Frontier Thesis in American History: What Historian Frederick Jackson Turner Suggested
Frederick Jackson turner, a historian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the PBS website on The West “, …laid the foundation for modern historical study of the American West. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American historical development His Frontier Thesis continues to influence historical thinking.
Turner was born in the city of Portage, Wisconsin in 1861. His father was a journalist with a deep interest in history. Turner graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1884 after deciding to become a professional historian he went on to John Hopkins University in 1890 where he got his Ph.D. His thesis was on the Wisconsin fur trade. He went back to the University of Wisconsin to teach from 1889 to 1910. He then went to teach at Harvard. In 1924 he retired. While he was a history professor Turner influenced a large number of students who went on to dominate American history programs for much of the 20th century. His own reputation was such that by 1010 he had the reputation of being one of the most influential historians in the country. He had what Wikipedia refers to as an “encyclopedic knowledge” gained from his research.
Turner gained influence in the history field from his interpretive theories. These he published in articles. The “Frontier Thesis and the” Sectional Hypothesis,” were the most influential. What has become known as his Frontier Thesis was a scholarly paper presented in 1893 titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History, ”which he read to the American Historical Association. It was during the Chicago Worlds fair.
The westward expansion of the United States, he contended, led to the spirit and success of the country. It was something of West vs. East. Turner believed that it was the West where the characteristics of the American developed. Pioneers moved across the west and gradually “abandoned useless European practices, institutions and ideas,” according to wikipedia. Characteristic that seem to have evolved from the frontier experience are those of informality, violence, crudeness, democracy and initiative. Characteristic that the world may think of as being American.
In the field of religion, William Warren Sweet of the University of Chicago Divinity School has noted that the frontier experience created new denomination such as the Mormons, the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Cumberland Presbyterians. Revivals, camp meetings and itinerant preaching have also been looked upon as resulting from the frontier experience.
According to wikipedia the term frontier referred in the United States to”…the transition zone where explorers, pioneers and settlers were arriving.” since the expansion in the United States was mostly from the east to the west the terms frontier and west were much the same.
During the frontier era Turner seems to believe that every generation of Americans went back to primitive conditions and repeating the stages of development from primitive to industrial. These stages have been considered to be from hunters to trading to pastoral (ranching) using the soil to raise crops without rotation, to rotated crops in sparsely settled communities, intensive culture of farm settlements to the final stage of manufacturing.
Turner felt that “…promotion of individualistic democracy was the most important effect of the frontier…”would be”…simply too scornful of rank to be amenable to the exercise of centralized political power.” I wonder what he would think of things now.
For Turner the significance was in what this all meant for the development of American character.
According to PBS “Turner’s contribution to American History was to argue that the frontier past best explained the distinctive history of the United States.” His idea did not get immediate acceptance and was ignored at first. Eventually it became influential that “…a contemporary scholar has called it ‘the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history,’” the PBS article states.
The timing of his thesis followed a U.S. Census Bureau announcement three years earlier, which claimed that the contiguous frontier line had disappeared. It is also what influenced Turner to reflect on the influence the frontier had. PBS explains.
The cultural traits that Turner found in the frontier were ‘…restless turn of mind, quick to find expedients; nervous energy, that dominant individualism” were due to the frontier influence. According to the PBS article, Turner thought that with the closing of the frontier the “…first period of American History has also closed.
Oscar Micheaux, a Black filmmaker and novelist in the 1910’s to the 1940’s used turners Frontier thesis in his work, where he promoted the idea that the West was a place blacks could find economic success by hard work and perseverance, according to wikipedia.
Richard W. Slatta, "Taking Our Myths Seriously." Journal of the West 2001 argues that the widespread popularization of Turner’s frontier Thesis influenced popular histories, motion pictures, and novels, which characterize the west in terms of individualism, frontier violence, and rough justice, as quoted in wikipedia.
Although more than a century has passed since Turner first gave his frontier thesis it is still a subject of debate for historians. His critics deny just about everything about his assumptions and details of his argument, according to PBS.They go on to say that the mainstream of the history profession has discarded his assumptions of the frontier as key to American History. They argue that such things as the civil war, slavery, immigration and the development of industrial capitalism. Even in the specialties of frontier and western history more historians are challenging his approach.
The Significance of Sections in American History is a collection of Turners essays and won a Pulitzer Prize in History in 1933.The theory on sectionalism was almost as influential among historians as was his Frontier Thesis. However, it was not as well know with the general public. Different ethno-cultural groups had distinct settlement patterns, which showed in politics, economics and society is the basis of the theory.
Civil War Influence
The west of the movies and books which we associate with “Cowboys” or the “western” genre stretches from the Civil War period to about the turn of the 20th Century. In my observation it seems that the Civil war had its effect on the western experience in America. For some of the following reasons:
· Many Confederate soldiers with nothing to go back to went west or stayed there.
· Many former slaves went west to find opportunity.
· The Civil War had upset the accepted social order of the time.
New Theories in 1960’s
Historians of the 1960’s and after became more aware of women, Indians and minorities. These are some of the things that they felt Turner ignored. As a result they tended to ignore or dispute turners theories. The critics complain that he neglected regionalism.
Turner ideas, according to wikipedia,” never really disappeared indeed they influenced the new field of environmental history.’ By applying new statistical methods and data sets many of Turners suggestions about population movements have proven correct.
In my own observations of the study of history and western frontier history is that academic people who I think are competitive and make a reputation coming up with theories to combat former theories write history. I think that some new ideas in the 1960’s led to more study of what is called “social history” which I find most interesting. My own college professor of American History was a social historian and woke up my interest in history. He said that one thing that was discovered in the 1960’s was that there were Indians, women and black people in American history. Funny no one noticed them before.
I think that it is normal for new theories and research to come up with new perspectives. However, that does not mean that everything was wrong with the old ideas. In one way or another I think Turners ideas were right in that the frontier had to have an influence on American Culture, just the same as the Depression and World War II had an influence on my early childhood development.
Critics are probably right in that Turner thesis did not account for such things as the Indian populations in the frontier west.
The frontier and western images are part of American culture. President Kennedy ran on a slogan involving the New Frontier, popular Sci-Fi show Star Trek used outer space as “the final frontier.” Cowboys persist in country music and rodeo, which is a modern celebration of the round up of the old west round up. And lets not forget the Marlboro man.
Much of the information used here came from the Wikipedia article on Frederick Jackson Turner.
PBS-The West- article on Frederick Jackson Turner
- PBS - THE WEST - Frederick Jackson Turner
- Frederick Jackson Turner - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikipedia article on Frederick Jackson Turner