Authors: Frederick Jackson Turner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian

Author Works


The Significance of the Frontier in American History, 1894

The Frontier in American History, 1920

The Significance of Sections in American History, 1932


Frederick Jackson Turner was born, and received his earliest education, in Portage, Wisconsin. Located along the Wisconsin River at the edge of the 1861 frontier, and named for the portage route for many years used by local American Indians, Portage was an ideal place for the training of a future frontier historian. His father was a journalist, a political figure, and something of a local historian. As a young man, Turner attended the University of Wisconsin, where Professor William Francis Allen had an influence on him. He received his A.B. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1884. After a few years of interest in journalism and elocution, Turner returned to historical studies, taking an M.A. at Wisconsin in 1888. He began working on manuscripts at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and from that work came his doctoral dissertation, “The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin,” accepted at The Johns Hopkins University for his Ph.D. in 1890. Among the history professors at Johns Hopkins who influenced Turner were Herbert Baxter Adams, whose scholarship Turner admired but whose frontier theories Turner rejected, and a future U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, whose ideas influenced the development of Turner’s frontier thesis.{$I[AN]9810000339}{$I[A]Turner, Frederick Jackson}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Turner, Frederick Jackson}{$I[tim]1861;Turner, Frederick Jackson}

Frederick Jackson Turner

(Library of Congress)

Turner was a member of the history staff at his alma mater, Wisconsin, from 1889 to 1910, although he had opportunities during that time to move to posts at other universities. He became a significant figure in the study of American history through a paper presented in 1893 to the American Historical Society when it met at the World’s Fair in Chicago. In this famous paper he suggested that the frontier was the factor that made American history unique and that the closing of the frontier in 1890 marked a distinct change in the course of American history and culture.

Turner’s work as a historian led to his receiving a number of honorary degrees: an LL.D. from the University of Illinois, 1908; a Litt.D. from Harvard University, 1909; a Ph.D. from Royal Frederick University, Christiania, Norway, 1911; and a Litt.D. from the University of Wisconsin, 1921.

In 1909 to 1910 Turner became president of the American Historical Association. In 1910 he left Wisconsin to accept a professorship at Harvard, where he taught and worked on his research until his retirement in 1924. His essays, including “The Significance of the Frontier,” were published in the volume titled The Frontier in American History in 1920. Another group of essays appeared as The Significance of Sections in American History in 1932. For the latter volume the author was awarded a Pulitzer Prize shortly after his death. Following his retirement from Harvard, Turner lived for a time in Wisconsin but later moved to California and became a research associate at the Huntington Library, having his residence in Pasadena, where he died in 1932 when a blood clot stopped his heart.

Like many historians Turner much preferred research to the laborious task of writing, and the product of his pen is remarkably limited. However, what he did write has remained a source of knowledge, intrigue, admiration, and controversy. His basic thesis that the advancing frontier was the determining factor in the development of American democracy, and that the ending of the frontier would create yet unseen problems in the United States, has been challenged and even ridiculed but never disproved.

BibliographyBillington, Ray Allen. Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A complete biography of Turner. Includes bibliography.Bogue, Allan G. Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Biography includes index and bibliographical references.Faragher, John Mack. Commentary in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Commentary on the published essays of Turner.Faragher, John Mack. “The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West.” American Historical Review 98 (February, 1993). Centennial evaluation of Turner’s frontier thesis, which declares it no longer relevant and says that it should be replaced by a more regional view.Jacobs, Wilbur R. The Historical World of Frederick Jackson Turner. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1968. Insight into Turner’s life, based largely on his correspondence.Limerick, Patricia Nelson. “Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World.” American Historical Review 100 (June, 1995). Centennial evaluation of Turner’s frontier thesis, which comments on Turner’s desire to reshape frontier scholarship.McClay, Wilfred M. “A Tent on the Porch.” American Heritage 44 (July/August, 1993). Evaluation of Turner’s frontier thesis declares that Turner is still relevant.Mattson, Vernon, and William Marion. Frederick Jackson Turner: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. Essential guide to Turner research.
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