The Frontier Politics of Horizon

5 July 2024, 1615 EDT

In the recent Settling for Less: Why States Colonize and Why They Stop, Lachlan McNamee makes a rationalist argument—“colonization projects” are “characterized by a triangle of actors—settlers, indigenes, and the central state,” and for his purposes, we can “assume that all settler migration is voluntary and economically driven”.

McNamee is not the only one with such a reading of colonial politics. Director, co-writer, and star Kevin Costner takes a similar view of the nineteenth-century American frontier in his recent film, Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter One. (Hereafter, Horizon. Spoilers below.)

In the first entry of a planned four-part story on the settling of the American West, Costner uses the fictional settlement of Horizon (in modern Arizona’s San Pedro Valley) to examine the interplay of McNamee’s colonial triad, “settlers, indigenes, and the central state”. In so doing, Horizon makes some noteworthy claims about the American case of “settler-led colonization” (to use McNamee’s term for it).

First, Horizon does indeed portray the American process of territorial expansion as “settler-led” from the opening scene. It only becomes more explicit about the dynamics at work after an Apache attack on the growing settlement of Horizon. First Lieutenant Trent Gephart (played by Sam Worthington) arrives at the devastated settlement some time thereafter, and he chides the survivors for settling where they did—in Apache “hunting grounds” beyond the U.S. Army’s reach.

A secondary voice of the Army, Colonel Albert Houghton (played by Danny Huston) positions settlers at the forefront of this process of expansion and suggests the inevitability of settler displacement of indigenes. Houghton—seemingly resigned rather than celebratory—tells Gephart that, “There’s no army of this earth that’s gonna stop those wagons coming, little as they’re wanted”.

Second, it is through the voice of Houghton that Costner comes to an explicitly economic argument about settler motivations. No army can stop the settlers from coming because there are many people for whom the frontier offers improved economic prospects. In the film’s case, these economic prospects come primarily in the form of “premium virgin land”.

Costner’s economic argument does not stop with the settlers. All (dirt) roads lead to Horizon because a speculator (referred to only as Pickering and played by Giovanni Ribisi) is trying to make some money. We only see Pickering in the last five minutes or so (he will reportedly have a larger role in Chapter Two), but he has a major presence throughout the film in the form of a recurring advertisement for Horizon.

Third, Costner’s frontier is one that the U.S. Army cannot effectively police. After the Apache attack on Horizon, Gephart informs the survivors that he will not be able to protect them if they choose to rebuild in the same location. Rather, he suggests that the survivors return with him to Fort Gallant and resettle there. (Fort Gallant is a fictional location, but this portion of the film takes place in 1863, during which Tucson’s Fort Lowell and the more easterly Fort Bowie would be the closest analogues.)

This difficulty of policing the frontier, moreover, allows settlers to pursue vigilante justice. While some survivors of the attack on Horizon do indeed resettle at Fort Gallant, some instead pursue the Apaches. Gephart discourages violence but has little ability to prevent it; he encourages those settlers who seek vengeance to at least distinguish between the Apaches responsible for the attack and all other Apaches.

In all these ways, the frontier politics of Horizon closely track the politics of the real-world American frontier. Indeed, when the Northwest Territory—including territories like Ohio and Kentucky—became “the frontier” after the American Revolutionary War, dynamics such are those depicted in Horizon would ultimately lead to the Northwest Indian War of 1790-1795. (This is the subject of my book project—now under review!)

Just as in Horizon, the early American frontier saw a very clearly settler-led process of expansion in which tens of thousands of settlers streamed into newly claimed lands. Meanwhile, policy-makers sought to determine how to settle these territories while avoiding costly wars with Native groups; they did not always succeed in doing so.

George Washington was aware of these frontier dynamics. In 1783, he wrote to New York Congressman James Duane that, “To suffer a wide extended Country to be over run with Land Jobbers, Speculators, and Monopolisers or even with scatter’d settlers…is pregnant of disputes both with the Savages and among ourselves.”

As president, however, Washington found himself confronted with exactly such a spiral of settler-Native violence, and he ultimately authorized the use of force against “certain banditti of Indians from the northwest side of the Ohio” to put an end to it.

Horizon’s depiction of settlement as having been driven by economic calculations, moreover, also aligns with real-world settlement. For my own purposes, I am not sure that I need to make McNamee’s assumption “that all settler migration is voluntary and economically driven,” but most settlers certainly seem to have been motivated primarily by the prospect of a materially better life.

These economic calculations, moreover, were not made in a vacuum—as Horizon suggests, land speculation played a significant role in shaping frontier settlement. In the Northwest Territory, for example, wealthy, well-connected speculators like Samuel H. Parsons and Cleves Symmes would buy land (from a government in search of revenue), sell it to settlers, and lobby federal officials for military intervention when local Native groups threatened their investments.

Finally, in the Northwest Territory as in Horizon, the U.S. Army was ill-equipped to stem the tide of settlement. The government went so far as to task the military with evicting settlers from lands to which they had no legal claim, for example, but with total military personnel numbering only in the hundreds, the few evictions they were able to effectuate were insufficient to prevent the intensification of settlement and violence.

When the use of military force was authorized in this case, civilian officials did try to discriminate between groups within tribes that had engaged in acts of violence (Washington’s “certain banditti”) and those that had not done so (if only to avoid wider conflicts than deemed necessary). Settlers and local militias were often less discriminate.

There is surely more to say about what Horizon gets right about American frontier politics. The Army, for example, employs Native scouts in the film (their tribal affiliation is not specified), a dynamic that recalls Eric Grynaviski’s work on the “intermediaries” that enabled American expansion. Similarly, the settler-led process of expansion in Horizon aligns with Nicholas D. Anderson’s work on “inadvertent expansion” and the actions of “peripheral agents” that can constrain political elites.

Costner also pays attention to the processes by which settlers mark territory as their own—e.g., by carving their names in rocks and burying their dead along established trails. As Sarah Keyes notes in the recent American Burial Ground: A New History of the Overland Trail, such processes were ubiquitous across the frontier.

Some qualities of the film are surely debatable. Are Costner’s “strong women characters” all that strong? (Frances Kittredge, played by Sienna Miller, probably fares the best here.) Does the inciting Apache attack frame them as the “bad guys”? (Perhaps it does despite Costner’s rejection of such an interpretation. At the least, the characters of Pionsenay and Taklishim, played by Owen Crow Shoe and Tatanka Means, notably showcase intra-tribal politics.)

It is hard to judge the first part of a broader story in isolation, but at least in its observations on American frontier politics, there is much that Costner’s Horizon gets right.