views updated May 11 2018


The concept of a frontier—some kind of dividing line between nature and civilization—was present in some form or other in the minds of European discoverers and explorers of North America almost from the beginning, and early on it became a defining phenomenon in American history. As settlers confronted the interior of a vast continent full of exotic people, animals, and plants as well as geographic and geologic wonders, they came to realize that although they intended to transplant and perpetuate European institutions and to exploit the new continent for European purposes, indigenous circumstances were inevitably going to make life in America significantly different from that in the Old World.

Images of the frontier in early American literature vary greatly, from a place of darkness and dread, the domain of the devil, to a happy, peaceful realm of opportunity for the human spirit to recover a presumed primeval innocence cleansed of civilization's corruption and indeed even a place to achieve union with God. It was violent and perilous, but it was also a land of opportunity, where an enterprising person with a sharp ax could become the master of his own destiny. The frontier was thus fraught with ambiguous meaning, but it was a place few Americans could ignore. The novels of James Fenimore Cooper, the histories of Washington Irving and Francis Parkman, and the government reports of John C. Frémont all found enthusiastic audiences among Americans who felt themselves drawn to the frontier or who only dreamed of going there.

However the frontier might have been defined, it was a transitional phenomenon, a passing phase on the road to civilization. Civilization of course contains its own problems, and as Americans found themselves confronted increasingly by those new problems, their concept of the frontier acquired a nostalgic component. In that view America's best days lay in the past, in a time when life's essentials were laid bare and challenges brought out the best in human nature. This nostalgic view became more and more prominent in American literature and history during the years after the Civil War, when a country newly reunited and invigorated by the Industrial Revolution rushed to vanquish the remaining Indians, settle the open spaces, and exploit the continent's natural resources.

When the University of Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) read his path-breaking paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" before the American Historical Association in Chicago on 12 July 1893, he both represented contemporary interest in the frontier and foreshadowed the fascination with the subject that lasted well into the twentieth century. Like the ancient Roman god Janus, Turner looked both ways, reacting to previous views as well as preparing the way for other viewpoints that dominated writing about the frontier in the next decades. The "frontier" or "Turner" thesis, although much challenged in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, nonetheless remains the beginning place for understanding the central concept of the frontier in American history and literature. In addition, because novelists, historians, and moviemakers are not immune from their own times, their interpretations of the frontier often reflect their present-day experiences as much as the events of the past. Over time the frontier has become as much a metaphor for presenting one's views as a series of historical events.


Turner built on an enduring interest in borders and frontiers. In Europe well before Turner spoke of the idea, the frontier referred to set boundaries between nations. In the United States in the nineteenth century, frontiers were often points of contact between colonial empires or of division between white and Indian societies. Travelers and writers of the nineteenth century provided varied depictions of the frontier. The journals of the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Zebulon Pike, and Stephen H. Long, for example, spoke of the vast spaces, the giant mountains and rivers, and numerous Indian tribes. They also warned of dangers from natural disasters and native opponents. If explorers in the early nineteenth century furnished close approximations of what they saw and experienced, more imaginative tourists, authors the likes of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, the historian Francis Parkman, and artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran provided more romantic depictions.

Toward the end of the century, other writers and publicists further wilded up the West. From 1860 into the early twentieth century, dime novelists utilized the frontier repeatedly for sensational and lurid tales of historical and quasi-historical figures like Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and Calamity Jane as well as wholly fictional characters like Deadwood Dick, Rattlesnake Ned, and Sagebrush Sal. Dime novels depicted a West much more of fantasy than of reality. The most influential of all such promulgators of the romanticized West was William F. Cody, "Buffalo Bill" (1846–1917), who in 1883 organized his Wild West show and took it throughout the United Statesand western Europe. Cody's circus-like exhibition provided a mix of cowboys, Indians, shootists, and fancy riders, but most of all Buffalo Bill portrayed the frontier as a setting of nonstop vigorous competitions.

The local color movement in American literature, which lasted from the end of the Civil War until the 1890s and provided the southern animal fabliaux of Joel Chandler Harris and the Hoosier dialect stories of James Whitcomb Riley, also manifested itself in the stories of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and Alfred Henry Lewis, who utilized historical and imagined characters to depict mysterious, adventurous, and faraway frontiers peopled with exotic miners, courageous explorers, and exuberant cowboys. "Local color" denotes a literary tradition based on folklore and character types that are charming representations of life in a particular time and place but which do not transcend their roots to achieve a timeless universal significance.

The most influential interpreter of the frontier before Turner was the Boston Brahmin Francis Parkman (1788–1852). A horticulturist by training, Parkman was one of the first in a long line of talented researchers and writers who have made immense contributions to American history as hobbyists rather than as professionally trained scholars. Parkman's most celebrated work is The Oregon Trail (1872; first published as The California and Oregon Trail in 1849), a now-classic memoir of Parkman's direct experience of the frontier during a trip across the Great Plains on the overland trail in 1846. Parkman has been accused, most notably by the historian Bernard DeVoto, of missing the larger significance of the historic moment he witnessed because of his aristocratic disdain for the unwashed mountain men and the Indians, whom he typically referred to as savages, who shared the trail and were effecting the continental expansion that DeVoto considered the basic theme in American history. Be that as it may, the experience aroused Parkman's literary instincts and set a great career in motion.

