The Significance of the Frontier in American History Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On July 12, 1893, an annual meeting of the fledgling American Historical Association (AHA) was held in Chicago to coincide with the Columbia Exposition. The exposition celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus. Frederick Jackson Turner, from Wisconsin, got up to deliver a paper before the AHA. His paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” permanently altered the study of American history in schools, colleges, and universities.

Turner’s famous paper often was reprinted, but it was not until 1920 that he presented the first full statement of his theory of the frontier. Turner republished his original paper, with twelve supporting articles, in the book The Frontier in American History; the second and consequent part of his theory, The Significance of Sections in American History, was published in 1932, the year he died. His 1894 paper was preceded by his doctoral dissertation on the fur trade in Wisconsin and two articles on history and American history that show the development of his theory of the frontier.

Two events precipitated Turner’s paper: First, the work of the Italian economist Achille Loria—who theorized that free land was the key to changes in human society—and of America as the best place in which to test this thesis, came to Turner’s notice in the late 1880’s. Loria’s work influenced an earlier paper by Turner, “Problems in American History” (1892). The second event was the announcement of the superintendent of the 1890 census that insufficient free land existed in the United States for the frontier to feature in the census reports as it had done since the first census in 1790. Turner dramatized this fact in the beginning of his paper. In effect, he was directing his fellow historians away from political and diplomatic history, insisting that, no matter what happened in European capitals, American history was made in the hinterland, where the westward movement had been the most significant historical phenomenon for Americans. There was, for historians, a vast frontier of local history to investigate in whatever state they might be located. The dramatic setting and occasion for Turner’s paper was not immediately appreciated, but it played its part in spreading his ideas rapidly.

The paper’s expanded version, The Frontier in American History, is constructed in two parts, with an introduction. The first paragraph asserts that American history is the gradual settlement of the West, and this is followed by four paragraphs defining the frontier as a moving belt between settled and free land; it moved because of the force behind it. As an effect of the environment into which it moved, the frontier’s chief characteristic is a process of reversion to savagery followed by a slow recovery of civilization that, because its chief influences are indigenous, cannot be an imitation of European life and must therefore be American alone. If the frontier is the maker of Americans, and they are the makers of their history, then the frontier holds the key to that history.

The first part of the book presents in rapid survey the different kinds of frontier in American history and the modes of advance from the time when it began as the frontier of Europe on the Atlantic seaboard in the early seventeenth century to its near completion in the 1880’s. The changes in the frontier were determined by the different geographical boundaries or “barriers” to the westward advance—American Indians, farm land, salt supplies, and the like. Here, Turner draws several vivid sketches of the succession of...

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The Significance of the Frontier in American History Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Billington, Ray Allen. The Genesis of the Frontier Thesis: A Study in Historical Creativity. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1971. Traces the process by which Turner developed his frontier thesis through an examination of letters and documents that the historian used in framing his ideas. An important source for investigation of Turner’s intellectual evolution, written by his foremost biographer.

Cronon, William. “Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner.” Western Historical Quarterly 18 (April, 1987): 157-176. An examination of Turner’s historical contributions by one of the New West scholars. A good overview of how Turner’s reputation has progressed over time.

Etulain, Richard W., ed. Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. In addition to the entire text of The Significance of the Frontier in American History, this edition contains essays by modern historians who analyze Turner’s ideas. Three of the essays are by New West historians who discuss how the idea of the frontier shaped the American imagination, explore gender issues in Turner’s work, and seek to answer the question, Whose frontier is it? Other essays examine the validity and meaning of Turner’s ideas for the United States in the twenty-first century.

Jacobs, Wilbur R. The...

(The entire section is 416 words.)