for Women

For those of all races and cultures, who chose to go the frontier, the rigors of frontier life softened gender discrimination as they did that of race. Women fought Indians alongside their men and helped with ranch and farm chores. The cowgirl was born. Isolation posed a severe problem for especially women. However, for the most part, frontier’s women, enjoyed certain rights under Spanish law, knowing they had the judicial system for their economic and physical protection. Protection that women on the frontier enjoyed under Spanish law was not available to women in the Eastern states. According to court documents and eye witness accounts, this right was not one which Native Indian men or women benefited from. Some Spanish laws are still enforceable in some state such as Texas and California.

Indians Assimilate

The number of native Indians living on the Far Northern frontier during the colonial era is difficult to determine. A census report in the late 1770s from Texas estimated 7,000. Many of the indigenous peoples accepted Catholicism, through the efforts of the mission system, as a means of survival. For example, in San Antonio, the Coahuiltecans became Hispanicized through the five missions of the area. As a result, the Coahuiltecan culture was fully absorbed, although many of their ancestors still live near, and worship in the old Spanish mission churches of the city today. This of course poses a present day question; is this a representation of assimilation turning into tradition?

The Karankawas of Texas as well as other indigenous groups across the Far Northern frontier are shown to have been weakened by colonization. Colonization also made some indigenous groups susceptible. For example, the Karankawas became susceptible to Comanche warfare and cultural assimilation. Other indigenous groups suffered due to warfare and disease. Overall, while settler and official Spanish policy represented a serious threat to traditional native lifestyles, and ignorance of Indian sensitivities and culture exacerbated the situation, large numbers of native people resisted missionization. However, as noted previously, the mission system did provide a means of survival for many indigenous people. Evidence points out that during times of drought, famine, conflict with other indigenous groups, and harsh weather conditions drew Indians to the missions. In order to gain the assistance of the missionaries, the Indians had no choice in many situations, but to adhere to the demands and directions of the Spanish missionaries. Most went through the motions in order to gain protection, shelter, and food. According to documented evidence, very few of these indigenous people who came to the missions for help actually, truly, converted. However, over time a cultural blending did occur. For example, the Spanish influence on clothing.

A New Society is Born

With a unique diversity unknown anywhere else, people of different nationalities, races, cultural groups, and socio-economic backgrounds came together on the American Frontier to form a new identity and cultural traditions. This new identity and its cultural traditions are based strongly on a Spanish influence, however, be assured that pioneers of all races and backgrounds helped in the formation of their new regional and local identities. For example, folks in the southwest use tortillas with a meal in the same manor that people in the north might use sliced bread. Traditions in art, song, food, drink, dance, hospitality, architecture, and even daily habits are examples of ways in which the southwest’s regional and local customs and traditions are still influenced today.

References:

  1. Kessell, John L. Kiva, Cross and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840. 2d ed. Tuscon: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1995.
  2. Texan Cultures Museum and Archive. Personal letters, Government documents, and Land title records. San Antonio Texas, March 10, 2009.
  3. Timmons, W. H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1990.