Frederick Jackson Turner

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Turner, Frederick Jackson"

"The Significance of the Frontier in American History"

Excerpted from The Frontier in American History

Originally published in 1920

In 1893 a then little-known historian named Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) delivered an address at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago that changed the way Americans thought about the American character and the conquest of the West. For years, scholars and historians who had tried to explain the development of America emphasized the European influences on American culture. According to these scholars and historians, the explorers, the settlers, their material culture (the physical things they owned), their institutions, their beliefs and values—all had been forged in Europe. Yet such explanations ignored a decisive factor in the shaping of the American character, argued Turner. That factor was the frontier.

According to Turner, what separated Americans from Europeans was the constant availability of new land to the west. In his speech, Turner maintained that the frontier—that region just beyond or at the edge of a settled area—washed away all European influences and created a distinctive American character. Although settlers in America brought their European culture and beliefs with them, they found themselves confronting a radically new environment: new terrain, new plants and animals, new cultures, and new problems. Almost instantly, Turner maintained, Americans began to behave differently from Europeans: they began to think differently, express themselves differently, make different objects, and develop different institutions. In the end, they became much different from their European relatives and heritage.

In Turner's view, the frontier experience led to the emergence of a new people and nation, shaped by the experience of individuals pushing westward into free land. This steady westward movement brought progress and civilization to an uncivilized world, while at the same time creating individuals who were self-reliant, tough, and competent. Though the frontier was now gone, Turner believed that Americans could better confront their future by fully realizing the unique nature of their past.

Turner delivered the following speech at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Because his audience consisted of fellow historians, Turner could assume that they understood what he was talking about and he left many things unexplained. Read the following excerpts from Turner's speech with these questions in mind: What are Turner's main points? Why does Turner think the frontier played such an important role in shaping American character? What kinds of things does he over-look in emphasizing the influence of the frontier? Do you agree with Turner?

Things to remember while reading "The Significance of the Frontier in American History":

  • Many Americans thought that the presence of a frontier offered a "safety valve" that would allow for the release of pressures created by increasing population. They thought that whenever towns got too big people could simply move to the frontier.
  • The study of American history was a new profession in the 1890s and was just beginning to gain respectability.
  • The first census in the United States was conducted in 1790.
  • By 1900 the United States had forty-five states and a population of seventy-six million. The next three states to join the union were Oklahoma (1907), New Mexico (1912), and Arizona (1912).

Frederick Jackson Turner

On November 14, 1861, Frederick Jackson Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin. As the son of a local political figure, young Turner grew up with firsthand knowledge of party politics and a healthy respect for the ability to influence people with words and ideas. As a boy, Turner read widely; when he was only fifteen, he began to contribute to his father's newspaper in a section called Pencil and Scissors Department, where Turner printed quotations that had attracted his attention. The young Turner's obvious intellectual ability and interest did not mean that he became the stereotypical bookworm. On the contrary, when not reading his favorite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he could be found hunting and fishing with his father or engaging in the sort of activities that Mark Twain had imagined for Tom Sawyer.

Turner excelled as a student and graduated from Portage's only high school in June 1878. While attending the University of Wisconsin, Turner studied history and became a noted orator. In 1885 Turner joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin to teach history. In 1893 the young professor was one of four professional historians who presented papers at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Turner's paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," began a revolution in the study of American history. Turner went on to build Wisconsin's history department into one of the best in the nation, and his ideas and many essays helped shape the writing of American history for the remainder of the century. Turner died on March 14, 1932.

Excerpt from "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports." This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuousrecession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.


Recession: Withdrawing or going back.


Phenomenon: Occurrence or circumstance.

Representative government

Representative government: A government in which representatives are elected by the citizens.

Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people, to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life. Said Calhoun in 1817, "We are great, and rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing!" So saying, he touched the distinguishing feature of American life. All peoples show development.... In the case of most nations, however, the development has occurred in a limited area; and if the nation has expanded it has met other growing peoples whom it has conquered. But in the case of the United States we have a differentphenomenon. Limiting our attention to the Atlantic coast, we have the familiar phenomenon of the evolution of institutions in a limited area, such as the rise ofrepresentative government; the differentiation of simple colonial governments into complex organs; the progress from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization. But we have in addition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but areturn to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. Thisperennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. Even the slavery struggle, which is made so exclusive an object of attention by writers like Professor von Holst, occupies its important place in American history because of its relation to westward expansion.

