Frederick Jackson Turner
"The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development." With these words, Frederick Jackson Turner laid the foundation for modern historical study of the American West and presented a "frontier thesis" that continues to influence historical thinking even today.
Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin, in 1861. His father, a journalist by trade and local historian by avocation, piqued Turner's interest in history. After his graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1884, Turner decided to become a professional historian, and received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1890. He served as a teacher and scholar at the University of Wisconsin from 1889 to 1910, when he joined Harvard's faculty. He retired in 1924 but continued his research until his death in 1932.
Turner's contribution to American history was to argue that the frontier past best explained the distinctive history of the United States. He most cogently articulated this idea in "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which he first delivered to a gathering of historians in 1893 at Chicago, then the site of the World's Columbian Exposition, an enormous fair to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' voyage. Although almost totally ignored at the time, Turner's lecture eventually gained such wide distribution and influence that a contemporary scholar has called it "the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history."
Three years before Turner's pronouncement of the frontier thesis, the U.S. Census Bureau had announced the disappearance of a contiguous frontier line. Turner took this "closing of the frontier" as an opportunity to reflect upon the influence it had exercised. He argued that the frontier had meant that every American generation returned "to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line." Along this frontier -- which he also described as "the meeting point between savagery and civilization" -- Americans again and again recapitulated the developmental stages of the emerging industrial order of the 1890's. This development, in Turner's description of the frontier, "begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on with the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader... the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farm communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with the city and the factory system."
For Turner, the deeper significance of the frontier lay in the effects of this social recapitulation on the American character. "The frontier," he claimed, "is the line of most rapid Americanization." The presence and predominance of numerous cultural traits -- "that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things... that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism" -- could all be attributed to the influence of the frontier.
Turner's essay reached triumphalist heights in his belief that the promotion of individualistic democracy was the most important effect of the frontier. Individuals, forced to rely on their own wits and strength, he believed, were simply too scornful of rank to be amenable to the exercise of centralized political power.
Turner offered his frontier thesis as both an analysis of the past and a warning about the future. If the frontier had been so essential to the development of American culture and democracy, then what would befall them as the frontier closed? It was on this forboding note that he closed his address: "And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history."
More than a century after he first delivered his frontier thesis, historians still hotly debate Turner's ideas and approach. His critics have denied everything from his basic assumptions to the small details of his argument. The mainstream of the profession has long since discarded Turner's assumption that the frontier is the key to American history as a whole; they point instead to the critical influence of such factors as slavery and the Civil War, immigration, and the development of industrial capitalism. But even within Western and frontier history, a growing body of historians has contested Turner's approach.
Some have long disputed the very idea of a frontier of "free land." Turner's formulation ignored the presence of the numerous Indian peoples whose subjugation was required by the nation's westward march, and assumed that the bulk of newly acquired lands were actually democratically distributed to yeomen pioneers. The numerous Indian wars provoked by American expansion belie Turner's argument that the American "free land" frontier was a sharp contrast with European nations' borders with other states.
On a more analytic level, an increasing number of Western historians have found the very concept of a frontier dubious, because it applies to too many disparate places and times to be useful. How much do Puritan New England and the California of the transcontinental railroad really have in common? Many such critics have sought to replace the idea of a moving frontier with the idea of the West as a distinctive region, much like the American South.
Where Turner told the triumphalist story of the frontier's promotion of a distinctly American democracy, many of his critics have argued that precisely the opposite was the case. Cooperation and communities of various sorts, not isolated individuals, made possible the absorption of the West into the United States. Most migrant wagon trains, for example, were composed of extended kinship networks. Moreover, as the 19th century wore on, the role of the federal government and large corporations grew increasingly important. Corporate investors headquartered in New York laid the railroads; government troops defeated Indian nations who refused to get out of the way of manifest destiny; even the cowboys, enshrined in popular mythology as rugged loners, were generally low-level employees of sometimes foreign-owned cattle corporations.
Moreover, these revisionist scholars argue, for many places the West has not been the land of freedom and opportunity that both Turnerian history and popular mythology would have us believe. For many women, Asians, Mexicans who suddenly found themselves residents of the United States, and, of course, Indians, the West was no promised land.
The more foreboding and cautionary tale which increasing numbers of Western historians have offered in place of Turner's account has provoked sharp controversy. "New" Western historians -- many of whom actually echo and draw upon fairly old scholarly works -- often argue that their accounts offer a more inclusive and honest reckoning of the Western past. Western historians who still adhere roughly to Turner's approach accuse their opponents of mistaking a simple-minded political correctness for good scholarship in their quest to recount only the doom and gloom of the Western past. Often the rhetoric reaches an acrimonious crescendo. But in a sense, the very acrimony of these debates takes us full circle back to Turner and his legacy, for debates about the significance of Western history are hardly ever confined to the past. In our understanding of what we are as a nation, if on no other level, the Western past continues to define us today.
Frederick Jackson Turner, (born November 14, 1861, Portage, Wisconsin, U.S.—died March 14, 1932, San Marino, California), American historian best known for the “frontier thesis.” The single most influential interpretation of the American past, it proposed that the distinctiveness of the United States was attributable to its long history of “westering.” Despite the fame of this monocausal interpretation, as the teacher and mentor of dozens of young historians, Turner insisted on a multicausal model of history, with a recognition of the interaction of politics, economics, culture, and geography. Turner’s penetrating analyses of American history and culture were powerfully influential and changed the direction of much American historical writing.