Parkman's voluminous histories, which continued to flow from his inkwell until the early 1890s, were deeply grounded in the grand Romantic vision that inspired his fellow historians George Bancroft and William H. Prescott as well as writers like Irving and Cooper. His pages are filled with such epic themes as the clash of empires in the Seven Years' War (The History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada [1851] and Montcalm and Wolfe [1884]) and the heroic deeds of great explorers and missionaries like La Salle and the French Jesuits.

Modern western historians owe a great deal to Parkman, both for his tireless exploitation of archival resources and for his literary style, which, while no one would write in that mode in the early twenty-first century, reminds one that history is a literary art as well as a science. Interpretively his contribution is much thinner. Parkman was certainly aware of the existence of a frontier as a line separating the primitive from the civilized, but he saw little utility in it or any other sociological phenomenon in his literary purposes. He was much less interested in explaining than in simply narrating. Issues of causation and significance—the interpretive elements in which modern historians believe history achieves its explanatory force and intellectual height—were less important to Parkman than exploring the literary potential of his epic themes and characters.

Another pre-Turner historian of the West, who was much more read in his day than in later years, is Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Only a little psychoanalysis is required to understand that Roosevelt's interest in what he imagined to be the robust masculinity of western life grew out of his personal determination to triumph over the limitations of the weak body with which he was born, a determination that made him a horseman, hunter, boxer, cowboy, and lifelong advocate of what he came to call "the strenuous life." Born into a wealthy New York aristocratic family, Roosevelt was a voracious reader who early became aware of the frontier and the outsize adventures of the colorful characters who populated it. No armchair adventurer himself, Roosevelt's passion for the West led him to ownership of two cattle ranches in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s. Although the rough-edged cowboys in his employ sometimes found themselves snickering at his Harvard accent, they had to applaud his toughness and energy, and Roosevelt vindicated his authentic western-ness by knocking out a bully in a Dakota saloon.

The long shelf of Roosevelt's writings includes several titles recounting his experiences and travels in the West, but his multivolume history of the frontier, The Winning of the West: An Account of the Exploration and Settlement of Our Country from the Alleghanies to the Pacific, which appeared during 1889–1896, was most influential in promoting a particular view of the frontier that remains vital in popular culture even to this day. Driven by an unabashed racism that underlay most of the European and American imperialism of that day, The Winning of the West was the story of the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon pioneers in supplanting indigenous "savagery" with civilization. Filled with dramatic battles, desperate struggles, and similar vindications of "the strenuous life," Roosevelt's history was an implicit rebuke to the effete easterners of his native society whose vision failed to embrace the great challenge of redeeming the earth through Anglo-Saxon conquest.


The frontier began to take on increased importance in the American mind as a result of what various historians have called the "watershed," the "psychic crisis," and the "reorientation of American culture" during the 1890s. Although twentieth-century western historiography, with its focus on ethnic and cultural minorities and on women, has tended to minimize some of the traumatic aspects of that decade as a tempest only within the teapot of elite white Americans, the fact that those Americans were the dominant power in politics, society, and culture gives the thesis some force.

In broad terms, the thesis focuses on a widespread failure of confidence in the basic soundness of American culture in the face of the end of the frontier, the great economic depression of the decade, the resulting revolt of farmers, labor unrest and violence in the Homestead and Pullman strikes of 1892 and 1894, respectively, ostensibly unassimilable waves of immigrants and the resulting ghettos and slums, widespread civic corruption, and the death of free enterprise and competition by the domination of big business conglomerates. The West played a major role in the attempt of Americans to revert to and reassert virtues and attributes that they imagined had defined America's strength in the simpler years before the Industrial Revolution. A new focus on the outdoors as opposed to the city was manifested by the creation of national parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia, in the nature writings of Ernest Thompson Seton and John Muir, by the founding of organizations like the Boone and Crockett Club (1887) and the Sierra Club (1892), and a general emphasis on Roosevelt's "strenuous life." Those emphases came to the surface of public life perhaps most tellingly in the jingoistic patriotism that led to imperialistic ventures in the Caribbean and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War (1898), to the Open Door Policy (1899), and to the building of the Great White Fleet (1907–1909).


