Railroads and Conflict in the West

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What is the significance of the frontier in American history?

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In Frederick Jackson Turner's famous 1893 paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," he argued that the closing of the American frontier in 1890 was a watershed moment in US history. What had made the US different from European countries, he argued, was the existence of a frontier...

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In Frederick Jackson Turner's famous 1893 paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," he argued that the closing of the American frontier in 1890 was a watershed moment in US history. What had made the US different from European countries, he argued, was the existence of a frontier that provided an outlet for American energies and desires. Turner asserted that the existence of an untamed frontier on the edge of "civilization," needing to be settled (from a white point of view: the Native Americans believed it already was settled) and the abundance of land and resources this frontier symbolized was integral to the American Dream and the formation of the American character.

Americans early on developed such traits as self reliance, independence, resourcefulness, individualism, and hopefulness because there were always successive waves of new frontiers opening up that could test the spirit and make dreams comes true, at least in the American mythology.

With the completion of railway travel and the planting of towns and growing urbanization across the continent, that era of US history had now ended. The United States would have to adapt and find new projects and dreams to absorb the vibrant, restless energies that had once been absorbed by the frontier. The frontier had been a safety valve, a place where people who couldn't find a place to fit in could find a wilderness to conquer.

Turner's thesis was popular in part because it was straightforward and easy to understand. It also asked questions that were particularly relevant to that period of history, a time when a great influx of immigrants were raising concerns about where outlets could be found to absorb a new and growing generation.

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Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) is best-known for his "frontier thesis" of American history. The 1890 national census indicated that there was no more frontier as the entire nation had been settled. America had always been about taming the frontier, so its disappearance marked the end of an era.

In 1893, Turner said that the frontier had had a profound effect on the nation. One effect was "the promotion of democracy" both in America and in Europe. Individualism flourished on the frontier, too. And the frontier was uniquely American—a fact that differentiated the U.S. from Europe.

Turner's "frontier thesis" was extremely popular for many years. Later historians have criticized it by noting that it does not account for the role of minorities in the West. Also, contemporary historians typically reject sweeping generalizations.

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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.

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