Born in frontier Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Turner did graduate work at Johns Hopkins University under Herbert Baxter Adams. Awarded his doctorate in 1891, he was one of the first historians professionally trained in the United States rather than Europe. Turner began his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1889. He began to make his mark with his first professional paper, “The Significance of History” (1891), which contains the famous line “each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.” The controversial notion that there was no fixed historical truth, and that all historical interpretation should be shaped by present concerns, would become the hallmark of the so-called “New History,” a movement that called for studies illuminating the historical development of the political and cultural controversies of the day. Turner should be counted among the “progressive historians,” though, with the political temperament of a small-town Midwesterner, his progressivism was rather timid. Nevertheless, he made it clear that his historical writing was shaped by a contemporary agenda.
Turner first detailed his own interpretation of American history in his justly famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” delivered at a meeting of historians in Chicago in 1893 and published many times thereafter. Adams, his mentor at Johns Hopkins, had argued that all significant American institutions derived from German and English antecedents. Rebelling against this view, Turner argued instead that Europeans had been transformed by the process of settling the American continent and that what was unique about the United States was its frontier history. (Ironically, Turner passed up an opportunity to attend Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show so that he could complete “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” on the morning that he presented it.) He traced the social evolution of frontier life as it continually developed across the continent from the primitive conditions experienced by the explorer, trapper, and trader, through maturing agricultural stages, finally reaching the complexity of city and factory. Turner held that the American character was decisively shaped by conditions on the frontier, in particular the abundance of free land, the settling of which engendered such traits as self-reliance, individualism, inventiveness, restless energy, mobility, materialism, and optimism. Turner’s “frontier thesis” rose to become the dominant interpretation of American history for the next half-century and longer. In the words of historian William Appleman Williams, it “rolled through the universities and into popular literature like a tidal wave.” While today’s professional historians tend to reject such sweeping theories, emphasizing instead a variety of factors in their interpretations of the past, Turner’s frontier thesis remains the most popular explanation of American development among the literate public.
For a scholar of such wide influence, Turner wrote relatively few books. His Rise of the New West, 1819–1829 (1906) was published as a volume in The American Nation series, which included contributions from the nation’s leading historians. The follow-up to that study, The United States, 1830–1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935), would not be published until after his death. Turner may have had difficulty writing books, but he was a brilliant master of the historical essay. The winner of an oratorical medal as an undergraduate, he also was a gifted and active public speaker. His deep, melodious voice commanded attention whether he was addressing a teachers group, an audience of alumni, or a branch of the Chautauqua movement. His writing, too, bore the stamp of oratory; indeed, he reworked his lectures into articles that appeared in the nation’s most influential popular and scholarly journals.
Many of Turner’s best essays were collected in The Frontier in American History (1920) and The Significance of Sections in American History (1932), for which he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. In these writings Turner promoted new methods in historical research, including the techniques of the newly founded social sciences, and urged his colleagues to study new topics such as immigration, urbanization, economic development, and social and cultural history. He also commented directly on the connections he saw between the past and the present.
The end of the frontier era of continental expansion, Turner reasoned, had thrown the nation “back upon itself.” Writing that “imperious will and force” had to be replaced by social reorganization, he called for an expanded system of educational opportunity that would supplant the geographic mobility of the frontier. “The test tube and the microscope are needed rather than ax and rifle,” he wrote; “in place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science.” Pioneer ideals were to be maintained by American universities through the training of new leaders who would strive “to reconcile popular government and culture with the huge industrial society of the modern world.”
Whereas in his 1893 essay he celebrated the pioneers for the spirit of individualism that spurred migration westward, 25 years later Turner castigated “these slashers of the forest, these self-sufficing pioneers, raising the corn and live stock for their own need, living scattered and apart.” For Turner the national problem was “no longer how to cut and burn away the vast screen of the dense and daunting forest” but “how to save and wisely use the remaining timber.” At the end of his career, he stressed the vital role that regionalism would play in counteracting the atomization brought about by the frontier experience. Turner hoped that stability would replace mobility as a defining factor in the development of American society and that communities would become stronger as a result. What the world needed now, he argued, was “a highly organized provincial life to serve as a check upon mob psychology on a national scale, and to furnish that variety which is essential to vital growth and originality.” Turner never ceased to treat history as contemporary knowledge, seeking to explore the ways that the nation might rechannel its expansionist impulses into the development of community life.
Turner taught at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, when he accepted an appointment to a distinguished chair of history at Harvard University. At these two institutions he helped build two of the great university history departments of the 20th century and trained many distinguished historians, including Carl Becker, Merle Curti, Herbert Bolton, and Frederick Merk, who became Turner’s successor at Harvard. He was an early leader of the American Historical Association, serving as its president in 1910 and on the editorial board of the association’s American Historical Review from 1910 to 1915. Poor health forced his early retirement from Harvard in 1924. Turner moved to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where he remained as senior research associate until his death.