Before Turner could give the frontier its rightful place in the American past, he had to clear away what he considered three major impediments. For one, after the Civil War, American historians had placed too much stress, Turner was convinced, on the controversies that led to that fratricidal conflict. True, slavery and the attendant political and economic embroilments were important, but they must be viewed in larger contexts, alongside other powerful forces that shaped what became the United States. Second, Turner urged his fellow historians to avoid their nearly exclusive emphases on the molding influences of Europe on American history. In this urging, Turner was separating himself from his teacher Herbert Baxter Adams. As Turner's doctoral mentor at Johns Hopkins University, Adams preached the doctrine of the "germ theory," which asserted that the "germs" of European history and culture were the primary shaping forces of the American past. Third, Turner wanted to put distance between himself and historians and popularizers who wanted to turn the frontier into a Wild West replete with gigantic heroes and villains. Without naming names Turner implied that his analytical approaches to the study of the frontier were miles distant from the kinds of Wests that Buffalo Bill, Theodore Roosevelt, and others were portraying in their arena shows and romantic narrative histories. Turner was convinced that if the underbrush of slavery, the "germ theory," and a Wild West could be cleared away, his ideas about the significance of the frontier as the most important force in influencing American history could gain the attention they merited.

In the opening paragraph of Turner's notable presentation in 1893, he sounded the tocsin for the importance of the frontier in American history. Out on the frontier, he argued, "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development" (Frontier in History, p. 1). The frontier experience did not help explain, partially explain, or largely "explain American development"; it did the explaining by itself. This is the boldest statement in an iconoclastic essay. Once one accepts the proposition encapsulated in that sentence, it is not difficult to understand the central significance of the frontier to American history.

Turner pointed to several results of the American frontier experience. The outcome of demanding wilderness contact, Turner asserted, encouraged individualism and a democracy derived from individual effort and from the necessity of working together to survive and to form political and social institutions. On the frontier a social and economic leveling took place when all families, without servants or slaves, had to do their own work. Here were Thomas Jefferson's yeoman farmers laboring in a setting where class divisions could not be sustained. Besides individualism and democracy, the frontier spawned a new, corporate nationality, a real melting pot in which ethnic differences dissolved in the light of common experience. Turner was equally convinced that the frontier had encouraged another of kind of nationalism in which frontier residents forged links with the federal government through their need for banks, tariffs, and internal improvements such as canals and roads.

A new kind of culture had also emerged on the frontier and influenced the remainder of the nation. Turner notes elsewhere that historical figures such as Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain prove that the frontier produced, in the words of the transcendentalists, men of reason (homespun, grassroots, intuitive democrats) rather than men of understanding (rational intellectuals and philosophers). The "intellectual traits" of the frontier, Turner opined, were a "coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness." These traits also included a "practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients." Finally, the frontier mind demonstrated a "masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends . . . restless, nervous energy . . . a dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom" (Frontier in American History, p. 37).

Reflecting the nationalistic, reforming, and positive spirit of his time and personal temperament, Turner produced a generally optimistic essay. True, the frontier had closed, but its powerful, shaping legacies would sustain Americans in the future. The individualism, democracy, nationalism, and social mobility that the frontier fostered were beacons for Americans facing an uncertain horizon. Turner's forward-looking vision, based on a valuable past, comes into focus in the rhetorical flourishes appearing at the end of his remarkable essay. Turner, the historian and poet, wrote: "What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely" (Frontier in American History, p. 38).


Although a few years passed before Turner's frontier thesis became irrevocable doctrine, most American historians had converted to the Turner camp by 1910. In that year Turner was elected president of the American Historical Association and was named to a chair of history at Harvard, two signs that he was among the most influential historians in the United States. Turner's students and other disciples carried the frontier message throughout the country. Hardly a major college or university was without its Turner man. Indeed, when Turner's replacement at the University of Wisconsin, Frederic Logan Paxson (1877–1948), wrote a book-length frontier history that Turner often promised but never completed, Paxson seemed a Turner look-alike in arguing in his preface "that the frontier with its continuous influence is the most American thing in all America." For that book, History of the American Frontier, 1763–1893 (1924), with its clear Turnerian stamp, Paxson won a coveted Pulitzer Prize. Soon after Turner died in 1932, Paxson wrote an overview of frontier historiography, declaring that Turner's frontier thesis "stands today as easily to be accepted as it was when launched" ("A Generation of the Frontier Hypothesis," p. 51).


One of the most widely read fictional proponents of the significance of the frontier in American history is an Ohio dentist turned novelist, Zane Grey (1875–1939). Grey's fictional portrayal of life on the frontier owes a good deal more to the hairy-chested imperialism of Theodore Roosevelt than to the social analysis of Turner, but Grey, by becoming one of America's bestselling authors, demonstrates the depth and persistence of interest in the frontier within the reading public.

Frustrated with dentistry, Grey in 1903 began trying his hand at fiction in the form of a trilogy based on the historical exploits of his ancestors on the Ohio River frontier. Betty Zane (1903), The Spirit of the Border (1906), and The Last Trail (1909) were melodramas featuring lurid prose and violence similar to the dime novels. Although they sold poorly, they provided Grey with practice plotting frontier action stories and convinced him that a literary career was possible. A trip in 1907 to the ranch of the former buffalo hunter Colonel C. J. "Buffalo" Jones in northern Arizona gave Grey his first actual experience with frontier-like conditions and began to incubate the themes that became the framework of his most popular books. Jones's Mormon cowboys, the colorful Indians of the Grand Canyon region, the dramatic scenery, and the challenges of life in the desert all found prominent places in Grey's interpretation of the frontier.