In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization. Much has been written about the frontier from the point of view of border warfare and the chase, but as a field for the serious study of the economist and the historian it has been neglected.

The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier—a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In thecensus reports it is treated as the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more to the square mile. The term is anelastic one, and for our purposes does not need sharp definition. We shall consider the whole frontier belt, including the Indian country and the outer margin of the "settled area" of the census reports. This paper will make no attempt to treat the subjectexhaustively; its aim is simply to call attention to the frontier as a fertile field for investigation, and to suggest some of the problems which arise in connection with it.


Perennial: Constant; repeated regularly.

Census reports

Census reports: Reports produced every ten years that offer a count of the nation's population.


Elastic: Flexible; can be defined many ways.


Exhaustively: At great length; completely; from all angles of the subject.


Germs: Seeds, or beginnings.


Palisade: A fence of pointed logs or sticks.

In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the continent, and how America modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe. Our early history is the study of Europeangerms developing in an American environment. Too exclusive attention has been paid by institutional students to the Germanic origins, too little to the American factors. The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indianpalisade around him. Before long he has gone to plantingIndian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case ofreversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successiveterminal moraines resulting from successiveglaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region stillpartakes of the frontier characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influences of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history....

From decade to decade distinct advances of the frontier occurred.... [Turner describes the slow advance of the frontier line from the crest of the Appalachian Mountains westward to the Mississippi River, then leaping across the nation to California, and slowly encroaching on the lands in between.]

In these successive frontiers we find natural boundary lines which have served to mark and to affect the characteristics of the frontiers, namely: the "fall line;" the Alleghany Mountains; the Mississippi; the Missouri where its direction approximates north and south; the line of the arid lands, approximately the ninety-ninth meridian; and the Rocky Mountains.... Each was won by a series of Indian wars.


Reversion: Returning.

Terminal moraines

Terminal moraines: Deposits left by the withdrawal of a glacier.


Glaciations: Covering over with glaciers.


Partakes: Takes part or shares in.


Precipitated: Separated, as solids sink to the bottom of a liquid solution.


Disposition: Administration or control.

Public domain

Public domain: Land or property that is available to everyone.


Intercourse: Communication.

Prim little townships of Sleswick

Prim little townships of Sleswick: Turner is referring to the attempt of historians to explain American happenings by referring to European history.


Statutes: Laws.

At the Atlantic frontier one can study the germs of processes repeated at each successive frontier. We have the complex European life sharplyprecipitated by the wilderness into the simplicity of primitive conditions. The first frontier had to meet its Indian question, its question of thedisposition of thepublic domain, of the means ofintercourse with older settlements, of the extension of political organization, of religious and educational activity. And the settlement of these and similar questions for one frontier served as a guide for the next. The American student needs not goto the"prim little townships of Sleswick" for illustrations of the law of continuity and development. For example, he may study the origin of our land policies in the colonial land policy; he may see how the system grew by adapting thestatutes to the customs of the successive frontiers.... Each tier of new States has found in the older ones material for its constitutions. Each frontier has made similar contributions to American character, as will be discussed farther on....

Loria, the Italian economist, has urged the study of colonial life as an aid in understanding the states of European development, affirming that colonial settlement is for economic science what the mountain is for geology, bringing to light primitivestratifications. "America," he says, "has the key to the historical enigma which Europe has sought, for centuries in vain, and the land which has no history reveals luminously the course of universal history." There is much truth in this. The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from West to East we find the record ofsocial evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read theannals of thepastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system. This page is familiar to the student of census statistics, but how little of it has been used by our historians. Particularly in eastern States this page is apalimpsest. What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of intensive farming. Earlier yet it had been a wheat area, and still earlier the "range" had attracted the cattle-herder. Thus Wisconsin, now developing manufacture, is a State with varied agricultural interests. But earlier it was given over to almost exclusive grain-raising, like North Dakota at the present time....

....The Atlantic frontier wascompounded of fisherman, fur-trader, miner, cattle-raiser, and farmer. Excepting the fisherman, each type of industry was on the march toward the West, impelled by an irresistible attraction. Each passed in successive waves across the continent. Stand atCumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattleraiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by. Stand atSouth Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between. The unequal rate of advance compels us to distinguish the frontier into the trader's frontier, the rancher's frontier, or the miner's frontier, and the farmer's frontier. When the mines and the cow pens were still near the fall line the traders' pack trains were tinkling across theAlleghanies, and the French on the Great Lakes were fortifying their posts, alarmed by the British trader's birch canoe. When the trappers scaled the Rockies, the farmer was still near the mouth of the Missouri....


