The Significance of the Frontier in American History

by Frederick Jackson Turner
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" was written by Frederick Jackson Turner, delivered as a conference paper at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893, and published in that organization's Annual Report . There is much to this essay, which in many ways marks the...

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"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" was written by Frederick Jackson Turner, delivered as a conference paper at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893, and published in that organization's Annual Report. There is much to this essay, which in many ways marks the rise of professional historiography. At its heart is the so-called "frontier thesis," Jackson Turner's explanation for what has made the United States unique, or "exceptional," as most people of his time believed it to be.

The "frontier thesis" essentially is that the United States is unique because it has always had a frontier with "free land" available. For this reason, people have always been able to move westward. On the frontier, Turner thought, white men brought European ways that they had to adapt to the rugged conditions in these hinterlands. The mix of frontier-ready culture and European "civilization" was, for Turner, uniquely American, forged on the frontier, the "outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization." Turner also thought that American democracy depended on the existence of free land. He thought that without its existence, large working classes would arise and become revolutionaries, creating a toxic environment for democracy as he understood it.

Turner, in short, saw the American frontier as the key to American democracy, and, in a scholarly vein, the key to a valid historical understanding of the nation. In this sense, his essay was a call to other historians to look to the frontier in their work. His essay has been roundly criticized for its reductionism and especially for his treatment of Native Americans, who he essentially characterized as part of the frontier landscape to be swept away. The phrase "free land" is especially arresting to modern readers who reflect that there were Native Americans on this territory that was supposedly there for the taking. Also, written just three years after the "closing" of the American frontier, the essay reads like a call for imperialism—a new frontier that will revitalize American democracy.

On the other hand, Turner's thesis moved away from the essentialist racial theories that dominated thinking about nationalism at the time. He sought to explain American history and culture by looking at a material fact (free land), however ethnocentric that "fact" may have been. Overlooked, too, is the fact that Turner was afraid of the effects of the domination of the west by railroads, mining companies, and other corporate behemoths that kept it from becoming a place ordinary Americans could settle in the late nineteenth century. For these reasons, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," while generally rejected by modern scholars, remains a milestone in American historiography.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1484

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 different types of settlers who followed one another in any one settlement or who could be imaginatively plotted as a series of different kinds of frontier belts such as hunting, trading, nomadic, grazing, farming, and financing. These different types could be traced back eastward from the most advanced settlement at any given point in American history.

The second part of the book is a provocative summary of changes enforced by the frontier experience on the regions to the east and in Europe, from where the frontier impulse came. First, Turner proposes that the frontier is the real melting pot of immigrant nationalities, and without it the United States would resemble the nations of Europe. The next point is the success of the frontier. Although its rate of advance changed, it never faltered, and its increasing distance westward made Americans less dependent on England. Third, the power of the federal government stems from that granted to the U.S. Congress by the U.S. Constitution to dispose of the public domain and thus exert federal sway inside the state; without the frontier the federal government would have had little to legislate and less money with which to legislate. Fourth, the products of the frontier determined the development of the national economy, maintaining a rural influence over increasing industrialization in the East. Fifth, the egalitarianism of the frontier kept the states democratic. Last, in struggles with the economic, religious, and educational power of the East, the West came to have a character of its own, which determined that the federalist system would always be a duality of national and sectional interests.

Turner’s essay is credited with causing a revolution in American historiography, but it would be truer to say that the 1893 paper was so completely in accord with the predilections of American historians in the decades that followed the paper that the work anticipated and supported what came to be the predominant social and economic interpretation of American history. This version of history came to be preferred to the dynastic version, or the succession-of-presidents version. This version helped to make possible a wholly economic explanation of the causes of the American Civil War, for instance, and it had the effect of determining Turner’s life work. The Frontier in American History copes with his first task: to establish the historical outlines of his moving frontier and then to consider the unique character of postfrontier society, which Turner called the West. Turner’s was first of all a new problem in historiography: how to explain that an “uninhabited” area could affect an inhabited area, a problem unknown in European historiography. He uses the term “frontier” as the area of overlap between two areas, and since the frontier was always moving westward, however irregularly, Turner conceived it imaginatively as altering the physical shape of the inhabited area behind it by leaving successive belts of postfrontier societies, each of which was a “West” and together formed “the West.”

Before analyzing his “West,” Turner outlined the westward or moving frontier from Massachusetts to the “Old West” to the “Middle West,” where he expanded his outline to closer study of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. “The Significance of the Mississippi Valley in American History” discusses the moving of the frontier and allows Turner to introduce “The Problem of the West,” “Dominant Forces in Western Life,” “Contributions of the West to American Democracy,” “The West and American Ideals,” and “Middle Western Democracy.” This discussion leads him to the large claim that the West is democratic and that “democracy” is another name for “West.” Thus, the whole meaning of American history is summed up in “the West.” At this point, Turner becomes not a narrative historian but a social historian determined to explore “forces,” “ideals,” and “significances.”

In his social history, Turner tends to conclude his work with perorations about the virtue of American democracy and that of the West in producing it. “The Significance of the Mississippi Valley in American History” concludes that the valley realized the American ideal of democracy and constitutes the heartland of America as almost an independent nation that has shed its light on the surrounding feebler nations of the South, the East, and the Far West. Turner developed these ideas during his long tenure at Harvard and modified them when he took up residence at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. In turn, these ideas led him to his pioneer work on sections in American history and life.

Turner’s methods are summarized in his presidential address to the AHA in 1910, “Social Forces in American History,” the twelfth chapter of The Frontier in American History, in which he reviews statistics of American growth since 1890, arguing that the statistics provide evidence of the force behind the frontier. Turner summons his fellow historians to continue the work he began nearly two decades before by using statistics available from other disciplines, as he did in using the census bulletin in 1893. His embracing view forecasts the development of American studies, and the discipline he hinted at is given meaning by his insistence that the duty of historians is to engage themselves in the life of their nation by continually reinterpreting the immediate past in terms of the present, as he himself had done in Chicago in 1893. Turner’s concluding chapter, “Middle Western Pioneer Democracy,” presents his belief that pioneer life gave Americans a chance for a true democracy.


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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172

This book is divided into two parts. The first section talks about the American frontier. Over the years, migration and political decisions have defined the US's borders. This process began with the movement of Europeans to the New World. They discovered vast lands with agricultural potential and began farming. With time, the settlers established ports to transport their farm produce to the rest of the world. As more settlers moved to America, land became a precious commodity, and the settlers fought with native peoples for more territory.

The second section talks about the effects of the frontier on the rest of the world. The prosperity of the US has attracted immigrants from different nationalities. The success of the American frontier is also determined by its administrative system—the federal government handles all important national matters, including budgetary allocation to different departments, while the state governments deal with state affairs. All in all, this essay gives a neat account of the US's history and how its size has contributed to its economic prosperity.

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