Those elements coalesce in The Heritage of the Desert (1910), the first of Grey's "Mormon" novels and the first to develop his idea of the frontier as a theater of Darwinian natural selection, in which an ill and exhausted easterner, symbolizing the cultural bankruptcy of industrialized urban civilization, comes west and, responding to the moral and physical challenges of a harsh frontier life, finds rejuvenation and, of course, love. Grey further develops that theme in his other two "Mormon" novels, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) and The Rainbow Trail (1915), perhaps the most famous westerns ever written. In those books Grey also introduced the character of Lassiter, the mysterious avenging gunman almost as lacking in antecedents as Owen Wister's Virginian, whose guns impose justice where vestigial frontier institutions cannot.

Grey's frontier Darwinism reached its apogee during the 1920s. Two character types appearing in his novels of that decade find physical and moral healing in the West: broken and unappreciated veterans of World War I and superficial flappers of the Jazz Age. The books featuring those themes—The Man of the Forest (1920), The Call of the Canyon (1924), and 30,000 on the Hoof (1940)—are arguably his most philosophical and culturally significant works. During the 1930s Grey's literary output continued unabated, but with his audience now assured, his stories were less imaginative. Other novelists and historians—Willa Cather, Walter Prescott Webb, and Herbert E. Bolton among them—by that time had also rushed out onto the literary frontier, and an abiding interest in the significance of the frontier in American history had become a fundamental element in American culture.

See alsoAnnexation and Expansion; Dime Novels; Farmers and Ranchers; History; Parks and Wilderness Areas; The Western; Wild West Shows


Primary Works

Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail. Boston: Little, Brown, 1872. A revised version of The California and Oregon Trail. New York: Putnam, 1849.

Paxson, Frederic Logan. "A Generation of the Frontier Hypothesis: 1893–1932." Pacific Historical Review 2 (March 1933): 34–51.

Paxson, Frederic Logan. History of the American Frontier, 1763–1893. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Winning of the West: An Account of the Exploration and Settlement of Our Country from the Alleghanies to the Pacific. 4 vols. New York: Putnam, 1889–1896.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. 1920. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986. Contains "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." The quotations in the present article are taken from the 1986 edition.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of Sections in American History. New York: Henry Holt, 1932.

Secondary Works

Bogue, Allan G. Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880s. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950.

Cronon, William. "Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner." Western Historical Quarterly 18 (April 1987): 157–176.

Etulain, Richard W. Re-Imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Etulain, Richard W. Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Gruber, Frank. Zane Grey: A Biography. New York: World, 1970.

Higham, John. "The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s." In his Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Hofstadter, Richard. "Cuba, the Philippines, and Manifest Destiny." In his The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Klein, Kerwin Lee. Frontiers of Historical Imagination: Narrating the European Conquest of Native America, 1890–1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.

Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1979.

Nash, Gerald D. Creating the West: Historical Interpretations, 1890–1990. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Ridge, Martin. "The Life of an Idea: The Significance of Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis." Montana: The Magazine of Western History 40 (winter 1991): 3–13.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Steiner, Michael C. "Frederick Jackson Turner and Western Regionalism." In Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians, edited by Richard W. Etulain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Topping, Gary. "Zane Grey: A Literary Reassessment." Western American Literature 13 (spring 1978): 51–64.

Richard W. EtulainGary Topping


views updated Jun 11 2018


"Frontier," one of many English words that took on new meanings in North America, has assumed as well a role in explaining the continent's history during the past five hundred years. In time the word has acquired other connotations, both positive and negative, and with that a power to kindle high emotions about the course and consequences of North American history.

In England and Europe, "frontier" has meant a border or boundary, usually between nations, and thus by nature is static. Across the Atlantic it became dynamic, referring to the outer edge of European settlement and influence intruding into the continent.

Among historians, the term "frontier" is most closely associated with Frederick Jackson Turner, whose essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" profoundly influenced American historiography for forty years after its publication in 1893. Here and in subsequent essays Turner drew heavily for inspiration and examples from the early years of the American Republic and the frontier's advance from the Appalachian Mountains to just beyond the Mississippi River.

Reacting against historians such as his mentor, Herbert Baxter Adams, who considered American history essentially an outgrowth of British and European institutions, Turner argued that Old World customs and attitudes broke down and reformed in America's radically different physical and social environment. The prime site of that transformation was along the cutting edge of advancing settlement, "the line between civilization and savagery." First in England's Atlantic colonies and later in the United States, the opportunity of "free land" drew pioneers westward into settings that required them to modify or scrap entirely many of the institutions and values of their previous lives. The result was a "composite nationality," a distinctive culture and people. The frontier, as both a process and a condition, thus "explain[s] American development," Turner wrote.