Stratifications: Layers.

Social evolution

Social evolution: A gradual and orderly progression from lack of civilization to civilization.


Annals: Records.


Pastoral: Based on livestock raising.


Palimpsest: A document recording many layers of past experiences.


Compounded: Made up of; included.

Cumberland Gap

Cumberland Gap: A pass through the Cumberland Plateau or Cumberland Mountains in northeast Tennessee; used by Daniel Boone to settle in Kentucky.

South Pass

South Pass: A pass through the Rocky Mountains located in Wyoming; South Pass was used extensively during westward emigration.


Alleghanies: The Alleghany Mountains, range of mountains in the Appalachian mountain system.

The effect of the Indian frontier as aconsolidating agent in our history is important.... This frontier stretched along the western border like a cord of union. The Indian was a common danger, demanding united action.... [Turner suggests that this common enemy forced many colonies and states to work in union to confront a common threat.] In this connection may be mentioned the importance of the frontier ... as a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman....

Having now roughly outlined the various kinds of frontiers, and their modes of advance, chiefly from the point of view of the frontier itself, we may next inquire what were the influences on the East and on the Old World. A rapidenumeration of some of the more noteworthy effects is all that I have time for.

Consolidating agent

Consolidating agent: An element that brings things together.


Enumeration: Listing.

First, we note that the frontier promoted the formation of acomposite nationality for the American people.... [Turner explains how those who moved into the frontier came from a variety of backgrounds and not just from the more homogenous areas (areas where people come from the same backgrounds) of New England and the Deep South.]

In another way the advance of the frontier decreased our dependence on England. The coast ... lacked diversified industries, and was dependent on England for the bulk of its supplies....

Before long the frontier created a demand for merchants. As [the frontier] retreated from the coast it became less and less possible for England to bring her supplies directly to the consumer's wharfs, and carry away staple crops, and staple crops began to give way to diversified agriculture for a time. The effect of this phase of the frontier action upon the northern section is perceived when we realize how the advance of the frontier aroused seaboard cities ... to engage in rivalry for what Washington called "the extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire."

The legislation which most developed the powers of the national government, and played the largest part in its activity, was conditioned on the frontier.... The growth ofnationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier....

....The pioneer needed the goods of the coast, and so the grand series of internal improvement and railroad legislation began, with potent nationalizing effects. Overinternal improvements occurred great debates, in which grave constitutional questions were discussed.... [Turner goes on to discuss the many ways that the growth of the frontier helped the national government define its role; Turner pays special attention to the acquisition and sale of land.]

It is safe to say that the legislation with regard to land, tariff, and internal improvements—the American system of the nationalizing Whig party—was conditioned on frontier ideas and needs....

Composite nationality

Composite nationality: A nationality that was formed from the meetings of many different peoples who had to find common ground.


Nationalism: Devotion to the interests of a particular nation.

Internal improvements

Internal improvements: Projects such as road, bridge, and railroad building that would aid internal trade.

But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression. Prof. Osgood, in an able article, has pointed out that the frontier conditions prevalent in the colonies are important factors in the explanation of the AmericanRevolution, where individual liberty was sometimes confused with absence of all effective government. The same conditions aid in explaining the difficulty of instituting a strong government in the period of the confederacy. The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy....

The East has always feared the result of an unregulated advance of the frontier, and has tried to check and guide it. The English authorities would have checked settlement at the headwaters of the Atlantic tributaries and allowed the "savages to enjoy their deserts in quiet lest the peltry trade should decrease."...

But the English Government was not alone in its desire to limit the advance of the frontier and guide its destinies. [Turner relates the many ways in which the states tried to halt westward expansion.] When the Oregon question was under debates, in 1824, Smyth, of Virginia, would draw an unchangeable line for the limits of the United States at the outer limit of the two tiers of States beyond the Mississippi, complaining that the seaboard States were being drained of the flower of their population by the bringing of too much land into market. Even Thomas Benton, the man of widest views of the destiny of the West, at this stage of his career declared that along the ridge of the Rocky mountains "the western limits of the Republic should be drawn, and the statue of the fabled god Terminus should be raised upon its highest peak, never to be thrown down." But the attempts to limit the boundaries, to restrict land sales and settlement, and to deprive the West of its share of political power were all in vain. Steadily the frontier of settlement advanced and carried with it individualism, democracy, and nationalism, and powerfully affected the East and the Old World....

