Walking through Isla Vista, one notices a common theme draped across balconies and hung up in living rooms: the American flag. It makes me proud to see that “The Stars and Stripes” have become a staple piece of décor in our patriotic city by the sea. As we go into this unique American holiday, it is important to spend some time remembering where we have come from and what it means to be an American. With such a diverse population, it can be difficult to assign a singular identity to an immense group of peoples. However, every American, from Columbus to I.V.’s own Pirate, share one thing in common: America’s landscape. The concept of our environment has evolved since the first Thanksgiving, and with it, the collective identity of Americans has adapted.
In the late 1700s, with the emergence of the Declaration of Independence and our government, Americans were assigned with the difficult task of forming a new identity from a vastly diverse pool of immigrants. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, a Frenchman who wrote of the New World for European understanding, aptly described Americans as Europeans transformed by the American environment. In Crevecoeur’s essays “Letters from an American Farmer,” he said both the American citizen and their environment were crude, unsophisticated and strongly steeped in inexhaustibility. Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, took advantage of the idea of inexhaustibility with Manifest Destiny. He was our first president to shift focus from our European ancestors and look westward for expansion. With a new perspective on America’s landscape, toward expansion rather than colonization, our identity changed again.
Fast-forward ninety years to the 1890s. Frederick Jackson Turner, a notable patriot and historian, formed the Frontier Thesis, which defined the frontier’s impact on every American’s character. Rather than being defined by our European lineage in the east, he argued that the success and progress pushing west was the defining factor. The frontier border presented a juxtaposition of the wild and rugged environment with civilized settlements, and it forged the American who was able to tame nature and garner strength from it at the same time. The further west we moved, the more we abandoned bootless European practices and developed our own solutions to conquering the land and developing our government.
In 1890, the 11th U.S. Census Report was released. These reports contained stats on population abundance and distribution. The report of 1890 concluded that our expansion and dispersal had resulted in the disappearance of the frontier. This article served as the marked end of Crevecoeur’s idea of inexhaustibility and was a catalyst for the conservation movement. Without a frontier to conquer, the American identity began to drift away from its foundation in its landscape. The rugged individual, which was formed at nature’s edge, has diminished with urbanization and urban sprawl. The U.S. Census Report of 1890 did not necessarily mark the end of American distinctive identity, but in fact served to preserve and conserve much of the West’s remarkable countryside in the forms of National Parks, National Forests and National Monuments.
As we all embark home for this thankfully long holiday weekend, take some time to honor our heritage and prove why we deserve to hang up Old Glory in our living rooms. Whether you’re heading north to Eureka or south to San Diego, you are sure to be surrounded by National Parks that represent the wilderness that has defined Americans for hundreds of years. California has over 270 parks, and they represent a diverse range of natural, cultural and recreational resources that are yours for the taking. It doesn’t matter if you go with friends or family. It doesn’t matter if you’re biking, hiking or cross-country skiing; all that matters is that you’re getting out there and experiencing what it meant and what it still means to be an American — Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Yours to Explore.
Daily Nexus columnist Harrison Gibson’s favorite color is a three-way tie between red, white and blue.