The "frontier thesis" remained hugely influential until the 1930s. It jibed with several intellectual trends, including the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer and, by stressing how a people's material foundations shaped their values, the ideas of Karl Marx. Turner also reflected his generation's conflicted feelings about its nation. On the one hand his descriptions of evolving frontier societies after the Revolution thrummed with highly positive traits he considered essentially American—among others, a democratic individualism, inventiveness, toleration, and a restless striving. Thus in Turner's day the early Republic's frontier spoke both to a desire for unity, as the United States grew beyond the Civil War and its contentious aftermath, and to a growing pride as it emerged as a leading world power.

Turner also noted, however, that the frontier was coming to a close. As defined in the federal census, the frontier was a north-and-south line separating an area with two or more persons per square mile from one with fewer than two. The census of 1890 showed for the first time no unbroken frontier line across the nation. As the frontier came to an end, the process that had produced the American character presumably would no longer do its work. By implication the nation would enter a new era, perhaps one of decline. Turner's thesis expressed a nation's anxiety about its future as well as a pride in its past.

the progress of the moving frontier

As Turner conceived and described it—a westward advance of settlement—the frontier began on the Atlantic coast with the first English settlements of the seventeenth century. By the time of the Revolution and the birth of the Republic it had moved across the Appalachians into Kentucky, Tennessee, and western Pennsylvania. By the 1820s it had rolled through the Ohio Valley and Gulf coastal region and across the Mississippi River into Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and his own native Wisconsin. There it paused before jumping to the Pacific coast in the 1840s, then advancing from both east and west into the interior of the American West after the Civil War.

The frontier of the early Republic was predominantly agrarian. Most who moved west were families establishing small farms, although cotton plantations and slavery were a large part of the advance through the Gulf Coast region. By 1829 the quest for farmland had driven the frontier as well into eastern Texas and the first tier of states beyond the Mississippi River. Over the next two generations the same hunger would draw frontier farmers to western Oregon and central California, to Mormon settlements near Utah's Great Salt Lake, and finally to the Great Plains.

In the earliest stage of frontier farming, settlers hacked out a clearing, built a rude dwelling, planted corn around tree stumps, and began the long process of clearing enough land for a working farm. They were subsistence farmers, producing only for themselves and neighbors. They borrowed heavily from Indian peoples, from clothing to such techniques as girdling to kill trees before felling them. In fact, early white frontier families lived as much by a hunting-gathering economy as did their Indian neighbors. As settlement thickened, more land was cleared and farms improved; settlers gradually turned to crops meant for distant markets. An exception to this pattern was on the Gulf Coastal frontier, a region beautifully suited for growing short-staple cotton to meet the voracious demand in English textile mills. Planters consequently established cotton plantations almost from the start as the southern frontier was opened to settlement after 1815.

Popular images of solitary frontiersmen to the contrary, the family was ubiquitous. Success, even survival, depended on all its members contributing

and cooperating. Wives performed not only household and nursing duties but also heavier labor, and children of both sexes worked at all but the most physically taxing tasks. As a result widows and widowers rarely remained single for long, and the birth rate was by most calculations far higher than in more settled parts of the nation.

Frontier farming should not be defined too narrowly. Cattle raising, linked in the popular imagination mostly with later frontiers in the far West, was crucial to the eastern agricultural frontiers before 1830, for instance. The term "cowboy" appeared first in the Carolinas, already with a tone of wild independence. Scots-Irish settlers of the Gulf Coastal frontier were especially accomplished at herding cattle; on plantations in many parts of the southern frontier, including the rich farming region of the Mississippi delta, slaves sometimes spent as much time tending cattle as cultivating cotton. Many of the techniques of cattle raising applied later on far-western ranches evolved first on the southeastern frontier. Other animals were raised to be sold and slaughtered. Pigs, which prospered in the woodlands with little supervision, were especially popular. There are even accounts from the southern frontier of turkey drives, with hundreds of the large fowls herded to market.

The need for markets made towns and urban centers also a vital part of the moving frontier. Coming to life as trading and transportation centers, they further facilitated the westward flow of people and goods, supported farms and other settlements nearby and provided the ground where political, educational, religious, and cultural institutions could take root and grow. In these frontier towns appeared a region's earliest light industry, not only slaughterhouses—Cincinnati earned the nickname "Porkopolis" for all the swine processed there—but the manufacture of goods impractical to import, such as glassware, barrels, rope, and flatboats.

Towns most often sprang up along trade routes, and on frontiers of the early Republic that usually meant rivers. Pittsburgh first drew settlers because of the protection of Fort Pitt, then for its prime location at the headwaters of the Ohio River. Farther downstream Cincinnati and Louisville served as collecting and distribution points for trade north and south of the river. Several important urban centers were founded along water routes by England's imperial rivals, in particular France, which established St. Louis, Detroit, Natchez, New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, and many somewhat lesser towns to service its far flung fur trading empire. In 1763 these passed to Spain and England, and by the 1820s all had been pulled within the expanding United States. Overland trade routes, typically following trails taken by Native American traders and warriors, produced some towns. The Wilderness Road connected the first frontier towns in the Kentucky interior to North Carolina. The Natchez Trace ran from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, which in turn was connected by trails to the Ohio River at Maysville and via Zane's Trace across Ohio to Wheeling, West Virginia.