Intellectual traits

Intellectual traits: Ways of thinking.


Acuteness: Intensity.


Expedients: Something invented to fit an urgent need.

From the conditions of frontier life cameintellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined withacuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to findexpedients; that masterful grasp of material things lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberancewhich comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from theincessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is nottabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with itsimperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. 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. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history. [Turner, pp. 1–4, 6, 9–12, 15, 22–5, 27, 30, 33–5, 37–8]


Incessant: Continual.

Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa: Blank slate; an area not yet formed by experience or impressions.

Imperious summons

Imperious summons: Authoritative command.

What happened next . . .

While Turner's speech reached only a small audience of his fellow historians, within a year it was published and almost immediately began to influence American historians. Turner had put forth a new "paradigm"—a basic model—that could explain America's past. Between 1830 and 1870, a little more than 2 percent of history textbooks cited the importance of the West in shaping the American character, while the majority explained it in terms of European ancestry. After Turner's thesis became widely accepted, the frontier experience became a rich source for American historians to mine for clues into the American character. Between 1900 and 1925, 93 percent of the published student textbooks named the frontier as the most influential force in the nation's development, according to Paul O'Neil in The End and the Myth. Because it was such a big part of how history was taught in the United States, the Turner thesis inevitably had an effect on how Americans perceived themselves. We saw ourselves as a nation of frontiersmen and pioneers who hacked our way through the wilderness, built cozy communities, and brought progress and civilization to a once untamed continent.

By the middle of the twentieth century, many historians began to criticize what is often called the Turner thesis. They found several problems with Turner's thesis: It presents an overly optimistic (happy) view of western expansion that does not acknowledge the real difficulties involved in expansion; it ignores the cultures of Native Americans, explaining Indians only as an obstacle to white conquest; it ignores Spanish and French influences in the New World; it places undo emphasis on white achievements and makes the white conquest of the West seem both inevitable and entirely beneficial; and it ignores the influence of industrialization, immigration, and the rise of the city. By the 1960s, Turner's thesis had largely been discarded and replaced by theories that examine the complexity of interactions between a variety of white colonists and Indians, as well as the French, Spanish, and British. Moreover, the new western history, as it is called, emphasizes the role that women as well as governmental and secular organizations played in the development of the West. Although the new western historians have refined or overturned many of Turner's ideas, the basic idea that the frontier shaped the American character remains a significant concept.

Did you know . . .

  • The frontier thesis became the most important and controversial interpretation in American history during the first three decades of the twentieth century.
  • The census report's conclusion about the closing of the frontier helped encourage President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) to begin setting aside public lands as national parks.
  • Historians continue to argue about Turner's thesis more than one hundred years after it was first presented.
  • Turner was known as a gifted orator, or public speaker. His speeches were said to electrify his audience.
  • When Turner gave his speech about the frontier he had not yet finished a graduate degree in history and was just thirty-two years old.

Consider the following...

  • Why does Turner think the frontier promotes democracy?
  • Why does Turner think the East (England or the eastern states) wished to halt the advance of people onto the frontier?
  • In what ways was Turner correct in depicting the frontier as the primary influence on American character? In what ways was he wrong?
  • What did Turner overlook in forming his argument?
  • Who are the heroes in Turner's explanation of American development? What people might be overlooked by his explanation?
  • What role do women play in Turner's thesis?
  • How would an environmentalist react to Turner's thesis? Is there a role for wilderness in Turner's view of the inevitable development of civilization?

For More Information

Bennett, James D. Frederick Jackson Turner. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.

Benson, Lee. Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960.

Billington, Ray A. Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Carpenter, Ronald H. The Eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1983.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Knopf, 1968.

Jacobs, Wilbur R. The Historical World of Frederick Jackson Turner, with Selections from His Correspondence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

O'Neil, Paul. The End and the Myth. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1979.

