What is the significance of the frontier in American history?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to historian Frederick Jackson Turner's so-called "Turner Thesis," the frontier played a critical role in furthering American democracy. As the frontier was absent of established churches and landed gentry, it allowed people to lay claim to land and to free themselves from established ways of thinking. Turner, whose thesis was highly influential when he delivered a speech called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" before the American Historical Association in 1893 in Chicago, believed that the frontier was critical to the renewal of American democracy. 

The 1890 Census had determined that the frontier was closed and that there was no more land on which Americans could renew themselves. As a result, many thinkers believed that Americans had to expand abroad to allow for renewal, and this belief further the drive towards American imperialism. 

To some degree, the American frontier has served as a myth. As much as it allowed for some latitude of social mobility for white Americans, the western movement of white settlers displaced Native Americans and Mexican-Americans who had lived in areas long before the arrival of white settlers. However, the frontier did provide greater religious freedom for groups such as the Mormons and was often a place in which women, who were fewer in number than in the east, enjoyed political and social power that they did not have in more established communities back east.