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Space and Place in the History of the American West


The United States of America is a vast country that appeared due to the expansion of its frontiers by pioneers who conquered the wilderness. Unfortunately, in the process of settling the continent, the Americans got involved in numerous Indian wars, which led to the displacement of many tribes of Indigenous people. Some Indians, however, were ‘lucky’ enough to preserve the lands of their ancestors. Therefore, modern scientists can study the perception of a place or native land by Indigenous cultures and personalities. This paper aims to analyze a book by Keith Basso Wisdom Sits in Places, and the article by Frederick Turner “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in the context of the ‘space and place’ in the history of the American West.

Keith Basso Describing Place-Making

Attachment to a place is usually based on concepts such as ‘our territory’ and ‘their territory.’ According to Basso (1996), ‘place’ in this case means “entire regions and local landscapes where groups of men and women invested themselves and to which they belong” (xiii). The scientist also notes that ‘sense of place’ is something natural and personal. Therefore, when people are deprived of their land or dislocated, they feel vulnerable. Besides, most individuals have spiritual connections with their native territories, since communities usually fill them with aesthetic and cultural senses.

Working in Western Apaches as an ethnographer linguist, Keith Basso could feel the peculiarities of those places that enriched the local cultures. In particular, the scientist started creating Cibecue maps for Apache, in their language, with their names and utilizing their understanding and knowledge of their country. The researcher concluded that people make places, endowing them with characteristics of their understanding of the world. He notes that “senses of place, while always informed by bodies of local knowledge, are finally the possessions of particular individuals; people, not cultures sense places… in varying ways” (Basso 1996, xvi). The scientist traveled to many places in the region and studied it thoroughly, to form his concept of place-making.

Development and Settlement of the American West

The development of America has always been associated with the discovery and conquest of western lands. Turner (2008) emphasizes that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development” (1). Thus, according to Turner (2008), Americans had to adapt to the constant expansion of wilderness that brought continuous changes, which affected the formation of their identity. Another characteristic of this development was the emerging self-awareness of a country that is growing frighteningly fast. A more traditional evolution from primitive industrial to manufacturing civilization on the Atlantic coast accompanied the Western expansion. Turner (2008) states that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier” (1). Therefore, the conquest of Western lands with their new opportunities and simplicity of a primitive society introduced distinctive features that shaped the American character.

The Role of the Environment in American History

The phenomenon of ‘space and place’ is primarily expressed by Turner in the description of American borders. Eastern frontiers neighboring with Europe across the Atlantic Ocean had more European characteristics. At the same time, Western boundaries, which marked the conquest of wild spaces, acquired unique American features over time. The scientist emphasizes: “thus, the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, steady growth of independence on American lines” (Turner 2008, 2). Turner focused attention on a rather unusual ‘place’ – the Western frontier, continually expanding into uncharted space, and leaving behind the stripes of the newly settled world.

According to the scientist, although the American phenomenon initially reflected European people’s development in the environment of the Atlantic coast, the conquest of the West changed European individuals, making them American to an increasing extent. Moreover, the exploration of new territories gave impetus to the development of the US infrastructure. Speaking about the settlement of California in the mid-19th century, Turner (2008) assumes that “the advance of the frontiersmen beyond the Alleghenies had caused the rise of important questions of transportation and internal improvement” (3). Further, the improved communication between East and West led to the settlement of Great Plains. America was involved in the Indian wars in Minnesota, Dakota, and Indian Territories. Other remote areas populated only in the 19th century were Colorado, Montana, and Idaho.

Indigenous People Deprived of their Human Rights

In the 19th century, the expanding of territories meant new wars with Indians. Therefore, Turner (2008) denotes the Western border as the frontier of the Indian country. The strengthening of internal communication was possible only due to the establishment of trade between the settlers. Indians participated in this trade as well, but they had to focus on the purchase of weapons, which allowed them to survive and preserve their identity. The Europeans quickly learned Indian trade routes that ran across the mountains and along the rivers, marking the final conquest of wildland much earlier than farmers settled it. In this way, Indians were deprived of their principal rights in the historical process of Western expansion.

Individuals and Groups Developing Places

Both authors highlighted that individuals and groups play essential roles in developing places. In Turner’s (2008) opinion, explorers of new territories were drivers of history, as well as settlers, whose occupation depended on the terrain, and merchants who laid the main trade routes. In the footsteps of these people, farmers and capitalists came, and railway routes were laid. In contrast, Basso (1996) emphasizes the importance of individuals and communities in shaping places since they give territories special feelings and meanings. It happens because each individual is inextricably linked to the area to which they belong.

Frontier was a place continually moving away and thus forming American society’s unique features. According to Turner (2008), “United States lies like a huge page in the history of society; line by line as we read from West to East we find the record of social evolution” (5). At the same time, Basso (1996) describes the environment as a reflection and continuation of an individual’s inner world and focuses on the influence of places on the formation of personal and cultural identities. Therefore, the scientist perceives the ‘place’ as something more grounded and stable, unlike Turner’s concept of the frontier.


Thus, a book by Keith Basso Wisdom Sits in Places, and the article by Frederick Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” was analyzed in the context of the ‘space and place.’ The conquest of the West was necessary for the development of the entire continent and the creation of the first trade routes. Nonetheless, in this process, due to numerous Indian wars and dislocation of Indigenous people, many unique places representing the culture, spirituality, and life of the Indians were destroyed.


Turner, Frederick Jackson. 2008. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. London, UK: Penguin.

Basso, Keith. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque, New Mexico: UNM Press.


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