"telling You Who We Are": Identity Formation on America's First Western Frontier

Open Access
Ortmann, Susan M
Graduate Program:
American Studies
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 19, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Simon Josef Bronner, Dissertation Advisor
  • Charles David Kupfer, Committee Member
  • Michael Lee Barton, Committee Member
  • Elizabeth Jean Tisdell, Committee Member
  • Francis Bremer, Special Member
  • Identity
  • Frontier
  • Old Northwest
  • Captivity Narratives
  • Race
  • Native Americans
This work answers two main questions: How did settlers in the Old Northwest Territory and Kentucky identify themselves and how did they want others to see them as they lived on America’s first frontier from 1777 to 1830. It also challenges the idea of a western persona as one created after the 1830s in the far regions of the country. The first American West and the personality developed to portray frontier life initially began in the Old northwest Territory. Using rhetorical analysis, historical research, and psychological Interpretation, my answer to these questions is that settlers moving into Kentucky and the Old Northwest created an early American identity that designated them as the first westerners. These settlers used the process of identifying difference or “othering” to various degrees and memory to identify what they believed to be acceptable and unacceptable character traits. Although their experience was part of a larger attempt by American citizens to create a national character and culture, frontiersmen and women viewed themselves, not their eastern peers, as more emblematic of what it meant to be American. While race, gender and class each played an important role in helping pioneers self-identify, these provide a limited picture of what westerners considered markers of worth and civility. Religion, politics, and education also served as desired character traits. These qualities helped set the white western settlers apart from others and made them feel superior. As the frontier designation moved further west and beyond the Ohio region the persons who settled these newer territories experienced more of the same.