Ray Allen Billington, 77, a noted historian who took as his principal subject the American frontier and its effect on the growth of the United States and the attitudes of its people, died Sunday at his home in San Marino, Calif. He had a heart ailment.
At the time of his death, Dr. Billington was a senior research associate at the Huntington Library in San Marino, a major repository of materials on the West and related Americana. He was the author or editor of more than 25 books and other works. He taught at Clark University in Worcester, Mass, and at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. From 1944 to 1963, he taught at Northwestern University in Evanstown, Ill. He had been a visiting professor at Ohio State and Harvard universities.
Dr. Billington was a disciple of Frederick Jackson Turner. It was Turner who advanced the controversial thesis that the existence of the frontier -- with its cheap land and seemingly unlimited opportunities -- had been the crucial factor in American life until the 1890s, when the frontier closed. Dr. Billington remained fascinated by this aspect of the country's history. It was his view that the frontier, if not the major factor in the development of the country, at least was among the most important ones. He held that not only did it provide an immigrant or an Easterner with a chance for a fresh start, but also gave those who embraced it an opportunity to experiment with new social and economic concepts.
Among his major books was "Westward Expansion," a massive work that first appeared in 1949 and subsequently in new editions. The book, which remains the standard text in its field, appealed to lay readers as well as to scholars. His biography of Turner, "Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher," won the Bancroft Prize for American History in 1974.
Dr. Billington's most recent book, "Land of Savagery, Land of Promise," appeared this year. It is an examination of the European view of the American West. Dr. Billington wrote that from the late 19th century until well into the 20th century foreigners generally believed that the country was ruled by six-gun justice and represented fantastic opportunities for wealth and social mobility. The systematic extermination of the Indians, another prominent part of the European view, was not regarded as a matter of great concern in the Age of Imperialism.
But Dr. Billington concluded that an "alarming number of people" now see the United States as a "ruthless predator." "And, tragically," he wrote, these opinions "are rooted in the longheld belief that frontier America -- and to a lesser degree the United States as a whole -- was a land where might ruled over right, where brutality was the way of life, and where an Indian minority was heartlessly wiped out by white aggressors. . . ."
Dr. Billington was a founder and the first president of the Western History American, which was established in 1962. Unlike many learned and professional organizations, it welcomes amateurs as well as professionals among its members. This democracy in the service of knowledge was in accord with Dr. Billington's opinions.
Dr. Billington was born in Bay City, Mich. He was educated at the universities of Wisconsin, Michigan and Harvard.
Survivors include his wife, the former Mabel Ruth Crotty, whom he married in 1928, of San Marino, a daughter, Anne Schmitt of France, and a son, Allen, of Michigan.