I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

“The Significance of the Frontier in American History”

Frederick Jackson Turner

“The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” or the Frontier Thesis as it is more popularly referred to as, was originally presented as a paper to the American Historical Association at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The timing of the paper is essential to understanding the core of Turner’s argument. Citing the Census of 1890, Turner is writing to announce the end of the frontier, and consequently, according to Turner, the end of the most crucial instrument in creating a sense of a unique American identity. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development,” (1) he asserts.

The dominant theme in Turner’s thesis is that of social evolution. Turner believes that civilization has an orderly evolutionary cycle that starts in the savage state, moves to pastoralism, and ends with cities and industry. Europeans had long been trapped in the suffocating confines of the final stage, which had caused corruption and staleness both in Europe and in the eastern United States, where European traditions had continued to reign. However, the availability of free, undeveloped land in the West had enabled Americans to go through a kind of rebirthing process. Individualism was king on the frontier. Men were able to start anew, almost at the savage stage, but what separated these men from the Native Americans was that they brought the best of the European practices with them. Those European characteristics and institutions that were sullied were quickly rooted out for they had no place on the even playing field of the West, which enabled pure, unadulterated democracy to blossom into fruition.

Wilderness to Turner is an entity that is commendable only in its role in furthering man’s development. Wilderness is swell, but it is even better during and after the conquering process. It is the challenges that wilderness throws the frontiersman’s way that allow the frontiersmen to shed the over embellished skin of European civilization, and to step forward a new, improved, self-reliant, and rugged individual ready to turn the western wilderness into an superior Mecca of democracy. Despite the wilderness’s key role in this process, man’s duty, according to Turner, is still to subdue and improve wilderness with the onslaught of culture and society. Until 1890, there was always more wilderness available beyond the frontier line in which for further generations to undergo the rebirthing process and to ensure that the United States did not begin to brew in the morose of decayed civilization, a predicament that had despoiled the nations of Europe.

Important to the environmental historian is Turner’s idea of geographic sectionalism that he only slightly introduces in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” but goes into more depth about in his later writings. Turner believes that state lines are artificial constructs, and that regions are really divided by natural boundary lines, such as mountains. This sectionalism had a great deal of influence on the development of the frontier. Turner’s assertion is significant because he is rather ahead of his time in acknowledging the fact that different environmental conditions led to diverse experiences amongst different groups of pioneers. The particular environmental situation to which these individuals were subjected directly affected their economic and social development.

Turner’s thesis has many holes in it. Firstly, his rendition of the western story revolves solely around white, anglo men. Women and minorities are not a part of his pretty picture. Secondly, his story only accounts for those that chose an agrarian occupation, ignoring other industries such as mining. Thirdly, he ignores the fact that Eastern corporations, particularly railroad companies, had a large hand in making the western expansion process possible. However, despite these shortcomings the Frontier thesis and its message provided the United States with an origin myth that they could cling to in an uneasy time during which countries were feverishly clawing for any piece of exceptionality that would provide them with a superior sense of nationalism. According to Henry Nash Smith, despite the fact that Turner’s thesis confounds common sense and is full of contradictions and falsities, the powerful impact that it had on the American imagination and collective identity gives it intellectual credence. Of course it was not viewed as myth by individuals at the time, and is still pulsing through the American conscious, though weakened, today. Aside from allowing for the birth of American exceptionalism, Turner’s theory also heavily influenced the historical profession, and was considered the account of Western History for many generations. Historians are still working under its shadow, even though many have been fighting for decades to dissolve its potency.

Feature Photo:

  • Title: The silenced warwhoop / Chas. Schreyvogel.
  • Creator(s): Schreyvogel, Charles, 1861-1912, artist
  • Date Created/Published: [United States], [1908]
  • Medium: 1 photograph : gelatin silver print ; sheet 36 x 51 cm.
  • Summary: Photograph shows reproduction of painting with Indians fighting U.S. Cavalry.
  • Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ds-05465 (digital file from original item) LC-USZ62-4347 (b&w film copy neg.) LC-USZ62-814 (b&w film copy neg. from reproduction in book)
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
  • Call Number: LOT 4655 [item] [P&P]
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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