The Significance of the Frontier in American History

by Frederick Jackson Turner
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 201

"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" is an important 1893 paper by American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, written while he was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin. Tracing the concept of "frontier" from the early instances of frontier towns established in Massachusetts—from which settlers were prohibited from moving—to the year 1890, Turner argues that the continually evolving American frontier helped shape the United States' democratic tradition.

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As the essay is a nonfiction social history, the characters in "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" are generally of a collective quality, and, indeed, the "American people" as a unit fill the central role in the essay, serving as both protagonist and antagonist.

Another significant collective character is that of "the Western Man." This individual, Turner explains, is one whose rugged individualism and the rough circumstances of his existence place him at continual odds with "Eastern indifference" and "Eastern policy."

However, in addition to collective characters, individual historical persons also figure to lesser degrees, and their ideas and perspectives are used to explain the evolution of American history as it's described by Turner. These include US Army Col. George Custer, the Native American chief Tecumseh, and Thomas Jefferson.

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