Taylor, George Rogers, ed. The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1949.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt, 1920, pp. 1–38.

views updated

Turner, Frederick Jackson



Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), American historian and originator of the “frontier” and “sectional” interpretations of United States history, was born in semipioneer conditions at Portage, Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1884 and his master’s degree in 1888, he fell under the influence of William Francis Allen, a remarkable teacher who taught his young pupil the critical use of documents, instilled in him a belief in scientific method and multiple causation, and converted him to the view of society as a constantly evolving organism. His one year, 1888-1889, at the Johns Hopkins University, which awarded him a doctorate in 1890, was less fruitful, although his interest in economic history was quickened by Richard T. Ely and in nationalism by Woodrow Wilson. Turner took less kindly to the teachings of his principal instructor, Herbert Baxter Adams, who argued that all American institutions had evolved from “germs” in medieval Germany. Years later he wrote Carl Becker that his historical career “was pretty much a reaction from that due to my indignation” (Turner Papers, Henry E. Huntington Library, Tu Box 34).

The results of Turner’s intellectual rebellion were three remarkable essays prepared during his first years at Wisconsin, where he became a professor after Allen’s premature death in 1889. In “The Significance of History” ([1891b] 1961, pp. 11-27) he set forth his historical credo, pleading for the use of scientific and interdisciplinary techniques, arguing for the production of “usable” studies pertinent to present-day problems, setting forth in classic form the doctrine of relativism, and urging the study of all phases of human behavior rather than politics alone. Within a few pages Turner had anticipated the “New History” and presented sound arguments for most of the philosophical and methodological innovations popularized since that time. His second essay, “Problems in American History” ([1892] 1961, pp. 28-36), demanded a new approach to the study of the American past: historians must look behind institutional and constitutional forms to discover “the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions” they must use the tools of natural scientists to determine the impact of physical conditions on national growth; and they must weigh the relative influence of the environment and the European heritage in shaping the distinctive features of the civilization of the United States.

The third paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” ([1893] 1961, pp. 37-62), read at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago in 1893, isolated the segment of the past that he had himself chosen to investigate and explain. Many of the distinctive features noticeable in American traits and institutions, he believed, stemmed from a unique environment and particularly from the presence of a receding frontier. “The existence of an area of free land,” he wrote, “its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development” (1920, p. 1). The repeated rebirth of civilization among pioneers whose cultural patterns were disrupted by contact with raw nature and by mingling with other settlers from different backgrounds helped endow the American people with characteristics and values different from those of their European ancestors. Among these Turner listed coarseness and strength, an inventive turn of mind, physical and social mobility, a restless energy, a strong spirit of self-reliance, dominant individualism, an emphasis on materialism, and, especially, a quickened faith in democracy and the national destiny. On the frontier, he insisted, an “Americanization” of men and institutions took place.

From the turn of the century to the 1930s the frontier interpretation dominated historical thought. Disciples less cautious than their master explained every phase of the American past, from literature to politics, as a result of the pioneering experience, converting the American Historical Association into one big “Turnerverein.” Turner himself was elevated to the pinnacle of his profession: universities sought his services, and his fellow historians made him president of their national association in 1910. When he finally left Wisconsin for Harvard University that year, he did so only as a protest against the anti-intellectual tendencies of some of the Wisconsin regents who seemed to be threatening scholarship in its pure forms.

In the meantime his own interests had turned to a second explanation of the uniqueness of the American past: the sectional hypothesis. As population moved westward, he reasoned, successive geographic regions were occupied, each differing from the others in climate, soil, topography, and other natural conditions. And as each of these “sections” developed economic enterprises suitable to its environment, it sought to shape national legislation for its own benefit. Turner believed that the political history of the United States could be understood only as a series of adjustments and compromises between sectional interests. This was the view he stressed in the one book he completed during his lifetime, Rise of the New West: 1819-1829 (1906) and in the volume that occupied his remaining years and was published posthumously, The United States, 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935).

Turner retired from Harvard University in 1924 to dedicate full time to this study, living first in Madison, then in 1927 moving to a post as senior research associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library. His death in 1932 spared him knowledge of the assault on his theories that gained momentum during the 1930s and continued for two decades. Younger historians, rebelling against concepts that stressed ruralism and nationalism in an age of mechanization and internationalism, charged him with distorting American values by overstressing the distinctive features of the nation’s past and labeled him a monocausationist and geographic determinist. This wave of anti-Turnerism ran its course by the 1950s. It has been followed by a new period in which scholars in several disciplines have begun testing aspects of his frontier hypothesis, a process seemingly destined to continue for many years before the exact effect of the pioneering experience can be appraised.

The frontier is today accepted by historians as one—but only one—of the many forces responsible for America’s civilization, a judgment with which Turner would have thoroughly agreed.