The importance of these arteries to commerce and life is a key to understanding the frontier's role in early American diplomacy. Concerns about interference with settlers' use of the Mississippi led to confrontations with Spain in 1795 and with France in 1803. The young Republic turned these crises to its advantage, particularly the conflict with France, which resulted in doubling the nation's size and propelling the frontier toward the Pacific.

reshaping society

Without question frontier conditions did reshape society. People of many ethnicities and from a variety of places were tossed together. At first, institutions imported from mother cultures were poorly rooted or wholly absent. The tentative nature of settlements combined with a high rate of mobility to make for a social fluidity and a fuzziness of hierarchical order. With the notable exception of areas where the plantation system appeared early, there was considerable economic leveling. Turner argued that these and other conditions produced the admirable traits he cited as essentially American. The need to cope with unfamiliar challenges, plus a relative lack of tradition, bred an inventiveness and pragmatism. Greater individualism was a natural outgrowth of strangers thrown together, measuring one another by personal capacity rather than lineage or social position. With fewer economic and social distinctions, politics tended to be more democratic and innovative.

Although he emphasized the positive, Turner observed that the same conditions had less desirable effects. An unsettled society short on institutional controls promoted violence as well as individualism and democracy. The pressing demand to meet immediate physical needs brought a cultural atrophy and anti-intellectualism. Some critics stressed a theme that ran against Turner's argument—a strong conservative impulse on the frontier. Settlers often felt a powerful urge, even an obsession, to transplant what they considered cultural essentials. Because they had to create political forms almost on the fly, early governments were less likely to innovate than to copy what they knew from the past. In particular, constitutional forms often mimicked those of the East. The tension between change and tradition was played out in gender relations. Frontier conditions often required women to take on roles usually reserved for men, but the crushing load of work and the need for children made women's lives difficult and dangerous and left little room for individual fulfillment outside their labors.

debating the role of the frontier

By Turner's death in 1932, more fundamental critiques of his ideas were being heard. Some stressed that many other factors—among them patterns of immigration, American society's middle-class nature, and the ferment of ideas in eastern cities—influenced the national character at least as much as the frontier. Others argued that class divisions and social and economic hierarchies have been much more a part of American life than implied in the celebration of frontier-inspired egalitarianism. Still others found Turner unclear on the mechanisms of the frontier's influence and specifically questioned how an area by definition thinly populated could transform an entire society. In the 1980s and 1990s practitioners of the "new" Western history argued that, as the frontier's influence had been described thus far, it presented a doubly deficient narrative. It downplayed or ignored the terrible costs of expansion—dispossession and cultural destruction of native peoples, environmental calamity, dashed hopes, and an obsessive acquisitiveness. And as a story dominated by Anglo-Saxon males, it neglected the vital parts played by women and the many ethnic groups active in westward expansion.

The effect of these various critiques has been paradoxical. No longer considered the primary formative force on continental history, and thus narrower in influence, the frontier has been more broadly defined and its explanatory power has grown. An especially revealing line of research has explored the interactions among Europeans, Euro-Americans, and Indian peoples. Along the various frontiers there developed what the historian Richard White has called a "middle ground," syncretic cultures of overlapping customs and mutual borrowing in which all sides created new terms of understanding and exchange and new means of accommodation. One native response to frontiers was ethnogenesis—the creation of new collective identities. Many tribes assumed to have existed on the frontiers at the time of European contact, such as the Catawbas of the Carolinas, were in fact smaller related groups that merged and consolidated to meet the threats and opportunities posed by the newcomers.

A frontier in this sense was not a line dividing one condition from another, and certainly not a division between "civilization and savagery," but rather a place where peoples, ideas, cultures, and institutions came together and interacted on many levels, sometimes mixing and sometimes conflicting but always in mutual influence. The interaction included the environment. Clearing the land and introducing domestic animals and new farming methods, settlers set loose chains of environmental changes and undermined native economies. Drawn to opportunities of trade, Indians depleted populations of deer, beavers, and other animals. Perhaps the most profound environmental interaction came with the introduction of Old World pathogens and waves of epidemics that devastated native populations.

The frontier has proved most persistent as a term in popular culture summoning up images of opportunity, adventure, challenge, courage, danger, and innovation. The first such images emerged from the early Republic. By 1829 Daniel Boone stood as the nation's first paragon of frontier virtues. James Fenimore Cooper had created a wildly popular frontier character in his Leatherstocking tales. Upon his election to the presidency, Andrew Jackson's unprecedented political appeal was inextricably tangled with his image as backwoods hero. The frontier's mythic power has continued in forms as varied as Western novels and films, subgenres of science fiction, political rhetoric and slogans, and advertising, where its references are used to sell everything from computers and toothpaste to automobiles and tattooing. This allure is a reminder of the frontier's enduring hold on the imagination among scholars and the public at large.

