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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Frontier Fighters--Radio Plays

The 1930s was an interesting decade in American history. Unlike the economic prosperity of the 1920s, the Economic Depression of the 1930s changed how Americans perceived their country and their expectations for the future. During the Depression, one out of four Americans was out of work. As the Depression deepened and job prospects lessened, Americans’ resolve that good economic times would return started to fade and their faith in government diminished. Trying to bolster Americans’ optimism in themselves, in their country, and in their future, was a major concern of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He considered that if Americans lost faith in their country then democracy and capitalism might be in jeopardy.



His solution was to establish economic programs that provided many workers with an income and hopefully to help bolster pride in America. One of the ways in which the Roosevelt Administration sought to instill pride in country and optimism for the future, was to emphasize in many of his administrations New Deal cultural programs a positive image of America’s historical heritage. Through federal programs that put artists, musicians, writers and theatre people to work, they created material that stressed the strength of character of the pioneers who settled the country. The emphasis was on hardy individuals who, against all odds, forged the frontier and moved it westward creating settlements and a future for a democratic nation.

The ideal of reminding Americans of their historical heritage also permeated media outside government-funded programs. This was especially true in the medium of radio. In the 1920s and 1930s, radio was a dominant force in American life. According to Columbia Broadcasting System statistics, of the 29,904,663 homes counted by the 1930 U.S. census, 21,455,799, or approximately 70%, possessed radios in 1935; estimates placed the number of Americans who regularly listened to the radio at nearly 78,000,000.

One of the most popular radio programs of 1935 was Frontier Fighters, a program that presented dramatizations of the settlement of the American West. There is a constant theme that runs through each episode--the sacrifice men and women made to advance the frontier and to settle the West is what made America a strong independent nation. The message for radio audiences was that all Americans in the 1930s had the strength of their ancestors; the nation would endure.

There were over forty episodes of Frontier Fighters, which included dramatizations centering on Lewis and Clark, Marcus Whitman, The Fall of the Alamo, Grenville Dodge and Leland Stanford, Oklahoma Land Run, Alaska, Dakota Territory and the Bozeman Trail, just to name a few.

I’ve selected the Bozeman Trail and Dakota Territory episodes for the blog. Each one is a little over 10 minutes in length.

The Bozeman Trail was a long established land corridor first followed by Native Americans, then used for emigration in 1863 and by the 1870s, a military road. Along this road, the military built a line of forts to house soldiers sent to the frontier to protect settlers. The forts were under constant attack by the Sioux, who rightly considered the area surrounding the Bozeman Trail there hunting grounds. Most wagon trains on the Bozeman Trail suffered attack by the Sioux. When Colonel Carrington at Fort Laramie sent Lieutenant William J. Fetterman and his 80 soldiers to protect a wood train on its way to Fort Phil Kearney on December 1, 1866, he disobeyed orders to only protect the wood train and led his men into a trap designed by the Sioux; over 1000 Sioux killed Fetterman and every one of his soldiers. The command at Fort Kearney considered that the next attack would be on the fort. In the dark of night and in a howling blizzard, the command at Fort Phil Kearney sent John "Portugee" Phillips to ride to Fort Laramie and alert the army of Fort Phil Kearny's desperate straits. Phillips rode over 230 miles, which took three days and two nights of nonstop travel through a raging blizzard. He arrived at Fort Laramie on December 24, stumbling into the middle of the officer's Christmas Eve party at Old Bedlam, where he delivered his message before collapsing. A contingent of soldiers from Fort Laramie reached Fort Phil Kearny before the Lakota Sioux attacked.


Click on Radio for Episode


Map of Bozeman trail


John Phillips at the end of his ride


The episode called Dakota Territory I found very interesting. In 1935, there was little thought to women’s contribution in settling the American West. Most histories were still centered on the historical exploits of men and mainly white Anglo-Saxon men. New research in the late 1950s and early 1960s uncovered sources that were more inclusive; women played an important role in the settlement of the West and men and women of different ethnic origins made up a multicultural West that is still being researched today.



Dakota Territory features the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota by Gneral Custer in 1874. After his report was published citizens in Sioux City immediately planned an expedition. The men do not think they can march into the Black Hills; they are not a military force and they have women hindering their success. This is when the women stepped forward and informed the men that it was the women who made emigration across the Oregon Trail a success and women can help make the Black Hills expedition a success. This episode definitely is aimed at highlighting womens' role in western history.


Click on Radio for Episode

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