Ray A. Billington

[For the historical context of Turner’s work, see the biographies of Loriaand Robinson.]


1891a The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin: A Study of the Trading Post as an Institution. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 9th ser., Nos. 11-12. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

(1891b) 1961 The Significance of History. Pages 11-27 in Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

(1892) 1961 Problems in American History. Pages 28-36 in Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

(1893) 1961 The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Pages 37-62 in Frederick Jackson Turner, Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

(1906) 1961 Rise of the New West: 1819-1829. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → A paperback edition, which has a new foreword and a bibliography by Ray Allen Billington, was published in 1962 by Collier.

1912 Turner, Frederick Jackson; Channing, Edward; and Hart, Albert B. Guide to the Study and Reading of American History. Boston: Ginn.

(1920) 1963 The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt.

(1932) 1950 The Significance of Sections in American History. Gloucester, Mass: Smith. → Essays edited by Max Farrand and Avery Craven.

(1935) 1950 The United States, 1830-1850. With an introduction by Avery Craven. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → Published posthumously.

The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s Legacy: Unpublished Writings in American History. Edited by Wilbur R. Jacobs. San Marino (Calif.): Huntington Library, 1965.

Frontier and Section: Selected Essays. With an introduction by Ray Allen Billington. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1961.


Becker, Carl 1927 Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 273-318 in Howard W. Odum (editor), American Masters of Social Science: An Approach to the Study of the Social Sciences Through a Neglected Field of Biography. New York: Holt.

Benson, Lee 1960 Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Billington, Ray A. 1962a Young Fred Turner. Wisconsin Magazine of History 46:38-48.

Billington, Ray A. 1962b Frederick Jackson Turner Comes to Harvard. Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 74:51-83.

Billington, Ray A. 1966 America’s Frontier Heritage. New York: Holt.

Craven, Avery 1937 Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 252-270 in The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography. Edited by William T. Hutchinson. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Curti, Merle 1931 The Section and the Frontier in American History: The Methodological Concepts of Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 353-367 in Social Science Research Council, Committee on Scientific Method in the Social Sciences, Methods in Social Science: A Case Book. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Curti, Merle (1949) 1961 Frederick Jackson Turner. Pages 175-204 in Wisconsin State Historical Society, Wisconsin Witness to Frederick Jackson Turner: A Collection of Essays on the Historian and the Thesis. Madison: The Society.

Harper, N. D. 1951 Turner the Historian: “Hypothesis” or “Process”? With Special Reference to Frontier Society in Australia. University of Kansas City Review 18:76-86.

Jacobs, Wilbur R. 1954 Frederick Jackson Turner: Master Teacher. Pacific Historical Review 23:49-58.

Mood, Fulmer 1939 The Development of Frederick Jackson Turner as a Historical Thinker. Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Transactions 34:283-352.

Mood, Fulmer 1951 The Origin, Evolution, and Application of the Sectional Concept: 1750-1900. Pages 5-98 in Merrill Jensen (editor), Regionalism in America. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

views updated

Frederick Jackson Turner

American historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) is regarded as one of the greatest writers of United States history. Several of his concepts caused a virtual rewriting of American history in the early 20th century.

Frederick Jackson Turner was born on Nov. 14, 1861, in Portage, Wis., a rural town populated by a variety of European immigrants. In Turner's youth Portage was still visited by Indians living in the nearby wilderness. Turner's autobiographical notes, preserved among his papers at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., relate that he attended Portage High School and won a prize for a graduation address that was printed in his father's newspaper. He worked in his father's office as a typesetter.

In 1880, Turner entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he fell under the influence of Professor William F. Allen, who taught him how to understand historical institutions such as the medieval church and the feudal monarchy. Turner later claimed that Allen showed him the importance of institutional history, a theme that appeared in Turner's writings on the origins of American democracy. Following his graduation in 1884 and the later completion of his master's degree at Wisconsin, Turner went to Johns Hopkins University to study for his doctorate in 1888. He married Caroline Mae Sherwood of Chicago in 1889.

Teaching Career

Turner's doctoral dissertation, The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (1891), portrayed the trading post as an institution of the early American frontier. At the University of Wisconsin, where Turner taught from 1889 to 1910, he emphasized frontier history in his lectures and in his writings. His most important publication, a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History, " which he read in 1893, set forth his frontier hypothesis. His first major book, Rise of the New West, 1819-1829 (1906), was followed by a volume of essays, The Frontier in American History (1920). These volumes provided a wide audience for his ideas.

