The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1978, Volume 24, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

Frontier America: 1800-1840: A Comparative Demogmphic Analysis of the Settlement Process.
By James E. Davis. Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1977. Maps, Illustrations, Charts. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 220 pages. $15.50
Reviewed by Donald C. Cutter, Professor of History and Acting Editor, New Mexico Historicál Review, University of New Mexico.

Among the “in” specialties in social science research one of the most chic is demography, though why this should be so is hard to determine. Reading demographic analyses is like reading the dictionary or the telephone book, and about as enjoyable.

The basic purpose of the Davis study is to identify and analyze some of the demographic characteristics of the individuals, households and groups who were lured or shoved into the West. Seven demographic variables were measured for the years 1800 to 1840 in order to reveal the American frontiersman and understand something of the interplay of forces between him and his natural and cultural environments. The variables selected were household size, household composition, age, sex, race, free or slave condition of blacks, and occupation. One thing obviously susceptible to comparison was the frontier process in those decades as it developed on a sectional basis. As a result, Chapter 2 deals with household size and composition in the North, while Chapter 3 deals with the Southern household.

Demography, unlike standard historical research, poses certain hypotheses, then tries to prove or disprove them such as “relatively more people were living in households of at least eleven members” in the frontier North as opposed to the settled Northeast. The author suggests that slavery as an institution maintained the average Southern frontier household at parity with Northern households. However, the backwoods held little at-traction for or need of black participants. Another clearly obvious fact is that Westerners did not fit neatly into conventional occupational categories, and though most considered themselves to be agriculturists, on the side they were traders, freighters, miners, businessmen. Most desired to work only for themselves rather than as hired help.

An occasional bit of information is included which is much more interesting than the demographic approch. This reviewer was intrigued by the credit given to hogs for enabling small frountier households to persist in the northern backwoods: “Perhaps the hog, not the dog, was man’s best friend on the frontier.”

This volume is an example of computerized typesetting which is avant-garde in publishing, but it is not nearly as attractive as Arthur H. Clark Company books of yesteryear which were always classical hot lead printing. The present work will have to rise or fall on its merits since it receives little help otherwise. Few if any readers will be favorably impressed with the composition. Worse yet is the feeling that a person might have guessed much of the results without being led by the hand through the rote research, and that even what little is gained seems to be of no transcendent importance.

The work has a number of illustrations, five maps, and twenty-three statistical tables. The text is fraught with qualifying words and phrases such as perhaps, sometimes, tends, apparent, slightly, possibly, suggesting, substantially, usually, relatively, somewhat, probably, likely, etc., all of which make Davis book look like what it really is – a published doctoral dissertation.