See alsoAmerican Character and Identity; American Indians: American Indian Resistance to White Expansion; Americanization; Environment, Environmental History, and Nature; Expansion; Exploration and Explorers; Foreign Investment and Trade; Frontier Religion; Frontiersmen; Fur and Pelt Trade; Individualism; Livestock Production; Louisiana Purchase; Migration and Population Movement; Nature, Attitudes Toward; Town Plans and Promotion; Work: Women's Work .


Barnhart, John D. Valley of Democracy: The Frontier versus the Plantation in the Ohio Valley, 1775–1818. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1953.

Grossman, James R., ed. The Frontier in American Culture: An Exhibition at the Newberry Library, August 26, 1994– January 7, 1995. Chicago: Newberry Library; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.

Noble, David W. Historians against History: The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing since 1830. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

Nobles, Gregory H. American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

Taylor, George Rogers, ed. The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. 3rd ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1971.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Dover, 1996.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Wrobel, David M. The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Elliott West


views updated May 08 2018


FRONTIER. Commonly regarded as the area where the settled portions of civilization meet the untamed wilderness, the frontier has persisted in American history as a topic of profound importance and intense debate. The conceptualization of the frontier has shifted greatly over time, evolving from older concepts that treated the frontier as a line of demarcation separating civilization from savagery to more modern considerations that treat the frontier as a zone of interaction and exchange between differing cultures. While numerous conceptualizations of the frontier contend for acceptance by the American public, all agree that the frontier occupies an influential position in the story of the American past.

Turner's Thesis: The Frontier as Process

Although the frontier has fascinated Americans since the colonial era, it first came to prominence as a true ideological concept late in the nineteenth century. On 12 July 1893, a young University of Wisconsin history professor named Frederick Jackson Turner, who sought to discover an antidote to the "germ theory" of history, which argued that all American institutions evolved from European precedents transplanted into the New World by the colonists, argued that the frontier was more important than any other single factor in shaping American history and culture. An influential address delivered before the American Historical Association, Turner's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" suggests that the process of westward migration across the North American continent unleashed forces directly responsible for shaping the national character, an argument that boldly proclaimed the exceptionalism of the American experience and downplayed Europe's influence upon the development of the United States.

For Turner, the frontier was not so much a place as a reoccurring process of adaptation and change. The lure of abundant and inexpensive land brought Anglo-Europeans westward in an effort to improve their social and economic standings. As these migrants conquered the wilderness and spread across the North American continent, they experienced challenges and hardships unlike anything previously encountered in the Western world. In Turner's estimation, the process of overcoming the frontier transformed the Anglo-Europeans into a new national form, Americans. The core traits held dear by Americans, including democracy, individualism, freedom, and thrift, were generated by their experience of taming the wilderness. Turner attributed the greatest successes of American development, from the adoption of democratic self-rule to the belief in economic egalitarianism, to the indomitable national spirit created by the westering experience of the frontier populace, average people who reshaped European values and institutions in their own image. Nonetheless, Turner conceived of the frontier as a part of the past, and, based on the assertion of the 1890 census that Americans had completely filled the territorial borders of the forty-eight contiguous states, he warned that the nation was entering into a new phase in which it could no longer count upon the abundance of western land to provide the lifeblood of American culture.

The Turner thesis, as his concept of the frontier came to be known, proved extremely influential during the first half of the twentieth century. His initial essay sparked a series of test theories, conducted both by Turner and by his students, that emphasized the uniqueness of American history and the exceptionalness of the United States among the world's great nations. One Turnerian advocate, the historian Walter Prescott Webb, even expanded Turner's frontier process to include the entire Anglo-European world. The frontier experience, according to Webb, not only redefined America but also reached across the ocean to influence the modern development of Europe, giving rise to the dominant social and political institutions of the West. In a direct reversal of the European germ theory, Webb argued that democratic government, capitalist economic theory, and individualistic Protestant religion all were directly linked to the experience of westward movement and the conquering of the American frontier.

Revising Turner

Turner's grand scheme spawned a long line of criticism, ranging from petty oversimplifications of his arguments to sophisticated criticisms of his approach to the frontier. While the Turner thesis remains a formidable force in the study of the American frontier, his frontier process has some serious problems. Among the most noticeable is the racially exclusive environment created by the Turner thesis. Turner's frontier process is the triumphant story of the Anglo-American conquest of the wilderness, and it makes little mention of the diversity of peoples who played important roles in the history of the American frontier. For the most part, American Indians, African Americans, and Mexican and Asian immigrants do not merit consideration as influential players on the Turnerian frontier. Only the American Indians are afforded a place in Turner's world, and they are only an obstacle easily overcome in the advancement of the American nation. In addition, Turner's frontier does not attribute a significant role to women. His thesis gives no voice to the thousands of pioneering women who toiled alongside their husbands and fathers in the conquest of the American frontier, nor does he attempt to assess the contributions made by frontier women to the development of cherished American institutions. Finally, Turner's model allows no room for the diversity of the frontier experience in North America. His process of conquest and transformation does not lend itself favorably to the frontier history of New France, where cultural mediation and compromise prevailed, or to the Spanish frontier in America, which illustrates the construction of a frontier that existed more as a defensive perimeter for the core culture of Mexico than as a successive process of territorial conquest and acculturation.