Turner moved to Harvard University in 1910 and retired in 1924 to southern California, where he continued his investigations as research associate at the Huntington Library. After his death on March 4, 1932, his last two books were published: The Significance of Sections in American History (1932) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize; The United States 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935) was partly dictated and lacks the literary finesse of his other writings.

Frontier Theory

Turner's frontier theory (often called his frontier hypothesis) has been applied to Latin American nations, to Australia, and to Russia to explain the origin of national characteristics. Turner believed that the particular tone of American democracy, the nature of American institutions of government, and the uniqueness of the American character could be traced to America's frontier experience. In his writings Turner stressed the changes that took place in colonial American society when a European civilization was transplanted to a wilderness environment. Frontier individualism, stimulated by the presence of free (or virtually free) land in the West, left its imprint upon Americans of modern times.

In Turner's view a restless energy, a self-reliance, and a love of freedom are part of the American heritage, which is also symbolized by great leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Turner wrote that the lives of these presidents illustrate the influence of western democracy in American life. The original raw frontier areas of America were eventually transformed by generations of a new society. Social change caused by the modifying influence of geographical, economic, social, and political forces created a new nationality in America. American society developed with sectional or regional variations, the largest and most powerful sections being the North and the South.

Turner's most significant contribution to historical thinking has been to encourage a better understanding of the origins of American democracy. His theories have been thoroughly debated and criticized, yet he remains one of the most original and provocative historians that America has produced. Even though Turner admitted that he perhaps exaggerated when he "hammered hard" on the subject of the frontier in promoting democracy, his thesis that the westward movement greatly influenced American history and the growth of the American traits of character is generally accepted as valid.

Further Reading

Wilbur R. Jacobs, The Historical World of Frederick Jackson Turner (1968), traces Turner's professional career and includes excerpts from his correspondence. Jacobs edited America's Great Frontiers and Sections (1969), which includes Turner's unpublished essays and contains the best short biography of him. Critical essays on Turner's frontier theory are in George Rogers Taylor, ed., The Role of the Frontier in American History (1949; rev. ed. 1956), and R. A. Billington, ed., The Frontier Thesis: Valid Interpretation of American History? (1966). Billington's America's Frontier Heritage (1966) has an excellent evaluation of the frontier theory. Wilbur R. Jacobs and others, Turner, Bolton and Webb (1965), shows Turner's influence on two other leading American writers, and Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968), discusses the affinities among Turner, Beard, and Vernon Parrington. Turner figures prominently in John Higham's work on historiography, Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (1970). For a superb history of the United States that emphasizes Turnerean themes of interpretation see R. A. Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1967).

Additional Sources

Bennett, James D., Frederick Jackson Turner, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.

Carpenter, Ronald H., The eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner, San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1983.

Frederick Jackson Turner: Wisconsin's historian of the frontier, Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986. □

views updated

Frederick Jackson Turner, 1861–1932, American historian, b. Portage, Wis. He taught at the Univ. of Wisconsin from 1885 to 1910 except for a year spent in graduate study at Johns Hopkins. From 1910 to 1924 he taught at Harvard, and later he was research associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library. At first he taught rhetoric and oratory but turned to U.S. history, soon focusing on Western history. His doctoral dissertation, The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (1891; an enlargement of his master's essay), showed the trend of his interest. In 1893, at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, he delivered an address, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which outlined brilliantly the history of the receding frontier and its effect in creating American democracy. Little noticed at the time, it was to prove epoch-making in American history writing. It supplied a large part of a generation of historians with a theme to investigate. Turner's ideas are now generally incorporated in some form in most American history texts; although a historical controversy has raged for decades over the validity of his frontier thesis, few critics reject it entirely. The address and various short papers were reprinted in The Frontier in American History (1920). He collaborated with Edward Channing and Albert Bushnell Hart in the revision of Guide to the Study and Reading of American History (1912). Though he produced few books—The Rise of the New West ( "American Nation" series, 1906) and two studies in sectionalism, The Significance of Sections in American History (1932) and the posthumously published The United States, 1830–1850 (1935)—his influence as a teacher and proponent of a new and important theory made him one of the most renowned of all American historians.

See The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner (1938, repr. 1969); R. Hofstadter, Progressive Historians (1968); R. A. Billington, Frederick Jackson Turner (1973).