Speculators or developers?

Wyckoff, W. (1988). The developer's frontier : the making of the western New York landscape. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Historical Geographers are another group fascinated by Turner’s frontier thesis. Wyckoff focuses on land developers and resident land agents. Their activities, he says, “directly effected the frontier settlement pattern,” and “became an enduring legacy on the landscape, especially in the form of surviving survey lines, village locations, and road networks. That palpable imprint on the land is largely unrecognized and uncelebrated,” and Wyckoff believes “existing theories of frontier settlement...do little to interpret in any penetrating way the impact of these promoters, investors, and developers on the making of the American landscape or on the evolution of American culture.” (4)

Wyckoff acknowledges challenges made to the standard Turnerian model of frontier evolution (the one that recapitulates the evolution of western civilization), especially those of Paul Wallace Gates and A.M. Sakolski, “who began his work
The Great American Land Bubble with the dramatic words, “America, from its inception, was a speculation.’” (7) But the derogatory tone surrounding their treatment of speculators is misplaced, he says. Because it links the frontier with eastern (and even international) investors and capital markets, “the presence of the land speculator complicates and to some extent contradicts aspects of the classic Turnerian model.” But Wyckoff insists “the speculator’s frontier is just as sharply distinguished from the developer’s frontier, in which land agents were committed not only to promoting and selling land but also to reshaping and transforming the landscape in a manner that would attract settlers and would endure on the visible scene for decades.” (8)

Wyckoff also suggests, citing Douglass C. North, R.D. Mitchell, and others, that the development he is going to describe is tightly bound to commerce with urban centers, in a way that seems to anticipate central place theory -- or to imply that developers, if not immigrants, had a similar idea in mind. Wyckoff tries to bridge a gap between theory and observation and answer an important question, by suggesting that the agents of this change were the developers whose “decisions shaped the course of settlement and the subsequent look of the land.”

William Cooper’s Guide to the Wilderness is probably worth a look, as well as William Cooper’s Town.