During the 1980s, the problems inherent in the Turner thesis led to the codification of the critique under the leadership of a group of influential frontier thinkers known as the new western historians. Their concepts emphasized the frontier as a geographical region rather than as a process of westward movement, offering a more inclusive story of the American frontier than that allowed by Turner or his adherents. Focusing their attention primarily on the trans-Mississippi West, the new western historians argued that the historical diversity of the frontier must not be overlooked. All the peoples of the frontier, including American Indians, African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and women, participated in shaping frontier America. In the estimation of the new western historians, the interaction of ethnic minorities with Anglo-American ideals, which in many instances was antagonistic, set many of the parameters for the subjugation of the frontier. New western historians also took issue with the celebratory climate invoked by Turner's seeming irresistible process of frontier transformation. Rather, they argued that taming the American wilderness was a fierce struggle, most appropriately designated by what one new western historian dubbed "the legacy of conquest." At the core of the reassessment is an understanding that all of the questions that dominate mainstream historical inquiry, including notions of conflict, race, gender, and society, provide fertile ground for studying the frontier. In addition, it is not a study bound by defined temporal limits but a legacy still at work. New western historians argue that the conquest of the frontier did not come to end in 1890, as Turner suggested, but that it continues during the modern era in the form of continuing legal and political battles over the finite resources of the American West.

New Frontiers for All

While the new western historians posed serious challenges to the Turnerian model and questioned the perspective from which the frontier should be viewed, the debate over the significance of the frontier in American history continued unabated into the twenty-first century. Turner's frontier process was perhaps deeply flawed, but it seems undeniable that the frontier played an influential role in the development of the American nation. Perhaps for this reason twenty-first-century conceptualizations of the frontier represent a delicate melding of Turner and new western history. Modern interpretations often define the frontier as a meeting place, or contact point, where differing cultures interacted on a relatively equal footing with no one group able to assert total superiority over the other. This approach to the frontier leaves no room for Turner's unstoppable process of American advancement, but what remains is Turner's suggestion that the frontier was a unique place of contact and exchange where no culture, Anglo-American or otherwise, could remain unchanged.

This concept has helped spawn a renewed interest in frontier history, not just of the western United States but of the eastern frontier as well. After the early 1990s, a new field of study, termed "backcountry history" by its adherents, applied the tenets of both Turner and new western historians to earlier frontiers, ranging from the first efforts to colonize North America through the early period of westward movement over the Appalachian Mountains. In the process, the study of the first American frontiers helped synthesize new approaches to frontier history and helped link the East to the West in a grand narrative of American westward migration.


Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Fredrika J. Teute, eds. Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Davis, William C. The American Frontier: Pioneers, Settlers, and Cowboys, 1800–1899. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Faragher, John Mack, ed. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and Other Essays. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Jones, Mary Ellen. The American Frontier: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1994.

Klein, Kerwin Lee. Frontiers of Historical Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.

Nobles, Gregory H. American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Daniel P.Barr

See alsoArmy on the Frontier ; Frontier Thesis, Turner's ; West, American ; andvol. 9:Americans in Their Moral, Social and Political Relations ; Half a Century (Chapter XLIII) ; Life and Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon ; My Army Life ; Roughing It ; The Vigilantes of Montana .


views updated May 18 2018

fron·tier / ˌfrənˈti(ə)r/ • n. a line or border separating two countries. ∎  the district near such a line. ∎  the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness, esp. referring to the western U.S. before Pacific settlement: his novel of the American frontier. ∎  the extreme limit of understanding or achievement in a particular area: the success of science in extending the frontiers of knowledge.DERIVATIVES: fron·tier·less adj.


views updated May 29 2018

frontier In US history, the westernmost region of white settlement. In the 17th century, the frontier began at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains and gradually moved westwards until the late 19th century, when no new land remained for pioneer homesteaders. In the USA, Frederick Jackson Turner promoted the frontier notions of rugged individualism and free enterprise as central to US society in The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893). The existence of a frontier region, where a dominant group was able to expand (usually at the expense of native inhabitants), has been an important factor in the history of other countries, such as South Africa.


views updated May 18 2018

286. Frontier

  1. Boone, Daniel (17341820) American frontiersman in coonskin cap. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 90]
  2. Bowie, Jim (17991836) frontiersman and U.S. soldier; developed large hunting knife named after him. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 95]
  3. Bumppo, Natty also known as Leatherstocking, a tough back-woodsman. [Am. Lit.: Deerslayer; Pathfinder ]
  4. California Joe (Moses Embree Milner, 18291876) frontiersman and scout. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 424]
  5. Virginian, The up-and-coming cowpuncher defends his honor, espouses justice, and gains responsibility and a bride. [Am. Lit.: The Virginian in Magill I, 1072]